Morning Roof Photography

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Deep sky and the edge of the Rivington Hotel.

I took a bunch of photographs from our roof a couple mornings ago. Very cold. Very crisp. Very bright.

I live in the Lower East Side of New York City, by the way. If you need some context.

Satellite dishes.


Looking north over the East Village.

I’m lazy, so I haven’t posted higher-resolution versions of these online, yet. If you would like one, just e-mail me.


Dreaming of the DPRK

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


Postcards from North Korea

A few nights ago I fell asleep reading the web about North Korea. Which inspired, in part, a collection of rather weird dreams. It’s so completely surreal. A mixture of simulation and reality, something very modern, and something woefully out of date. The last legacy of the Cold War. A bastion of modern terrorism. Ultimately, though, very sad. And not entirely because of the nuclear overtures their government regularly makes and the weird shit like kidnapping Japanese citizens. It’s sad because there are 22,000,000 North Koreans who can’t get enough to eat, who can’t get what they need to live well, while their government funds lavishly stupid projects and just generally mishandles itself. Citizens who become more and more distant from a reunification with their southern siblings as their economy crumbles to the point where not even the surging South Korean economy could afford to take on reunification costs (far beyond what Germany experienced in the 90s).

That said. From the point of view of a sleepy haze, several things become quite fascinating. That you may not know about. But which paint such a good picture of the absurdity.


Ryugyong Hotel Tower, from here.

Let’s start with the most obvious: The Ryugyong Hotel Tower in Pyongyang. A 105-story, 330m-tall building that has been standing incomplete (with crane still jutting off the top) for over a decade. It apparently would be the 7th tallest building on Earth if they could get it together and finish it. (For reference, the Empire State Building is 102 floors and 380m tall.) But, alas. Intended, I’m sure, to boost the flailing North Korean economy and probably to stick it to the West a bit as had been the Eastern Bloc trend during the Cold War, the infrastructure of Pyongyang — financial and otherwise — just couldn’t support it. And so it stands. A much more appropriate monument to the DPRK than has probably been intended… (DPRK = Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by the way.)

While we’re on infrastructure… How do people get around in North Korea? Apparently there are about 200,000 automobiles in a population of 22,000,000 or so. Over 100 people per car. In the US, it’s just over one person per car. The metro system in capital city Pyongyang (population about 1,500,000) seems to work sometimes — at least they get a train going between a couple stations when they need to show it off to a westerner. (They have some gorgeous metro stations, though, I must admit.) And they seem to have proudly installed a couple streetcar lines (trams) — one in each 1991, 1992, and 1996 — featuring used trains from former Soviet satellite countries. Bikes were illegal until recently due to some idiosyncratic dislike of them by Kim Il-sung. So what? Walk? Motorbikes? We take public and private transportation so much for granted. This makes me think of living in a city on permanent mass transit strike a la NYC winter 2005. This alone would seem to be able to unbalance even the most otherwise stable economies.

“The most noticeable aspect of the city was how quiet it was. Unlike typical vibrant Asian cities with large crowds that bustle with life and commerce, Pyongyang is very peaceful. People are formally dressed in muted colors. They queue up quietly to wait on busses. Everyone is thin. I did not see an overweight North Korean. People are not talking on cell phones, children are not riding on skateboards and couples are not kissing on the streets — not even holding hands.” — North Korea in 2005


North Korea at night. Power shortages keep it basically dark, especially compared to South Korea and Japan.

Finally, Panmunjeom Joint Security Area (map), what appears to be the last Cold War-style border outpost. I’ll let you read about the Bridge of No Return and the Axe Murder Incident yourself. They’re interesting. The latter begins innocuously enough, with 19 US and South Korean servicemen deciding to trim a tree. After a shocked — shocked! — response from the North leads to one death and much whining, the UN Command decides to cut down the entire tree. Don’t fuck with the UN.


Maybe these little bits are important to keep in mind when considering whether or not North Korea has managed to develop a nuclear weapon. It’s possible, of course. But this is a janky nation that can’t even reliably power the subway system in its capital city and that imports old Soviet-bloc streetcars that even eastern European cities threw out years ago. Can’t build a streetcar. Can build a bomb? I don’t know. I’m hardly an expert, I guess.

Also, I haven’t read all of them through, but these links look interesting:


The Best-Selling Games of the Holiday Season

Saturday, February 3, 2007


Scene from Sneak King.

