Looking Past the Tools

Friday, October 21, 2005


Sunset over the Negev Desert near Mizpe Ramon, Israel.

I want to take a moment to think about digital art and digital media and what directions these quickly-evolving fields may be moving in. I’ve been overwhelmed with getting acclimated to the city and the program and the people and I don’t feel like I’ve been stepping back away from everything often enough to objectively process it all. Or something smart-sounding like that. So now’s the time.

We live in a time of information automation. That’s what will define the second half of the 20th century and the beginning part of the 21st in high school history textbooks in the year 2700 (or WWII-WWIII-Interwar Period history class infopill that kids of that time will take). And the people who will fit in the best will be those who are the most capable at either designing or using the tools of information. Obviously. Make the hammer or use the hammer — those are the two roles. If you don’t understand hammers, you’re not going to help build the next WTC.

And the whole digital-info-tech-net thing that’s happening is essentially about the tools. It doesn’t seem to be about philosophy or lifestyle except as those things are impacted by the tools. (“Oh, I can watch my new episode of Lost on the subway!”) The philosophies, I’ll venture, are still modeled more-or-less on the progressive philosophies of the 60s (or, at least, the ones that have been stereotypically attached to that decade): openness to diversity, technological rationalist utopianism (ie, all of our problems are solvable if we just think about them long enough), and aestheticism ranging from the epicurean to the hedonistic. Maybe I don’t go back far enough when I say that I feel these basic tenets haven’t changed much since the 60s. Maybe they were laid down as far back as Oscar Wilde or Nietzsche — or even the ancient Greeks and Epicurus himself. (Which would either be disappointing or reassuring, depending on your perspective.)

But the tools have evolved radically. Especially in the period between the 1960s and 2005. I don’t need to get into the PC revolution and the internet and mobile tech — this point isn’t controversial.

What to make of it? Is the goal of a hypothetical leading-edge thinker (ie, not me), then, to brainstorm ways to build upon these same base philosophies and to do away with old barriers using this brand-new tech? I can connect to my friends all over the world instantaneously with cell phone calls, e-mail, and instant messages. I can do things like automate publishing and advertising systems to make money as an information provide while hardly ever actually doing anything beyond making sure the webserver’s still alive. Some cars page emergency rescue when the airbags deploy. Soon my refrigerator will reorder milk for me and my sofa will tell me to get off my ass and go to class/work. Etc. Again, we all should be very aware of the trends I’m talking about.

There’s plenty of room left in this tool-development area for thought and progress, though I sometimes wonder about the ultimate utility of some of the newer, more progressive tech. Let’s talk about getting TV shows on your iPod. Is even a really good TV show something that is so good that being able to access it anywhere is useful? Everything bad is good for you, except when we’re so distracted by how much better our bad things have been getting that we don’t pay attention to making the good things better. For example, getting poor kids hooked up to the internet might be a step in the wrong direction. It’s like showing a kid how to use a hammer when, maybe, a more efficient way to help him or her rise above their station would be to sit down one-on-one and teach them some basic math concepts or read through a mind-expanding, inspiring book. Just giving technology to people may not be the best way to help them out — especially something as utterly distracting as the internet and the world-wide web (I know from experience — it can be a huge time-waster). Informational tools are only as good as the information they contain, and I wonder what books could be purchased for the price of a $1,000 computer to help out disadvantaged people (for example). I’m digressing. I’m not trying to rant about how books are so much better than the web. It’s not necessarily true, for starters. The web is very powerful. I’m talking about what the powerful web actually communicates.

Maybe what I’m getting to is that all of this progress seems not to be altering what we do as much as how we’re doing it. I’m not sure I’m thinking any better about the world as a result of my predilection for computers and tech toys. I’m only a month into my studies at ITP, but I’m worried that I’m getting too far into learning how tools work and I’m feeling like I’m setting off on a cross-country drive by just picking the roads that look the most interesting at the moment without any overall map as a guide. I trust Red Burns and I trust my professors (and classmates), or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate in this program, so maybe this is just a personal issue — that I need to make sure to pull my own head up and away from learning how to do the cool new thing with Processing or Quartz Composer or Max/MSP or my little blinking LED projects or whatever and think about how this will fit into and evolve the goals of the philosophies mentioned above. These philosophies (eclecticism, utopianism, aestheticism) are so broad; there’s plenty of room for exploration.

