Book Reviews 2010, Part 2

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Continuing from the last post, here’s the remainder of the highlights from my second-half-of-2010 reading list:

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

“Nice! Shirky pulls together great social media anecdotes and research and assembles them into a very clear description of where we’re at and where we may be heading… It’s a must-read for anyone in the industry and a should-probably-read for any avid Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media service user.” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Scott Pilgrim Series by Bryan Lee O’Malley

“A cute little story about indie rocker kids, but with a weird sort of Japanese superhero challenge twist. Fun, but a *really* fast read. Which makes the entire series kind of expensive if you can go through all six $12 volumes in an hour or so apiece. (This desperately needs to be available in cheaper form on a digital book service — Amazon Kindle or Comixology or something.)” ✭✭✭✭

The Invention of Air by Steven Berlin Johnson

“I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Joseph Priestly previous to reading this. Which kind of shocks me. Johnson portrays him as an integral part of both the founding of the United States and the founding of modern chemistry and environmental science. The first 2/3rds of the book, describing his “hot hand” decade as an “electrician” in the company of Ben Franklin and then during his research into plant respiration and isolating oxygen are exciting and placed very nicely into historical context. Johnson doesn’t just tell the story of Priestly, here, or even just the story of the science — he places it in the full cultural context of the huge shift in the worldview of people in general that occurred during this time. The book lost some energy in the final third, but I liked the optimistic tone that is struck at the very end.

“The one flaw of the book, I think, is that Johnson touches on a few deeper questions that could’ve used a bit of a lengthier treatment. Maybe a minor quibble. At any rate: It’s got plenty of starting points for further investigation.” ✭✭✭✭

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

(I didn’t review this right after I read it, but it warrants a mention. It’s great. It stars the eponymous Oscar, a Domincan kid growing up New Jersey. It mixes his story with that of his family and finds a great tone that’s a mix of Dominican culture and nerd culture — Lord of the Rings and other fantasy and sci-fi language litters the book. But it really comes together nicely.) ✭✭✭✭✭

1776 by David McCullough

(Another great one I didn’t review at the time. But very much worth reading. Watching the John Adams miniseries kind of kicked off a little American history jaunt for me last fall. The miniseries left me lukewarm, but it led to me picking up this book which was a very interesting look at the first year of the American Revolution from an on-the-ground perspective. And it’s somewhat different from the grade school depiction of the Revolution: McCullough very clearly depicts the ambiguities, the difficulties, and real sort of mess, for lack of a better term, that constituted that first year of revolt. It humanizes it. Makes some of the achievements that might seem mundane seem much more heroic when you think of them in light of the fact that real humans not unlike ourselves were doing them, not Superhero George Washington from textbooks and Tea Party rallies.) ✭✭✭✭✭

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

“Excellent! Worth reading just to get to know Longstreet and Chamberlain.” ✭✭✭✭✭

Final Thoughts

I just didn’t have enough reading time during the second half of 2010. And I think it impacted my thinking, there, especially towards the end. My brain just requires frequent “loosening up” via books like this, I guess…

At any rate, a couple of months into 2011 I’ve already read about half of the total number of books I read in 2010. A very good sign. Feels healthy.


Book Reviews 2010, Part 1

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I want to do this more often, I just keep forgetting:

I’ve been using Shelfari as a way of keeping track of what I read. It’s cool. I like the interface. And since I try to put thought into the reviews I write after reading something, I’m going to collect those reviews here more often. Which should blast their readership up from about none to about two (my parents).

This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything I read in 2010, but it’s some interesting selections with my notes from Shelfari. They’re in chronological order, to note, from January 2010 to June 2010. I’ll follow up with another with books I read during the second half of the year.

And so:

