April 13, 2010

Interview with me in PSFK

The blog of future think design consultancy PSFK interviewed me by email.

In the interview I talk about the book (of course) and ThingM's upcoming products. I also took the opportunity to think about how I've noticed the trend of services that provide data streams, rather than just units of data:

I think that there’s a really interesting trend in opening up data sources. Pachube works as a free data stream brokerage that sits on top of TCP/IP and HTTP to provide a kind of semantic resource location technology for small net-enabled devices that has been missing. This kind of data openness is being matched by things such as the US Governement’s open data initiative at

The trend I see here is a combination of openly sharing data sources and streams and creating business models around making technology layers that make those data streams meaningful and valuable. Both Pachube and are a kind of search engine for data streams, rather than documents, which I think is a very powerful concept.

This is definitely related to the discussions around syndication that have been going on for years (since the launch of RSS), to micro-content, and to various services that add structured semantic information to Web-accessible data. However, I think what we're seeing now goes beyond those largely abstract discussions to create a more pragmatic understanding of what it means to create meaningful sources of data, rather than just meaningful units of data.

It means, as my last sentence implies, that there are enough data sources--whether it's sensor data automatically collected, organized and tagged by Pachube or the human-created sources of data presented by we can start having search services for such data. The conversation becomes again about "wrangling" information shadows, as I discussed in my NASIG keynote two years ago.

In that discussion I talked about how journal subscriptions--which are a kind of knowledge white hole, wellsprings of specific kinds of information--represent a model for how information shadows can be organized and managed in the future. Well, it looks like we may be closer to that, and that the wrangling may be a combination of automated tagging and human curation.

Does this mean that Google will soon be automatically cataloging data streams? I'd be surprised if they're not already.

February 15, 2009

Finite and Infinite Terms: the trouble with optimistic names

IMGP3632 IMGP3711

As has been obvious in the recent past, I've been a bit focused on how and why disciplines, especially disciplines relating to ubiquitous computing, are named what they are. I'm not a language precision pedant most of the time--words mean what we want them to mean, when want them to mean those things and to the people we want to understand--but the titles of large ideas have a particularly strong impact on how we think about them. They, in effect, set agendas. If the scientists had called Global Warming something else, say "Global Weather Destabilization," that would have changed a lot of our expectations for it. People wouldn't nitpick about whether one degree is a lot or a little or whether an unusually cold winter in Michigan means that it's all a sham.

Similarly, what we call disciplines we involve ourselves in sets a lot of expectations for the agenda of those disciplines. Lately, I've been thinking about why "ubiquitous computing" has such problems as a name. When I talk about it, people either dismiss it as a far-future pipe-dream, or an Orwellian vision of panoptic control and dominance. I don't see it as either. I've never seen it as an end point, but as the name of a thing to examine and participate in, a thing that's changing as we examine it, but one that doesn't have an implicit destination. I see it as analogous to "Physics" or "Psychology," terms that describe a focus for investigation, rather than an agenda.

Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it. As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss. It's the worst of both worlds. Anything that purports to be a ubiquitous computing project can never be ubiquitous enough, so the field never gets any traction. The mobile phone? That's not ubiquitous computing because it's not embedded in every aspect of our environment and doesn't completely fade into the background. A TiVo can't be ubiquitous computing because it requires a special metaphor to explain it. The adidas_one shoe isn't ubicomp because it doesn't network.

The problem is not with the products, it's with the expectations that the term creates.

I see this problem with a lot of terms: artificial intelligence has "intelligence" as part of it, so nothing can be AI until it looks exactly like what we would call intelligence. Machine learning, that's not AI because it's just machines doing some learning. That's not intelligence. Pervasive computing can't exist until we have molecule-sized computers forming utility clouds, because nothing can be pervasive enough until then. Ambient intelligence is an amazingly bad term using this metric: TWO words with implied infinities.

As Liz (Goodman, my wife and fellow ubicomp researcher ;-) points out, when these terms are coined, they are created with a lot of implicit hope, with excitement and potential designed to attract people to the potential of the ideas. But after the initial excitement wears off (think AI in the 1970s) they create unmeetable expectations as the initial surge of ideas gives way to the grind of development, and setbacks mean that the results are never as ubiquitous, intelligent, pervasive, or whatever, as observers had been led to believe. AI was doomed to be a joke for a decade (or more) before they renamed themselves something that implicitly promised less, so they could deliver more.

So what to do about this? Well, I've done a couple of things: I've used one term ("ubiquitous computing") rather than creating ever more elaborate terms to describe the same thing, and I've tried to use it to describe the past as well as the future. In my past couple of lectures I've been arbitrarily setting the beginning of the era of everyday ubicomp as having started in 2005. It's not something in the future, it's something that's in the past and today. Is that a losing battle? Do we need to rename "ubicomp" something like "embedded computing product design," something that promises less so that it can deliver more? Maybe. I still like the implicit promise in the term and its historical roots, but I recognize that as long as it has an infinity in part of its term, there will always be misunderstandings. Some people (like the folks in New Songdo City) will actually try to create the utopian vision, and invariably fail. Some will criticize the field for even trying, while at the same time doing the same thing under a different name.

Me, I'm going to keep calling it "ubiquitous computing" or "ubicomp" until it's either clear that the costs of sticking with the name overweight the benefits I believe it has, or until a better term, one that's less likely to let everyone down, comes along.

(the title of the blog post references Finite and Infinite Games, a book I've never read, but which friends of mine tell me is quite good)

[2/18/09 Update: Michiel asked me (in email, because I have blog comments turned off) what I thought about "The Internet of Things" as a term. I've written about it before and I think it's a pretty good term. It's not as unbounded as the terms I mentioned. "Internet" is something people are familiar with and "things" is a large set, but not an infinite one. There's some internal confusion because "the internet" is seen as ephemeral, and it's hard to imagine how that ephemeral idea translates to the very literal world of "things." Likewise, there's an implication that all things will become part of this new internet, which is also potentially confusing. However, those criticisms aside, I don't think it's a bad term, but only if it's defined well and used precisely. I don't think it's exactly the same idea as ubiquitous computing, for example, since I see it as more about individual object identification and tracking, rather than smart environments, or ambient displays. If it starts to be yet another synonym for ubicomp, its value will diminish.

William sent me the following note:
Interesting observations! Two related bits:

One is Martin Fowler's thinking on "semantic diffusion":

Another was a recent conversation I had at the Prediction Markets conference with an econ professor. He mentioned that the incentives are such that whenever a term develops a positive value, people attach themselves to it until its value swings negative. I think that basic model is too simple, but from it you can develop a richer model that explains a lot of what people get up to with terms.

I like the economic idea, though I agree that it (feels) too simple. ]

February 8, 2009

Smart Things: an outline

Several people have asked me to describe the ubicomp UX book I'm writing. As time allows (and it doesn't allow much), I'll try to post some information about it. For now, I'll start with an annotated outline. A big caveat: the final product may little resemble this, but this this is the outline I'm writing to. I've removed some of the detailed description because I want to surprise you and I because I may change my mind.

Smart things: the design of things that have computers in them, but are not computers

[this will probably not be the final title, but it gives you the gist of what I'm trying to say with it]

0. Preface

Writing about ubiquitous computing is like trying to draw a plane as it's flying by you at 600 miles an hour. The best you can hope for is that the general outline is right, because there are certainly going to be many details that aren't.

1. Introduction: The Hidden Middle of Moore's Law

PART ONE: Frameworks

2. Broad concepts

This chapter will introduce the background issues that underlie some of the broad conceptual frameworks.
  • The relationship between industrial, interaction and service design
  • The importance of context.
  • The design of social devices.
  • Each new class of ubiquitous computing devices is essentially a new tool.

3. Information processing is a material

Embedded information processing acts like a material and creates new capabilities, and imposes new constraints.
  • Behavior as competitive advantage. When a designer can include information processing in a product for very little cost, the calculation becomes not one of engineering complexity, that’s relatively cheap, but one of competitive advantage.
  • How information processing is a material.
  • Some qualities of information as a material.

4. Information Processing as Material Case Study

5. Information shadows

Nearly everything manufactured today exists simultaneously in the physical world and in the world of data.
  • A digital representation is the object's information shadow.
  • Information shadow can be examined and manipulated without having to touch the physical object.
  • Coates' Point-at-things.
  • Sterling's wine
  • Design with information shadows.
  • Physical/Network mashups.
  • Identification as the cornerstone of the Internet of Things.

6. Information Shadows Case Study

7. Devices are Service Avatars

  • When the same information can be accessed and manipulated through a variety of devices, value shifts to the information, rather than the device that’s communicating it.
  • Devices become projections of services. A number of familiar appliances--cell phones, ATMs--are worthless without the networks they’re attached to. They are physical manifestations, avatars, projections into physical space of abstract services, but are not services themselves.
  • Objects become subscriptions.
  • Types of avatars.
  • Products and services co-design.

8. Service avatar Case Study

9. Applianceness

[all props to Bill Sharpe]
  • Defining applianceness. When computation is cheap, we no longer have to make general-purpose computers. There is no longer the need to think about a one-to-one computer-user relationship that terms like Human-Computer Interaction imply. One human to a multitude of appliances, some of which use information processing.
  • Applying applianceness.

10. Applianceness case study

11. Applianceness case study 2

12. Granularity

Ubiquitous computing devices can come in all sorts of sizes and the user experience design for them must take this into account. General purpose computers traditionally have interfaces that are person-scale. They’re designed to be used in a wide variety of ways, and what typically makes sense is to make the input device about the size of your hands and the output about the size of your head.
  • A powers-of-ten scale ubicomp experience design.
  • Location-based services. How to size up the world.

13. Granularity Case Study

14. Interaction metaphors for ubicomp

Why metaphors are important in UX design. Existing ubicomp metaphors.
  • Weiser's calm computing
  • Home automation
  • The metaphors in the names of subfields
  • Magic

15. Metaphor case study

PART TWO: Techniques

16. Design from observation

  • Introduction
  • "Design Ethnography": it's not ethnography
  • Observation techniques
  • Design probes
  • Learning from vernacular technology
  • Cross-disciplinary precedents

17. Cross-disciplinary iteration

The importance of cyclical development processes that cycle through all, or most, of the design disciplines required to create a ubicomp product.
  • Intro to rapid iteration
  • Sketching in hardware
  • Hardware hacking: hardware as tracing paper
  • Video prototyping
  • Interaction vocabularies: Saffer's gestures, Arnall's RFID interaction, etc.

18. Augmentation of existing objects

Since the concepts are so new, one particularly successful way to create new Ubicomp UX is to take an existing object and augment its functionality through technology.
  • What
  • How much
  • The right kind of augmentation
  • Functional vs. decorative
  • Physical-Web mashups
  • Smart furniture
  • Wearables

19. Scenarios

  • 10X
  • Demography is destiny, maybe
  • Mapping between domains
  • Realistic bounds, overly positive/negative scenarios, the return of Unintended Consequences

20. Simulation

  • Looks-like/Works-like prototypes
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Elmo++

21. Common design challenges

  • Configuration. Out-of-box and beyond.
  • Device interconnection. The promiscuous Wiimote holds a lesson.
  • UX consistency between devices.
  • Introducing novel functionality.

22. Explaining disruptive technologies

There's a lot of potential for disruptive technologies in ubiquitous computing, and explaining the potential disruptions to relevant stakeholders and potential customers is a challenge.
  • Is a new technology genuinely disruptive? Don't believe the hype.
  • Design for disruption.
  • Explaining the value of disruption to stakeholders.
  • Explaining disruptive technologies to customers.

23. From calm computing to everyware

  • Ubiquitous computing is here
  • As user experience designers we have a responsibility to think about how to design for it explicitly, rather than trying to use methods from Web design or industrial design.
  • In the last 20 years, the understanding of what ubiquitous computing means has likewise grown significantly, and has moved from the idea of office-based productivity that disappears into the background to encompass just about everything except the office.

November 13, 2008

ThingM launches MaxM!

Woohoo! ThingM's second product, BlinkM MaxM, has hit the store shelves (first at Sparkfun, soon at FunGizmos).

It's (to quote myself), "BlinkMs bigger, crazy sibling. It's an intensely-bright smart LED for prototyping that comes as a package of two components, a control module (MaxM Master) and a daughter board with three ultrabright LEDs (MaxM Blaster). [...] Its trio of LEDs are 50 times as bright as a standard BlinkM and more than 1000 times as bright as a standard LED."

I'm also proud of its interactivity. It has 4 analog input lines so that in addition to being an LED replacement that's smart, it's also interactive. We expect to have some examples showing it in a range of applications soon. I'm most excited by the automotive application possibilities. Since it runs on 12v, you can hook it up to car batteries or (and this is a "don't try this if you don't know what you're doing" type of suggestion) directly to the car's electrical system. The possibilities for gaudy, interactive car lighting are infinite. I'm very excited.

March 7, 2008

Sketching Smart Things 3, borrowed purses and smart hammers

I spoke last night at Berkeley's School of Information Future of Interaction Design lecture series, presenting the "Sketching Smart Things" talk I gave at BayCHI last month and at CHIFOO the month before. I'm evolving this talk, rather than doing every talk from scratch. There's about 80% overlap with the previous talks, though this time around I've added several slides to explain the origin of the Information Shadow idea by citing Tom Coates' and Ulla-Maaria Mutanen's work, and I've referenced Bag, Borrow or Steal when talking about how digital technology is shifting the nature of everyday objects into subscription services.

You can download the presentation with all the text as a 900K PDF.

(image by MGChan, found on Flickr)

That last reference shows my current interest in the way that digital networked technologies allow for objects to shift from "buy and store" model to a "rent and share" subscription model. Bag, Borrow or Steal, City Carshare and timeshared condos (thanks to Nicholas Nova for reminding me of this) are all occasional use/high price products that technology has changed the ownership model for. What's a high price niche functionality today becomes commodity functionality eventually. Netflix has done it for DVDs. In one of Bruce Sterling's original Viridian speeches from 1999, he brings it all the way don to the most commodified of tools, the hammer:

If all your possessions are network peripherals, then you have a possible LINUX model for objects in the real world. In this world, I don't buy a hammer. What I really want to own is the hammering functionality. I might as well share the hammer with my neighbor == he can't steal it, and if he breaks it, I'll know immediately. A modern hammer in this world comes built around a chip, with a set of strain gauges that determine if it is worn or broke or abused. Let's network that hammer.

Berkeley's famous Tool Lending Library did a low-tech version (the subscription price for it is the cost of owning a house in Berkeley), and Ford, DeWalt and ThingMagic are tantalizingly close with their Tool Link product:

The innovative Ford Work Solutions Tool Link from DeWalt uses RFID technology to track what's in your cargo box and what isn't. Checking Tool Link before heading out to a job site ensures all tools you need are on hand. At the end of the workday, Tool Link guarantees all the gear used at a job site is back onboard.

The Ford version is a kind of personal inventory control system, but once every tool has an embedded RFID tag in it, you can start doing all kinds of things, including the kind of subscription-based resource sharing that Sterling alluded to. Soon, though, more occasional-use products will become dotted outlines that get filled in as we need them.

[Update: Treehugger has an article that says that services like Bag Borrow or Steal are Product Service Systems by the EU. Their definition is "in essence they are a means, by which we get what we want, without needing to own the product that provides that service." I think that the term, and its PSS acronym, sounds too abstract and generic and that the idea would spread if it was called something more informative and evocative--I dunno, "library" for nonprofit ones and maybe something like "thingshare" (riffing off of "carshare" and "timeshare") for the for-profit general class.]

[Update: Phil points to Jeremy Rifkin's Age of Access as a book-length discussion of some of these ideas with the core thesis being "Property [in the age of networked information] continues to exist, but is far less likely to be exchanged in markets. Instead, suppliers hold onto property in the new economy and lease, rent, charge an admission fee, subscription, or membership dues for its short-term use." I haven't read it--it's on order now--but like much of Rifkin's work, it seems like there's an essence of truth to the idea even though the presentation is hyped.]

February 11, 2008

BlinkM Projects and 6-word memoirs

With more than 500 BlinkM's sold in less than two weeks, we're already seeing a number of really fascinating projects. We've made a project gallery on the site to highlight some of these. If you have a BlinkM project that you'd like featured on our site, please send a note to (or just blog about it, we have a Google Alert that'll probably pick it up in a day or so).

