Scorched wheat

In 2007, as my parents and I were exploring the area around my family’s home town in southern Italy, we drove through an ominous stretch of landscape. It was Illinois farmland meets Mauna Loa, cropland burning as neat lines of flame munched what remained of threshed wheat into soil-enriching ash.

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Road between Ginestra and Venosa, Basilicata, Italy

It’s an image that stuck with me, reminding me of the controlled burns my family does to its prairie in Galena, IL and adding an eerie atmosphere to what might be my favorite photo of the volcano Vulture on whose slope our ancestral village sits.

Turns out a minor culinary trend has been sparked by what we saw. La Cucina Italiana recently featured the pasta possibilities from Grano arso (“burnt grain”), specifically from Puglia (just north of where we were in Italy). It’s basically toasted wheat, but the explanation of the tradition is fascinating. It’s said that “burnt” pasta dates to a time when land-owning nobility would allow peasants to scour the fields after a wheat harvest (and burn-down). Blackened grains would be collected for a literal poor-man’s pasta. Alternate versions of the origin of this pasta state that poor workers would sweep up the milling room floor for crumbs, toasting what they gathered, or simply take the remaining burnt flour from the decks of bread ovens.

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If you’re hardcore and want to scorch your own wheat for pasta-making, I applaud you. We did not do that, as at least one importer sells it.

The taste? Imagine an al dente version of a nicely toasted pizza crust. Yummy. We made an incredibly simple dish from it — essentially orecchiette, broccoli, pepperoncini, and garlic — and it was a flavor-bomb. (Here’s the recipe we used.)

So, yeah, if you’re in to off-beat Italian pastas, I’m here to recommend grano arso. Perfect winter tastiness.

Negril, Jamaica

May 2012. Eight couples of college friends all turning 40 this year, a 16th wedding anniversary, rum, reefs, and a commemorative mix of reggae and its descendants, below.

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We kept the spirit alive with a dinner party this weekend after returning home. Jamaican theme, of course.

  • Shellfish watermelon ceviche (with scallops and shrimp, photo below)
  • Jerk vegetables (summer squash, zucchini and mushrooms) and chicken skewers
  • Red snapper in coconut curry broth
  • Coconut lime rice
  • Avocado, orange and goat cheese salad
  • Appleton rum cake
  • Mango sorbet
  • Rum cream over ice


Full photo set here.

Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain

Mix from last night’s always-enjoyable overlap of Beat Research and Urban Geek Drinks. A few older tracks (and a K-TEL easter egg) laced into the stew. Enjoy.

Supertramp on the brain


Really the only way to get this out of my head was to mess with it.


The Brick Brothers

Almost exactly a year ago my sons asked me what “investing” was. A strange question from a 9- and 7-year-old, but I was impressed by the curiosity and it seemed timely given the banking implosion.

I lost the boys midway between arcane regulation and exotic financial instruments, but they were intrigued with the idea of a business more complex than a lemonade stand. And then they wouldn’t shut up about starting one, embarking on an entrepreneurial brainstorming session whose intensity would have made a venture capitalist smile. (Or back away slowly.)


The boys revisiting the site of their business founding, Gunnison Airport, Colorado

The idea, fairly speedily arrived at, was to build on something the kids had been staring at all their lives. In the days following the birth of each of the three kids I built grayscale mosaics of their birth photos out of 1×1 LEGO bricks. They’ve hung on the wall ever since. The business idea, quite simply, was to build these mosaics for others.

And so was born The Brick Brothers.

Billboard promotion grande

Marketing ideas are modeled first in bricks, naturally

Listen up, folks. Here’s where I divulge trade secrets.

We built the site on the superb Shopify platform. It accepts photos uploaded from customers who purchase a completed mosaic or just the raw materials.

We then use an open source application call PicToBrick to generate a number of gridded (48×48), reduced-color images. The image that comes closest to capturing the essence of the original photo is chosen and printed out as a guide for the assembly.

Then the boys snap the pieces onto the baseplate, following what is essentially a color-by-numbers schematic. Dangerously, this is mind-numbing (and finger-numbing) but also requires attention to detail: if you pop the wrong brick in place and only notice it several rows later it’s a huge effort to remove the studs. What makes this a less-than-rare occurrence is that you really only get a sense of the overall image by moving away from it. When you’re up close snapping away it is often impossible to notice an error.

The whole effort takes about 4-6 hours depending on distraction. Then we package up and ship out.

One hurdle — aside from child labor laws — has been finding the 1×1 bricks in bulk cheaply enough. LEGO doesn’t sell in bulk to mere mortals and those bins at their stores contain very specialized bricks. Luckily there’s a massive ecosystem of LEGO re-sellers online, centered on a marketplace called BrickLink. But there’s no single supplier. It’s a scramble to stay well-inventoried and not break the bank.