City of Thieves by David Benioff

“I really enjoyed this. I guess there’s not too much to say about it that’s not found on the book jacket — it’s about two kids who wind up tasked with hunting down a dozen eggs for a Russian general at the peak (nadir) of the Leningrad Blockade during World War II. I’m utterly fascinated by that theater of the war — eastern Germany, Poland, northwest Russia — and I felt this captured that sense of emptiness and exhaustion very well. Beyond that, though, I loved the depictions of the characters and Benioff packs a good amount of suspense in. So, yeah. I don’t have anything genius to say about this except that I’m sorry it ended. Very good stuff. Maybe I’ll pick up one of Benioff’s other books…” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Americans, at least, seem to think of butlers as kind of comic figures — pointy-nosed Jeeves “at your service” sorts. The Remains of the Day kind of inflates that stereotype and uses it as a launching off point for a deeper discussion about loyalty and service over the course of a life. It reminds me a bit of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, except instead of boosterism, bulterism. Certainly it touches on good topics for someone at my point in life — trying to figure out work-life balances and deciding which kinds of professional loyalties to pursue. It’s a good read! (Later…) And I want to amend this to say that I didn’t take this to be a sad story. A lot of people do. Ishiguro may have intended it to be. The movie may have painted it that way. But I felt Stevens’ seemingly odd desire to continue on his pursuit of learning how to jest with his odd new American master right at the end of the novel kind of illuminated the idea that his life had not misguided. His job was his puzzle. It fit him. He felt satisfaction. This is acceptable. Just because he missed Ms. Kenton’s signals and may have felt pangs of regret over it doesn’t mean that was the path he should’ve taken. Anyway, the fact that I’ve come back to this book to add to my review probably indicates how much I enjoyed it. Stevens is a nerd. He enjoys rules and systems. I definitely see shades of myself in him.” ✭✭✭✭✭

The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers

“I’m fascinated by North Korea. Unlike most of the other stuff I’ve read about the DPRK, this book attempts to paint a full picture of the Text — Myer’s term for the official story of Korean history, the Kims, and their views of South Korea, the US, and the rest of the world. Myer’s is very direct: North Korea is not like Stalinist Russia, the former Soviet Eastern Bloc, or Nazi Germany. It’s something very distinct that can only be understood by understanding what North Koreans believe about themselves. Myer’s book is very well written and very easy to absorb. Fascinating stuff.” ✭✭✭✭✭

A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster

“This is a cute book — kind of reminded me of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or Martin Gardner’s Aha! The title mostly refers to the first part of the book during which Koster gives a quick overview of his take on a theory of how “fun” works. The second half of the book is more of a manifesto on games as art. People deep in the world of game design might not get much out of this directly — although it’s nice to just see an important game designer’s take on the subject. But this book would be great for folks just digging into the theory and practice of game design for the first time. It almost begs to be on the reading list in college classes about game design, interactive media, or art theory in general.” ✭✭✭✭

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

“Hm. So I loved Jaron’s talk at SXSW this year — it’s why I bought this book in the first place. Jaron’s clearly a very smart and thoughtful guy and I appreciated hearing his concerns about how our digitally-mediated culture might cause us problems as people. That’s what the first half of this book is about: How lock-in works and why it might be bad if people begin to believe their Facebook pages and think of themselves as selections on a pull-down list or nodes in the collective digital consciousness. I agree with Jaron — there are many questions that need to be asked about how digital social tools will integrate with our culture. And many of these questions aren’t being properly asked. The first half of the book does a great job of opening up discussion. I don’t always agree with Jaron’s answers, but I appreciate his questions.

“The second half of the book, sadly, gets weird. He spends a lot of effort complaining about the state of modern music as being largely derivative and non-innovative — something which I totally, totally disagree with. My personal story as a musician is totally enabled by the internet and digital culture, so I am not willing to dismiss what’s been going on in the past ten-or-twenty years in the world of music. He later, then veers off into discussions of virtual reality — which is mildly interesting but also seems kind of weirdly dated and off-topic from the rest of the book.

“Anyway, the first half is definitely worth a read.” ✭✭✭✭

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

“So, I read B. R. Myer’s book The Cleanest Race a few months ago. This is a great follow-up. The Myer’s book concentrated on the Official Story of North Korea — their government-sanctioned origin story, history, and outlook. Nothing to Envy is about the actual lives of the people, constructed from interviews with a handful of defectors, mostly from the Chongjin area. It’s a good read. Tragic, but well-constructed with moments of tension, surprise, and even a bit of humor. I flew through it quickly. If you find North Korea interesting, I’d recommend it. (Oddly, it’s the second book I’ve read this year where everyone’s starving through most of the story — the other being City of Thieves.)” ✭✭✭✭✭

Final Thoughts

Yeah, so the first part of the year books relating to SXSW and my game design in UX talk dominated — as did a couple of books about North Korea which were not career-related. And a smattering of fiction, when I had the time. And after SXSW (March) or so, I didn’t have that much time.

More coming up…


Uruguay: Montevideo and Jose Ignacio

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Steak at La Otra

We’ve spent most of the day at Rocio’s place, again. Which, y’know. We’re doing plenty while we’re down here and we don’t want to get back to New York just as exhausted as we left. And between the patio, the stereo, the warm air, and the cat — there are definitely worse places in the world to spend the day. Rocio arrived home a few hours earlier and the three of us chatted while she cleaned up the patio. There may or may not be an evening dinner plan.

