Yes, I did.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Rebecca and Jimmy Get Married

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rebecca Bray and Jimmy Graver — “Brayver,” for the portmanteauphiles — got married a couple of weekends ago. October 12th. Very nice! (And, coincidentally, on the same weekend my friends Christian and Shilpa got married in D.C. — congrats!)

So. I’m not sure of the full story. But, as far as I understand it, Rebecca’s family — the Hurlbuts — have owned this farm in western Connecticut for about 280 years. Her aunt and uncle live and farm there, now, but Rebecca spent some of her youth living there and it’s a special place to all of the extended Hurtbut clan. And it’s a beautiful piece of land — so what better place to have the wedding. Outside. Under a tall, craggy tree. Amidst the bright Autumn colors.

Instead of walking down the aisle, Rebecca and Jimmy made their entrance through a corridor of apple tress. Which — incidentally — our wacky band of misfit asses almost missed due to a rather inept adventure renting a minivan and driving (six of us) from Manhattan up to Hurlbutland. Turns out it takes four hours to make a two-hour drive if you take forever at the car rental place and then get lost somewhere in the Bronx. So we arrived literally minutes before the ceremony began. Not enough time to grab any snacks or booze from the food tent the family had set up, but just enough time to unload in the bathroom after at least an hour of “we can’t stop!!!” as we zoomed by anything along the highway that we might’ve been able to urinate on. Whew. But we got there. And it was lovely.

The wedding was not religious. Instead Rebecca and Jimmy did something unique: They invited six couples from their lives to come up together and say a few words about how they made their relationships work. Each one had a different theme and, I believe, made a little art project to give to Rebecca and Jimmy. Some young friends spoke and some older couples spoke. Rebecca’s moms — in the photo above — said a few words about their relationship, as well, and sung a cute duet (I forget which song, though!). Rebecca’s bio-mom (left) looks just like her. Again, very nice. And thoughtful. Not boring. No offense to anyone whose weddings I’ve attended, but the ceremonies themselves can be a bit dry. Using it as a kind of salon on the topic of long-term love, though, was great.

And then Rebecca and Jimmy said their vows. A couple things to note: 1) Jimmy wore the same suit his grandfather got married in. 2) Jimmy’s an actor. As is his brother (who provided the musical accompaniment for the afternoon on acoustic guitar, as well). Having actorly people throw a wedding is kind of great. Wedding is theater and it’s fun to have a creative presentation. And it just makes it more meaningful for everyone than just doing the typical thing. So. Very lovely service.

Afterwards, we boozed it up. The bartenders made some pretty strong rye and ciders. Left-to-right: Josh Klein, Christin, Kati, Chell.

The wedding dinner took place in a converted greenhouse. We had assigned seating and each of our seats had a book on it for us, picked out by either Rebecca or Jimmy. I got a copy of “A Brief History of Time” which I accidentally left. Erk.

Sheep! Yup, it’s a farm.

Chris and Christin. After dinner. We mingled around with a bunch of different people, including some of Jimmy’s friends, Jimmy’s brother, one of the women who worked on the Meatrix with Rebecca, and Rebecca’s British brother — who’s about eighteen and at just that age where he’s trying to figure out religion and philosophy and “deeper meaning of life” types of things. Having a background in such things myself, I enjoyed having a slightly tipsy discussion with him about it. Jimmy’s brother was also interesting — he regaled us with stories of his life as an actor in LA.

I took a break after dinner to try to get some interesting night shots of the area. They mostly turned out quite blurry and not-so-great — I had no good way to stabilize my camera for long-exposure stuff. This one I liked, though.

After dinner and a couple hours of drinking and talking over near the greenhouses, the full wedding party broke up a bit and those of us who were planning on staying the night (and a few others) relocated up the hill to a bonfire set up near the tents. Some of us took turns down at the rental minivan changing back into our outdoor attire, although by that point my nice new dress shoes and slacks had been pretty well dirtied up by wet grass and mud. So it goes. But, man. It was so nice up by the fire. The night got cold. The fire was toasty. (Although: No marshmallows. Boo.)