I worry that the sheer power of the technology and the fact that we’re growing towards some sort of a peak point of human diversity (where we simply can’t get more culturally, racially, and sexually more mixed-together) will pervert these good philosophies. That diversity will become fetishization, utopianism will become aggressive capitalism (aka opportunism), and aestheticism will become mindless consumerism. Again, I doubt I need to argue to anyone reading this that American culture, at least, is diving deep into these waters (cf. Paris Hilton, The Anna Nicole Smith Show). And the technological developments of the past century (and beyond) — mass communications, mass production — have enabled this change. (I’m not America-bashing, here, and I am definitely not trying to allude to some fictional state-of-nature purity or anything — I’m quite happy to live at the time in which I’m living. Americans in general have relatively easy access to the things they need to enjoy a good life, some exceptions notwithstanding.)

The point, though, is that this seems like the starting point for rethinking — or refining — some of these tenets which I think most people in ITP and most people I associate with regularly would agree with. (To repeat: eclecticism, utopianism, and aestheticism.) It’s hard not to agree with these ideas. But learning from our technological successes how they can run amok may be useful to really thinking about how we should change the way we think about ourselves, the world, and our goals in the future. Maybe this is a bit bigger than developing the refrigerator that automatically orders milk or the next cool interactive piece of museum art. Not that those aren’t both totally valid and interesting in a more limited scale…

I don’t know anything. I’m just throwing ideas out…

I’m definitely not dissing anyone who chooses to concentrate on designing cool gadgets or communications art. That’s probably what I’ll be doing with my life, as well.


ITP: The ICM/Pcomp Chunnel

Wednesday, October 5, 2005


One of my Processing projects.

This morning a homeless woman pulled down her pants right in front of me in Washington Square Park and proceeded to urinate right there, right in the middle of the sidewalk, right in front me and a dozen-or-so homeless guys who yelped and hollered and what-the-fucked at the sight. This happened near the chess corner of the park, the southwest corner, where most of the off-the-gridders (ie, the scruffy homeless) seem to linger. I was walking to my Game Design class from a small diner on 6th Ave where I’d had an omelette for breakfast.

Yesterday evening after dark on 3rd street right by the Stern Business School I accidentally stepped on the corner of a trash bag that sat next to a mailbox. And it yelled at me. Turns out it was a foot. Of another gentleman-without-house who had made his bed for the night under some old bags and blankets on the sidewalk. So he shouted at me and rolled back into his stuff to try to get back to sleep.

I neither urinate nor sleep in public, unless you count watering the plants in the Washington Square Village quad on the way home from a bar or nodding off for a sec during one of my classes on my over-packed Tuesdays. But even in those cases I do my best to keep it to myself.

Today I nodded off in my Intro to Computation Media (“ICM”) class. For just a few moments. I barely slept last night and, well, even a good breakfast and a quick morning run couldn’t make up for that energy deficit. And this is unfortunate, because we’re getting into some cool shit.

We’ve been learning how to program graphics using a Java front-end called Processing for the past four weeks. And I’ve been kicking ass and having some fun with it since I already have a decent programming background. Check out what I’ve already done: squares, boxes, sticks, circles, tubes. I’ve been playing around with simple algorithms that lead to fun and unpredictable outcomes. In my Game Design class we’ve been exploring developing simple rulesets that lead to fun and engaging gameplay and I think that same mentality can be applied here to make engaging visual art. At least that’s been my general approach. With added inspiration from Jared. Yup.

Now, though, we’re getting into some new turf: Building our own hardware interfaces for Processing (and for software in general). For example, building a controller with some sliders that control the position of a box on the computer screen and, say, a light sensor that affects how light or dark the box on the screen appears. (This is the example Dan O’Sullivan, our prof, demoed for us today in class. The light sensor bit was especially effective when he moved his hand over and away from it and the box limmed and brightened.)