So. Uruguay.

Before planning this trip, I must admit that I hadn’t ever put a whole lot of thought into Uruguay. I knew the capitol: Montevideo — although I guess I thought they pronounced it “Monte Video” (like, a video store run by someone named Monte) instead of the proper “Montevi-DAY-o” (like Harry Belafonte). That was about it. And, y’know, since I wasn’t able to fully participate in the planning side of this excursion I was still a bit in the dark as to what to expect when we arrived.

So Monday afternoon last week we got a ticket on the ferry — the Buquebus — from Buenos Aires to Montevi-DAY-o and made the trip. The ferry ride was enjoyable. About three hours long. Maybe 3 1/2. The main area felt like the cabin of a very wide jetliner. We sat in airplane seats with tray tables at the lot, arranged about twenty across. Except instead of facing a cockpit, we faced a wide cafeteria that served mediocre sandwiches and junk food items. The back side of the ferry offered a duty free shop (and, let me say: it’s difficult to shop on a boat that’s rocking about in in the ocean). First class (or whatever they call it) was upstairs. Surprisingly there was no place on the ferry to stand outside and get a bit of fresh air. I’d been expecting something a bit more like the Staten Island Ferry with a bit more access to windows or railings where one could watch the seascape passing by. Not really the case, though. So I mostly just stuck in my seat and finished reading my book (The 25th Hour by Michael Benioff — not as good as City of Thieves, but a good read). And played games on my iPhone.

In Montevideo we stayed at Ermitage Hotel, a nice spot just a few blocks from the beach. The whole town is spread along the beach, just to note. It has a great coastline and they really seem to put it to good use — a wide boardwalk/corniche runs for miles along the sand. Buenos Aires waterfront seems to be mostly industrial — that’s not at all the case in Montevideo. Which Christin loved. The whole town had a much mellower vibe than BA, as well, which I enjoyed. Walking around that first evening in the neighborhood of the hotel, it honestly just reminded me of some of the neighborhoods in downtown Austin, specifically that zone kind of to the northeast of where Lamar and 6th Street intersect. Tree-lined streets. A wide mixture of building styles, much more English and German-style architecture than we found in BA. With smatterings of chill little businesses, bars, and restaurants. And we did find a very nice restaurant in which we finally had our first fully-awesome meal of the trip (that first weekend we were just having bad luck in BA). More on that in a moment.

First, let me get this out of the way: The UN or the OAS or someone needs to step in and take control of the one issue that harmed our experience more than anything in Uruguay. Maybe there’s an opening for some entrepreneur to come in and work with the government to fix this. It messed us up in Montevideo, in our drive through the wine country, and in Jose Ignacio. Street signs. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Imagine having this conversation about eighty times a day: “What street is this?” “I don’t know. There’s no sign.” Especially when you’re trying to drive on the highway… @$#%@#.

Anyway. The restaurant. La Otra, which is a parrilla (grill) right around the corner from Ermitage. A really comfortable spot. The decor is kind of rustic adobe — cream colored walls and heavy wooden furniture. We actually went twice — the first time getting a table upstairs and the second time (the next night) eating downstairs. So the first night I ordered a ribeye and Christin the ribs and for appetizers we got some chorizo and a gigantic candied yam and something else I forget what. I’m sure Christin took pictures (she’s been photo-documenting most of our meals, looking for some culinary inspiration for 2011). At any rate: Food’s fairly cheap around here, so we don’t have the usual pocketbook constraint against ordering way more food that we can handle. Everything tasted great, but we wound up with food for four people and I, honestly, could barely walk the few blocks back home. If you know me, you are probably aware that it takes a significant amount of food to really make me full. That second night we kept things a bit more under control. I ordered another steak and we didn’t do much in the way of sides. Still wound up a bit over-full. But worth it. La Otra’s a pretty damned good place.