I took a few sneaky shots of Rebecca and Jimmy by the fire. Jimmy has a bongo drum. A guitar also circulated through the crowd. Being able to play a bass guitar does not mean you can play a regular guitar. Unless you’re drunk.

And so, yes — the night was bitter cold. Christin and I were stuffed in our sleeping bags in the tent and the tent sat somewhat on an angle on the hill, so we sort of slowly slid to one side as the night progressed. By morning everything had become damp with dew and I took a considerable amount of time to get my pants on and trudge my way barefoot through damp, thick grass down the hill to the minivan to change clothes and then to the small outdoor sink to brush my teeth and make some feeble attempt to control my hair. The family had set out a small continental breakfast sort of thing in the greenhouse, so I hung out with Klein and some other folks over coffee and pastries.

You can see our tent camp and remains of the fire pit above. Rebecca and Jimmy spent their night in a cabin up in the woods a bit, still on the property.

After Christin got up and active we, of course, made our way down to the sheep pen, again. This time I was allowed to pull down the wheelbarrow full of butternut squash husks that had been used as soup bowls the night before, which we tossed out to the animals. Above Christin’s feeding one to one of what I called the “emo cows.”

A note about the sheep. So. You can see different colored splotches on some of them. Pink. Blue. This is how the people running the farm know who has mated with whom. The males all have packets of colored chalk strapped between their front legs. So when they mount a female, they also leave a colored streak on her back. (And some of those ladies had quite a density of colored chalk streaks, not to make any moral judgments.) Fun fact!

Being Connecticut in Autumn, obviously there was much to photograph.

Getting off the farm took some effort. First, there were six of us carpoolers scuttling around here-and-there. Second, there was a bit of clean-up to attend to and we didn’t feel altogether comfortable just leaving the mess for the few remaining family and guests. So I helped take down the tent that had been over the outside bar and we did some trash removal at the firepit/campsite. This and that. Eventually, though, we got everyone stuffed into the minivan and were on our way. (Klein, as well, found a praying mantis eggsack which I’ll let him explain to you if you ask him. He used it to play an entertaining round of scare-the-shit-out-of-Christin and now has it somewhere in his home. Which I assume his wife Hulda is totally happy about.)

We didn’t get far.

So the Hurlbut’s also have a small country store at the edge of their property. Though officially closed on that Monday, when she got word that we were poking around Rebecca’s aunt came down and opened up the place for us. Christin did our produce shopping for the week and we got the grand tour of the place. I got my parents a few jarred items. The whole place was just incredibly cute. They even had a small rabbit hutch in the front with a shaggy puff of an angora rabbit inside. Smokey was his name, if I remember correctly.

So, anyway, we got home safe (after a quick bit to eat in a little restaurant/convenience store in Connecticut) and got the car returned and finally got home, showered, and took a nap. Good times! Rebecca and Jimmy should totally get married again next fall. Thanks, R&J! And, of course, congrats on getting married!


Games, Movies, Football, and “the Model.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Cross-posted to Game Design Advance.

I started watching the “Speed Racer” movie last night. And fell asleep in the middle. But it still kind of triggered a cascade of thoughts about games and movies and narrative and such. Maybe nothing terribly new — but, like a clean pre-owned car, new to me. So.

I’ve been reading Jim Rossignol’s new book, This Gaming Life. (Awesome cover, by the way.) It’s good as a kind of well-written overview of the state of computer gaming in 2007, not incredibly deep, but fun to read and with a fun travelogue feel. In one chapter he writes about Will Wright’s notion of “the model” — which Wright speaks of in this Seed conversation I found: “Well, when kids … play a game there’s a model in the computer that they’re playing against. And when they play they’re reverse-engineering that model. As they get better at the game, they get a more accurate representation of that computer model.” And that’s quite satisfying, the feeling of discovering how the game works. Again, nothing shockingly new, but I liked the way he put it and while I’ve added “game mechanic” to my vocabulary over the past few years, thinking in terms of a game being a combination of a mechanic and a model seems useful. Maybe they’re really one-in-the-same, but there seems to be some subtle distinction. Okay.