In my Intro to Physical Computing (“Pcomp”) class we’ve been learning about the other side of this, about soldering together components and prototyping projects on a breadboard and writing little programs for our PIC 18F252 microchips. (Teacher Scott Fitzgerald called this “electrical engineering lite” on our first day.) I’ve learned how to make an LED illuminate and blink and go off-and-on when I push a switch or turn a dial, but that’s Oreo cookies next to the tiramisu of making a piece of hardware that can control a piece of software. Max/MSP can even accept data from one of these homemade controllers, which means that after one month of classes I’ve already reached the point where (if I had the time and exact inclination) I could start designing my own musical instruments. Which sounds nerdy, for sure, but look who’s talking.

So this is kind of where we’re at with these two classes. We’re coming at the same problem of interfacing computers with homemade hardware from both sides at once. And just like the builders of the English Channel Tunnel, we met up in the middle this week to shake hands.


My workshop the first two weeks of school.


ITP: Steven Johnson In-Class Talk

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


L.A. Machine Guns. Or something.

On Tuesday Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You and other books, visited a class of mine to guest lecture. He spoke mostly about the arguments presented in his book. I’ve transcribed the “gist” of what he said, but by no means consider this a completely accurate account.

Steven Johnson: What I was going to do was to convey some sort of argument that’s in my book, Everything Bad Is Good For You. I’ll walk through it because I think it’s relevant to what you all are doing.

So this is a book that came out in May and it sparked a little bit of a controversy. It was an attempt to engage in a debate about the state of today’s culture. One side thinks it’s bad and the government needs to make it better. The other side just thinks it’s bad. [Laughter.] But it’s not just a race to the bottom.

The book became a maelstrom for a while. [Shows Time Out New York cover with the book on it being read by a bikini model.]

What I argue is about a trend in society, not that society’s perfect… The Sleeper Trend. Culture not from the perspective of values but from cognitive complexity: how much problem-solving must one do, how many memory-based tasks. The Sleeper Curve. After the Woody Allen movie.

In that movie, all of the things that were supposed to be bad in your diet turn out to be good for you. [Shows clip.]

And that’s what I propose in the book, that the popular things supposedly in bad taste are actually getting better for us.

And it started with games. I grew up playing computer games. I had an Intellivision when I was eleven. And I witnessed this amazing complexification of games when Sim City came out, when Myst came out. And I was watcing all of this happen and I saw this total condescension. But I didn’t see anyone recognizing what was going on. [Shows stuffy George Will quote.]

So I thought of this great anecdote of introducing my nephew to Sim City. It was a rainy day on vacation. So I thought I’d show him the game. I was a pretty condescending tour guide, showing him the major landmarks: mayor’s house, river, etc. I said after about 20 minutes, “I’m having trouble with these factories.” He told me I needed to lower my industrial taxes(!). This is a seven year old. Something about the interactive form was helping him take notice and puzzle things out. And this is what’s fascinating.

Think of the Sims, the most popular PC game of all time. You have to spend half of your time doing chores, taking out the garbage. If you don’t, you lose the game. So what’s going on when teenagers are willing to do chores on the screen for fun? That’s the really interesting thing. There’s something else going on. G. Will has got it wrong.

To think of this interms of problem-solving, I’m going to show you an old film to get you acclimated. [Shows “How to Use the Dial Telephone” from 1927.] What’s interesting is not that they have to explain, but how much they have to explain the explanation. Every step has a lavering of explanation. [It’s goofy. They keep reiterating the same info over and over.]

And that’s the mindset we’ve advanced significantly beyond.

Reading Vs. Games.

I want to talk about the bias we have about readeing vs. games, that reading is rewarding and games are not. [Shows Dr. Spock quote that doesn’t say much good about games: “A colossal waste of time.” And such.]

So what I proposed in trying to get people around their biases is a thought experiment. What if video games had been invented before books? What if the kids were into the books and the parents all against them. So I wrote this op-ed:

[Satire. Satire.] “George Will would say: ‘Books are but a berren string of words on the page… Tragically isolating… Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed? … Reading is not active, it’s submissive… [etc.]’”