Between these two evenings gorging on meat, during the day on Tuesday, we rented a car and attempted to go tour the wine country north of Montevideo. The actual car rental process was a small adventure (which I won’t say too much about except we would up talking to a very nice older couple from Alberta) — and getting out of the city was stressful (see above: very few street signs). But we did get out and found the highway (#5) that went through the area. We didn’t have much in the way of maps — just a map of the entire country that we grabbed at the rental car place and some notes Christin took about how to find the vineyards. There are also little signs periodically along the highway (signs?!) pointing out nearby vineyards, but in good Uruguay fashion hey kind of indicated that a vineyard was near but not always exactly where said vineyard may be. So we engaged in a fair amount of driving around on dusty side roads through quiet little villages going no where in particular. I did really enjoy the landscape. That part of Uruguay is hilly, but not mountainous. It’s got trees, but not too many. And they’re mixed in with a good amount of drier, scruffier vegetation. A dry Mediterranean climate, not terribly different than central Texas. About as far south as Dallas is north, it turns out. The little clusters of civilization ranged from clumps of very poor-looking cinderblock homes with corrugated steel roofs to actually fairly upscale-looking ranch homes. There is, for sure, a good amount of poverty in Uruguay. But, it turns out, the country is actually quite liberal and doing very well economically. Wikipedia notes that they are the first country to provide a laptop to every child. They are fairly progressive about drugs and gay rights. And they have lower income inequality than the Estados Unidos. And didn’t experience a recession between 2007 and 2009. How about this: Instead of paraphrasing the entire damned article on Uruguay, I’ll just leave this here for you.

Anyway, we did get two three vineyards. The first: Closed. Although not closed off: We were able to park and roam around a bit. Christin picked and ate a grape. I took photos of everything. The second vineyard: Also closed (and it kind of started to rain a bit). But also not closed off. We, again, moseyed around the property a bit and looked around. But at this one a little older Uruguayan man wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt eventually came out. He spoke almost no English. And, as noted, our Spanish sucks. But we did get along and he opened up the building and gave us a little tour. We saw the laboratory where, I guess, the oenologists work with the actual wine. We saw the main dining room and tasting areas. The place was great — very old and rustic. And the man was extremely nice. And very talkative — a huge shame we couldn’t have understood him better. After a half-hour of that we hopped back in our little sedan-pickup truck combo rental car (like a 2000’s take on an El Camino, really) and headed on our way.

The third place was open. And amazing. Christin had actually set up a reservation before we left New York at a vineyard called Bouza to get a tour at 4pm that day. We had our notes about how to drive there but, again, the signage on he highway was horrible and we kept taking wrong turns and getting lost and things kept just simply not making sense until — somehow — we actually got on the right road and arrived at this place at 4pm on the nose. Just minutes before they gathered together a little group to tour the facilities. (“Bouza” is pronounced “Bowza,” by the way. Like a Bostonian would say “Bowser.” Not as Christin was saying it at first: “Booza.” Like a Bostonian would call someone who drinks too much.)

Bouza Bodega

Bouza Bodega is gorgeous. It’s a handful of buildings on a wide piece of land with a little ranch with some chickens and livestock hanging out. The main visitor center (with a restaurant and gift shop) is very classy and modern. We poked around and then got a nice tour of the actual winemaking process and a bit of history about the place. We also got a tour of the collection of old automobiles they have at the vineyard. I guess one of the Bouza clan collects cars and a few years ago they decided to build a museum showing them off on the property. So wine and old cars. Good combo. We then got the tasting. They sat us at a high table in their very airy and sleek restaurant (Christin and I got the table — other groups got other tables). We had four glasses and they gave us a white, a rose, and a couple of reds (in that order — spaced out over time) along with some cheeses, sliced meats, crackers, breads, and such. The wines were good. The only one I distinctly remember, though, is actually the one I didn’t care for — a tannat. I had never (that I know) had a tannat wine. A tannat, it turns out, is a super dark red. Very heavy on the tannens and at least the couple that I’ve tried here seem to have very little other flavor. Not really my favorite. The one Christin picked up for the house, here, eventually I just had to stop drinking. Just too intense and bitter and chalky.

So, anyway, that was our day driving around looking for vineyards. Trying to think if I’ve left anything out. Eh, probably.

Because I may not have too many more chances to write while we’re in South America, I’m going to push on and (even though this is already incredibly wordy) I’m going to talk about the second part of the Uruguay excurion: Jose Ignacio.

Jose Ignacio. It’s kind of the Montauk of Uruguay. That’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s fairly apt. It’s wealthy. Things are New York prices expensive. And it’s a cute town about ten by ten blocks out on a peninsula that juts into the Atlanic Ocean. The architecture of the homes and businesses there is amazing. All sorts of beautiful buildings. Lots of beaches, obviously. And a cute little lighthouse that seems to feature in all of the travel literature about the area. We got settled into our hotel (more of a motel — the Posada Paradiso, a rose-colored stucco place with a complex network of little art-and-ivy-covered patios and porches strung between a collection of smallish buildings, each with a few rooms for guests). We were in a small room at the top of a tower of about four stories — the only room at that height, with windows on all four sides. And possibly, I think, the highest sleeping space in all of Jose Ignacio. There aren’t any tall hotels or anything. The only thing significantly taller in the area is the lighthouse. A cool spot, for sure.