“Speed Racer” is like a fourteen-pound bag of Skittles — an over-saturated sugar explosion with almost nothing apart from that immediate rush. And I think it’s one of these movies which has decided to be more “video game-like.” I’m trying to think of other examples of these, but I think most major superhero movies have sequences which are supposed to be “video game-like.” And they usually kind of suck, except in the raw sugary spectacle sense. Why? Because in “Speed Racer,” at least, I have no idea what the “model” is. Flickering clips of cars spinning around and doing all sorts of cartoony shit with almost no attempt at internal consistency — it’s nearly impossible to cheer for a win when I don’t know what the rules are, what the track looks like, or, really, anything about this hyperreal racing universe. The story sucks — they attempt to make me care by setting up a story of the little guy taking on the corrupt Ol’ Boys Network. But I don’t care. If the only thing worthwhile about your movie is the racing scenes, then I want to know more about how the racing works.

I want to contrast this with John Madden’s take on football. I don’t watch too much football, but I found this article, Summa Cum Madden, fascinating. (BugMeNot login here.) Long quote:

“During [an early game], Madden diagrammed Bill Walsh’s new West Coast offense on the CBS Chalkboard, an early version of the Telestrator, and pushed CBS producers to abandon the TV-friendly tight shots for wider angles that showed how the players work together. ‘He told me, “You ever show me a replay with just a guy running with the ball in his hand, you can expect silence,”’ says Sandy Grossman, who was Madden’s director for 21 years. Thus, the first tenet of Maddenism: a football game can be understood only by analyzing all its complexity. As he once put it: ‘Football isn’t nuclear physics, but it’s not so simple that you can make it simple. It takes some explaining to get it across.’”

And this is kind of what’s exciting, right? I don’t really care if some over-paid jock hot dogs or thanks Jesus when he makes a touchdown. I don’t really care if Speed races to save his family’s motorsports business. But if you want me to get into a game — even a completely fictional one — I have to have some sense of what’s going on and some sense that if I were to put myself into the game, I would still be wowed by the pure awesome skill or athleticism of the characters — real or fake — also playing that game. It’s not fun to watch videos of people kicking ass at Halo because I don’t play Halo or know Halo. It is fun to watch people kicking ass at Team Fortress 2. Because I love that game and if someone does something spectacular, well, that’s meaningful to me.

So that’s all I really have to say about that. If I had to make a recommendation for the next director of a “Speed Racer”-like movie, it would be: Give me some way to understand what the actual game or sport is in the story — give me a sense of the “model” (show me what the track looks like, for example) — so when something cool happens, I give a shit. It’s tough, but if pro football can be explained to a bunch of people who’ve quite possibly never held a pigskin, then surely this can be done. At least it would give your movie something to occupy its time with instead of some dumbshit canned plot. I’m excited to see games that are more cinematic and movies that want to include elements of video game culture. But while developers of the former seem to be innovating hard, creators of the latter seem to be flailing.


Interview with Biz Stone of Twitter

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Note: This is the second of a few interview pieces I originally wrote for the now-defunct Nokia Workshop blog. That blog died before these could go up, so I’m going to post them here instead. Thanks go out to the folks who took the time to participate — and apologies that these couldn’t wind up somewhere slightly more prominent.

If you’re at all interested in social software or mobile applications you’re probably familiar with Twitter, the simple SMS broadcasting tool that launched a couple of years ago. Twitter has continued to grow at a fast clip and has taken on a certain amount of cultural resonance, so I decided to ask Twitter Co-Founder and Creative Director Biz Stone a few questions about the social design and interaction design behind the service.

I should note, also, that Twitter has a lovely API which indie developers or experimenters might find quite useful.