Reading through the “advergaming” article on Wikipedia, I came across a link to a press release on Gaming Nexus about the following:

“Released on Nov. 19, more than 2 million [Burger King] Xbox games have been sold in just four weeks — making it the best-selling collection of games published for the Xbox/Xbox 360 platforms this holiday season.”

These are those games advertised on television — Sneak King, Pocketbike Racer, and Big Bumpin’. I guess these are the latest marketing ploys of BK’s newish ad house Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the folks responsible for the Subservient Chicken (amongst other viral tricks).

Anyway, a few things:

One: Has anyone played any of these? Apart from the blatant marketing, are they good games? The descriptions make them look a bit generic and simple — but they’re $4 games. Maybe they’re $8 worth of fun.

Which leads me to: $4 games? We touched on this issue in class, I believe, about how much of the economics of designing and building a game are dependent on the $30-$50 sales price range. It takes millions of dollars to make something the consumer will put out that amount of money to play. What happens if players get used to paying less that $10 for a game?

Finally, these games have apparently done huge things for BK’s bottom line. (Quarterly earnings up 40%?!) Are they a fluke, or might this become a viable future venue for advertising. People are willing to sit through 10 minutes of commercials for a free hour-long television program, after all. Web-based games aside, I can’t think of many home console “advergames” besides these and the 7UP “Cool Spot” game from the early 90’s.

Anyway, this seems to be a crucial event in the history of gaming and marketing. It’s a bit sleazy and manipulative as all marketing must be, but maybe worth talking about in the context of the business of making games. Especially if it turns out these games don’t actually suck.

Originally posted on ITP’s Advanced Game Design Seminar blog.


Being Psychic

Thursday, January 18, 2007


The official guide for kids...

James Randi is changing the way he runs his $1,000,000 skeptic’s challenge. (Have paranormal powers? Prove it. Get $1,000,000.) This is interesting only in that it’s somehow satisfying to read about these debunkings of fraudulent psychics. Silvia Browne. James van Praagh. John Edward. Etc. Penn & Teller have fun with it. So should you. But, really. Old gas-bags on the Montel Williams Show can’t channel your dead cat.

The James Randi article in Wired contains a few goofy examples of this stuff:

In 10 years, though, nobody’s passed the preliminary exam. The most recent one was administered in Stockholm in October, when Swedish medium Carina Landin tried to identify the gender of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers. She got 12 right; 16 was the agreed-upon threshold for success. (The foundation plans to re-administer Landin’s test following revelations that several of the diaries were older than stipulated in the protocol.)

Before that, the last preliminary test was in July 2005, when a Hawaiian psychic named Achau Nguyen traveled to Los Angeles to demonstrate he could mentally transmit his thoughts to a friend in another room. Under the watchful eyes of paranormal investigators, a video camera and a small audience, Nguyen selected 20 index cards from a deck of 30 and focused on the words written on each of them in turn — while one floor below his “receiver” wrote down the wrong word, 20 out of 20 times.

Arthur C. Clarke has a famous set of three laws of prediction:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What I find interesting here is that — while Swedish medium Carina Mandin and Hawaiian psychic Achau Nguyen are clearly full of shit — the paranormal tricks they’re trying to do are completely not full of shit. They’re just going about them incorrectly. Carina’s trying to demonstrate her ability to extract metadata from a source. And Achau just needs a mobile phone and he’d hit a perfect 100% at transmitting data from himself to his friend in the neighboring room.

“Being psychic” is pretty much the goal of the information age we’re currently in the process of entering. No matter where I may be, I want access to info about where my friends are and what they’re doing. I want to know what music I might like, even from bands or scenes I’ve never heard of (and I want to hear it whenever, wherever I want). I want to know what interesting is going on in my neighborhood tonight. When I drive, I want to know exactly what’s around the corner or up the road. I want to be kept up-to-date on the experiences of people in Baghdad. Etc.

(Death is death, so there may be limits on how “psychic” a person can really be. But see Clarke’s rule #1. And then wonder about the possibly-changing nature of death itself given Kurzweilian posthumanism (e.g., my brain backed up into a computer while my body dies), life extension, and just simple personality simulation based on what we know about a person’s pre-death behaviors.)

Thinking about the information revolution (or whatever — I never know exactly what to call these trends) from this perspective is useful, I think. For a couple of reasons. One, it shows the lack of imagination and the lack of resourcefulness of these dipshot psychics. Two — and so much better — it opens the mind up to these sorts of magical possibilities. Which is nothing new, I guess. But I haven’t heard it stated like this before, so I’ll go ahead and do it myself.