We kind of just bummed around. That first day we found a cafe on the main square and had some coffee and sandwiches. We then headed to the beach and checked out the water and read books in the sun. (I fell asleep and got a bit sunburned — and whenever we got uncomfortable due to the sun or heat a quick “y’know, it’s 30 degrees and snowy in New York” would get our spirits back up.) We climbed the lighthouse. Then, after a little nap at the hotel, drove out to a fancy restaurant in the forest back on the main part of the land and had a great dinner. Later that night we hung out at the hotel, drinking wine by the swimming pool outside. Quite nice.

The next day Christin headed out early to the beach and I followed a little while later, but managed to break my flip-flops en route and had to hobble back over rocky, half-paved, and insanely hot Jose Ignacio roads probably twenty minutes back to the hotel to grab my shoes. Not a good start to the day. We grabbed lunch at a trendy restaurant right on the beach, La Huella, and did a bit of people-watching. And then did all of our packing and bid Jose Ignacio our fond adieu and headed back to Montevideo to return the car and get our evening ferry back to Buenos Aires. On the drive back we took an hour and stopped at one of the beaches in Montevideo and hung out. I was in a little bit of an irritated mood — probably a combination of a bit of travel fatigue and my feet really hurting from the broken flip-flop fire-walking episode earlier in the day and just being sweaty and dirty in the heat. But we coped. The car got dropped off. We grabbed a beer at a little cafe near the ferry terminal and successfully disembarked back to Buenos Aires about 8pm.

This ferry was a bit nicer than the one coming over, but otherwise it was more-or-less the same experience. Except they had a Playstation 2 set up by the cafeteria area with a bunch of kids gathered around playing, like, FIFA Soccer 2003 or something. A funny little scene. I played more iPhone games and read more of Nabokov’s Pnin (which, honestly, I’m kind of just reading out of some odd urge to get through it at this point — it’s not the most gripping book I’ve ever cracked open). We got back to Rocio’s place around 11pm or midnight.

Okay. I might write more tomorrow. I worry that I’m going to be out of vacation mode and back into stressed work-mode upon my return to New York, so gotta squeeze out as much as I can, here…

Jose Ignacio


Buenos Aires, Part 1

Sunday, January 9, 2011

So, I’m in Buenos Aires with Christin. It’s early afternoon Sunday and we’ve just been kind of slowly puttering around Rocio’s house — drinking coffee; eating a small breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, toast, and ham; reading things on the internet (including a bunch about this whole, terrible Gabrielle Giffords shooting episode, which has spawned several long conversations). We’re taking it easy. We mostly did this yesterday, as well (Saturday): Except for a sojourn out to grab a late lunch, we mostly just hung out at the house until dinnertime. Which was good, actually. Especially after a rather intense few days traveling around Uruguay last week. We have to balance being tourists out here with relaxing so we’re not exhausted upon our return home.

Anyway — taking a step back… The flight out here on December 30th was a bit of a mess. New York had been snowed under, so our 11:30pm (December 29th) flight got pushed back and back and finally got off the ground at about 4:30am. Which. Wow. Let me say a couple things about LAN airlines. First: The flights themselves were fantastic. I’m not the best air traveller — I tend to feel really cramped up by the confined spaces and vaguely terrorized by the simply fact of hurtling through the air at high speeds. But. The LAN planes had great legroom and the flights were just very easy to get through, considering that we spent about twelve hours total in the air. The second thing about LAN, though: So we missed our connecting flight out of Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires. Because of the delays in New York. Fine. It happens. But the people at the airports in both New York and in Santiago were on the edge of being useless. They did get us on a decent connecting flight (finally — after initially putting us on a flight that would’ve arrived in Buenos Aires at about midnight, December 31st). But not until we waited in long lines, battled people who gave us no good information, and just kind of worked our way through a half-dozen employees who just kind of leisurely didn’t appear to give a shit about anything. Really frustrating. (One other American couple we met and commiserated with were repeatedly sent to the same gate, being told that their plane there was boarding. They went three times, I think. No plane. No people at the gate. Nothing. Frustrating.)