I should say: I write books for a living. The point is that you can’t judge a new medium on the criteria of an old one.

Merits of reading:

  • Info
  • Attention
  • Following narrative threads
  • Patience
  • Imagination

[Quote from John Dewey about collateral learning.]

Games exercize the mind, skills useful for thinking about real-world problems. Think about Chess, for examples.

Collateral Learing of games:

  • Patience
  • Decision-making
  • Probing
  • Telescopic thinking

The first thing about games: They require immense amounts of patience. People don’t realize how hard they are. The walkthrough describing the universe of GTA3 is 53,000 words long. [Novel-length.] It’s a rich world.

The other fundamental think that happens with games is that you’re forced to make decisions. You have to think of long-term objective, short-term objective, resources, physics/rules of the game. And you’re putting all of that togeterh to make a strategy. Then you get feedback from the game, then you make another decision.

In a book, you’re following someone else’s decisions. And is there any other definition of “smart” than “able to make the right decision at the right time with the given information available?” [Like in a video game.]


[Screenshot from Sim City 4000 (the new one).]

What you do in Sim City is you probe and explore to figure out what’s going on and what will work and what won’t. That’s a rich, powerful form of thinking. It’s very difficult to do with books, for instance.

Some of you may think I’m stacking the deck using Sim City, but the same is true with sports sims. If you go into a game like ESPN 2K Baseball, you’re also managing an entire organization. You have to make a profit, limit your spending, improve the team, deal with loyalties, etc. It even has a “Steinbrenner” menu, where you can see if the owner’s happy or mad with you.

There was an article in the Times a month or two again about how some teens would rather play the video game for the sport than watch the sport on TV because it was more hands-on. And would you rather your kid zoning out on the couch or thinking about how to make the budget and the payroll and manage all of these variables at the same time. That’s more thinking, not less.

Telescopic Thinking

“Telescopic thinking” means balancing short and long-term goals. Think about Pac-Man, for example. [Shows a slide with various Pac-Man goals. There are about four. Then shows a slide for a new Zelda game. It’s got about eight ranging from “You have to manipulate the controller” to “”Your ultimate goal is to rescue your sister.”]

The least interesting thing about this is rescuing the sister. And I’m convinced you’ve learned nothing from the content of Zelda. But it’s interesting how much you have to do to get to the goal. You have to get help from the islanders, get the letter, go into the cavern, etc.

Two things important about this: It’s open-ended, but not all that open-ended. You have to get the sequence right. And none of these objectives are spelled out: You have to figure out what they are in the first place. It’s as if you were to sit down to play chess and different rules applied but no one told you how the pieces moved: You would have to figure it out on your own.

And this is a literary analysis. And, as such, there’s no moral depth to it, no drama. It reads like a math word-problem. [Shows funny example.]

Gee’s Cycle. [Shows a slide. I’m not going to type it. Probably can be found online. Essentially: 1) Probe 2) Form hypothesis. 3) Test.] Essentially, kids are learning the scientific method.


I think what’s happened over the past 10-15 years is that the interactive media has been making us smarter on some level and that television has been getting smarter, maybe for a related reason. We’ve seen pop TV move in that direction, particularly with drama.

The problem I have with TV people is that they have a nostalgic image of what television used to me. They bring up MASH but never Webster. So I like to shock people by showing them what it was like. [Shows clip from Dallas, 1978.] This was the hottest show on television. People were eating it up. [It’s really slow and boring by today’s standards. Yawn.]

Postman’s Golden Rules

  • Thou shalt induce no perplexity.
  • Thou shalt have no prerequisites. (Every show should be self-contained.)
  • Thou shalt avoid exposition.

I thought I would disagree with these, but I don’t. He was just talking about the late seventies. Though the first two rules are no longer true.

I did some charts about the narrative structure of TV shows. Dragnet is just a line. There’s one plot thread. Solving the crime.

Starskey and Hutch have a joke plot at the beginnning. Then solve the crime. Then go back to the joke at the end.