Josh: Twitter is sort of shockingly simple. I’d like to know more about the initial design choices: How did you settle upon Twitter’s interaction model?

Biz: Our inspiration was the concept of status-like the away message in Instant Message applications. However, current status is only so interesting when you’re always in front of a computer so we wanted to take that idea and make it mobile. That’s where SMS came in. When we built the web site, we thought a little push in the right direction would help so we came up with the question, “What are you doing?”

Josh: Were there existing mobile apps that influenced and inspired you guys to build it as you did?

Biz: There were no existing mobile apps that inspired us. Instead, we took inspiration from broader subjects like the dispatch industry and the history of the telegraph.

Josh: Yeah, Twitter has a sort of “telegraph-like” feel to it. Have you read “The Victorian Internet” by Tom Standage? Were there any specific ways that looking at the dispatch or telegraph industry informed Twitter’s design?

Biz: Yes, I happened to be reading that book around the time we first prototyped Twitter. There was nothing specific that informed the design — I’d say it was more of an inspiration.

Josh: Did you have to actively hold yourselves back from adding features that might’ve cluttered the project? And how have you gone about deciding which features to incorporate post-launch (such as the “@username” means of addressing someone)?

Biz: To some extent yes, we needed to restrain ourselves from adding complexity with additional features. However, it helped that the service got very popular and we had less time for feature building. In general we prefer to take our time and allow behavior to show us how we can make the service better. When we saw users adopting an @username protocol we decided to implement it in the system and created the “Replies” tab so folks could track those links.

Josh: Is the 140-character message length holy, or is it merely an artifact of the length of an SMS? Would Twitter ever consider raising or lowering the allowed message length?

Biz: The 140 character length is holy to us but it is also an artifact of the length of an SMS. From the beginning, we wanted our service to be device agnostic — a message created on a computer should work when received via SMS. The lowest common denominator was 160 character messages of SMS and we left 20 characters for the username. However, we also very much believe that constraint inspires creativity so the 140 character limit is not going to change.

Josh: The Twitter API seems like an important factor in Twitter’s success. Have there been applications built on top of Twitter by third-party developers that have particularly impressed Team Twitter? Anything especially bizarre or unexpected?

Biz: The API has been a boon to Twitter and it accounts for a much larger percentage of traffic than even our web site. Several applications built on our API have particularly impressed us including Twitterriffic which as recently won an Apple Design Award and Twittervision which was recently featured in New York City’s MoMA. Early on, we used to be confused when at 5pm PST each day Twitter seemed to be taken over by what appeared to be lots of kittens twittering in Japanese. It turns out there was a popular tamagotchi game built on Twitter — that was bizarre. I think the plant that Twitters when it needs water is strangely compelling too.

Josh: What about community-forming? Were there conscious and pro-active steps you took to develop and nurture the early Twitter community? Do you have any suggestions for social application developers on that front?

Biz: We attracted early adopters and our API helped form a developer community around Twitter. My only suggestion would be that you’re building a product for yourself as well as others. Everything else forms around that — or doesn’t if you’re not personally interested.

Josh: Are there groups who use Twitter that have totally surprised you? Twitter’s effect on social justice movements, for example, is fascinating.

Biz: For sure, the story of James Buck who escaped from an Egyptian prison using Twitter highlights the social justice and activism use cases. Emergency workers and news organizations who value the real-time nature of the Twitter network were not exactly a surprise but their fairly rapid adoption has been pretty impressive.

Josh: It seems like many people have strong opinions about what Twitter should or should not do. For example, some people think it should have groups. Or it should have more refined privacy controls. Or whatever. You probably hear a ton of these. How does something go from suggestion to being built into the Twitter infrastructure? Are there any new features like this in the pipe or is this the sort of thing that you like to see users take care of themselves via the API or other hacks?