At any rate: We survived, got in at about 11pm local time on the 30th, and were greeted at the house by Rocio, her significant other Mariano, and a couple friends they happened to have over for drinks (and their wiry little 11-month-old pastel calico kitten, Kika). Very nice people, all of them, and we had a great time hanging out and relaxing (finally) in the warm night air on their patio (one of three this place has). We spoke mostly in English, as Christin and I chose to do our duty as freedom-loving Americans and not at all brush up on our Spanish before coming out here (though we are getting better — Christin, especially — and I can ask where the bathroom is like a champ). The also introduced us to Fernet (a liquor that is accurately described as “black licorice-flavored Listerine” — but in a good way), which Argentines apparently like mixing with Coke (or Coke Light) and drinking very, very cold. We had some. It’s an acquired taste, for sure. It’s a pretty intense flavor pairing with the soda, but we had some and enjoyed it. (I ordered some from a restaurant later and enjoyed it less — Fernet and Coke may not be for me, but I’m still kind of up in the air on it.)

Going to sleep that night and waking to the bright, bright, warm sun were kind of surreal given how stressful those final days of preparations and dealing with the Christmas holidays and squaring away work had been. I have been tinkering with work tasks here and there, but it’s been so nice to simply have the time blocked out. I’m already feeling excited to get back home and get my fingers back in my projects — which is, I think, an excellent sign. I really enjoy the work I do, but I was experiencing pretty severe burnout the past few months. Now I no longer fantasize about throwing away my computer and getting a nice city job digging holes somewhere in Queens. In that regard, this trip has been a necessary break. Part of my New Year’s Resolution, as well, is to improve my work-life balance. Just having some separation from New York allows my brain a bit of space to cogitate on how to make that happen… Anyway.

What else? So, yeah — despite the threat that we would have to fly in New Year’s Eve, we did actually get here the night of the 30th and were able to celebrate NYE in the city. Rocio and Mariano have been traveling, as well, so they took off the morning of the 31st and we had the place to ourselves. We checked out the neighborhood that day. We’re staying in the heart of Palermo Soho (a subsection of the much larger Palermo part of town). The “Soho” in the name isn’t a coincidence — it’s a sunny neighborhood full of clothing stores and gift shops and bars and restaurants and very much to Buenos Aires what SoHo is to New York. But, y’know, Buenos Aires is clearly a city in the process of turning into something nice. It’s on its way, but not quite there yet. Even right around here it’s kind of shocking how things can go from very, very nice to dirty and dilapidated in less than a block. And automotive emission standards are a libertarian dream come true: Many cars and buses pump out thick black clouds of smoke and the whole town smells of exhaust. So. We wandered the hood, poked our head into a few places, and moseyed around with an eye on places to be for the actual New Year’s Eve celebration.

And here’s where I made my most grievous error of the trip (so far — we’ve still got a week).

So. New Year’s Eve. A trendy part of town. The equation in my mind led to the conclusion: There will be a bajillion people down here and it will be well-nigh impossible to get a table reservation. Especially since we don’t have a phone and would need to either reserve in person or show up at dinnertime and cross our fingers. So. We walked by some Italian place that seemed open and suggested we just go in, see if we can make a reservation, and at least have a place to be. Christin kind of hemmed and hawed, not really into the idea, but also (like me) not really knowing exactly what to expect and worried that we might be left with no options at all. So we did it, and paid the stupid deposit. And kind of worriedly went on our way. Nothing else really presented itself, so when the time came later that evening, we just went for it.

And, honestly: This is the worst meal I’ve ever had at a restaurant. I don’t even remember the name of this horrible place. On Honduras street near Godoy Cruz street. We sat outside along he street, which was nice. But let me describe this culinary adventure: It started with some kind of eggplant parmesan thing which had clearly been made earlier in the day and microwaved before being cut into squares. Kind of rubbery. Flavorless. The the main courses. I had some kind of cold meat. Christin had penne pasta in a sauce which tasted like ketchup. Also cold. And then desert, which was a plate with a few stale Jordan almonds and a variety of other shitty-looking sweet things they probably just picked up from the neighborhood supermercado earlier in the day. All for the reasonable price of U$S 50 (ish) apiece, prix fixe. Just awful. Sub TV dinner grade stuff. We did get through it, though. No one really did a countdown, so it just kind of suddenly was 2011 and then the much more interesting part of the night began.

Buenos Airians (? — “porteños?”)… BA’ers love their fireworks. On my pre-dinner run across the neighborhood to pull some money from an ATM (fun fact: most places only take cash, but ATMs are extremely hard to come by and most of them that you do find are broken, anyway)… On my run to the ATM I passed by a couple handfuls of kids popping loud firecrackers in the streets. POP POP POP. Loud, but otherwise harmless. After dinner, the entire neighborhood went off. It sounded like a warzone, with firecrackers just going off seemingly on every street and every intersection. Sound everywhere. And mixed in, the occasion larger crashing KABANG like a dumpster exploding. And at regular intervals more traditional fireworks streaking into the sky and colorfully exploding. We walked back towards the house from The Horrible Place and just kind of took it in. On Borges street (where we’re staying) a bunch of people had gathered around a large drum circle sort of event. We grabbed some beer and watched (and copiously videoed on our iDevices) the sea of people. A really good time, especially since the weather was so warm and we could be out and under the stars. We walked around a bit more and eventually wound up home.