Do I win James Randi’s $1,000,000 if I can communicate the words written on some cards to a friend in another room using some invisible technology Randi doesn’t understand? Is something still paranormal when it becomes possible using recently-developed technology? Or does “paranormal” always mean “bullshit?”



Monday, November 20, 2006

An exciting day.

Saturday morning one of the Miguel hamsters (now dubbed “Girl Miguel,” for obvious reasons) had a litter of nine little hamster babies. Rocio and her cousin first discovered them and left me a note which I found when I got home: “Josh! Bday! Go and see the baby hamsters.”

Christin called it pregnant on Wednesday after I’d shown her the Miguel and noticed how fat it had become so quickly. We were very careful with her and then on Friday night I wondered aloud about how long hamsters gestate. I found out…

The babies.

The boys.

Anyway, I first got on scene around 3pm on Saturday. All of the creatures were asleep. Mom had herself wrapped around the babies and the three males were conked out in their plastic house. All seemed well except for one baby that Mom had separated out from the rest. It looked a pale pinkish white instead of the rich dark pink of the other eight squirmers and seemed mostly dead. Sad, but I guess that’s how it goes. I washed the crap (literally) out of the plastic house, gave everybody some extra food and water, and let them be.

Boy Miguel and Girl Miguel.

As the afternoon went on, the males became their usual rambunctious selves, running around, climbing on things, and just generally getting in the way. After a few rounds trampling over the babies, they got to be too much for me to deal with. So I created a partition in the cage using some of Rocio’s blank DVD cases and masking tape. It kind of sucks for the boys, but they’re now penned up in the small second floor ledge of the cage. I put the house up with them and filled it with some food and made a pledge to remember to switch the water bottle between them and Girl Miguel periodically so everyone could drink.

Then I went out for a jog (in Central Park at about 7pm — very lovely). And when I got home, the shit hit the fan.

Inside the cage is a dish towel that Rocio put in the cage soon after we got the hamsters. Six weeks or so ago. Great. They love to pull it apart with their teeth and sleep on it, etc. No problems. But after I returned home I noticed one of the babies tangled up in some of the loose threads. Rocio’s cousin actually first noticed when we were talking about the babies before I left to run. At that time, I said I thought Girl Miguel would work it out and not to worry. But things seemed bad when I got back. The babies was still stuck, wrapped fairly tightly with thread. And it had stopped moving. And the other babies actually, it turns out, could wriggle along at quite a clip when they wanted to — despite being eyeless, hairless, little pink jellybeans. And others were getting into dangerous-looking situations.

Wondering what on Earth is going on.

So I made an executive decision that the babies needed to be moved. I know that you shouldn’t mess with someone else’s babies, but I felt like the risk of Girl Miguel abandoning them or eating them or whatever later was acceptable considering that a bunch may die in the ragged dish towel. So I removed the top of the cage and moved the boys away. I kept the mother on the table with me and the cage, figuring she should be around to watch or something. Maybe just to know that these were still hers.

I got my nail clippers and clipped the one baby out that had been tangled in the rag. Which took some creative effort and very steady hands. It was really caught tightly and some of the strands had caused little rope burns on his neck and side. But he was alive. So I got in there and clipped him out along with a bit of fabric and then put him in my palm and finished cutting everything off of him. It got a bit difficult because some of the strands had lacerated him and were stuck a bit in his body, requiring some very close clipping and a few gentle tugs. At one point he accidentally rolled over in my hand and fell down a few feet to the floor — which I felt horrible about: Poor guy. Rough start at life… But he appeared to have not been additionally injured. I then found another dish towel and manually moved the rest of the babies over, including the pale, half-dead one, which I did a little check-up on, as well, to see if anything obvious could be fixed.

Holding them was odd. I expected them to feel very, very delicate. And they were, I guess, but they were also much firmer and stronger-feeling than I had anticipated. When one of the big hamsters stepped on one of them earlier, I winced. But now I think it probably doesn’t hurt them that much. Also, their skin was still very translucent. I could see their dark pea-sized lungs and heart and a white little squiggle of lower intestines inside of them. And, of course, the two dark dots of forming eyes under the skin in their heads. It was fascinating to look at them. In a way, they’re kind of an example of what the simplest pieces are that one needs to have a working, living mammal. If you strip off all of the fancy deluxe features of a human, we’re that same package of heart, lungs, and bowels.

While this was going on, Girl Miguel was beginning her descent into crazy. Understandably, I guess. She flat-out ran off the side of the table a few times and hid behind the vacuum cleaner in the corner, so I put her in with the boys for a bit to save her from killing herself while I finished setting the cage back up.