The boys' first investment in The Brick Brothers (from relative strangers at a Cubs game), July 24, 2011

It should be obvious we’re not in this little enterprise for profit, but I’d continue the business with the boys even at a financial loss given its many lessons: time-management, expenses vs. revenue, the importance of marketing, the concept of chiaroscuro, how easy it is to be driven insane by tiny LEGO blocks, etc. We’re having fun and not losing money. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Follow along via Twitter here.

Shovel Ready

Heading into winter late last year we were told that it was going to be one for the record books. And so it has been. Temperatures have yet to go into minus territory and there are towns in Texas with more snowfall than we’ve had. It’s downright bizarre.

But I’m a believer in meteorological karma. Sure, we’re trending way behind average snowfall to date. But that doesn’t mean Old Man Winter can’t go for a late game Hail Mary. I’ll put away the shovel in June.

That’s basically the philosophy of preparedness behind a slew of winter-focused applications created by the City of Chicago over the last weeks at

It’s all about scales of sharing, really. Last year’s blizzard showed a side of our city rarely talked about: authentic neighborliness. Chicagoans came to each others’ aid, made friends on stranded public transit, and generally bonded in the face of potential calamity. The idea behind Chicago Shovels is to facilitate this latent drive to be good neighbors, to offer tools for sharing in the common experience of a heavy snowfall.

The sharing extends to the code itself. Civic-minded volunteers came together to build parts of Chicago Shovels and some of the code itself was shared via a Code for America-developed project in Boston. And, of course, we’re sharing what we’ve built on our Github account. Cross-municipality, open source development is the way forward.

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Logo by one of our talented civic volunteers

Many different threads of Mayor Emanuel’s technology mandate are bound together in Chicago Shovels.

Plow Tracker, the first app to launch and certainly the most popular, is a good case study in open data for transparency and accountability. While I talk a lot about open data as a driver of economic development and as analytics fodder, the lesson from Plow Tracker’s launch — and the record-shattering traffic it drove to the city’s website — is that we shouldn’t forget that the ability to peer into the workings of government is the first and possibly most important function of open data.

The Tracker is a good illustration of our open data initiatives: more information is always better than less. If there are patterns to be found, they will be. And no matter what they are, such analysis leads to a more efficient city government.


Plow Tracker

Plow Tracker is only on during storms, of course. It shows where plows are in real-time with a bit of information as to the city “asset” you are looking at. This is normally salt-spreading plows, but in bigger snow events can include garbage trucks with “quick-hitch” plows attached and even other city vehicles outfitted to plow. As Chicagoist pointed out, watching the map can remind you of a certain popular video game from the 1980′s.

Feedback from the public, coverage in the press, and inquiries from other cities has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have asked for increased functionality, such as a visualization of what streets are cleared. This is tough, as we do not have real-time data on the status of city streets, except what can be visually inspected via cameras and the plow drivers themselves.

Undaunted, the team at Open City took the Plow Tracker data and created Clear Streets. Where Plow Tracker shows where the plows are, Clear Streets shows you where they have been. (If we’re keeping with the gaming analogies, this is to Etch-a-Sketch what the Tracker is to Pac-Man.)

Clear Streets is obviously useful and a great example of the ecosystem of civic developers that are growing on the periphery of government thanks to open data. And with Chicago’s digital startups reaching critical mass and real attention from venture firms, the city is doing its part in nurturing “civic startups” like Open City. (Here’s a clip of the Open City crew and me discussing all this on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight.)

A last note on (and lesson from) the Tracker: context is key. The little text blurb above the map is really crucial to understanding what you are looking at. As an example, sometimes plows are deployed before it starts snowing for preemptive salting of bridge decks. If you did not have this information it would be difficult to rationalize the placement of plows. It’s a lesson for open data in general. The more data, especially real-time data, the more context matters.



The site’s most recently launched app, Adopt-a-Sidewalk, represents the original idea for Chicago Shovels.

Last fall, as Chicago was preparing to become a 2012 Code for America city, we learned about a side project from the Code fellows in Boston. Early in 2011 they had arrived to work on a project with Boston schools but were met with a blizzard. So they built Adopt-a-Hydrant. This idea was to encourage residents to “claim” fire hydrants for shoveling out during the winter. Simple, smart, the right thing to do. And the code was open source.

So we took it with the idea of creating something similar but focused on the public way. We thought we could go a bit bigger than hydrants. See, the Chicago Municipal Code requires residents and businesses to shovel the sidewalk in front of their property. So why not allow them to claim it or claim someone else’s — or ask for help? Claim a parcel, mark it as cleared, track your achievements.