Also, a bit of total self-indulgence. About a year and a half ago, SMITH magazine held a Twitter-based contest for six-word memoirs. I entered on a whim and mine got picked up (along with this image and the memoirs of some 850 others). SMITH got a book deal based out of the contest and now the book is out. It makes entertaining bathroom reading and I congratulate SMITH and Twitter for making a cultural product before pretty much anyone knew who they were.

January 25, 2008

BlinkMs for sale

ThingM's first product, BlinkM is now for sale from Sparkfun. BlinkM is a smart LED. What's a smart LED? Well, on the one hand, it's the atomic unit of ubiquitous computing: an RGB LED and a CPU. Input, processing, networking, and output in one package. If technology worked like chemistry, it would be analogous to hydrogen; if it worked like biology, to algae. OK, maybe that overstates the point, but it's the simplest device that we could imagine that represents the essence of ubicomp, and it was the one we could, as a self-funded startup, afford to develop and manufacture relatively quickly (development started in November, though it's based on work we did with WineM).

It's designed for hobbyists, designers and artists who want to add low-power colored light to their projects, but don't want to mess with pulsed width modulation or color theory. Give it an RGB number, or select a color from the color picker, and it glows that color; enter two colors, and it'll do a smooth fade between them. Want to simulate the breathing sleep light on a Mac computer but in purple, it'll do that.

Take a look at the description for the full story.

In all honestly, we're really excited that we developed and are selling this (and by "we," Tod really did all of the heavy lifting on the engineering, software, documentation and video). I know, I know, soon we will have to deal with the customer service (we're keeping it in the ex-Adaptive Path family by using Satisfaction, the company co-founded by fellow AP founder alum Lane Becker), but right now it feels pretty great.

We'd like to thank the people who helped us out along the way:

  • John Houck wrote most of the Sequencer in Processing and Java.
  • Elizabeth Goodman designed the initial UI design for the Sequencer
  • Nathan Seidle, of Sparkfun, for advice and for the initial order (placed months before prototypes even existed!)
  • Mykle Hansen, for being our first and only alpha tester
  • Dave Vondle, for data sheet advice and for the first bulk order, also placed long before they actually existed
  • The alumni of the Sketching in Hardware conferences, who gave us a lot of valuable advice in the early stages of the project
  • David, Anders, and all of the other beta testers

January 6, 2008

Turned off comments

Comment spam was causing Movable Type to regularly use up all the available memory on this machine, so I've turned off comments for now. If you want to comment on anything, send a note to 'blog' c/o this domain and I'll respond to you in email and, unless you ask me not to, I'll post it with the entry you're referring to.

Sorry. I like Movable Type and I've been using it for several years, but I don't have time to debug it right now.

January 2, 2008

My 2007 ETech keynote in MP3 and my book in Japanese

My keynote for O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference last year has been posted to ITConversations. The talk is called "The Coming Age of Magic." It's an argument for the use of magic as a user experience design metaphor when creating objects that exhibit behaviors. In other words, I believe that magic can be a useful metaphor for making ubiquitous computing devices more comprehensible and usable. My presentation takes the form of three linked arguments about emergence:

  • The emergence of ubiquitous computing from market forces acting on, and in concert with, CPU prices
  • The emergence of animist reactions to devices that have behaviors that go beyond action-reaction physics
  • The emergence of magic as a metaphor for the design of ubicomp devices

You can download the full text and slides of the presentation (710K PDF) and follow along with the MP3 from the link above, which also has the fun 15 minute post-keynote Q&A session on it.

Also, "Observing the User Experience" was translated into Japanese and is available from Amazon Japan.

December 30, 2007

2007 Music Review

A Picture Share!
This blog is primarily for me to talk about my thoughts about ubiquitous computing technology, design and the relationship between such technology and people. However, it's still a blog, so--as a change of pace--here's a list of my favorite music from 2007 (and an Amazon link orgy--sorry about that, but it's the easiest way to contextualize all this I get a kickback ;-).

  • Talib Kweli, Eardrum. Kwali's music is smart, literate and an always thought-provoking commentary of the New York black experience. He writes about how food is important to learning ("Eat to Live"), how family links the black urban and rural experiences ("Country Cousins"), and how religions oversimplify the problems and solution ("Give 'em Hell").
  • Arctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare. Tight, clever and with the terrific ability to write a hook, these guys channel the Kinks, Romeo Void, and Gang of Four while being totally original power pop that's emotionally ambiguous and sensitive.
  • Clinic, Visitations. I want someone to make a film version of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels of swinging London lunacy just so that Clinic can score it. They channel the spirit and tone of psychedelia without descending into parody and create an intricate world of 3-minute snippets of creepy, focused fuzz.
  • Low, Drums and Guns The most aptly-named band in the world makes one hell of a downer album about war. There is rarely light in Low's world, and there's none this time around. They are angry and they have written an album-length requiem for America, but it's a lush, immersive requiem of tympani, swirling guitars and pleading vocals.
  • El-P, I'll sleep when you're dead/Aesop Rock, None Shall Pass Paranoia and dense urban life are the center of Def Jux's universe, but they're in top form this year. These two records channel that feeling of being in an overcrowded, screeching subway car where the words get lost in the sound of the voices, the machines, the heat and the smell, and it all feels a bit out of control. El-P gets special points for one of the most brilliantly brutal videos of the year.
  • Digitalism, Idealism Dance music seems to be alive and well in France, where Digitalism, Justice and Daft Punk keep on producing. Of the three Digitalism's record is the best. Complex, textured and still head-bopping (since, well, I listen to this most often on headphones, rather than on the dance floor). It makes me happy that people still party enough in France to sustain a creative dance music industry.
  • Grinderman, Grinderman I've long been a Nick Cave fan, but the last couple of years of his output drifted between samey and uninspired. Here, Cave is still essentially reworking "A Threepenny Opera" as written by pirates, but it's the best reworking of the last five years, at least, looser, meaner and more fun. One of my favorite songs from the initial sessions, Vortex never made it to the final record, but it was nearly our wedding song (that was Magnetic Fields' Book of Love, picked by Liz).
  • MIA, Kala Holy cow, what a surprise. Most novelty artists, and that's what MIA pretty much was with the last record, rarely manage a second record of note. MIA blew past that hurdle and it looks like she's well on her way to a career like Bjork's: creative, brave, weird and never dull. Great beats back fascinating, occasionally chilling stories of Southeast Asia. It takes a lot of courage to make a track about your rise to fame using polyrhythmic drumming and call it "Bird Flu." Timbaland's rap on "Come Around" nearly ruins that song, but that's about the only low point in a great record.
  • Angels of Light, We Are Him Angels of Light (and SWANS, the predecessor band) exist in roughly the same grimy, sad universe as Nick Cave (and maybe Low), but in a noisier corner. For the last 10 years, M. Gira--the core of the band, who I've been following since his SWANS days--has been kind of dragging, but this record really picked up. Things are still nasty, brutal and not-particularly-short, but the music is much more varied and interesting. It's good to see people pull out of slumps and, as much it goes against the esthetic, it makes me happy.
  • Black Francis, Bluefinger It's a Gen X heresy to admit this, but I've always liked the first couple Frank Black records more than any of the Pixies records. Unfortunately, he seems to have gotten lost for about 10 years. The work was good, but it didn't have that clever, intricate craziness that the first two Frank Black records had. This new record, though not quite as good as those, is certainly getting much closer. Yeah, sure it's a concept album, but really, it rocks weird with a sly grin in a way that I missed. Thank you, Black Francis.
  • Jay-Z, American Gangster As is clear from the notes above, I enjoy watching artists mature in interesting ways, with their work as documentation of their personal changes. This is a classic example of that. It's ostensibly a concept album based on the film, but it's really Jay-Z wrestling with the internal contradictions of being successful while remaining credible to the outsider position that brought him success. He redefines "gangster" to mean "anyone who does business," saying that he had no choice but to be a business gangster, that success brings little happiness and that he's now a little embarrassed by it. It's one man's neurosis, played out in the self-contradictory, confused words of someone wrestling with their feelings.

Notable songs (I'm a big fan of all of these records, but--you know--I have to stop somewhere ;-) :

Happy New Year!

August 19, 2007

Liz and I got married

Elizabeth Goodman and I got married this weekend in San Francisco (where we live). I'm ecstatic to be married to the smartest, wisest, funniest, sweetest, most wonderful person I know. Thank you Liz for agreeing to be my wife.

(photo by Cassidy Curtis)

Thanks also to everyone who came, and extra special thanks to everyone who helped. Timothy, your forklift skills (among other things) are amazing. Thank you.

Various people took photos, here are some from Flickr:

James',Audra's,Cassidy's, Peter's,Brian's.

Thank you all, again.

[8/28/07 update: Elizabeth posted some photos, and so did I, along with some photos of our honeymoon]

August 6, 2007

Two presentations: boundaries and sketching

I had the honor and pleasure of being invited to give two very different presentations recently.

Yesterday, I was on a panel at the Headlands Center for the Arts on the economic side of creative work. This is something that's long interested me, but something I rarely get to discuss in private, much less in public with such panelists as Donald Fortescue, Bruce Tomb and Andrea Zittel. My presentation (400K PDF) was only a small piece of the two-hour discussion, but I figured I'd share it anyway. In it, I introduce the idea of boundary objects as a way to talk about products and projects that fall between the primarily commercial work of design and the primarily expressive work of art (though as the discussion showed, the distinction is very fuzzy). In the presentation, I mention the work of Noam Toran and although I have ranted about critical design before, I think his work is great, even though I still don't think it's really design. Also, if you were there: what I meant when I said that the high end art market (which is a market, unlike the music industry) was corrupt was that its workings (as someone on the outside) are highly opaque and that I believe it is highly susceptible to price manipulation and insider trading; if it was a regulated market, I believe that there would be a lot of playfield-leveling regulation that would be done to keep dealers, collectors and museums from leveraging their respective power in the financial and reputation markets unfairly toward people outside of the existing social network.

The second presentation (650K PDF) I gave was on sketching for frogdesign San Francisco back in mid-July. It outlines much of the work that ThingM has been doing this year and how it fits into our overall philosophy of sketching as an agile user experience design methodology.

July 2, 2007

Sketching in Hardware 2: my intro

Over the weekend of June 23-24 ThingM organized Sketching in Hardware 2, the second installment of the conference that Matt, Judith and I put together last year (for more on that event, see my thoughts about it last year). It was a great time with fantastic presentations by an incredibly talented group of folks. I felt very privileged that they had come, some from as far away as Sweden and Japan, to our event. Thank you! I'll be posting more about the event in the coming week, but I wanted to share a couple of things.


Ruth Kikin-Gil, one of my co-hosts this year, created a Flickr Photo Pool of all the photos at the conference. Here's a random selection. Click on the icon on the right to see the full pool.
photos in Sketching in Hardware 2 More photos in Sketching in Hardware 2

My Intro

I introduced the conference with some general framing of the history and ideas behind the conference. It's a general view and if you follow this blog, you have probably heard many of the ideas before. However, I do end with an idea about the responsibility that we, as tool creators have to make good tools that make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing, an idea I got from Jeff Veen years ago and which guided my thinking when I worked with QUALCOMM to develop their internal guidelines management tool.

Hi! My name is Mike Kuniavsky.

Thank you very much for coming. Some of you have come here from far away, others are here on short notice. Thank you.

Let me get started by telling you who don’t know me a bit about myself and then telling you a little about how Sketching in Hardware started.

I’m a user experience researcher and designer. As such, I’m primarily concerned with the personal, social and cultural impact of technology and how to create technology for people. Most of my career had been spent as an interaction designer for the web. Having spent a lot of time thinking about people and technology, about five years ago I realized that the greatest impact was not going to come from the Web. Three years ago I left Adaptive Path, a web design company I had cofounded, to pursue the integration of information processing into objects that don’t look like computers. I shifted my focus to interaction design for ubiquitous computing. As I was about to leave Adaptive Path, I met Matt Cottam of Tellart at a workshop in Vienna, at the CHI conference. It was a workshop on the integration of interaction and industrial design. We got to talking and realized that we had similar visions for how that integration should work, and it revolved around sketching.

That conversation was the most direct genesis of this event, but let me back up a bit and talk about sketching, or at least sketching from my perspective.

Sketching is a fundamental process of design. Whether you make music, architecture, processes, or whatever, we sketch in some way. For me, I learned the value of sketching working with a classically-trained animator named Lawrence Marvit. He had a pile of pencil nubs of all difference colors and he’d start sketching with roughly light colored pencils, then he’d move to darker and darker colors as the idea took shape. Finally, he’d trace the final idea in either black or dark blue pencil. This was eye-opening to me, because it showed me that pencil sketches have quality that few other things have.

Lawrence and I worked together 13 years ago. When I started thinking about sketching again three years ago, I thought back to what made his work so interesting to me, and I came up with several criteria:

  • They’re fast
  • They’re provisional
  • They preserve history

Bill Buxton recently wrote a book recently that is an excellent discussion of the role of sketching as a philosophy to the process of innovation and interaction design. In it, he enumerates a number of other qualities of sketching.

Now, think about which of these qualities hardware has. Almost none of them. As practices go, developing physical computing is nearly the opposite of sketching on paper. So what? Why is that a problem? Well, as many of us here know, sketching is not part of the production process; it is part of the idea generation process. When you sketch, you’re not working on a final product. Sketching is a process through which the sketcher explores the problem space and uncovers possibilities and constraints within that space. By being bad at being as sketching medium, electronics greatly limits the breadth of ideas we can have.

Thus, this conference. The goal of this event is to bring together

  • the people who make the tools that allow for sketching in hardware
  • the people who use electronics expressively and push the boundaries of how to sketch in hardware
  • and the people who teach how to understand and use electronics,

and discuss what it means to create hardware sketching tools and how to make the tools we have more effective. This conference is also structured the way it is because I feel it’s important to create a community of people who are interested in this, and the way we create community is not just by listening to presentations, but by walking together, by having dinner together and by collaboratively sketching in hardware.

I also have an even broader agenda, and please indulge me in sharing it with you. I believe that ubiquitous computing is going to play a major role in humanity’s future. The possibilities for information processing embedded into objects has enormous potential for improving the lives of people and the earth. I’m very bullish on the idea, in general. But I’ve also studied people a lot, and I know that people will, on the whole, take the easiest route to a solution, without considering the broader implications that solution has on the world. This easiest route is often defined by the capabilities of the tools people use because some things are easier to do with a tool than others.

So here’s what I’ll end on:

If we are the community of tool makers whose tools will define the shape of the information devices of the world to come, then if we create tools with which it is easier to do the right thing than to do the wrong thing, the net effect will be cumulatively better than if we did nothing at all. When we create capability, we braw a boundary. We are in a unique position to draw those boundaries that can make a better world. Let’s keep that in mind.

May 16, 2007

An unusual addition to the UI collection

Given my interests, it's probably not surprising that I collect interesting examples of mobile and domestic UI design. Much to Liz's chagrin, I have several boxes of mobile phones, laptops, electronic toys and other devices. Things I choose not to buy, I photograph:

IMGP5880IMGP5870IMGP5869IMGP5867IMGP5866IMGP5865IMGP6658.JPGIMGP7597.JPGIMGP7792.JPGIMGP7832.JPGIMGP7831.JPGA Picture Share!

Today, a particularly amusing addition arrived in the mail (courtesy of Ebay). I had ordered several first generation Blackberrys and thought nothing of it when the seller was from Texas. Then the Blackberry arrived:


Now, I know it's romantic speculation, but like the old adage of "if only walls could talk," what about electronic devices? Of the other Blackberrys in this lot that had messages on them the messages were from April to November 2001, the exact period of the company's downward spiral. The previous owner of this one wiped all of the messages from it, but I can only assume that this one was from the same period. If Blackberrys could talk...

April 29, 2007

Media vindication (of sorts)

Last Friday there were two surprising (to me, anyway) front page stories about ubicomp. First, the Economist has a special report on "The coming wireless revolution." The end of the first paragraph reads "In coming years wireless will vanish entirely from view, as communications chips are embedded in a host of everyday objects. Such chips, and the networks that link them together, could yet prove to be the most potent wireless of them all."

The next paragraph begins "Just as microprocessors have been built into everything in the past few decades, so wireless communications will become part of objects big and small."

This combination of ideas--wireless, network, microprocessor, everyday objects--is of course the core recipe for ubiquitous computing. Tod and I at ThingM have been working with RFIDs and embedded networking for a while and we think that it's certainly The Future (in terms of augmenting everyday objects). It's going to require deep changes in terms of the design of how people interact with devices and how companies create them.