A good night, overall. When traveling, things go wrong. I’m definitely of the opinion that you aim for the best when going to a new place, but you’re going to screw up and you’re going to have some uncomfortable moments, but to a certain degree that’s just Part of the Experience and you have to relish it and not be too negative about it. There has been a lot of complaining in this post, but he trip has been great so far. And this only really takes us up to the New Year. I’ve got to wrap up here so we can go do some stuff with our day, but I’ll write up more about our trip to Uruguay and other stuff when I get a chance in the next few days. And I’ll post more photos.


Flying Lanterns

Friday, September 3, 2010

I’ve never seen these things before, although Cory mentioned they’re popular in Thailand… Flying lanterns. We picked three up at some junk shop for kids in Montauk proper on a whim — and they turned out to be quite beautiful. We successfully put two aloft and watched them drift off slowly off into deep space over the ocean, fading fading fading until we couldn’t make them out anymore against the stars. The third experienced a mis-launch and wound up pretty much immediately in the surf. Anyway: Some photos of the event.


Josh@IgniteNYC: Games in Social Media

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

IgniteNYC finally posted my video from their event during Internet Week here in New York. It’s a condensed version of the talk I gave at SXSW’10 called “Add Some XBOX to Your UX.” I don’t have a video of that, but I wrote up the entire talk in article format which you are invited to check out here.

Update: Vote for my SXSW 2011 talk!

If you liked the talk above, please make sure to go vote for my SXSW’11 submission, +10! Level Up! Games and Social Media. It’s going to be an expansion on some of the ideas touched on in this talk and in my talk at SXSW’10. And leave a comment, if you feel just so inclined. Thanks!


Advice for the Novice UX Designer

Monday, July 19, 2010

So. I am a user experience designer. It’s not the first thing I bill myself as these days, but once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away those two words did sit boldly on my business card. And, in fact, I have been doing some form of interaction design since 1996 and have been a student of the field since around 1999-2000. This is not to brag, just to make sure it’s clear that I’ve actually got some sort of credentials, here.

Over the years I have been lead developer on myriad projects. And I often find myself having to interpret and build from user experience design documents that you might call, well, novice. Now, UX is an art. There’s some science behind it, but it’s an art at its core — you have to feel it a bit. It’s like music. There’s a science and math behind the tones and structures, but to really make music you have to kind of know that stuff but, maybe more importantly, you just kind of have to feel the music. Novices can “feel the music” with UX and produce really great stuff. And there are a million ways to get creative with UX. Apple shows us this. Some of their little micro-UX innovations have similar cultural impact of pop songs — small user experience brainworms that you can’t get out of your head after you experience them once. Think of how well your iPhone has trained you. Pinch zoom. The home button.

And like any form of art, I think user experience design actually benefits from the participation of novices — people who haven’t been fully brought up to speed on the orthodoxy who will dig in and make new things, even if they’re kind of weird or “wrong” in the professional sense or whatever. The tools of UX are not hard — you can use a paper and pen (I do!). And anyone can look at something — a website, an app — and think about how it has been designed with the user in mind. I’m not at all elitist about music or writing and I’m certainly not going to get elitist on someone for experimenting with design. These things improve when the masses start creating and the technical vernacular becomes common language.

So I love when new people get involved with user experience design and I’m a complete advocate of new designers getting their hands messy with new ideas. But. I would like to offer one major suggestion to help bridge the gap from novice user experience designer to professional. It’s one idea that will improve the quality of your work if you’re new to the field. It will also help the developers who will implement your idea be able to do so efficiently and with as few headaches as possible.

Learn the “inherent nature” of the platform you are designing for. Let’s use iPhone as an example. Hold it. Play with it. Think about each action you take to do something and how each element looks and works. The tabs. How those tabs look and work. Navigation bars along the top (those bars with “page” titles and sometimes “back” buttons). Tables. Surely you’re very familiar with how those work on the iPhone, those things that slide up and down with a list of options and when you select one it slides out to the left and whatever you selected slides in from the right. Even real basic stuff. Helvetica. It’s everywhere. White backgrounds are very common. Buttons and icons. Notice the consistency (at least across Apple’s apps). That’s the “inherent nature” of the device. That’s what it was designed to be like. Bland, maybe. But. That is what you will be building from when you design your app. There’s no getting around it. Apple has gone out of their way to create solid solutions to common UX problems. And users have been well-trained. They know how tab bars along the bottom of the screen work. They know how tables work. They know what a button looks like. Etc.