Alas, winter in Chicago has long been associated with “claiming” parts of the public way. Adopt-a-Sidewalk attempts to capitalize on this impulse for the good of pedestrians, minus the lawn furniture and household detritus. (And we’re not the only ones trying to expand the definition of wintertime dibs to the sidewalk itself.)

Again, this has been one weird winter. Snow is scarce and temps are routinely above 40. If it ever does snow again, though, Adopt-a-Sidewalk is ready to promote community responsibility and actual sharing. We partnered with local startup OhSoWe to integrate neighborhood-based sharing into Adopt-a-Sidewalk. Locate your sidewalk — or a parcel you’d like to help out on — and instantly see who around you is willing to lend shovels, salt, even a snow blower.


Winter Apps

It’s been noted that the City creating its own apps is a bit of a departure from our data-centric approach to date. (Noted, I might add, in the most strenuous way, with real constructive criticism from engaged residents.)

The truth is that having Mother Nature on the critical path to deployment is a tough, stressful thing. (She’s neither agile nor a fan of the Gannt.) We knew snow was coming and we knew we needed Plow Tracker up for the first major storm. Launching an app was something that could not slip. Adopt-a-Sidewalk, while built with volunteer assistance, was partially an effort at proving that municipal code sharing is real and viable. Both of these builds demonstrate that the City will create apps when there are reasons to do so. But that in no way detracts from our belief that the community and the marketplace are the sources of real innovation that come from Chicago’s open data.

And we have that too. Chicago Shovels’ last major app category showcases community-built applications. The two most useful are actually wintertime reworkings of earlier incarnations.

Last year civic über-developer Scott Robbin built, an app for alerting residents the night before the City would be sweeping streets in their area so they could move their cars from the street (avoiding a ticket). This was the perfect app for tweaking to accommodate a system for alerts about the City’s 2″ Snow Parking Ban. became

Similarly, Robbin’s wildly popular was updated to include automobile relocations due to snow emergencies.

A slew of winter-related resources round out the site, including a number of winter-related apps from last year’s Apps for Metro Chicago competition, information on how to become part of the City’s official volunteer “Snow Corps”, one-click 311 request submission, FAQ’s, and subscription to Notify Chicago alerts.

Chicago Shovels is the city’s best example to date of the value of open data. Transparency and accountability (Plow Tracker), reuse and sharing (Adopt-a-Sidewalk), business creation (Clear Streets), efficiency and ease-of-use ( and — these are the outcomes of a policy of exposing the vital signs of the city.

Now if it would only snow — and stick.

“Can you switch to Pandora?”

Beat Research Chicago continues. And wow is it fun. But can you determine where in this set I was asked to stop by the bouncer? (I did stop. Quintessential needle scratching off the record. Finished the recording at my desk when I got home.)


Lotta public speaking in the next few weeks. Most are local. If you’re interested in technology and urbanism come on out for a conversation.

Chicago iss

University of Illinois Chicago College of Urban Planning Friday Forum
Friday, Feb. 24, 12p
“Data-Driven Chicago”

University of Chicago Computation Institute Lecture
Monday, Feb. 27, 4:30p
“The City Is a Platform”

City Club Public Policy Luncheon
Tuesday, March 6, 12p

South by Southwest Interactive
Austin, TX
Monday, March 12, 12:30p
“The Future of Cities: Technology in Public Service”

I’m particularly excited about that last one as I get to share a panel with Chris Vein, Nick Grossman, Abhi Nemani, Nigel Jacob, and Rachel Sterne. Perhaps the conversation will focus on just what the hell I am doing on the same stage as such accomplished folk. If you’ll be at SXSW, you should definitely drop by for this one.

Update from Beat Research Outpost #2

The Chicago incarnation of Beat Research has hit full stride. Jake, Jesse, and I are now in a twice-monthly groove (ahem) at Villains in the South Loop. And the first Wednesday of each month we overlap with the fantastic Urban Geek Drinks. All I need is for a NASA meetup to move in and I’ll pretty much have every interest covered.

Here’s my set from last night. Sanford & Son, music for Sith lords, 1980′s classics, my first foray into house (I know, right?) and of course some Chicago love. Do enjoy.

The set from Jan. 18 is available too, but not forever.

Beat Research Chicago begins

Here’s part of my set from the inaugural Beat Research Chicago at Villains last night. Fairly stompy with a bit of dubstep, drum and bass, and crazy Facebook users thrown in.

It’s the first time I’ve used Ableton with Serato in a live setting. Not a complete trainwreck. There’s hope.

Details and upcoming show info here.