Hill Street Blues is much more complex. Sometimes as many as eight or nine different threads. The show started with a “roll call,” a clever waay to reveal all of the plotlines. 2-3 dominant plots. 4 secondary ones.

The Sopranos. Many plots, but each scene sometimes hits several plots at once. And no real dominant thread. All seem quite equal.

Hill Street Blues was too complicated for its day. Critically acclaimed, finished dead last in the ratings. And it slowly clawed its way up in the ratings. After season four, NBC admited it was too complex and advertised a simpler set of plotlines.

But today many very popular shows have even more complex plots than Hill Street Blues.

Only a couple of Hill Street Blues’ plot threads tied to other episodes. But almost all of the threads in the Sopranos tie to other episodes. This is building a unified cause-and-effect about what you’re watching. It’s kind of like a Dicken’s novel, a rich form of thinking.

Another way to look at this is with social maps. [Shows social map for an episode of Dallas. About ten characters. About seven relationships crucial to the plot. Now shows one for “24.” And it about four times as complex.] 24 has far more characters and relationships. And it’s even more complex today because they’ve got a mole plot and you don’t know who the mole is. And this is a huge show. If you were to have put it on the air in 1978 people just wouldn’t have been able to process it.

Mapping social netowrks is a very importnat skill. People who can do it tend to be very successful people. If our narritive systems we engage in for fun elevate this skill, that’s important.

Why Is This Happening?

So why are we seeing this Sleeper Curve trend?

Tech. of Repetition: VCR, TiVo, DVD, BitTorrent, etc. Economics reward content that can sustain multiple viewings.

Previously, if you missed an important scene, you missed it forever. Or until summer reruns or something. So info had to be repeated over and over so people wouldn’t miss it.

The reason Seinfeld and the Simpsons are still on the air is because you can rewatch them and find new subtleties.


  • Para-sites.
  • Blogs, FAQs, fansites, walkthroughts, commentary tracks.

There’s so much information about shows out there, it’s amazing. The shows can become this complicated because there’s this whole evolving support system that wasn’t there twenty, thirty years ago.

The regime of competence

  • In-game learning. Games slowly get harder as you play them, for example. They assess your ability and slowly ratchet things up as you get better and better and better. And this is fun, as those of you know in ITP. Puzzling systems out is intellectually and emotionally rewarding. There’s a sweet spot. And non only are games doing this — interfaces in general are doing this. Starting with the web and e-mail.
  • Proliferation of interfaces.
  • The myth of the slacker mind. If you offer people interesting interactive experiences where they’re forced to think, people love that. People will always choose that over Three’s Company.

That’s part of the book.

Now, for questions. [Which I did not transcribe, sorry.]

The end.


In New York. Finally.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


The view from my new balcony...

I’m here. After about four months of build-up, since first receiving word of my acceptance to NYU.

Anyway, I’m pretty excited. I checked in around noon today and got lunch at Zen Palate at Union Square (fake veggie turkey club with yam fries — good stuff) and killed some time watching The Aristocrats nearby. Then did some shopping and ordered a pizza. Yes, it’s true.

I’ve been on the road since Wednesday. I piled a bunch of stuff into a rental car and wheeled it up to Pennsylvania in three days, taking a detour to see Meri in Columbia for an evening. We ate dinner at a small winery just outside of town and wandered around “the District” (student zone) for an hour-or-so. I didn’t have much of an opinion of Mossouri before and, well, Columbia’s a nice town. Like Iowa City or Ann Arbor: small and very collegiate.

More soon, I’m sure…


Haley Eats (and Drinks): A Visual Anthology

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Haley eats...

In Warsaw.

Haley eats...

In Warsaw.

Haley eats...

In Krakow.

Haley eats...

In Krakow.

Haley eats...

In Berlin.

Haley eats...

In Alexandria.

As suggested by Hilary Cardwell.

And make sure to check out her travelblog at Vino Viaggio. (If that’s not working, try the temporary URL: by clicking here.)


Final Round of Travel Photos

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Yes, I think that's a meatball experiencing bloody, explosive diarrhea while a pile of mushrooms laugh at him.