I spread a bunch of new wood shavings around the base of the cage and spread out the new dish towel, covering about two-thirds of the space. And I replaced the food dish and the water and placed the babies on the new towel. And put the cage back together with Mom inside.

Mom was going insane. She got in there and began just franticly running about. She’d run a couple of circles around the cage, climb a wall for a split second, run a second in the treadmill, and go back to running in circles. It’s one thing having energy, but this was a kind of mortal confusion. She had no idea what had happened and she was very, very scared. And so I continued to try to figure out what to do. The babies were squirming around, reaching up with their open mouths whenever Girl Miguel came close, looking for a nipple.

I guess I really changed the scent when I switched out the towels and moved the babies. Maybe still having sweat on me from jogging made it worse. The original place with he babies still had blood and placental debris (I guess) from the childbirth all over it, and maybe Girl Miguel needed this. I mentioned to Christin that we’d had a conflict of the different wirings of our species’ brains: My brain saw them getting caught and went “this looks really bad — I’ve got to fix it.” Her brain saw the moved babies and may have fired off some signals to the effect: “I had some babies, but I don’t know where they are. These are babies, but they’re different. Something is very wrong.”

Things got extra bizarre when she picked up the pale, dying one by the head and began running around with it. She dug in the corner a few times, as if looking for a place to bury it or to get it away from the healthy babies. I pulled her out of the cage and set her on the towel (baby still in mouth) figuring that it might help to give her a way to leave it outside of the cage. No dice. So I put them back in and left the cage door open so she could leave him elsewhere on the table if necessary. No. She ran around with him. And then picked up the damaged baby I had cut out of the towel and ran around holding him by the head. She wasn’t being particularly careful with either baby. So, okay. I didn’t know what to do. I finally just closed the cage door and left the room, figuring she’d either start taking care of them again or eat them and, at that point, I really had no more say in the matter.

An hour or two later I checked in. She had settled down and had made a nest and collected the babies into it. Except for the pale one — she finally disposed of him by placing him in the food dish. He still twitched feebly. The one I rescued from the cloth seemed to be okay and a part of the family. So success on that front.

And that’s basically how the night ended.

Today the pale baby had been moved into the nest, as well, so I guess she decided to give him (or her) a try.

Right now she’s sitting over them all. I haven’t had any direct access to them since Saturday, but I think they’re all accounted for and basically doing okay. She worried me a bit earlier when she covered them with the towel and was running around (just getting a bit of exercise, I imagine). She hid them very well and the only was I finally knew where they were was by noticing a faint motion underneath a bit of the towel where the little’uns were squirming.


The Projects of Josh

Monday, October 30, 2006


The roof of a hotel in Monaco.

I have worked on a pile of interesting projects over the years. Not all fit neatly onto a resume, so I’ve assembled some of my favorites (and recent projects) here for you to check out, if you’d like.

Please contact me at if you would like a copy of my resume. Thanks!

Web Projects

      Sugarcandy Mobile Chat — I co-founded this project with Josh Klein and have acted as lead developer and visual designer. In addition to being an SMS-based chat app, Sugarcandy is also a platform for rapid SMS-based app development. See Sleuth! below.

      University of Texas College of Liberal Arts CMS — I single-handedly developed website management software for the UT College of Liberal Arts (servicing about 15,000 students). The software could be zipped up and quickly deployed and customized on any server running PHP by non-technical employees. Currently, the software runs most of the COLA departmental websites (over 20). For example: COLA Home, Plan II Honors (my undergrad program), Department of Economics, Department of Government.

      iLoveFreeWifi — I first set this sit up in 2002 so I could find places to use my new Mac iBook in Austin. Over the years I’ve added cities across the country and a few other features and the site has grown steadily. Users still add new hotspots and comments daily. — I am an assistant developer on Steven Berlin Johnson’s Outside.In geo-located blog-aggregator.

School Projects

      eParole — I worked with four other students on a conceptual project called eParole. Our idea: Help improve the effectiveness of the United States parole system by introducing networked technologies to the way parolees are monitored and assisted in reentering society. We presented this project at the Microsoft Design Summit in the summer of 2006.

      Common Editor — Common Editor is a more recently-conceived project of mine that attempts to bridge the gap between basic blog-style comments and full-edit wikis to create a system by which an open group can offer editorial advice and critique to a writer in the process of drafting new material.

