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Sooty pretty things

Fall decided to arrive, aggressively, while I was gone. That means a few things: making fires, making booze, and making a plan for our annual holiday party. All of these take the chill off the city’s mad dash to winter.

We had our chimneys swept today for the first time since 2002. I had hoped for a small, sooty Gamfield who’d hoist himself onto the roof and into the chimney Santa-style. Alas, even your most cherished 19th century images of child labor have been superseded by technology. Basically a couple of very clean guys shove a cross between a pipe cleaner and a vacuum cleaner up the flue, turn on a machine, and stand back. Apparently our downstairs chimney looked like an emphysemic lung.

For those of you interested in what I finally did about procuring firewood, it turns out that both companies we called in Chicago adamantly do not take down live trees for their stock. Basically they both said they follow loggers around and take the tops off the trees that they leave for dead. Both thought my wife was nuts for asking for an all-elm cord and offered up a window into their supply process when she explained why. A good lesson for us in the upside of simply asking.

‘Tis also the season for things frightening, such as a five-year-old’s birthday party on Halloween. But really it means a great excuse to catch up on a backlog of horror flicks. My love of the genre has recently taken a sidetrip into the small world of sci-fi/horror video games. I had read great things about EA’s Dead Space, a first-person shooter set on a derelict spaceship and filled with all manner of nasties. Now, even though I’ve been deeply immersed in virtual worlds (direct descendants of 3D video games) I have never actually owned a game like this.


Truth is, it is scary and all for the reasons that the best horror films are. It is about what you don’t see, what you do hear, and what you think might be around that next corner. I have little to compare it to in the game genre, but as an exercise in finally being able to get the imperiled protagonist to run from the monster when you know they should, it has been very enjoyable. (Not at all kid-friendly, I might add. A few minutes of them watching me and my wife was contemplating therapist appointments for us all.)

More on this year’s batch of hooch and party prep soon …

A chosen few


Preparations for next year’s South by Southwest festival are underway and the panel picker is live. If you love me you’ll take a moment and vote for the two panel proposals that I’ve had a hand in.

The panel picker is a way of giving voice to the community at large about what the actual lineup of speakers should be. It isn’t wholly a popularity contest as the editorial board and staff have a hand in what finally gets selected, but feedback via the picker is a large part of it.

So here they are.

The Street is a Platform

Cities abound in data generated by their inhabitants (virtual worlds, city websites, online media) and created automatically by systems or monitoring. How does this online manifestation of the city interact in tangible ways with urban design and informal urban constructs? Is there such a thing as “the street as platform”?

This is a joint proposal with the inimitable Andrew Huff. And credit where it is due: this topic is almost wholly informed by this amazing post by Dan Hill.

Entrepreneurship in the Belly of the Beast

Small is beautiful at SXSW. From Getting Real to starting up, the ethos is largely anti-large corporation. This attitude overlooks one of the most satisfying professional accomplishments: doing your own thing while working for The Man. This presentation uses examples to offer strategies for making the corporation work for you.

Subtitle: Why Working for a Gigantic Company Isn’t As Bad As SXSW Would Have You Believe. This is my first (possibly last) submission for a solo “panel”. Just me on stage, a single target for the barbed arrows of the audience.

You do have to create an account to vote, but that’s not much to ask for a lifetime of my eternal gratitude, a firm handshake, possible hug, and sip of my drink next time we meet, is it?

The Gigglesnort Hotel

In the ongoing quest to analyze my youth for clues to explain why I am the way I am, I think I’ve hit the motherlode.

The Gigglesnort Hotel was a children’s show of which I have only the vaguest memories, but they’re all dark. Which is odd for a kid show, no?

Gigglesnort is a cherished memory of anyone who grew up in the 70’s in Chicago. It was produced locally and its creator and lone human actor was Bill Jackson, something of an icon in Children’s TV here. But damn was it creepy. It was all puppets and, looking back on them now, I’m not surprised I think of it more in fear than in joy. Chucky would have been right at home in Jackson’s entourage.


The hotel was run by a senile admiral who stayed in the attic and thought the inn was a ship. He’d steer it at a captain’s wheel and request reports on the crew. A dragon — Dirty Dragon by name — ran the boiler in the basement, spewed smoke from his nose and was generally mean. I think he was also the mail man. There was a hotel employee named Weird who was exactly such, looking vaguely mentally addled (pictured above).

But the strangest character was a lump of clay named Blob that “spoke” in grunts and wheezes and basically sounded like a drunk old man. He was constantly being manhandled into new forms by BJ the clerk.

I suppose it all balances out with the Superfriends and The Bozo Show, but when I think about what I was watching in the 70’s — Land of the Lost, Son of Svengoolie, and Gigglesnort Hotel — I do wonder if my current viewing tastes would be, you know, less macabre.

Only one way to find out I guess. Gotta buy some Gigglesnort DVD’s and choose a control group from the kids.

Necessary feeding

Recently my subscription to Daring Fireball lapsed and it took me a day or two to realize that Gruber was not on vacation but that my feed had stopped. Sucked. Made me grumpy. Misanthropic, even.

So I figured now was a good time to comb through the ol’ reader and highlight those feeds that I can’t do without. I’m subscribed to hundreds of sites, but there are a few that give a moment of pleasure in simply seeing the new entry indicator in bold. Some of these are obvious and well-known, others perhaps not. Have a look at the one’s you don’t know.

Coudal Partners
Daring Fireball
Gapers Block
Mark Bernstein

Not-so-daily, but just as satisfying
fueled by coffee dot com
Roo Reynolds

It’s interesting to think about what’s common about these sites. True, I know the authors of 7 of 12 of the blogs, but that’s not really an explanation. It’s that I feel a connection to all these sites in ways other than just being a reader.

For instance, I’m a huge fan of the music of Tycho (ISO50). I have eminent respect for the scholarship of Wayne Marshall (wayne&wax). Gruber (Daring Fireball) is a close friend of Jim Coudal’s; that’s a degree of separation that makes him almost a pal. And so on.

I’m sure there’ll be a blog one day from someone I have no other connection with, but right now it’s all about personal affinity. A kind of social networking informs my own reading habits, you could say.

Should I be following your site? Let me know.


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.