One company that seems to get it is, again surprisingly, Nintendo. Or at least they got it with the Wiimote, which was featured on the front page of Friday's Wall Street Journal in a story called Magic Wand: How Hackers Make Use Of Their Wii-motes. In it, the WSJ discusses how the open standards of the Wiimote--as Tod pointed out to me, it's a Bluetooth device that uses off-the-shelf components and communication standards--allow people to hack it , including hack it to use Tod's Roomba control software (which is mentioned implicitly in discussing Chris Hughes' hack)> I think that the availability of these communication standards also allowed the company to focus on creating great interaction, rather than on inventing technology. This is the key shift: once there's enough momentum behind a set of standards, technology development shifts from hardware to software, from engineering to interaction design. At the core of these articles is a recognition that wireless technologies have matured enough that we can focus not on how they work, but what they can do for us.

(yes, I'm also amused that the WSJ called the story "Magic Wand")

March 30, 2007

Movable Type comments and spam

It appears that Movable Type has been marking all comments as "junk," regardless of what their spam filtering plugin rates them at, so I appear to have not gotten any non-junk comments in weeks, if not months. I apologize. I've gone through the last couple of entries and published those comments, but it may take me a couple of days to get to the others, and there may be some that rolled off the comment list and I won't be able to find.

I sincerely apologize. I've been wondering why it's been quiet, and now I know.

If you know of a good MT solution for this, email me at blog c/o this site. Thanks.

March 19, 2007

Apples, oranges and swivel

I've been playing with Swivel lately. It's fun, but their "Compare" icon, an apple and an orange, is particularly apt. Here, I compare a data set I entered (the price of first class postage in the US, 1910 until today) to the Consumer Price Index. Kind of nonsensical--one is an emergent trend, the other is a set of conscious decisions by a small group--yet somewhat interesting in terms of how the our postage rate continues to lag behind all the other products (thus shutting up my complains of how it's so expensive)

Rate and Consumer Price Index

March 14, 2007

A neighborhood tour through time

How do you define a sense of place? I've lived in the same San Francisco apartment for 11 years. It's the longest I've lived anywhere, ever. I have a great deal of affection for this neighborhood, for what was once an Ohlone settlement, and then the Spanish Mission grounds, and then a succession of immigrant neighborhoods throughout the 20th century, ending today as a gentrifying bohemia on the edge of the Castro. Walking around the spaces immediately adjacent to Ramona Ave, the street I live on, I regularly look at the buildings and think about the layers life that have happened here. A single spot may have had a shell mound, a Spanish goat grazing field, the house of a ship captain who ferried people from the east coast for the Gold Rush and settled, an Irish sheet metal worker's family, a Mexican grocer, a house of junkies, a struggling painter, a Web developer and a second-year associate at a downtown law firm. That layering is fascinating to me.

Yesterday, I decided to do a little experiment on my way to the cafe where I sometimes work and back. I grabbed a bunch of images from the San Francisco Public Library's historic photo collection of places within a two-block radius of my house, printed them, and took pictures that were as close as I could manage in a couple of minutes.

14th and Guerrero, 2007/1928

14th and Dolores, 2007/1929

15th and Dolores, 2007/1956


16th and Dolores, 2007/1929


16th and Dolores, 2007/1856


I tried to match the camera angle and the lens, but it's not a meticulous recreation. Mostly, I'm interested in documenting how the place has and hasn't changed. Really, the physical space hasn't changed much at all. There are new buildings, certainly, and in one case a particularly nice one was was burned by an arsonist in 1993, but the overall space hasn't changed much, with one exception. The trees. Holy cow is there more foliage in San Francisco now than there was even 40 years ago. You go, Friends of the Urban Forest

Here's a Platial map documenting the locations:

March 12, 2007

A terminology experiment

After all of the observation- and analysis-based discussions of terminology on this blog, I decided to do a little experiment to see if there was any data that could be collected. To get an idea of how much people used which term, I first thought that I should just tally the Google references to each of the terms that refer to ubicomp and related concepts. Then I realized that that technique suffered from the unpredictable nature of the Google estimation algorithm and it didn't recognize that some of the terms have been around a lot longer than others, so there are probably more documents that refer to them, even if they're not as popular in the field today.

I decided that a better way to do this would be to buy some search engine keywords (specifically "ubiquitous computing," "ubicomp," "pervasive computing" and "ambient intelligence") and watch how many times the keyword was searched-for and how many times people clicked on it.

Here are the results from 11 days of keyword placement on Google:

OK, what do we see? I'm going to treat clicks as active interest and impressions as a kind of semi-active interest, though I acknowledge this is projecting a lot on the audience and may be conflating several factors in terms of audience composition and intention. In this analysis, "ambient intelligence" is a nonstarter in terms of active interest, although as many people searched for it as "ubicomp." Maybe it's just an academic term and my ad for ThingM (there needs to be something people can click on ;-) wasn't interesting to academics. Still, it's interesting to note that no one clicked on an ad that mentioned "ubicomp" when they had searched for "ambient intelligence."

The next finding, though, I think is the most interesting: "pervasive computing" was searched-on as much (actually a little more) as "ubiquitous computing," but clicked significantly less. First of all, I was surprised that it was searched for as much, but it gets clicked on less than "ubiquitous computing," and that puzzles me. It shows different levels of interest, or different audiences, between the terms. Moreover, the cost-per-click on it is significantly higher, which means that other people are trying to buy the term (I don't think I had any competition for any of the other terms).

Anyway, out of this small thicket of numbers come more questions than answers. Some things we can extract reliably: "ubiquitous computing" and "pervasive computing" are both roughly equally as popular in terms of interest. "Ambient intelligence" is not so popular. "Ubiquitous computing" creates more active interest than any of the other terms, and "ubicomp" is not in nearly as active use (despite its greater popularity as a tag on; for comparison: ubiquitous computing).

February 19, 2007

Ambiguating the terminology: Quantitative Ethnographics

Continuing my project of observing how terminology shifts to describe the process of researching and designing the user experience of ubiquitous computing, I noticed a blurb in the latest issue of the IDSA's "design perspectives" newsletter. In it, they note a new service launched by RAHN, Inc., which RAHN calls "Quantitative Ethnographics (QE)." They claim this "integrates performance metrics into the analysis and illustrates innovation's positive impact on a prospective client's customer."

Apart from the error of assuming a "positive impact" before starting research, it's interesting to me how RAHN seems to be using the current vogue for the use of "ethnographics" as a term to describe user research, but modifying it by using the language of measurement (presumably because numbers and figures look better in client reports). Measurement--and the "finding of an average" that it implies--is kind of the opposite of the goal of traditional ethnography, which aims to describe culture in its complexity. That doesn't actually seem to be the point anymore. "Ethnographics" has come to mean "we go onsite and look at people." It has ceased to have the meaning it once had as an anthropological practice, and has been repurposed by the design community.

Is this is a good thing? I don't know, but it's a thing.

February 9, 2007

Mobile music on demand using the modem port

Here's an idea I'm not going to implement, but liked enough to write down in my notebook 3 months ago: DRM-free music on demand using the modem port on your computer (that you're not using and will never use again). The idea is simple: control iTunes with a web browser and dial your mobile phone with your unused modem port, then--rather than connecting as a modem--you just play music over the line. In other words, use your mobile phone to play music, but rather than trying to do it as a data feed, you use the phone's audio capabilities.

Here are the elements:

  1. A computer with audio out and a modem port, running a Web server; say, a Mac running OSX
  2. iTunes
  3. A script to control iTunes over the Web
  4. The Mac2Tel circuit
  5. A script to dial using the modem

The idea, if I was going to implement it, would be to build the circuit, then combine the last script with the first script to dial my mobile phone number from a home machine and start playing whatever music I've selected over the phone line. The Internet serves as the control channel, while the POTS is the primary audio service.

And, yeah, it's a total hack, but--hey--the elements are all there and I'm leaving it up the reader to put them together. (see "the devil is in the details" for more info on how to do that ;-)

January 27, 2007

Ambiguating the terminology: Palpable Computing

Excuse me while a rant a bit:


We have a new entry in the terminology haze that surrounds ubiquitous computing, Palpable Computing. Hooray! Another word for roughly the same thing, but with a twist that could only have looked good on an EU grant application:

Palpable denotes that systems are capable of being noticed and mentally apprehended. Palpable systems support people in understanding what is going on at the level they choose. Palpable systems support control and choice by people.

Their claim is that they're inverting "ambient computing," which is supposedly invisible, with a vision of computing that's more, well, tangible. They position a set of ideas that claim to show how this approach complements "ambient computing," which I find difficult to see, since there's no really developed set of ideas about what "ambient computing" is (maybe inside all the Disappearing Computer project paperwork there is, but certainly not in common use or practice outside the community of people who were given grant money by that project). Moreover, I don't see how the terms they're using as complements relate to the things they're claiming to complement:

scalability understandability
sense-making and negotiationuser control and deference
(from here)

Maybe I haven't read enough about it, but it seems to me--at first blush--like a syntactic land grab and a linguistic distinction created to justify continued funding more than an attempt to clarify concepts and move the field forward. It's kind of a shame, and I certainly don't see how it's going to satisfy their project goals, a number of which, at least, seem to be jumping to try and create technology before they've finished making a philosophical argument:

  • an open architecture for palpable computing
  • a conceptual framework to understand the particulars of palpable technologies and their use.
  • design and implementation of a toolbox for the construction of palpable applications
  • development of a range prototypes of palpable applications
  • gaining a firm understanding of a range of practices into which palpable technologies may be introduced.

Further, as Liz points out, it may represent a rethinking, a retrenching, after an initially overly reductionist reading of Weiser and Norman . That reading may have led to the idea of "ambient intelligence" representing literal disappearance, rather than a philosophy for distributed information processing that meets people's needs and desires (which are sometimes to have things in the background and other times to not). "Ambient intelligence" may have now proven to be too ambient, and thus needs to be complemented with this new project, which may be as equally reductionist.


That rant over, congratulations on the funding and all the best luck to you in your new project, folks.

December 14, 2006 in the WSJ

I was pretty excited that Vauhini Vara of the Wall Street Journal asked me to talk to her about a couple of months back. I'm even more excited that the story was in the paper yesterday (subscription required) and is available syndicated online today.

Those who read Paul's piece in Slate a couple of years back will know the general outlines of the project, but Vauhini fills in details, updates it and presents a fresh analysis. I'm super flattered. Thank you, Vauhini!

December 5, 2006

In MAKE 08: Roachball goes Open Source

I wrote a short piece in the latest version of MAKE (the digital version will be available when the next version comes out). It documents an open source ball game that my friends at Platial were involved in creating. This is an actual outdoor game played with actual balls...nothing digital involved, other than the rules Wiki. Here's a sample of the piece:

They started playing standard kickball on the bocce court, but quickly had to modify the traditional rules. The bocce court was too small for there to be three bases, so they appropriated cricket's two-base system (but kept kickball's baseball-inspired system of strikes, outs and innings). From soccer, they borrowed the idea of throwing the ball back in when it goes out of bounds, and that led another important change. As Wilson says, "you can [really] bean somebody," when you throw a ball in the close quarters of the bocce court, so they introduced rules from dodgeball.

Borrowing ideas and adapting the rules became part of playing the game. With spring, bocce season started and the courts were in use on the weekends, but the bank drive-through wasn't, so it became a legitimate court and the rules changed again to accommodate it. As Wilson puts it, "It was never declared that it was going to have a collaborative rulemaking process, but that's what it was."

The rest of the issue, which focuses on games and toys, is pretty entertaining. Get your copy at the newsstand.

November 21, 2006

Absurdities in healthcare: TEIGIT's CIGNA problem

I rarely voice my opinion about things that are outside the usual design/computing/social effects axis, but--hell--it's a blog and occasionally something outside the usual topics deserves mention. Take, for instance, the current health insurance situation I find myself in. I'm a member of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), largely for the health insurance benefits they provide through their membership in TEIGIT (The Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust). Now, apart from the occasional amusement of thinking that designers are entertainers, or that I'm sharing insurance coverage with starving actors, I rarely think about it and pay my quarterly premium and move on.

Now, here's the problem: TEGIT gets their insurance from CIGNA, an insurance company; CIGNA just decided to "recalculate" the premiums that the Trust pays and discovered that they've been charging freelance graphic designers and starving actors far too little. They send TEIGIT a note to that effect, and TEIGIT sent me a note. Here's TEIGIT's description of CIGNA's actions and their response (which, reading between the lines, is a combination of shock, panic and anger--all of which I sympthize with):

The revisions and recalculations have resulted in enormous rate increases for some of our Cigna groups. California rate increases average over 82%, with some increases as high as 254%. We met with our Cigna representative, and protested the new rates. We are also pursuing legal avenues and we are contacting the Governor’s Office and the Department of Managed Health Care. Please join us in protesting the rate increases by contacting your elected representatives.

(you can read the whole letter [100K PDF], which TEGIT kindly sent me in electronic form)

Basically, CIGNA decided that everyone needs to pay between roughly two and three times as much for their health insurance as they currently do, which is already a lot. What does that look like? Let's take a look at CIGNA's provisional rates for San Francisco:

(EMP = employee, SP=spouse, CH=children, FAM=family)
These are per month. Let's do the math. This means that I, EMP, will pay $10800 per year for health coverage and a family pays $32000 per year.

That, bluntly, is an outrage. I urge you to follow TEIGIT's advice and contact a representative and the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration, the organization responsible for (I believe) regulatory oversight of health insurers nationwide. Tell them that these terms are absurd and likely designed to either kill TEIGIT in California or force them to move to another insurer, which seems like a kind of corporate blackmail or, certainly, bordering on the illegal. Official investigation by the regulators responsible for monitoring the behavior of insurance companies seems to be in order. Me? I'm looking into health insurance brokers, and I suggest the AIGA do the same: TEIGIT may not last, and graphic designers need insurance.

PS: I realize that the whole health industry in America is skewed, and that in exchange for fast access to technology and strong personal protection laws we have, in a sense, chosen to sacrifice a lot of our money. But this is ridiculous.

September 24, 2006

Story of One Game

Recently, Liz and I were watching Masters Of Russian Animation - Volume 1 when had one of these cultural "?!?" moments when an unexpected piece of culture neatly fits into another. Well, kind of. Specifically, several pieces of my cultural knowledge neatly came together: my childhood memories of Moscow, Russia, my parents' description of living in Moscow in the early 1960s, Jacque Tati's "Playtime" and Tetris.

The first animation on the DVD is Fyodor Khitruk's 1962 "Story of One Crime". This a film that, like Tati's Playtime, attempts to humorously interpret the anxiety of living in a rapidly modernizing world. The plot is fairly straightforward: a series of gags that show how modern life in 1960s Moscow drives an otherwise boring Everyman to go crazy and try to kill a neighbor (call it "Crime and Punishment Lite"). The animation is an excellent Modernist style where nearly everything is flat against the screen. One of the gags features a building being noisily being built in a matter of minutes as the Everyman goes about his business. The building is in what was then a standard style for the Khrushchev era. These buildings were constructed of prefabricated concrete chunks that were made off-site, trucked to the building site and assembled, block-style. Because buildings are square, but all the parts in them are not identical, this required some amount of choosing the right block and putting in the right place. I spent several formative early years living in one of these in Moscow with my parents and most of my few memories of that era take place in the yard of one. They were called Plattenbau in East Germany and make up a good chunk of most major cities in the Eastern Bloc.

You see where this is going. That frames the context for my ?!? moment. In one gag in the cartoon, as the building behind our antihero is being built, it looks a lot like Tetris. A lot. A whole like. Like, "Holy crap, that's Tetris twenty years before Tetris was invented" a lot. I grabbed some frames to show what I mean:

I know that Alexey Pazhitnov, the inventor of Tetris, claimed pentominoes as his inspiration, but I can't believe that living in the Soviet Union at the time he could not have been thinking about this building style (and maybe this very cartoon). If not, it's an eerie similarity, and I'm really amused.

September 5, 2006

Burning Man 2006 Art Review

I went to Burning Man again this year, for the 11th time in a row. My overall feeling is that the art this time around wasn't overall as good as last year, though last year was hard to top since it was head and shoulders better than many of the years leading up to it, and this year's work is, too.

If I list more pieces this year than I have in years past, it's only because this is the first year I took notes.