      Gametron 7000 — This is a silly in-development game project for mobile phones. The idea: You design a game level on the site, save it, and then anyone with the GT7K software (written in J2ME) can play the game. I want to make the game design process for mobile phones more open and fun for people — making the game is as much a game as playing it!

Music and Art Projects

      Frescher-Southern Electronic Music — I founded and managed F-S in Austin, Texas. We put on live electronic music events — laptops, live synth performances, visual art, etc — for a couple of years in clubs and galleries around town. I often performed, as well. (I also designed and coded the website.)

      DXM — I have performed my own laptop-based electronic music as DXM for about ten years, mostly in the central Texas area. I sometimes perform, as well, as The Clearing Stages. I used out-of-the-box software for much of this, but I also sometimes write my own software instruments when I need to. Recently I took part in the Intel-sponsored Laptop Battle at Lincoln Center in NYC. (And lost…) I also presented a talk called “The Powerbook Rockstar” at the 2004 O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference.

Big Games

      Quoto — I developed with three other students a big game called Quoto for Frank Lantz’ Game Design class. The short rules: You get sentences — quotes — and go out onto the streets of New York and photograph them rebus-style. So if you have the word “dog,” you can photograph a real dog or the letters “d” “o” “g”. Easy. We debuted this game at the Come Out and Play big games festival. Quoto also had a booth at the Nokia Games Summit in Monaco in September 2006.

      Sleuth! — Another game for Come Out and Play. A criminal is on the loose in Manhattan! Teams of Detective Agencies must use their clue-solving and geo-locating skills to find him or her! The Sleuth! software was built using the Sugarcandy mobile platform (see above) and Yahoo!’s maps API.

      SnagU — I was an assistant developer on SnagU, a game developed by students at ITP and funded and promoted by MTVU.

Have I forgotten anything?


Miguel, Miguel, Carlos, and Carlos

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Meet the new roomies.

Rocio brought four hamsters home yesterday evening. Four brothers. Two dark, two light — otherwise indistinguishable. So. The dark hamsters are now both Miguel and the light ones are both Carlos (in honor of fellow ITPer Charles who gave Rocio moral support, apparently, on the hamster issue). Now they live on the desk in our living room. They’re just a month old.

They have three modes:

  1. Sleeping. They huddle like cotton puffs in their little house on the second floor of their cage to sleep. In a fit of rowdiness they knocked the roof off of their plastic home, so now they remain exposed to the world. I like this because they’re awfully damned cute snuggled together like that.

  2. Eating. At the moment they’re in this mode. Chowing down. Drinking from their little water spout. They have a wide assortment of seeds to keep themselves fed and they enjoy making a mess of seeds and little poopies all over the desk surrounding the cage during the day.

  3. The World’s Worst Gymnasts. And then they get excited. So I sit and work and watch a ceaseless rotation of varmints climbing the sides of the cage, trying to get to the roof. Sometimes the fall right off the cage side. Sometimes one makes it to the top only to dangle for a few seconds before slipping and dropping to the bottom like a small sandbag. This doesn’t appear to hurt them…

So that’s about it. This evening I had them out for a while (one at a time) to play with while I watched a bit of television. They charge around, up and down arms, along the backs of chairs, around tables and desks. Fairly well-behaved, too, despite the occasional urination accident. The Carloses seem a bit more mellow, the Miguels a bit more spastic (although a Carlos bit me today — on accident, I think).

Okay. Hamsters!

Because I am an internet dork, I must now link here. Thank you for understanding.


Monaco: Some Photos

Monday, October 2, 2006

Wining and dining (not pictured) at the Nokia Games Summit.

I don’t have much time to make an actual post, but here are a handful of photos from the in-progress excursion to Monaco for the Nokia Games Summit. I am part of a team running a game called “Vélocité.”

Hotels and condos of Fontvieille, Monaco.

We spent last night in Fontvieille, a newer part of Monaco that has been reclaimed from the sea and now features a cluster of new hotels and development. The Summit is way on the far end of the country. About a 40-minute walk…

Monaco may be the most three-dimensional town I’ve experienced. Meaning: It’s built (mostly) on land sloping into the sea at about a 30 degree angle. And developers have tried to maximize the small amount of territory available to them. So everything’s kind of stacked up and overlapped and tangled around. Makes it feel very cozy in some places. Claustrophobic in others.

Wednesday morning from my hotel room balcony.

A mosaic of Fernand Léger’s Les Trois Musiciens.

Our hotel, Le Meridien.

Busy, busy. More soon.

Wikipedia knows more about Monaco, too.