Well, my web-stalkers at the Longbranch Inn have started posting lame little comments all over, again. These messages (calling me, for example, a “Nazi” or “dipshit” or, um, “Opie”) are an answer to my bad experience with them waaaay back in December that I wrote about. Obviously I just delete them. Takes about fifteen seconds.

A couple days ago, though, one of the Longbranch Inn bar owners posted this comment to my site:

“I bet you think twice before slamming someones business again you little pussy. Now that you have learned your lesson we will all leave you alone.”

Um. Hehe. Am I in junior high school, again? Did someone just think they taught me a lesson by calling me a faggot in a comment that I deleted? Surely I’m not dealing with adults, here…

Anyway, I hope my little ramblings aren’t pissing anyone else off. I’d hate to have to learn any more lessons.

That said, I’ve uploaded the rest of my photos from Egypt and Germany, and they start right here. (Again, yeah — my little photo gallery scripts have a couple of bugs right now, in case something unexpected happens.) Check ‘em out. Included within are hot new shots of Coptic Cairo, Josh and Haley riding camels, Nubian-pop sensation Mohammad Mounir, and gangs of fighting sparrows.



New Wireless Hotspots Site!

Thursday, August 11, 2005



So I’ve given my Free WiFi Internet Access subsite an overhaul. Go check it out and then come back and tell me what you think. Right now.

The most obvious change to the site is cosmetic. I’ve ditched the chunky, blocky, bold look of the previous sites in favor of something a bit airier and sunnier. Happy. Weightless. Childnen playing in the park. Furry little kittens playing with feathers. Etc. At it just looks a bit more professional with this new design. And I’m nothing if not professional.

Under the hood, I’ve reorganized the PHP code and MySQL databases to make it easier for me to update and maintain the site — and easier for me to keep it clean. The site attracts all sorts of goofiness, and I need to be able to tell what’s going on. Also, I need to be able to detect when someone writes that a location has gone away or is no longer free quickly so I can either remove the location from the list or make a note for people.

Also, I’ve implemented a system for catching both spam and dumb user errors (of which there have been many of both). This should save the site from decaying into a huge advertisement for gay porn when I go away for a few days…

Hm. Well, that’s really about it. Please, if you use the site, add a comment to this post and let me know what you think. I really want it to be as useful as possible, and, well, you can help me do that! Yes! You!



Ask Josh™: Assessing Someone’s CSS Mojo

Thursday, August 11, 2005

In this edition of Ask Josh™, cascading stylesheets:

If we were trying to find out a job candidate’s level of expertise with CSS, what would you suggest we ask?

Someone asked me this question in an e-mail a few weeks ago. Seems like a decent question: How does someone who doesn’t know CSS inside-outside go about assessing the skills of a potential hire? Try the following:

  • They should be aware of the difference between form and content: Form goes in the CSS, content in the HTML (unless a layout is too complex to be rendered in CSS without breaking on various browsers). This is a pretty basic concept. They should be aware of that trick that when you pull out the stylesheet entirely, the HTML alone is plainly readable and useable, just not pretty.

  • They should be aware of how to precisely place elements using just CSS — without little clear .gifs everywhere or long strings of  s.

  • See if they can tell you what the ‘box model’ is. It’s a bit esoteric, but since it’s kind of the core CSS concept, it might be a good check just to make sure they know which way’s up as far as CSS code. (Here’s an answer better than I could come up with quickly: http://www.ilovejackdaniels.com/css/box-model/ ).

  • You could double-check simple code stuff like making sure they know the difference between margin and padding (margin puts pixels outside the ‘box’ and padding puts them inside the ‘box’). And maybe see if they know the differences between using points, pixels, ems, and percentages in sizing fonts (points and pixels are fixed, ems and %s relative).

  • Ask them to talk about how much they love Internet Explorer. If they do love it, they’re probably lying about knowing CSS.

Anyway, there you go. This isn’t a complete and comprehensive test, of course, but how well someone can talk about these topics should give you a good idea of how well they know their CSS.

Now, go forth and be free!