The Waffle

This piece, by a group of Belgian artists, had a different name--Uchronia--but everyone on the playa knew it as The Waffle (much to the lead artist's frustration, as I understand it, but it's a better and less pretentious name, so he should just learn to deal with it). An amazing and conflicting piece: a classic potlatch of waste (hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of brand new wood for dancing in, and then burning to the ground in a matter of minutes), but a stunning installation. This is the kind of pure expression that architects aspire to and rarely get to do (and when they do, and it's for a utilitarian building, they often sacrifice utility for vision; the Waffle had no sacrifices to make, so it was free to be simply amazing). When it burned, it had the look of the Hindenburg disaster or a crashed space ship, and was possibly, as Liz (who watched the World Trade Center crash) said, the largest thing I ever want to see burning.


Serpent Mother

It's great to see artists develop their expression, and impressive when a group of people learn to create consistently compelling visions. The Flaming Lotus Girls have developed over the last 5 years into a great team that produces remarkable, monumental fire art. Their piece this year, the Serpent Mother was great. Huge, fun and excellently executed from a technical standpoint, the piece was a crowd hit. The key to it, I believe, is their movement from working purely with propane and electricity to computer control. Richard Mortimer Humphrey--who I worked with on the Stock Puppets--built MIDI-addressable propane valve controllers for them which allow them to precisely control the piece, ratcheting up the slickness and effectiveness by a big notch.

(image by antagonist, found on Flickr)

Starry Bamboo Mandala

It was hard to beat this piece for pure visual elegance. Beautifully made and looking like an immense 3D arabesque on legs, the mandala was a pleasure to look at, lean on and touch. We visited it in the dark, when it looked like a silent sea urchin-themed sentinel, still guarding the now-dry lake. Great stuff.



This years' entry in the "most likely to maim a hippie" interactive sculpture contest (won last year by Zach Coffin's Colossus). Michael Christian still rules the biomorphic monumental sculpture world, whimsically creating ever-greater pieces out of bent pipe. The BM theme this year was "Hope and Fear, the Future", so this piece is Michael's vision of the monsters from War of the Worlds, but with festival participants taking the role of the alien. An homage to Louise Bourgeois by way of 1890s science fiction.


Hope Flower and Fear Trap

It's kind of amazing how a giant flower made of lace wrapped around a snorkel lift can express pathos, curiosity and profound alienness at the same time, but these did. Liz and I spent a long time pulling and prodding the things and marveling at the great cleverness of the design, but the real magic came from the way that they were operated, like 100-foot-high puppets. These were everything that an art car should be (i.e. not a car).

(image by giantmonster, found on Flickr)

Big Round Cubatron

One of the best LED pieces I've ever seen. Using a modified commercial product and a sequel to one of my favorite pieces of several years ago (the Cubatron), it created a pure visual experience that was one of the most intense things I've seen. The artists also provide an excellent description/log of the technical details.


Burninator II

Another computer-controlled propane piece, but with a much different focus than the Serpent Mother. While the Serpent Mother created a character, the Burninator II was pure technology, and kind of scary technology at that. Propane poofer fires are an old Burning Man technology: a liquid propane tank with a regulator fills an expansion vessel with a valve and a pilot light; when the valve is opened the propane rushes out of the expansion vessel and makes a big whoomp sound and fireball. By themselves, they no longer surprise (though they're still fun to operate). What makes Burninator interesting is the magnitude and the effect created by the computer control. The sequenced fire, which created a whomp-whomp-whomp sound as the poofers were triggered looked like it coming right for you, even though it was shooting straight in the air. The combination of sound with the impression of impossibly fast speed made it much more impressive than just a bunch of propane fire cannons.

(image by SoopahViv, found on Flickr)

Venus Eye Trap

I'm a sucker for good inflatables. This one was particularly whimsical and beautiful.

(image by jesseehull, found on Flickr)

Bikes w/Triklits LEDs

I don't know the name of the people who did these (I suspect the Big Round Cubatron camp) or what they're called, but there was a group that used the same pingpong ball lights that are made by the folks who made the Cubatron, dangling like grapes from umbrella-like trees hanging from the back of bikes. When the whole group rode around, it was great, but very difficult to photograph.


The white kits flying at night during the burns were eerie and moving, like ghosts or (to continue the theme), aliens. Again, it was difficult to photograph them, but you can see them hanging on the right in this photo:


And this particularly ghostly one at the top of this photo:


Neverwas Haul

Possibly the best art car ever. A Victorian house on wheels, staffed by people in period dress riding a Miyazaki-meets-Verne hallucination that's (according to their documentation) a criticism of the cultural blindness that technology enables. Beautiful workmanship and another marker in San Francisco's current love affair with making actual steampunk devices (as a return to the origins of Modernism? As a reference to pre-petroleum energy technology? As nostalgia for an era of technological optimism? All of the above, probably.).


(image by molitov, found on Flickr)

Frostbyte memorial

One of the saddest things on the playa this year was the memorial installation of all of Kevin "frostbyte" McCormick's work. McCormick died last year, very young, and was one of the most promising artists at Burning Man. I had admired his work for a number of years and could see elements of it in many people's work (the Cubatron, SoLA, etc.). Basically, he was the first person to really push LEDs to their technological limits as a visually expressive medium, and every year his pieces evolved further. That development is one of the things I love the most about Burning Man, and every year I look forward to Michael Christian's explorations of bent pipe or the Flaming Lotus Girls' explorations of fire. That's how I felt about McCormick, and every year there will be a moment where I'll think "hey, I wonder what's frostbyte did this year?" and remember.

August 23, 2006

3D Lego Robot movies of carnivorous plants in MAKE

Back in December, I wrote a profile of a remarkable Portland filmmaker, Mike Wilder, for MAKE magazine. It's now been published in their Backyard Biology Issue. The actual link to the story will likely go live after the issue has left the newsstands, but here's a teaser (from an earlier draft).

"When I was 7 or 8 we went to EPCOT and saw an amazing 3D film that was produced by the Kodak people. In one of the scenes, a character threw a gold ring at the audience. And everyone in that audience reached out simultaneously to grab the ring. That just fucking blew my mind."

Twenty years later, Mike Wilder made his own 3D science movie. Working alone in the closet of his one-room basement apartment with less than $500, he made the first 3D time-lapse movie using robots made of Legos of tiny carnivorous plants. Let me repeat that: a 3D time-lapse film of carnivorous plants.. Made with robots. That are made of Legos. In a closet. For $500.

I recommend that you go and buy a copy of the DVD from Mike before people get the issue and he sells out.

June 27, 2006 on digg

Paul Boutin's Slate article on my project was picked up by Digg today, even though it was written two years ago.

Thank you Paul and Digg!

May 9, 2006

More Roomba stuff and the 2006 Power Tool Drag Races

Tod did it again, and based on an idea I had while talking to Chris, he wrote a Roomba to MIDI application, which lets you play a Roomba like a musical instrument (check out the video). Chris is considering composing some music for it. Phil blogged it on MAKE. Congratulations Tod and thank you, Phil!

Also, this weekend marked the 4th not-quite-annual Power Tool Drag Races. My contribution was a vehicle made of a roller skate, a Victrola motor, a piece of electrical tape and a pair of vice grips:


It was an excellent, busy, chaotic, hilarious event. As always, not really a competition, but an extended improv absurdist theater performance that's more about drag (i.e. bringing out the hidden side of tools) than racing. Here's Liz explaining the roller skate (named "Scratch") to John Hell, one of the announcers:


I knew Scratch didn't work well, so I dressed up as an early 20th-century "inventor," brought an actual gramophone with records, and hoped that being the only windup entry in the races would be good enough:

(photo by Scott Beale)

In the end, after 8 hours of waiting, the windup rollerskate went about 6 inches before getting stopped by a wood chip (and a poorly-designed drive belt--electrical tape that stretched in the sun--that didn't provide enough torque to get it over the chip).

We had a great time and you can see lots and lots of photos of the event if you look at the "ptdr" tag on Flickr. Thank you Charlie and QBOX for making it happen and Jim for being the patron saint.

April 23, 2006

Phil keeps going and going with the Roomba hack

A public thank you to Phil Torrone of Make, who keeps talking about Tod's bluetooth Roomba hack, and the many various uses he's come up for it. This week, he's gotten it on Valleywag, and on the G4 game channel (click on "Launch the Pile" to see the video). In the G4 video he also namechecks Graffiti Reseach Lab, who are pals of Liz. Go Phil, and thank you for being an evangelist.

March 31, 2006

ISEA2006/ZeroOne San Jose site up!

The ISEA2006/ZeroOne San Jose electronic arts festival site has launched. My piece of it is the C4F3, a cafe of augmented objects. It's described here and you can read about the 13 great pieces selected by our jury for inclusion in it. I'm going to continue working on this as I have been for the last 18 months, although now it's in a production phase, I'm happy to stand back and let the excellent team at ZeroOne do the heavy lifting. I invite all of you to come to San Jose in August and see it. It should be great. Tell your friends.

March 14, 2006

Etech 06, Part 2: Roomba Hacking

Although I went to Etech this year to talk about sketching in hardware in theory, theory rapidly and surprisingly turned into practice the evening of the Maker Fair. Phil Torrone of Make challenged Tod Kurt, who is responsible for the Roomba serial and bluetooth hacks in Make, to an impromptu three-way Roomba "cockfight" (interpret that as you will, but it was Phil's term ;-). With Phil driving one Roomba, Tod driving the other, and Jeff Han driving a third one (using a Tod bluetooth puck) an impromptu game of Roomba sumo wrestling (with the "ring" defined as the edges of a table) commenced. As this was a Make Magazine event, people immediately started decorating the Roombas and inventing rules for the game. It was excellently geeky: Tod wrote control code in the 30-second pauses between bouts and Jeff strapped a camera to the top of one of the Roombas, capturing some terrific crash footage.

Here are photos:


It looks like the idea has now spread to SXSW (I suspect Phil):

Again, watch this space for more info. More Roomba games to come! Go Tod!

[Update: Phil has posted a link to some videos of the event]

[Update 2: One Phil's Roombas has sacrificed itself--or, really, it was sacrificed--to the cause of drunken vaccum/robot-based videogame parody. Go Phil and Limor!]

March 3, 2006

Happy Birthday, Adaptive Path!

About six years ago, Peter Merholz sat me down and told me he had an idea for a way to organize a bunch of us independent dotcom consultants in the Bay Area, people he knew through work, SXSW Interactive and by reputation. His original idea was to call it the Loose Consulting Group and for us to share marketing, office and infrastructure resources while continuing our independent consulting practices. We started a mailing list and began chatting on IM and at regularly meeting. After several months of meeting, it turned out that what we were looking at, and an idea we had initially avoided thinking about, was starting a complete company. Not a loose group, but one that was much tighter and organization-like than originally intended, although totally virtual at first to keep overhead low. We wrote first principles for the company philosophy and, at a naming brainstorm in Judith Zissman's apartment, overlooking San Francisco, I think it was Jeff who came up with the name "Adaptive Path." We were lukewarm about it as a group--it wasn't ideal--but it was better than the other 200 names on the list, so we decided to keep it for a while, at least until the formal announcement at SXSW Interactive in March 2001.

Five years later, the name seems perfect, as it embodies exactly the route that the company has taken since its founding.

Thank you, former business partners, colleagues and collaborators. Happy birthday, Adaptive Path!

January 9, 2006

Defining the User Experience

Back in December I mentioned that I have been writing a chapter for Andrew Sears and Julie Jacko's Human Computer Interaction Handbook. This is a pretty monumental volume and it's an honor to write for it. They gave me a pretty broad mandate for the chapter: they asked me to write about the relationship between HCI and the customer experience. Before I could write that, I decided to unpack what "the customer experience" meant, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I wanted to do was to more precisely define what "user experience" means. Now I know this is folly--as a term in wide use, user experience has about 1000 different definitions--but I wanted to have one of my own, at least for the duration of this chapter. The definition I came up with is that, in a nutshell, the user experience of a product is everything that's not human-computer interaction. It's everything that affects how someone interacts with a tool--whether it's software, hardware, a service, or whatever. To me, this meant that I had to deal with all of the squishy, abstract things that good cognitive psychology and computer science-trained designers like me try not to deal with: business goals, emotions, relationships, branding, etc.

This is a big problem, and one where I'm only beginning to put the pieces together, but I decided to write down everything I had been thinking and see what happened. Well, what happened is that I wrote the most wide-ranging book chapter I think I've ever produced. That may or may not be good, but I do try to cover everything from familiar territory about focus groups and Jesse's elements diagram to identifying organizational goals, talking about the rise of field oberservation (whether you want to call it "ethnography" or something else), to emotion and brand...all the way to managing with agile user experience development. It's either a jambalaya or a patchwork. I can't tell and Andrew and Julie have been gracious enough to let the chapter stand as it is.

It's probably the closest I'm going to come to writing a sequel to my book for a while and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to have explored these ideas.

I've put a draft (550K PDF) of it up. This is not the final draft, as I'd like to encourage people to buy the book when it comes out, but I wanted to share it because I'd like to get some feedback and because, well, because I'm excited to have done it.

December 19, 2005

Comments on this blog

I've gotten several emails recently about comments not making it through to this blog. Comments here get filtered for spam by MTBlacklist and then put into a queue for approval. So if you post a and the dialog disappears without a trace, that's the sign that it's been put into the queue for me to look at. If it's refusing to let you post a comment, then it's probably because you used a word that MTBlacklist thinks is a spam keyword. I try to be careful about the words and domains I put into MTBlacklist, but there are so many at this point that I can't rule out that there are some problems. If you ever have a problem posting a comment, feel free to send it to me in email at blog c/o this site.

December 8, 2005

A design knowledge management system...for programmers?!?

On November 16, Nadav Savio of Giant Ant Design and I did a presentation for Knowledge Management World - Intranets in San Jose. My part of this presentation covered much of what I discussed in the case study ("Guidelines as tools") I presented at DUX, but Nadav, as my collaborator on that project, added his perspective on the information architecture and interaction design of it.

The PDF of the presentation (350K PDF) has our notes, which narrate what we talked about pretty well.

December 7, 2005

User Experience and HCI

Last summer, Andrew Sears and Julie Jacko asked me to contribute a chapter to the next revision of their monumental Human-Computer Interaction Handbook. It was an honor I could not refuse, but their stated topic for me, the consumer experience, was a difficult one to define, especially since there was 1000+ pages covering the fine details of human-computer interaction from ergonomics to visual design. With that kind of detail, what aspect of the computer user experience remained? I decided that it was everything that defined the user experience that was not the human-computer interaction, many of which were ideas I learned working as a consultant independently and for Adaptive Path. I spent most of October and November writing the chapter, which I delivered in rough form to Andrew and Julie last week. It's far from ready, but I wanted to share the introduction and the outline, as a teaser.

User Experience and HCI

The goal for this chapter is to introduce concepts and techniques that help structure the application of HCI in a real-world environment by examining the larger context in which human-computer interaction happens and by using that context as the basis for the design of user experiences.

Understanding the broader factors that influence the user experience is as important for creating successful Human Computer Interaction systems as thoroughly understanding the cognitive science behind the user's actions. Company goals, economic relationships, emotional responses and social interactions can overwhelm behavioral and perceptual responses of consumers. Although intensive research is currently investigating some of these ideas, the majority of firsthand experience of and thinking about designing experiences under such pressures has happened in the consumer marketplace as documented in popular business and marketing literature. In bringing these ideas and experiences to this volume I hope to introduce the process of Human Computer Interaction as part of a broader activity: specifically, the development and creation of user experience in a consumer economy.


Section 1: the boundaries of user experience

  • UX is context
  • Garrett's Elements

Section 2: the organizational experience

  • The 1927 Ford Model T
  • A children's art product manufacturer website

Section 3: the user view

  • The user experience of products
    • Affect
    • Value
  • The user experience of organizations
    • Brand
    • Relationships

Section 4: Examining the user experience

  • Identifying organizational goals
    • Identify stakeholders
    • Collect stakeholder goals
    • Prioritize organizational goals
    • A rapid technique: project history
    • Field observation
    • Find key informants, schedule research
    • Narrow the focus
    • User interactive observation
    • Use multiple researchers and analyze collaboratively
    • Validation
  • Focus groups
    • Prepare
    • Make a schedule
    • Pick an audience
    • Develop discussion topics
    • Write a discussion guide
    • Analyze results

Section 5: Manage with user experience

  • Agile user experience development
    • Iterative development
    • Risk-driven and client-driven
    • Timeboxing
    • Adaptive development and evolutionary requirements
  • Introducing user experience into an existing process
    • Get a senior manager champion
    • Work within existing processes
    • Make small, but well-publicized changes
    • Make developers' lives easier with user experience



A holiday wish...for me

Business 2.0 asked me to suggest a technological holiday gift wish and I asked for the thing I always ask for, a walking robot.