I am a minimalist designer at heart. Every design element needs to have a reason for existing or else it’s noise. (“It looks better” can sometimes be a good reason — see below. “It looks better even though it confuses people” is a bad reason.) My advice to you, the novice UX designer, is to build on top of the “inherent nature” of the device. Be boring, but be crystal clear. Change things only when absolutely necessary. Establish the bare minimum difference between your UX design and the out-of-the-box UX design that the iPhone ships with — the bare minimum that still allows your app to do what it needs to do. Do not reinvent wheels. Do not succumb to the need to show off or do something differently just because you’re a badass. Reinventing some existing UX paradigm in a flashy way is generally the hallmark of an amateur. Amatuers do not understand UX with much depth and confuse wanton rearrangement with actual innovation. Don’t innovate! It’s okay. User experience design is not about innovation, it’s about creating clarity for your users. Don’t sacrifice the latter for the former.

If you start from the “inherent nature” of the platform and design your app (or website or whatever) from that starting point, deviating only when necessary, will accomplish two things right away:

  1. Users will not have to relearn how your app works! They’ll already know, because they already know how an iPhone works.

  2. Developers will have a much easier time building your creation. They will do it faster. Cheaper. And because you are being more clear, they will understand better what you’re after. Keep in mind, most development platforms have built into them very easy ways to do all of the basic building-block sorts of tasks. Let your developers use these! Do not make them rebuild something from the ground up for no good reason.


I know that you do not want a generic iPhone app or website that’s just black and white and full of boring Helvetica. Especially brands. They want their iPhone app to look like their branding! Which is great!

But here’s how that works. You do the above. Make the boring thing. Make it usable and easy for your developers. (Developer ease takes a backseat way, way behind usability, of course — but unless you’re very lucky, you probably don’t have an unlimited budget for your project, so developer effort can be important.) Do these things. Only then, as a last step, should you look at what you have and take a very critical look at how you might apply a visual theme to the user experience design without interrupting that design. You can do easy things like applying graphics or changing the colors of elements without interfering with their visibility or the overall visual hierarchy. (Interrupting the visual hierarchry would be, for example, making the brightest thing on the screen the least important thing to the user. Websites do this all the fucking time when they decide to make an article headline blend into the background while four million ads, a giant header graphic, and several dozen little “share this!” widgets jump around on screen. Apps do this, too! Here’s a fun little user experience game you can play at home! The next time you’re using some app (or website), stop for a second. Think of two things: 1) What’s the most important thing here? Why am I using this app or reading this page? 2) what’s the most visually striking thing? What gets my attention first? Are these two things the same thing? They usually should be. They’re often not.) Ahem. As I was saying, when making decisions about modifying the look of your initial UX design or applying a visual theme, you need to be aware of not diminishing the quality of the user experience. It’s amazing how often this happens.

Remember, also, that design elements like this are communication. Do what you need to communicate your brand clearly. Nothing more. Every single design element needs a reason for existing. Extra design is the same as extra UX: unnecessary noise.

One final point. Understanding the inherent nature of the platform you’re designing for will save you from making really amateur and obvious mistakes. Think text fields in iPhone apps. What always happens when a user selects a text field on an iPhone that might affect how you place that field on the screen? How does one type letters on a device with no hardware keyboard? Right. Plan for that. Text field on the bottom half of the screen? Is that the best place for that? Pay attention to this kind of stuff. It’s important.

So this is my rant. I’ve kind of focused on iPhone UX, here, but all of this goes for web UX, as well. Or any platform. iPad. Android. Desktop applications. Know the inherent nature of the platform! Really get in there. Think about how the designers of the core operating system or platform intended for it to be used. Stray from that, but intelligently. And not just for the sake of being weird or as a way to show your client what a rockstar you are. (Nobody cares if you’re a rockstar.) The user comes first. I know what I’m talking about. Pay attention to the above. You’ll get much better results all around.

Thank you. Goodnight.


Thrillist for iPhone is Live!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hey — just a quick note:

Thrillist for iPhone has launched. Get it in the App Store. Check it out. Find a new place to eat or someplace to get drinks this weekend. It’s good for that!

I lead development of this sucker — along with Zoe Roman, Jesse Boyes, and Cam BenBassat. We’re quite proud. Rawk.