I asked for this one:

from Lynxmotion.

Someday, I'll get one and will be bored with it 15 minutes later, but for now it remains the most elusive of all gifts (bar world peace and a gun that zaps mildew smell).

Also interesting is the appearance of an ambient display device in the list:

The Money Bunny, from Nabaztag, which appears to be a robotic, wifi-based version of the Ambient Orb from ambient devices, but simpler and more animist.

November 1, 2005

Blog coming back soon, look at my Flickr stream til then

I have blog guilt from not posting much over the past couple of months. I've been writing a lot elsewhere (more about that later) and traveling. All the writing has pushed me into thinking visually in my spare time, so I've been posting a fair bit to Flickr. I post something every couple of days there because one, I'm always taking photographs and two, because putting them on Flickr is a nice break from text-based work.

Lately I've photographed:

Frost on an airplane window:

The inside of a dam:

Wacky Portland architecture:

Computer interfaces found at thrift stores:


October 4, 2005

Three Dreams Documentation

Liz and I decided to do an art project for Burning Man this year. In the past, our BM projects have tended to be large, technologically complex, electronic and highly intellectualized. This year we decided to invert all of that and improvise a project, rather than trying to think through all of the details ahead of time. (OK, truth be told, we were also short on time)

We started with elements from projects we've done and enjoyed. I wanted to follow up on Bass Ghost and do another subsonic vibration piece. Liz wanted to follow up on Nervous Jello and do something jiggly. Jiggly + subsonic seemed like a good combination, however there was immediately a problem: Jello won't survive a week out in the desert. And that's where the improvisation started.


I suggested we make stuff out of silicone, which is also jiggly. The process looked straightforward based on some web sites we'd read, so we plunged in. I had seen some antique confectionary molds at an antique show the month before and thought that vibrating translucent bunnies and elves could be interesting, so I went on Ebay. While doing the research on Ebay, we stumbled across contemporary, inexpensive plastic vacuum-formed chocolate molds. Within an hour we had bid on half a dozen of the more interesting ones and had them in hand by the end of that week.

We bought our first batch of silicone at TAP Plastics, in Tigard, OR. It was a basic hobbyist kit and worked great (in the photos on Flickr, it's the blue stuff). In the process of using the kit we learned that silicone comes in two parts: a resin and a catalyst. Unlike other materials that "dry" by evaporating some solvent, the catalyst changes silicone's basic structure when the two are mixed. Thus, there's little shrinkage and you get decent control over the timing of how quickly the resin sets by how much catalyst you use. Setting times can vary from 16 hours to under 5 minutes, depending on which catalyst is used, and how much of it is used. We were going to be working quickly in small batches, so we used translucent silicone and ultra fast catalyst from Stephenson Pattern in Portland. We picked the silicone for maximum jiggle, with help from the salespeople at Stephenson. It's still less wobbly than jello, but pretty wobbly.

The casting process required a day of tinkering with proportions (see Problems section below), but once we figured out the right formula for our purposes casting was quite straightforward:

  1. Spray with mold release
  2. Mix the ingredients quickly, but thoroughly
  3. Pour from about 18 inches above the mold
  4. Wait an hour
  5. Demold
  6. Let settle while repeating steps 1-5

With Tim and Patricia's help (we were using their garage and they were amazingly generous with their time and stuff throughout the process) we managed to crank out a dozen jiggly tanks, rats, people, outhouses and carousels in a couple of afternoons.

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Here's a shot of our Portland kitchen before we shipped all the stuff to San Francisco:



Once we had the cast objects, we needed to put them somewhere. We started the improvisation at Building Resources in San Francisco and finished it on the way to Burning Man in Carson City, NV.

I wanted to build plywood boxes, but Liz pointed out that cardboard was potentially a lot easier to work with, if we could find the right boxes. We just happened to pass a Box Store outlet in Carson, which had boxes that worked. Here's Liz making sure it's OK, while I take a picture from inside to see what the view will be like:


We cut most of the top flaps off to let light in and cut the corners so they would sit flat, rather than overlap like on a standard box:


Then we taped using a roll of red water-activated reinforced packing tape that the Box Shop gave us. This tape is terrific. You wet it and gives you about 30 seconds of working time (in the desert sun) to align it right before it sets solid.


Then we painted the whole thing with texture paint, inside and out (outside needed something like 3 coats).



The texture paint removed nearly all of the "cardboardness" from the finished boxes and, as Liz put it hid our sins. Great stuff. We then painted the insides with paint that we bought from the Oops shelf at Lowe's Carson City. The strategy of using whatever paint was on the shelf worked well with the improv theme of the project and was a dirt cheap way to get a bunch of paint in interesting colors.


We built the frame for the boxes out of 2-by-4s using metal framing brackets:


To allow people to see the jiggliness, we hung the boxes using bungees attached to carabineers to eye bolts on both the frame and inside the bottom of the boxes (where they're attached to the bungees with baling wire):


Lessons learned

  • Jiggle amplitude. You may notice that although this was supposed to be a subsonic piece, there was no subsonic component to it. That's because I realized in preparation that both the amplitude and frequency of the bass shakers available to me would not be enough to shake the thing. I bought an antique Oster M1 vibrator, er, "massager" from the 1930s (search for "oster massager" on Ebay to see one--they've been making them almost unchanged for like 70 years), but its frequency was also too high. I really need something like the Oster, but heavier and moving at about 5Hz.
  • Silicone bubbles. Silicone develops bubbles when mixed well. Some of these float to the top of the wet silicone, like any liquid, but when the silicone sets quickly, as with ultrafast catalyst, most don't. We tried to eliminate this by pouring from 18 inches or so, which created a thin stream of silicone and thus forced the bigger bubbles toward the surface, but some were still left. With our application and translucent silicone, it's not a problem, but if we were doing this with clear silicone, I would use a vacuum chamber and a slower catalyst to force the bubbles to the surface.
  • Getting the things out of the molds is a pain if you don't prepare for it. Using lots of mold release (or just Vaseline, since mold release is just aerolled petroleum jelly) is important. We used the release we bought ffrom TAP at first, but either we didn't use enough or it was the wrong stuff. Here's what happened:

    We got different release from Stephenson Pattern, which worked great:
    However, we did overspray it, and a texture was starting to develop on the mold, which would have required cleaning off after a while.

  • Catalyst proportion. As mentioned above, we spent a whole afternoon experimenting with catalyst proportions. With the small quantities we were mixing (we only had a couple of molds), we couldn't make big batches, and a small difference in proportion of catalyst (10% vs 20%) makes a big difference in setting times (4 hours versus 1 hour, for example), so we needed a lot of experimentation. We ended up using between 20 and 25 catalyst, which is high, but it gave us about 5 minutes of working time after the mixing began and the silicone set in under an hour, so we could demold quickly and turn around another batch. Next time, we'll buy more cheap molds so we can make bigger batches and control the proportion more carefully and have longer working time. When we added too much catalyst, the mixture started setting before we had a chance to pour and the results looked like this:


  • Affixing silicone to silicone is virtually impossible. Silicone is super-duper inert, which is great for some things and terrible if you want to stick it to anything. There's a glue that's available from Smooth-on, but it's rare (we weren't able to get any either in Portland or in San Francisco) and apparently expensive. We ended up using nails to attach the things to each other. Attached at 45-degree angles away from each other worked well.
  • Maximizing jiggle. Silicone doesn't jiggle like jello, and most of our casts were of things that were low and flat, which minimizes jiggle, anyway. Our solution was to pile stuff high, but next time we'll probably just cast tall, thin things.
  • Lighting. To light the interior during the day we used a fluorescent light diffusion plastic for the top, cut into shape. For nighttime lighting, we bought a set of solar-powered LED spotlights at Lowe's. They were bright enough to make the piece work at night and $50 for the 3, a little pricy, but worth it.
  • Cleaning. The best way to clean our silicone casting materials was simply to let the silicone set and then peel it off. For some things, such as buckets, we first sprayed mold release, but it wasn't necessary: after an hour, we just peeled a bucket-shaped piece of silicone from the inside of the bucket and that was that. Cleaning the release was a little tougher, but Tim's suggestion to use a turpentine substitute did the trick (thanks, Tim!):


  • LED inclusion. We did some experiments embedding LEDs into the silicone. It totally worked, and looked great underwater, but we decided that wiring all of the LEDs was more trouble than we were willing to go through, so we abandoned the idea.


Since we improvised the content, we didn't have a particularly strong narrative structure going in and whenever we attempted to create one, it didn't seem to fit. I had initially wanted one dream to be good, one to be bad and one to be ambiguous. Liz had different narrative plans. The end result is ambiguously nightmarish. Since our process, I have been told, is not unlike that of Jungian Sand Tray methods, a lot can be read into our choice of symbols and our arrangement of the symbols. We're actually trying not to go there, and we tried explicitly to avoid making it an antiwar statement or a statement on fear and claustrophobia, though both of those sentiments are close to us and there are certainly some such aspects in the piece.


September 9, 2005

This blog is broken(ish)

Something's up with the blog. I'm in Tokyo for the Ubicomp conference and probably won't get a chance to fix it for a couple of weeks. Damn.

All the content is still on the blog, it just renders all wrong. If you have any suggestions about how this happened, I would appreciate some insight.

(OK, I figured it out: I had it set to display the last 28 days of blog entries...and I hadn't made an entry in 28 it's set for 60 days until things settle down and I get back on the blog wagon)

August 7, 2005

A frequency count

One of my ongoing projects is (as described in this Slate article by Paul Boutin). Since I have a fairly large corpus (to use the linquistic geek term) to play with, I occasionally do a little analysis on it. Here are the top 250 words used by the 6000 authors in 2004, in frequency order. You can probably figure out the gist of the subject of many of the letters from this list:

1. tired
2. i
3. and
4. the
5. of
6. a
7. my
8. am
9. it
10. in
11. you
12. because
13. is
14. that
15. for
16. this
17. have
18. me
19. not
20. so
21. at
22. up
23. im
24. sleep
25. all
26. do
27. on
28. with
29. but
30. or
31. just
32. get
33. no
34. be
35. why
36. are
37. was
38. can
39. work
40. like
41. go
42. if
43. out
44. about
45. night
46. may
47. time
48. what
49. now
50. don
51. we
52. day
53. mail
54. really
55. know
56. your
57. too
58. they
59. people
60. any
61. as
62. had
63. by
64. then
65. much
66. life
67. want
68. when
69. been
70. who
71. being
72. he
73. e
74. an
75. one
76. she
77. school
78. more
79. there
80. her
81. will
82. part
83. its
84. hours
85. think
86. only
87. last
88. would
89. got
90. has
91. dont
92. well
93. some
94. going
95. new
96. email
97. how
98. back
99. even
100. please
101. us
102. good
103. ve
104. u
105. enough
106. other
107. very
108. love
109. free
110. bed
111. which
112. them
113. feel
114. home
115. late
116. need
117. our
118. every
119. way
120. job
121. never
122. here
123. things
124. make
125. bored
126. still
127. their
128. morning
129. always
130. could
131. also
132. than
133. today
134. d
135. right
136. information
137. over
138. help
139. old
140. off
141. intended
142. after
143. around
144. take
145. image
146. friends
147. gif
148. site
149. tell
150. having
151. went
152. getting
153. see
154. org
155. should
156. cause
157. two
158. ll
159. long
160. something
161. his
162. years
163. week
164. him
165. use
166. year
167. into
168. little
169. recipient
170. thanks
171. didn
172. unable
173. print
174. myself
175. doing
176. find
177. nothing
178. working
179. hard
180. read
181. maybe
182. where
183. again
184. makes
185. cuz
186. world
187. anything
188. early
189. until
190. house
191. money
192. cant
193. did
194. these
195. wake
196. down
197. best
198. days
199. everything
200. trying

201. friend
202. lot
203. many
204. computer
205. live
206. ever
207. thing
208. before
209. stupid
210. better
211. most
212. say
213. those
214. same
215. yes
216. confidential
217. family
218. keep
219. since
220. person
221. care
222. ru
223. thank
224. college
225. come
226. sick
227. stay
228. virus
229. next
230. shit
231. bad
232. does
233. fucking
234. website
235. were
236. while
237. months
238. hate
239. though
240. able
241. oh
242. hour
243. hi
244. thats
245. girl
246. reason
247. web
248. let
249. first
250. kids

Whoops, I thought I had taken out most of the non-content words, but it looks like "confidential", "recipient" and "information" slipped through. These usually come from disclaimers like this, which makes them especially amusing:

CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: This electronic message transmission is intended only for the person or the entity to which it is addressed and may contain information that is privileged, confidential or otherwise protected from disclosure. If you have received this transmission, but are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any disclosure, copying, distribution or use of the contents of this information is strictly prohibited. If you have received this e-mail in error, please contact the sender of the e-mail and destroy the original message and all copies.

July 22, 2005

My essay in Chinese

My two part Adaptive Path essay on "Crafting a User Research Plan" (part 1, part 2) has been translated by uiGarden into Chinese! Woohoo! Thank you, uiGarden.

June 26, 2005

Bass Ghost

Jim Mason recently asked me to participate in a show he was putting together at The Shipyard, the artist space he founded in Berkeley. The show was of work suspended from cables, as part of a larger punk show called "How to Destroy the Universe, Part 4," put on by Mobilization Records. The Shipyard collective is producing some of the best and craziest technology art work around (while being totally off the grid, powered entirely by WWII-era generators running on biodiesel--so Berkeley, in that Whole Earth Catalog way), so it was an honor to be invited to show something there.

I've been thinking about a project based on bass shaker technology for several years and decided that now would be a good time to make it. Bass shakers and sound transducers (such as those made by Clark and Feonic's small SoundBug) are a nifty technology that resonates sound through surfaces they're attached to, rather than through soundwaves. I used bass shakers to make a small piece at Burning Man about 5 years ago (which I think maybe 5 people experienced before my amplifier blew) and enjoyed working with them.

As an aging raver, bass is close to my heart. Bass, as a visceral sensation of something that's normally perceived only aurally, has been fascinating for me since I first felt sound through my breastbone, and removing everything but the feeling of bass vibration seems like a pure distillation of that experience. For this piece, I decided to try and bottle that sensation, while simultaneously exploring my interests in casemod and lowrider technology. I also wanted to do something about loneliness, since hanging on a wire seems like the literal expression of being emotionally exposed.

Thus, Bass Ghost.


The ghost is based on a wooden frame of 2x2 pine and Home Depot metal corners:

IMGP5305 IMGP5308

Inside is an Aura Bass Shaker Pro and a Bazooka ELA150.1 subwoofer amplifier, powered by a Demon 480 watt power supply. Sound is supplied by a Rio Cali MP3 player playing Bing Crosby singing "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1939, pitch shifted to subsonic levels, and some bells:

IMGP5325 IMGP5330 IMGP5334 IMGP5333

The outside is made of 1/8" plywood, painted with white interior paint.

IMGP5309 IMGP5327


Here's how it looked installed:

IMGP5353 IMGP5349 IMGP5345 IMGP5356

And here's what the show looked like:

IMGP5371 IMGP5359 IMGP5383 IMGP5386

Thanks again to Jim, to Tim and Patricia for loaning me their garage and tools, to Liz for helping me think through the thing and for encouraging me to finish it, and to the Department of Homeland Security, for the careful repacking of it after their examination at the airport. [And, I almost forgot, to Tod for the last minute power supply telephone tech support!]

March 31, 2005

My own private SFO: a personal geography

In thinking about personal geographies, I decided to see what it felt like to make one, so I did. This is a map of the town of Airportainia, one of the several towns I've spent the last couple of years (I'll hopefully be making maps of the other ones, too). It consists of the maps of 20-some of the 30-some airports I spent time in over the last 12 months and represents a particular experience of travel that I've had. Frequent fliers: see how many you can identify!

(btw, it's a big image, though not a big file, so you may need to click on it again in your browser to zoom in for the full view)

January 24, 2005

Cole Whiteman's process diagram language

My old friend Cole Whiteman has been making excellent process diagrams for years. i just noticed that he's put his visual design language online:

(326K PDF)

It's great to see people so thoughtfully and thoroughly document their notational thinking. We tend to reinvent the wheel whenever making diagrams, or we unthinkingly use the notation provided by our tools (this is at the core of Tufte's argument with PowerPoint), so it's good to see someone who's very good at visual explanation share some of their toolkit. it gives us perspectives on all the others.

Here's a pariticularly complicated and elegant example of Cole's work:

(717K PDF)

December 31, 2004

When is a salad bowl an ecological statement?

In the IDSA Innovations magazine there's a story by Scott Henderson describing his salad bowl and forks. It's a gorgeous product and a wonderful design, but Henderson devotes a full paragraph describing why it's ecologically sensitive because it's expensive. I find that pretty ridiculous, and it raises all kinds of questions for me, but rather than rant about it, as I'd like to, I'll just reprint it in its entirety:

When designers try to defend their work from an ecological standpoint, they are often forced to search for some spin about the product's material being recyclable. Hence, "the Ensalada is primarily constructed from glass, a natural material that is recyclable and regarded by many as a manufactured material, the use of which is critical to human health and safety because of its ecological properties."

All true actually, but the real reason the Ensalada is an environmentally sound product has its basis in something far less scientific--money! The high-end nature of this product contributes to its position as a protector of the environment. It is not a product intended to compete on price, rather it is a special piece that will be displayed with pride and used with care for many years.

Quality is perhaps the factor in the world of design that best protects our environment. The esteemed timepiece company, Patek Phillipe of Switzerland, for example, sells watches for tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases. This successful business is based on the idea that once you own a Patek, you not only own it for life but your children's children also own it because of its extreme quality. The environment will not be damaged on their watch. The Ensalada has a similar goal: to be valued enough by its owners to be passed along to future generations.

OK, maybe I'll rant a bit: so we are absolved from our responsibility for designing ecological products when we make them really expensive. Huh? And since when is the role of a salad bowl to be handed down from generation to generation? It's a day-to-day functional object, and should be designed as such. Quality does not equate to price, and it certainly doesn't equate to protecting our environment. There are lots and lots of high quality excellently designed products that are ecologically unsound (the Coca Cola plastic bottle, perhaps?). Patek Phillipe is a brand based on elitism: do you think that buyers are actually passing those watches down to keep them out of landfills, or is that from an ad campaign designed to help affluent people convince themselves that they need something that is much, much more expensive than any functionality it can possibly deliver?

Environment awareness and long-term thinking are important, maybe even critical, aspects of design. But justifying environmentalism through elitism masked as quality is cynical and ultimately unhelpful.

December 16, 2004

Paste Unformatted

I copy and paste a lot of text from various documents to other documents and it drives me a bit crazy when word processors tend to overhelp and insist on trying to keep formatting. "Paste Special..." is fine, but requires several steps. So I always end up reinventing the same macro, regardless of what word processor or system I'm using. I just got a new Mac and bumped into this problem, and ended up reinvening the macro, so I figured I'd share while I could. At some point I may find the OpenOffice/StarOffice version of this command, and post that. It's the simplest macro ever, but here it is:

Sub PasteUnformatted()
' PasteUnformatted Macro
' Macro recorded 12/16/04 by Mike Kuniavsky'
    Selection.PasteAndFormat (wdFormatPlainText)
End Sub

To use:

  • Go to Tools:Macro:Macros...
  • Type in "PasteUnformatted" into the Name field
  • Click "Create"
  • Paste "Selection.PasteAndFormat (wdFormatPlainText)" into the space where it puts the cursor
  • Save
  • I then assign it to a command key (I use Command-Shift-V--currently "Paste from Scrapbook," but who cares about the scrapbook?) and give it a toolbar icon (I like the little grey piggy bank) through Tools:Customize:Customize Toolbars/Menus command.

December 10, 2004

The oldest graphics ON THE WEB!

You'll have to exuse me. This is totally self-indulgent, but in doing some research i realized that the very first site I had a hand in designing, the HotHotHot hot sauce store, is still using some of the same graphics that I hand-tuned for it more than 10 years ago, based on drawings by Yeryeong Park. This may make them the oldest continuously-used graphics on the Web, apart from the ones that are built into Apache or something. Woohoo!

Here, you can compare.

The originals:

Its nice to see something be semi-permanent in the ephemeral world of the Web.

November 29, 2004

Carhartt: One brand, two universes

Thanks to my OG Detroit upbringing, I've been familiar with Carhartt clothing for a long time. About 5 years ago I started wearing their dungarees (their term for "work pants") because they fit me better, were a classic design and put me in closer touch with my internal frustrated proletarian laborer. Plus, they look badass. In the US, they're still workers' clothing for the most part: farmers, mechanics, welders, and (in much smaller quantities) greasy Burning Man artists. But in Europe, they've become super chic techno clothing, the physical manifestation of a Roland 303 bassline (all the more appropriate since Carhartt is a Detroit brand, and Detroit's place in the techno mythology of Berlin is huge). After noticing that a lot of their clothing was being shipped to boutiques in Europe and Japan and that it was used as the official hoodie for the last Tricky tour, it looks like someone at Carhartt figured it out and decided to license the name.

Now, knowing that, check out the differences in experience in these two sites:

The US site
The German site

There's even a boutique in one of the hippest parts of Berlin, complete with graffiti and a Carhartt-branded trick bicycle in the window. Many of my friends there wear Carhartt clothing, but it's nothing like the clothing that the US brand makes.

At first, this seems to be good branding strategy: capitalize on reputation in a market that doesn't provide a lot of revenue by licensing your name to a local. It certainly makes more sense than calling your mayo different names depending on which side of the Mississippi it's being sold on (cf: Hellman's vs. Best Foods; also King Dons vs. Ding Dongs, and snicker if you want to).

Now here's the problem: with such a radical difference, is Carhartt endangering their brand? The coolness of the European brand depends on the stodgy solidity of the US brand, since it's based totally on reference and myth, but the US brand is the bread and butter of the company. Say the European licensee does something stupid, like make a really low-quality product (how good can that bicycle be?) and their name gets trashed in world media. Is that going to completely cause the house of cards to fall, creating confusion among the cash cow US market? Brand resilience isn't infinite. Moreover, fashion being what it is, today's Carhartt is tomorrow's Tommy Gear and next week's Cross Colours. Would being super-duper uncool spill over to the US and if it did, would that be a problem?

I don't know, but it's an interesting question and a good example of brand strategy caught in the wild.

November 9, 2004

More property disposition

Another visit with my family in Michigan means another visit to the University of Michigan's Property Disposition store. I've written about this place before and it's still one of my favorite hometown technology tourist attractions. I decided to take some pictures this time:

The first picture shows shelves of old scientific equipment, the purpose of much of which is lost, maybe to everyone. The third one is a closeup of a piece of measuring equipment that has no manufacturer label, and I have no idea what it's for, but it was probably made before WWII and it is beautifully machined (and it's only $75!). The second picture is of an electron microscope that's only $250, but you have to 1. take it home and 2. figure out how to make it work. Or maybe it can just be a really cool piece of decoration. I'm sure there are some beautiful parts on it. I'd consider buying it, if my parents weren't already on my case for storing that PDP4 in our shed.

Not pictured: the RS/6000 RAID cluster (I guess it's SCSI and had 100 drives in it, adding up to maybe 250GB), $300 (I think), the 1940s Cincinnati lathe ($750), a beautiful IBM mainframe cabinet, with some large mainframe in it ($500?) and an industrial mixer, the most expensive thing I saw because it actually still does something interesting, $1000.

October 25, 2004

Primer: geek porn

Cassidy took me to see Primer, a film that he saw at Sundance, last night. It's an ultra low budget sci-fi film, and geek porn of the first order. It's a classic sci-fi story, one that could have been written in the 50s, but the context is interesting. It's set the world of startups, venture capital, technology parks and day trading. Classically, the ultimate conflict is a mixture of loyalty, greed and lust, but the staging is purely late 90s mythology, which may make it the first film I've seen that uses that world as the backdrop, and not the focus.

It's also really good. Or, I should say, the first 3/4 of it is. The last quarter gets confusing, and that's part of the point of the story, but I think it could have been structured to pull the audience along with it a bit better. Eternal Sun of the Spotless Mind had a similar self-reflexive plot, but it managed to keep the audience just on this edge of comprehensibility. This film is more confusing than that. However, it's still a tremendous achievement and if you're in San Francisco, you should go see it at the Four Star, an endangered SF theater. Go there...and buy a t-shirt, too, since they have cool t-shirts and could use the money.

Oh, and the other amusing thing about the film is that it was apparently made on a $7000 budget, though it doesn't show it. I'm looking forward to what the filmmaker makes next.

October 11, 2004

Egovernment Usability

About a year ago I wrote a chapter for a book that Macromedia was releasing. I just realized that although the book is nowhere to be found, at least they've mentioned it (PDF) on their site (here's the page it's linked from--extra credit if you can figure out where on that page it's linked--HINT: it's not the upper lefthand corner ;-). My chapter is on e-government usability.

I don't believe I have the rights to share the chapter online, but if anyone wants to know what I said, drop me a note and I'll send you a copy.

[UPDATE: I've now put the file (144K) up for download.]

Design Engaged

I'm really honored to have been invited by Andrew Otwell to participate in his Design Engaged conference in Amsterdam in November.

I'm probably going to be talking about agile UI development--Andrew has expressed interest in this--or maybe I'll wave my hands and rant about the coming emergent age of animism and domestic technology, but--frankly--that hardly matters. I'll be primarily there to listen, since the speaker lineup is great and the conference looks to be a blast of big, deep ideas and synergy. I think it'll be a lot of fun, too.

Thank you, Andrew, and I'll be getting you my topic by Friday. ;-)

October 4, 2004

Sketching and prototyping

I've been thinking about what sketching can teach us about iterative prototyping. Years ago I had the pleasure of working with Lawrence Marvit on a project. Lawrence is an immensely talented illustrator and animator. He brought a bag of differently colored pencils and while we talked about ideas, he sketched. He started with lighter colored pencils, then moved to darker and darker ones as our ideas developed. Only when our ideas were pretty clear did he use a black pencil. It was great. A short periodjust a couple of eveningsbut one of my favorite collaboration experiences.
It's been almost 10 years since that experience, and thinking back made me realize how frustrated I've been with all of my software/hardware experiences in comparison. Even in the hands of experienced practitioners, the tools just seem limited and limiting. There's much energy spent managing the tool, even when the tool is familiar. So I decided to think about what it is that makes sketching on paper a different prototyping experience and what are the qualities that prototyping tools can aspire to.
I think that there are several things that make drawing on paper particularly good prototyping medium:

  1. It's fast. You can sketch very quickly and need almost nothing to do it. You can change a sketch quickly by just sketching over what you just sketched. You can make another sketch. These prototypes can communicate an immense amount in a short amount of time. And time is important when exploring ideas. The less time it takes to explore an idea, the more ideas can be explored.
  2. It's provisional. You know a sketch is not the final product. There are a bunch of indicators that tell you it's not the real thing. The classic visual indicators of a sketch are that lines aren't straight, circles aren't round, and lines go through endpoints, instead of ending cleanly. The nonphotorealistic computer graphics people have been investigating these ideas for a while (another link), but the point is that how sketching looks sends signals that it's not the real thing, so it's easier to keep thinking about the core ideas, instead of being distracted by the details. In consulting, we often have to go to great lengths to communicate the finality, or lack thereof, of our deliverables, and much client-consultant misunderstanding comes from the client thinking something is done, when it's not.
  3. It's a history. Sketching shows you in one place the record of successful ideas, experiments and failures. You're constantly defining the envelope of what's acceptable and what's not. When you've finally reached a point, you can mark the final version (outlining in ink what has been penciled in, for example), but the history is still there. Jim Dine, the artist, used to erase and abrade his drawings, intentionally leaving a shadow history. History is feedback. It let's you know where to not go again (you know the line about people being doomed to repeat it?).

So if paper is the medium to emulate, how do other prototyping methods stack up? I started writing about how different practices prototype, but I realized that I didn't know enough about each field to do a good job of it. However, that didn't stop me from producing a table that attempts to score media on how easy it is to prototype in them, based on my three criteria. I also included a short list of history media, since I think that's the thing that's most lacking in most prototyping systems. This, too, is a sketch of sorts.

For Methods History Medium Speed Provisional History Score
Drawing Sketching Paper 5 5 5 125
Writing Drafts Revisions, Change tracking 5 4 3 60
Architecture Wireframes, models Series of models 3 4 1 12
Software Iterative development Revision control 2 3 4 24
Screen-level interfaces Prototyping Paper, wireframes, Flash, toolkits 2 3 1 6
Interaction design Flowchart Series of designs 3 2 2 12
Hardware Prototyping Hardware toolkits 1 1 3 3
Music Rehearsing Tapes, scores 5 5 1 25
Theater Rehearsing Script, Video 5 5 3 75
Information Architecture Sketching Series of diagrams 4 2 1 8

(to exaggerate the score sale, I've multiplied the numbers, rather than just adding them)
Part of my agenda in doing this was to understand just how bad prototyping in hardware isit's really bad, even with all of the new toolkits on the marketand if there are other media that physical computing can learn from when thinking about how to prototype its systems. I'm not sure I have an answer to that yet but I'm starting to think about it, just as I'm starting to evaluate some of the hardware prototyping systems out there to see if I can learn from their thinking.
Here are the ones I know about:

  1. Lego Mindstorms
  2. Phidgets
  3. Making Things by Teleo
  4. AID
  5. eblocks
  6. Wiring, from Interaction Ivrea

One final thing: after I wrote most of this (and a bunch more, which ended up on the cutting room floor because it makes even less sense) back in July, I discovered that Bill Buxton talked about this very thing in a series of lectures. I haven't been able to find a transcript of what he said, but it's interesting to me that these ideas are appearing now. It says to me that the field is maturing in a way that the constraints of the medium are giving way to the constraints in our abilities to use it creatively and efficiently. Buxton, as always, is in the forefront.

Oh, and there are a bunch more excellent Jim Dine drawings in the National Gallery of Art show. Dine rocks.

September 14, 2004

Group Personas in Boxes and Arrows

I'm proud that an article I wrote on group personas has appeared in Boxes and Arrows, the excellent IA and UE journal.

Entertainment, education, and collaboration software is often used by two or more people simultaneously. Each of these groups has a different set of needs and expectations, and each can be modeled as a group persona, rather than as individual users.

Thanks to all of the B&A folks for guiding and editing it (and running the Star Trek quote: I can't believe it!) and to the workshop participants for providing the excellent experience that inspired it.

August 22, 2004

The art chasm

While I was writing this piece, I was thinking about how to find the threshold at which an idea is too confusing for what should be its target audience. I don't have a good answer to that, but I started thinking about the art market as an idea market.

This made me think that there may be a similar chasm in art, which would imply that there's a similar chasm in all idea adoption. Look at the Moore curve again:

If the slices are relabled as follows, it still makes some sense:
A: avant-garde
B: experimental
C: mainstream
D: clich�
E: kitsch

Now, of course, the size of the slices doesn't represent the market size--there's a lot of kitsch out there--but maybe it represents the visibility of the style or the recognition of the style as "interesting." Anyway, it seems to make sense, though I haven't quite figured out how.

August 19, 2004

Agile/UI Bibliography

I promised the participants in our workshop yesterday (hi! thank you all so much for a great workshop) that I'd post the bibliography to all the stuff I mentioned in class. Here it is (linked to Amazon):

Garrett, Jesse James, The Elements of User Experience (Jesse's diagram is available for free and he has built a site devoted to the book).

Snyder, Carolyn, Paper Prototyping

Tufte, Edward, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Kuniavsky, Mike, Observing the User Experience

Highsmith, Jim, Agile Software Development Ecosystems

Jeffries, Ron, et al, Extreme Programming Installed

My rough hand-drawn UI templates.

The Wiki William and I have been using to organize the class, which we'll be adding additional class resources to as we figure them out. Be warned, though, it's still pretty rough right now. It's mostly notes for ourselves.

August 17, 2004

Paper Prototyping UI Elements

We're going to be doing some paper prototyping in the workshop that I'm going to teach tomorrow in Calgary (we're working from Carolyn Snyder's excellent book on the subject). So people wouldn't have to make every little button from scratch, I decided that it may be useful to have some basic UI elements on a template that people could cut out. Not finding a template that looked rough enough, I quickly made my own. It's suitably rough. ;-) And, here, how you can use it, too:

It's a 70K PDF and all the elements are oversize, so that it's easier to write in/on them. Have fun and let me know if it's of any use.

July 13, 2004 in Slate

When Slate's Paul Boutin, a former co-worker and old friend, came to me last week and asked me if I wanted to do a story on, I decided that it was finally time to talk about it a bit. A conceptual art project of sorts that started by accident and I've semi-secretly continued for seven years, it's about time that at least some of the questions that people have asked about it get answered.

Paul's story is called So Tired. Thank you, Paul.

[Update: It's been picked up by Slashdot!]

June 22, 2004


It was like being back in the 60s. Brian Slesinsky invited me to with him to see SpaceShipOne, the Paul Allen-funded private space program, and we went yesterday for the launch early this morning at the Mojave Airport.

The crowd was a mixture of NASCAR dads there for the tech, aerospace students and sci-fi geeks there to dream, retirees to relive their Cold War youth, and Libertarians to prove that anything the government can do, private industry can do better.

All of them got something from the experience. It was a fascinating mixture of gung-ho American free enterprise optimism (the announcers repeated that the biggest obstacle had not been technical, but convincing the FAA; other times they talked about how this was the start of a new era of California aerospace), nostalgia (Mike Melvill is a space cowboy cast from the classic mold), cool technology and a beer drinkin' good time (though the early-morning liftoff kept most of the beer drinking to the night before).

Political and cultural analysis aside, it was a tremendous event. The technical achievement is huge, and the presentation was organized like clockwork. The rocket's tiny contrail was nearly invisible against the sun. Everyone strained to see it, and when it finally appeared, it was breathtaking in its elegance and fragility (it must have lasted less than a minute). The next 20 minutes was so nervewracking, as everyone tried to catch sight of it, the announcers forgot to do any play-by-play. When it finally appeared, moving a lot faster than I thought any glider should move, chased by 4 planes, it was hard not to feel joy for the pure simplicity of the event, the meaningless act that means so much. I wouldn't have missed it.

4:56AM: 5:30AM:

6:50AM: 7:45AM:

7:51AM (see the big image for the contrail):

8:00AM: 8:14AM:

8:14AM: 8:47AM:

June 14, 2004

Power Tool Drag Races, Day 2

So the second day of the Power Tool Drag Races was today. I wasn't able to stay through all of it, but I did get to run Power Pierce, my can opener-based vehicle, which was designed to go as slowly as possible. I figured that everyone was gunning for the top end of the standings, and no one was likely going for the low end intentionally, so it would be a wide open field. I registered in the Top Fuel category with the expectation that I had a decent chance that whoever I ran against would wipe out and that, tortoise-like, my can opener would eventually crawl to the finish line. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up and I didn't get to run in competition, but I did get an exhibition run.

Here are some photos:

June 13, 2004

Power Tool Drag Races, Day 1

Today I was fortunate enough to participate in the Power Tool Drag Races, one of the more ridiculous and fun San Francisco technology-art events. I pulled extension cords all afternoon in exchange for having a great view of the action. Tomorrow, the big race day, my vehicle races.

Here are some pictures. It clearly shares the Mad Max esthetic sensibilities with SRL and Burning Man (not surprisingly, the personnel overlap between the three organizations is high):

Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely would have been proud (they did the crazy, colorful fountain at the George Pompidou center in Paris and are probably the patron saints of all this stuff).

Here's an essay I wrote for Charlie Gadeken (of Qbox) last year, when he asked for a review of the 2003 event. It's a bit smug, but I think the description is still relevant.

Continue reading "Power Tool Drag Races, Day 1" »

May 15, 2004

How did that happen?

It was supposed to be an appliance design conference, but there was this reception and there was champagne and, well, I don't really know how I ended up wearing a jester at Thornbury Castle...

(thanks to Rachel Eardley for the photo!)

May 12, 2004

Smart Furniture Side Show

I've been bouncing around Europe, going to various conferences and hanging out with Molly. My brain is full of amazing impressions and my notebook is full of ideas. I'll (hopefully) be updating the site when I get to Ann Arbor toward the end of the month.

Today I'm at 2AD, the Appliance Design Conference in Bristol and it's really great. I'm doing the Smart Furniture Side Show, where I'm talking about my ideas and the second version of the Manifesto (which is going to be in the June issue of Metropolis Magazine--look for it!).

I'm also heavily relying on several amazing posters designed by some very talented friends of mine on very short notice: Ranjit Bhatnagar, Brady Clark,Terry Colon and Sonia Harris (who burned the midnight oil pulling everything together--thank you, Sonia!).

Here's Sonia's rendition of the v2.0 Manifesto, in glorious printable large format PDF to decorate your cube with (or throw darts at...whatever):

(290K PDF)
[Poster picture/PDF added 5/25/04]

April 23, 2004

Hinton reviews my book in Boxes and Arrows

Andrew Hinton writes a thorough and insightful review of my book. He was swayed by my suggestion that the tools of marketing research should not be thrown out with the bathwater of bad marketing, which I'm happy to hear, as it was one of my goals in writing the book.

Thank you, Andrew!

April 10, 2004

Why I left Adaptive Path

Last week I resigned from Adaptive Path, the user experience consulting company I founded in 2001 with Lane Becker, Janice Fraser, Jesse James Garrett, Peter Merholz, Jeff Veen and Indi Young. Resigning AP was one of the most difficult choices I've ever had to make. The company has been extraordinarily successful in the three years since we started it and is now the best company doing what it does in the world, on many levels. Exciting companies with large, interesting projects are continually knocking on the door and the ideas generated in our little Hobart Building office are some of the most innovative in the field. We've chosen to grow slowly and, as a result, have had the luxury to handpick the best people as our employees and consultants. It's a tremendous company and I'm immensely proud of it and of my partners.

The work that I am most interested in at the moment, the work that I have been most passionate about over the last year, deals with ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and smart furniture. I really wanted to get serious about this stuff, since it's what's exciting me most, as much as the Web excited me 10 years ago (yikes!). I wanted to pursue it and follow the ideas, and I wrestled with how I could meld these interests with the kind of work Adaptive Path does. Ultimately, I decided that it was not strategically appropriate for me to be doing this kind of R&D work inside AP, since it was a distraction for both of us while I was pursuing it inside.

So, with a heavy heart and anxiety about the future, but confidence that what I helped build at Adaptive Path was more than strong enough without me in an active role, I decided to move on. My partners and our employees have been incredibly supportive and I look forward to working with them again in the future, and I will beam proudly from the sidelines as they take the company to (as the saying goes in Silicon Valley) the next level.

Watch this space for more from me about my current interests and look for my article on smart furniture in the June issue of Metropolis magazine.

March 28, 2004

"Making Modernism"

It's so long that I've written here that it's embarrassing, and how I'm repurposing a halfbaked email I wrote to a friend. Blog shame.

On my recent flights I've been reading a lot of books, since all the travel has removed my--hitherto cherished--ability to sleep on all flights. Now I have to read, and I've been reading a lot.

One book was Making Modernism by Michael Fitzgerald, which analyzes Picasso's career as more than just an artistic achievement, but a key entrepreneurial one that became the archetype of artistic careers throughout the 20th century. The book is, frankly, boring, (the art historical version of the begats: "Then Picasso had this show, which had these paintings...and then a couple of months later, there was this show which had THESE paintings in it...") but it's a fascinating story to see how Picasso and his dealers (and, in the 30s, the Museum of Modern Art) carefully managed his image, cultivated his relationships and played the art market not just to maximize prices in the short run, but to brand him--in the modern marketing sense--as "The Greatest Living Artist" for most of his career after his 30s.

It's quite remarkable and it's not clearly not just that Picasso had the chutzpah to proclaim himself as such and have some gut-level savvy coupled with luck, but that he carefully managed his reputation (and his contacts, and his image--while he and Paul Rosenberg carefully controlled his inventory and the prices for his work) to make the most of his position at all points. He was an active shaper of his reputation, dispelling all of the art-for-art's-sale mythology of the French Academy and taking the final step to bringing his art to the open market as the Impressionists had wanted.

From a corporate standpoint, it was a classic CEO-CFO marriage: he was the CEO, whose job it was to maximize revenue in the long run through innovation and brand-building; while Rosenberg was the CFO, maximizing profit (which generally means controlling costs and carefully pricing). There's an interesting story in the book about how worried gallerists--especially Rosenberg--were after WWII as government started auctioning off large quantities of 1930s Modernist work that had been confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish dealers; the worries came true and the auctions depressed prices for Picasso's paintings until the late 40s because everyone who wanted a Picasso was able to get it at bargain prices right after the war.

It's also interesting to contrast Picasso to Duchamp. Duchamp is the Steve Jobs to Picasso's Bill Gates (and Rosenberg's Steve Ballmer?) and he was never able to achieve the same level of market penetration or popularity, despite the fact that he was the more innovative and radical by far (at least when their careers are compared after Cubism). Duchamp's brand identity rested on constant radical innovation, which is a much more difficult position to maintain than Picasso's, which was mainly built on being consistently Picasso. Picasso had to produce interesting work that was understandable and appreciable by his target audiences, and in sufficient quantity to keep interest high but without overheating or alienating the market, which is a much savvier position.

It's fascinating to take the Picasso archetype and look at how other artists and working the artist-gallery-museum ecology to manage their careers. Warhol seemed to understand this, but he did not understand it as well as Picasso. Jeff Koons made the game so apparent that the other players may have burned out on it. Matthew Barney's career seems like a particularly sophisticated example, the high art equivalent of a boy band (or maybe just Justin Timberlake). (And that's only bad if one insists on the platonic purity of art as strictly self-expression and a way to actually make a living.)

February 17, 2004

The Broken

So I've recently been playing a fair bit with BitTorrent and I noticed a torrent for a new episode of The Broken a video hacker zine.

It's been almost 20 years since I did the community access video thing, but, damn, these guys really put out a professional looking product. A suspiciously professional-looking product, in fact. It's fun and funny, but it's softcore hacking at best. Subversion Lite. They don't say much that's actually controvertial or give any instructions that are likely to get them in trouble, and they bleep out the swear words. It seems almost like an audition tape for TechTV. If it is, it's a great audition tape. If it's not, maybe it's a TechTV plant (or some other major organization), getting street cred before these guys are miraculously hired and given their own show. Or maybe it's Fox testing out BitTorrent for scalability as a content delivery system. Maybe it's even just these guys actually doing this on their own, but they've been so indoctrinated by TV that their stuff looks like it should be fake (in which case I suggest they drop the half-hour format and the Screen Savers framing devices and hax0r the whole idea of a TV show).

Regardless, it's clever, well-made and I was entertained.

February 15, 2004

ETech Zeitgeist

Last week Molly and I were in San Diego for O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, where Molly and Michael Kieslinger's did a highly-lauded Fluidtime presentation. I'm sure it's been overblogged and superwikied, so I won't belabor the details, but I did have a couple of observations of the trends I noticed in the conference, which could be trends in emerging tech, or maybe just this group.

  • Social Networks as access control. With the practice of discussing social networks as the next big thing kind of coming to a close, people are starting to discuss what they're for, after they've been populated. A number of dicussions basically boiled down to the idea of social networks as the new access control list. Social networks allow me to use a quick shorthand for who should see what of my information.
  • Document sharing was also big, with various groups presenting all kinds of clever ways of interchanging documents, often coupled with social network access control. So look for new services such as Flickr (from the fine folks at Ludicorp, who would are in my social network). Personally, I want something to merge BitTorrent, Orkut and Allmusic with iTunes so that I can listen to the stuff that my friends have in their music folders.
  • Geeks working for the army. This was a weird one, but there were at least three sessions (from iRobot--the Roomba people, JC Herz--of Joystick nation, and icosystems--a splinter of the Santa Fe Institute studying emergent behavior) that had people really focused on, and being funded by, military applications. That's not surprising, since a lot of tech gets dough from the Army, but it was surprising at this conference. There seemed to be little introspection or remorse about it, though there was some guilt. As much as I believe in the inevitability of conflict and that keeping our soldiers safe is important, these technologies worry me. I believe there's currently a military culture that aims to disassociate itself from the human side of war and treat war as a hygenic process, where reducing the messiness makes it somehow less contagious. I think that's a bad metaphor, one that's gotten us into trouble in Iraq and will again. Creating technology that further mediates the process makes it easier to avoid the learning that's important to creating peace.

That last concern apart, it was a great conference, if only for all the hanging out in the lobby bar. I think having it in San Diego, away from the Bay Area where people felt comfortable and could leave at night, was a good one. It made everyone stew in the same juices for a couple of days and although I'm now exhausted from all the socializing, it was well worth it. I will now know to prepare for any conference that has lots of social network and mobile technology participants: the combination of highly social people with lots of cutting-edge mobile technology in a town that no one really knows means dinnertime decisionmaking paralysis on a scale like never before.

Oh, one last random thought I had there, which mixes scientific metaphors in an attempt to explain Howard Dean's success and subsequent failure: it was because of a combination of first mover advantage amplified by a highly networked environment (the media). It seems analagous to a forest fire in August. A spark in a fuel-rich system that has no inherent controls, it reacts strongly, but the strength of that reaction can distort any examination of the underlying landscape. When the initial fuel burns away, it reveals the layer beneath it, which may or may not be able to support further growth.

January 22, 2004

Social Origin of Good Ideas

I'm reading a fascinating paper right now called Social Origin of Good Ideas (PDF) by University of Chicago professor Ronald S. Burt. It's an analysis of how, to paraphrase, exposure to different fields creates the opportunities for good ideas and how that makes people more successful. His research is thorough, readable, appropriately interdisciplinary and it's a fascinating application of social network analysis. Most important, however, is that it validates my dilletantism. ;-) Here's a chunk of the abstract, which describes the gist of the paper:

The hypothesis is that people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas. Qualifications come immediately to mind, but the gist of the hypothesis is familiar in sociology and makes intuitive sense: ways of thinking and behaving are more homogenous within than between groups, so people connected to otherwise segregated groups are more likely to be familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which gives them the option of selecting and synthesizing alternatives. I describe anecdotal and aggregate evidence consistent with the hypothesis, but my goal in this paper is to study the hypothesis in finer detail, at the level of individuals, to talk about ideas as a catalyst for the performance effects of social capital.

I saw this referenced in Strategy + Business magazine, but I find it interesting that the study of multidisciplinary thought and social networks is starting to filter through to the popular media. Social networks, of course, have been a big meme since Friendster broke, but the interdisciplinary nature of the current intellectual environment is a relatively new thing, I think. I've had a bunch of conversations lately about it with Ben, Danah, Molly and the rest of the usual intelligentsia (and, for the record, I'm not going to let the topic fold in on itself--yes, my social network of interdisciplinary intellectuals is dicussing social networks of interdisciplinary intellectuals, move along), so it's probably an interesting thing.

Where this current interest comes from? For those of us who grew up in the rampant relativism of the 70s and 80s there's a kind of intellectual vertigo. I've often heard people talk about being starved of anchors of certainty in their lives. The ephemeral nature of Internet work (maybe modern creative work in general) only serves to reinforce it, forcing people to seek ever more extreme ways of grounding (Burning Man? knitting?). Lately, interdisciplinary ideas seem to have escaped places like the Santa Fe Institute and the Global Business Network to become more generally popular. TED-like conferences and university programs seem to have appeared much more frequently than I remember 10 years ago. Maybe this is the escape that people have found from the anxieties of perennial doubt? Narrowly-focused Modernist certainty (which extended from narrow job definitions to the coining and following of successive art movements) was undermined and followed by an age of ever-deeper uncertainty (i.e. the 70s and 80s), which was deeply anxiety-inducing. But maybe the end of the Cold War inspired enough optimism that people managed to look for and find a new kind of anchor by looking in several places at once? Maybe the Web resonated with this need and accellerated it? Or maybe I'm just projecting justifications? (I'm certainly rambling.... ;-)

Maybe. For now, it's interesting to see that someone is studying it.

January 11, 2004

Lichter/Distant Lights

The Berlin and Beyond film festival is in SF and Ben and I went to see one of the films last night, Lichter (or Distant Lights in English, here's a synopsis). It was in much the same genre as Traffic. That film's tagline, "no one gets away clean" can apply here, too. What's different about this film is that rather than trying to tackle the problems of the central narrative element--smuggling people and cigarettes across the German-Polish border--head-on, it tells a more subtle story about human frailty, need, trust and betrayal. The characters, and there are many in its six (five? it's hard to keep track) parallel stories are all more than the roles they play. Traffic, an excellent film, made its characters iconic, representational of the roles of people in their position, and so made them statements in a debate on drug smuggling. Distant Lights doesn't seem to want to debate policy, it's much more concerned about how the situation, the border, forces people to confront themselves, their aspirations and each other. In a way it's a pretty serious downer of a film, since it provides no answers and--frankly--doesn't even articulate any questions, but it's a really powerful statement about what it takes to make choices and how contingent our choices are. As filmmaking, it's one of the most subtle, well-edited and tightly-written films I've seen in a long time and I highly recommend it.

December 29, 2003

Holiday Travel & Disease

Traveling to Minneapolis to spend time with Molly's family, I realized why holiday travel may be one of the most dangerous activities we engage in as a culture. It's the potential for disease transmission. Holiday travel brings together three things that individually increase how much airborne diseases get transferred:

  • Population movement. The point is to move around a lot.
  • The cold and flu season. a time when diseases naturally peak.
  • Children. ...with kids, who have developing immune systems, and so are more susceptible to various diseases, thus more likely to be contagious.

Now, this is not to say that holiday travel is a bad thing--I had a very nice time in Minneapolis (where the highs were about what the lows in San Francisco are, but where the buildings are so much better insulated)--but I found it amusing that somehow our world had managed to find a way to bring together three of the most likely disease-causing factors into one. At no other time of the year are all three of these factors true. I wonder what the economic impact of this is. One the one hand, people are spending a ton of dough on presents and plane tickets; on the other, many are going to get sick and be out of work for some period of time after the holiday. How does it balance out?

December 6, 2003

Matt Gonzalez day in the Mission

It's mayoral election time in SF and for the first time in many years there's a challengers to the Democrats. Not surprisingly, this being San Francisco, the challenger, Matt Gonzalez of the Green party, is from even further left (or at least presents himself as) than the Democrat, Gavin Newsom. The classic Buffalo Springfield's lyrics are quite appropriate in the Mission today:

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

And, apart from the "heat" part, since it's neither hot nor are the cops out in force, it's a classic San Francisco self-congratulatory celebration. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but maybe some of these signs--and at least one of the several Gonzalez-elegizing guitar-toting troubadours who were walking through the Mission--could have been better placed in parts of the city that Gonzalez is not sure to win.

Frankly, I'm pretty happy about it, too. Both of the candidates are young, smart and reasonable. I think that Gonzalez is more reasonable Newsom in enough things that I'm voting for him, but I think the city wins in the long run with either one.

December 5, 2003 launched

My good friend Cassidy has been taking pictures of graffiti for years. A couple of years ago he realized that he had taken pictures of the same piece of wall many times, with many different pieces of graffiti on it. So he started a project to unify all of the pictures of all of the walls he's photographed and allow someone to peel back the layers and see how a wall "learns" (in the Stewart Brand sense) based on the graffiti that's on it. After a year of pretty intense effort--a lot of perspective correction and painstaking matching of photographs that were not meant to be matched when taken--the project is up at and it looks great. Go Cassidy!

December 1, 2003

Contemporary Art and Obsessive Compulsive Behavior

So although I spent the last couple of days looking at Renaissance art in Florence with Ray I've been thinking about contemporary art (among other things). One thought that has been floating around my head for years now is that the contemporary art world rewards obsessive-compulsive behavior like not other single psychological trait. Why?

My pet theory is that art history is caught in a paradigm where it's looking for trends, styles or common theme indicators, even as those ideas have become more-or-less meaningless since Pop (at least if you agree with Arthur Danto, which I generally do). Pop--which, really, was a reaction to the exhaustion of Abstract Expressionism--neatly erased the notion of a dominant style. However, people (art critics, curators, etc.) are still looking for things that will give meaning in an era without a dominant style to compare with. So, in an attempt to try to find some meaning in the art that's crossing their view, many curators and critics have latched on to repetition as a proxy for vision. This is not necessarily wrong--there can be a beauty and depth in repetition (Donald Judd and Agnes Martin are particularly good at this)--but it's led to a lot of lame art that's just repetition for repetition's sake, obsession for obsession's sake.

So, in light of this, I'm updating the old art school maxim:
If you can't make it good, make it big;
if you can't make it big, make it red;
if you can't make it red, make 50 more.

November 24, 2003


Pictures by Joerg Bloem and Katja Grubitzsch (from a phone that takes really good digital pictures--these are about 1/3 of the full resolution)

November 21, 2003

Motorcycle Clothing

While shopping in Milan we bumped into a display of motorcycle gear by Tucanourbano, an Italian motorcycle accessories company. They have a line of cute and ridiculous helmet ears that I like, but they also have a line of passenger leg covers/bags which led me to think that there's got to be a market for easily attachable-removable "clothes" for motorcycles. There are lots of fur-coverd motorcycles and scooters at Burning Man every year, so it's eminently doable and--unlike other customization--it's cheap and removable. I bet there's a business in this, somewhere, and someone should start it. Not me, but someone.

October 10, 2003

Another review!

My book was reviewed by Christine Wiegand for the SAP Design Guild. She liked it and said it was long. I'm glad about the former and can't argue with the latter. ;-) She liked the practical aspects of it and correctly identified that there should be a shorter description of some of the techniques. I agree and I've thought that there's a place in the market for "The Guerilla Guide to User Experience Research."

In the interim, please note that the book is written so that pieces of it can be read without needing to read the whole. It's designed to be used like a cookbook, rather than read like a novel.

October 9, 2003

Scanner Disco Floor

Random idea of the week: a disco floor made of scanners. I was walking down the street on Monday night and saw a scanner sitting on the street. Technology is tossed to the curb all the time in San Francisco, and lately I've been seeing more scanners (for a while it was managed switches) showing up the trash. This led me to think "Hmm, what could you do with a bunch of scanners?" and the idea of the scanner disco floor emerged.

Picture a floor with constantly moving back-and-forth lights, making long streaky scans of people's feet and ankles. The images could then be used in a video wall. Imagine if someone was breakdancing over this floor, or making snow angels. I think it would look great. There's already a whole camera-less scanner photography movement (as beautifully exemplified by Kevin Lyons' Floraphilia site). This could be the equivalent of scanner video.

I looked into it, and and the Linux scanner drivers can support up to 100 simultaneous scanners, which is a 10x10 grid and should be enough for a decent sized dance floor, or a corner of one. Of course people couldn't actually dance on the scanners themselves, but if you placed them directly under some hard plexi, maybe the depth of field would still be good enough to get decent results.

September 28, 2003


The blog has been dark for a couple of weeks, and for that I have blog guilt. Not too much guilt, however, since 1) it's my damn blog and 2) I've been genuinely busy.

One of the things that took up a bunch of my time recently has been the move to a new machine. After the recent traumatic downtime experience, several 3AM power outages and a mysterious network outage that had my ISP and the DSL provider first pointing fingers at each other and then at my router (which was conveniently out of warranty), I decided it was time to move. It's a little sad, since this may be the first time in a decade that there won't be some kind of email/web hosting happening out of this house (thanks to many years of Cyborganic servers here), but it was time. Among other things, the economics no longer make sense: I had a business class SDSL line that gave me about 1/3 of the bandwidth for 3 times the price of a consumer ADSL connection, which is silly even there is some kind of vague guarantee of bandwidth availability and a couple extra static IP addresses. I'm willing to live with the tradeoff, so it was time to move.

I was fortunate to have found a bandwidth cooperative with a data center rack and even more fortunate when one of its members expressed interest in selling a machine that was already in the rack. So I bought Brian Ng's box "as is, where is" and enlisted my old friend David Fred to help me with the move. Used to be, you enlisted your strong neighborhood friends to help you carry stuff into your new apartment in exchange for pizza and beer. David, who is a titan of the network world (just look at his resume!) helped me with the heavy intellectual lifting move from across the country in exchange for disk space and bandwidth. Even so, I think it took about three times as long as I would have predicted (with the move of this blog taking up a surprisingly long timeI'm, frankly, amazed that the Movable Type blog moving process is so involved and, considering how well-designed the rest of the application is, souhmanual).

Anyway, the new machine is up and running, honored to be sharing rack space with a number of famous domains.

September 10, 2003

A book review

Ian Alexander reviews my book and I like his review (and not just because it's positive ;-). He's completely accurate in describing my intentions with the book:

[...] most if not all the techniques he describes apply as much or more to systems of all kinds. Indeed the father of industrial design, Henry Dreyfuss (he of the standard bell telephone and the Hoover vacuum cleaner) applied the same principles in his pioneering work.

I chose to limit my subject matter to that which I had the most examples from (which is what I had the most experience with), but I'm a firm believer in the universality of user research as relevant to all design, not just software or the Web.

Thanks Ian!

[9/11/03: Ian is the co-author of Writing Better Requirements, which looks to be a very useful addition to that (regrettably) often quite necessary practice.]

Property Disposition

I was visiting Ann Arbor over the last couple of days. My parents live there and I went to school there. It's a cute little town if it wasn't so small and so cold. It also houses of my shrines, one of the most important and resonant places for me, the University of Michigan's Property Disposition. Property Disposition is a strange kind of university organization. They get rid of stuff that the U no longer wants, but which still is perceived as maybe having some value. All stuff counts, whether it's a shelving unit or an electron microscope or a dishwasher. Many large organizations solve this problem with big auctions in which whole pallets of semi-random stuff are sold to local junk dealers and to reps from other large organizations. A pallet with a desirable camera lens may also have a baby incubator and a box of cleanroom booties along with it. Property Disposition is different: it's open to the public and stuff is individually priced and parted out. This makes it one of the best garage sales in the universe, and an ongoing one at that.

To me, it's also a museum and an amusement park, a puzzle and a game. For 15 years I've been going there whenever I can (which nowadays means once or twice a year, but it used to be once or twice a month) and looking through the stuff that's in the warehouse. The stuff constantly changes since Property Disposition's job is largely to empty the warehouse as quickly as possible, so there's always something new. What's there are the products of the material culture of science and medicine: microscopes, meters, centrifuges, specimen cabinets, strange boxes, examination tables, grey Steelcase desks and lots and lots of computers. Much like Ebay is, to me, the most important repository of material culture information about America, Property Disposition istaken through timethe ongoing documentation of the history of American science in the later 20th century.

It's also science artifact purgatory. It's the last place that much of this stuff is still in its original condition as an instrument. Sometimes the stuff gets a second life in some other university role (U departments get first crack at it), but more often than not when it leaves, it leaves to either be remade in some industrial capacity, as a personal object, or, as is often the case, as junk. Behind Property Disposition are two big dumpsters: one has things that have metal in them, this goes to a metal recycler; the other, things that don't have metal, this goes to the dump. I used to dumpster-dive the recycling container nearly every week, pulling interesting-looking technology from it. For a while, I had a Saturday decompression ritual: I would go to Property Disposition, pull out some interesting-looking piece of technology from the dumpster, and then spend the afternoon disassembling it while listening to the Down Home Show. It was a meditation on the objects. I learned a lot about how things are made and, most importantly, it was a way to honor the objects and all the hard work they embodied, to rescue from them one final bit of knowledge before I took the disassembled pieces back and tossed them back in the dumpster. The products of technology are so emphemeral, despite the fact that they're made out of rock, metal, glass and plastic, that something in me felt they needed one final send-off.

Sadly, the quality of the objects has changed as science has changed. The full-on Frankenstein Esthetic faded in the early 90s as handmade custom designed machines (often in wooden crates with brass hinges, unlabeled dials and hand-soldered hardware) gave way to general-purpose computers, but you can still find pieces that echo the jerry-rigged, messy way that science was conducted, before all of that became hidden in lines of code and databases, and I still get a rush from it, from trying to figure out what did what and how it all fit together.

This last trip there were three things of note:

  • Two Ardent Titan computers. Graphics supercomputers from the early 90s. Probably $200K apeice when bought (and a bargain at that). The company was never very big and merged with Stellar (to form Stardent), which also closed down quickly, so these may be 20% (or 50%) of the ones that still exist. These seemed to be complete, with monitors, keyboards and hard disks. Ironically, it's the mundane stuff that's sometimes the biggest problem with rescuing old machines: a mundane-looking cable can be so proprietary that it'll cost as much as the rest of the hardware to get one. I almost bought the one they had about a year ago that was missing the monitor and disk for $150, but then I realized I'd just have to put it in my parents shed, and there's a PDP-4 there already that they're none too happy about. $250 apiece.
  • Two TRW view cameras of some sort. Looked to be from the 70s. Big things that looked like video cameras, but had view camera lenses and shutters and Polaroid backs. Triggered electrically. One had "NUCLEAR" written in fading marker on the side. I can only imagine what these took pictures of (particle traces?). $100 apiece (probably worth five times that just for the fast lenses and shutters).
  • A bunch of Cabletron MMAC cabinets. These were rackmounted Ethernet and fiber switches from the early 90s. I remember when the university was buying 'em for lots of money. They presaged the whole Net boom, the crazy consolidation in the industry (I think Cabletron got bought by 3COM) and the collapse. When they were bought, it was because the U realized that bandwidth needs were growing and it needed to keep up (well, OK, maybe there was more of a plan), not because devices like these were to become the foundation of a massive cultural shift 5 years later. I think they were $15 apiece.

I rarely buy anything there, though, since I have too much stuff already, but I'm already looking forward to the next trip.

August 25, 2003

Focused chaos

Excuse the meandering nature of this post, but Molly and I are frantically preparing for Burning Man, for which we leave tomorrow (stop by Dogma between Received and Serious if you're going to be out there).

This is the first year that I'm not going to be camping with a theme camp. It was the bianca life for many years and last year we camped with Ray at Airstream Court, the airstream camp. This year we were going to camp with the Airstram folks again, but at the last minute we decided that the suburban life wasn't fast enough (Airstream Court, and Ray: we're sorry to have only told you at the last minute! We'll make it up with food!). We may be in our 30s, but we're still largely living the lives of 20 year-olds and we might as well revel in it while we have the chance. So we're camping with a Friendster cluster of other 30 year-olds including Lane, Courtney, Mule Design, Moses and Lucie, Adam and Nurri and several other Friendster clusters.

On that note, I heard an Eva Zeisel lecture earlier this year where she responded to a question about how it felt like to be 96 years old by saying that she didn't know: she had always thought that she'd grow up, but she never really did, she just grew old. That's inspirational. Perspective and restraint should accompany age, but fear of novelty should not. That said, maybe Burning Man has worn off its novelty for me, after so many years? We'll see how I feel a week from now.

August 20, 2003

Killed by SpamAssassin

Today I had to reboot flotsam, my server and the machine that gets my email, runs DNS and all my web services. It was a strangely traumatic experience. The machine had been up continuously for two years (586 days to be precise) and the hardware is sufficiently questionable that there's a chance that it won't come up after a reboot.

However, in addition to the expected dread of having to figure out why the flaky PCMCIA ethernet card wasn't being recognized and the sadness of losing the cool long uptime count, were the chills down my spine and the complete complement of fight-or-flight reflexes. It was the classic feeling of being naked on the inside, like when you can't find something that you've grown attached to and it felt strangely visceral and scary (and was followed by an equally-inappropriate level of happiness when the thing rebooted with no problem).

That led me to thinking about how physical distance and dependence are not necessarily related. Sure, a lost cell phone or watch makes you feel naked, but my mail server sits in a hutch in the hallway and I interact with it physically only every couple of months. The relationship seems more akin to that with another person, rather than a service and that seemed odd (although describing it this way it seems a lot less odd--people get attached to all kinds of stuff, but it was still interesting to see it happen in my own attitudes).

Anyway, now everything is back up and running. Whew.

(oh, and to the title of the post: I had run the SpamAssassin Bayseian network learning utility on my many-meg personal inbox, which caused it to suck up a ton of memory, which in turn caused it machine to thrash so hard that not even the login process worked)

August 14, 2003

First post!

So I'm going to make this short, and it'll probably more stiff than it needs to be.* I'm starting this blog for several reasons:

1) because everyone has a blog at this point and dammit I don't want to be totally behind the curve
2) because I've had the domain sitting around for years and I should do something with it and, most importantly
3) because I've had a bunch of ideas in the recent past that I'd like to get into a semi-public forum to test them.

And, sure, there are plenty of outlets for getting feedback, but I wanted a forum that I felt was my own.

So I'm planning to treat this as a somewhat edited and more thought-through version of one of my notebooks, which I've kept for years but have neglected to do anything with and which I've never really shared with anyone.

The topics I'm interested in discussing at the moment include:

  • Smart personal technology. The things that surround us which are becoming smarter every day, including the underlying technology that is going to drive this.
  • Smart furniture, because I think that's going to be a huge element in a near-future intelligent environment.
  • The social, economic and political implications of all of these changes.
  • Me, because--hell--it's my blog.

Anyway, that's the manifesto, on to the experiment.

*=Short and stiff, maybe that describes me, though I hope not.