Biz: It’s true, many people talk about wish-list features. However, it’s important to measure activity and behavior patterns as well. You’d be surprised at how many people bring up a feature and then just as quickly dismiss it because they love the simplicity of Twitter. We have to be careful what we add to the experience. Certainly, API projects that solve certain user needs are beneficial to us so we continue to encourage that work.

Josh: Where does Twitter go from here? Will there be various regional (or socially-regional) Twitter clones that exist mostly independently similar to how Facebook and MySpace users remain walled apart? Or will we see a rise of services that bridge between these?

Biz: We’d like to see Twitter grow into a global utility around the world. We see existing networks like those you mentioned as devices not dissimilar from SMS. Twitter will remain complimentary to these services as well as new services inspired by Twitter.

Josh: And what about more powerful mobile devices that can run fuller-featured apps and aren’t constrained to text messages? Does Twitter depend on outside developers building on the API in those cases? Like Twitterrific for the iPhone.

Biz: Patterns are emerging on Twitter. Already we see three different types of messages — traditional status updates, replies or conversational updates, and messages sharing some form of media. Right now, sharing anything over Twitter is done via URL which renders as linked text and conversations can be hard to keep track of. We’ll be looking at these patterns and considering ways to improve the experience while remaining simple and true to form.

Josh: Thanks for your time!

Biz: Sure thing!


Indietronica + Recent Music Purchases

Monday, August 11, 2008

The word isn’t really seriously used anymore to describe a musical genre. In fact, it feels dated. Like “Electroclash” (except, thank god, without evoking the same sorts of trendoid awfulness). Indietronica was probably never officially trendy. It’s lightly maudlin sit-at-home-at-night music, for the loner in you. What you listen to when you’re not going out. Downtempo. Lightly pop-flavored, often with lyrics. With a tendency towards the easygoing complexification of IDM. The Postal Service probably represent the genre’s peak moment of popularity. Four Tet is another big name. Fennesz’s Endless Summer qualifies (the rest of his output: maybe). Damn near anything on the Morr Music label, for sure.

I’m sitting at home by myself, drinking a few beers and catching up on some work. It’s about midnight. And I’ve been rediscovering. Their “Digitalis” channel is the “indietronica” channel. In a remarkable way it takes me right back to 1999-2003 or so, the indietronica hey-day when I was really into this stuff — even tracks that were recorded after that period. It’s more of the general mood. Sitting alone. Windows open to a summer night. Tip-tapping away on the laptop. Music playing lightly in the background.

I’ve been bookmarking music I hear (mostly on, but also just “around”) and have been allowing myself to buy one album per week. I had been kind of stuck in a sad state of listening to old crap I’d heard a million times and probably wasn’t really all that great to begin with. (Is this what most people’s listening habits are like once they hit, say, thirty?) So I’ve been getting new stuff. And really getting into it.

Want to know what I’ve bought recently? Okay! They’re surely not all “indietronica,” but they lean in that direction. A lot’s just electronic-flavored pop. Some is elsewhere altogether. In fact, there’s really not much connection to the paragraphs above. Anyway, in order:

  • The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee: I bought this while in Vienna on the strength of this amazing video for the first track “Again and Again.” It’s just almost unbearably adorable to anyone who sits in front of their Mac all day (like me). The album’s hit-or-miss, but “Again and Again” and “I Hate Camera” are really, really good little pop songs.

  • Alan Wilkis, Babies Dream Big: This guy lives in Williamsburg somewhere and I’d kinda like to meet him sometime. The album, as far as I know, is a much more homemade sort of affair than even most “indie” music is. Electronic pop with a funky edge or something — it sounds like it’s got references stretching across swaths of music wider than I’m familiar with. But very, very good stuff. And straight-up fun, for the most part. “Milk and Cookies” and “I’m Famous” are great. Good Magazine uses both along with “It’s Been Great” for their “get to know the candidates” video. Learn something about the candidates and hear some good music. A two-fer. (And re-watching those videos is a good reminder that, whether you think they’d make good presidents or not, all three have pretty extraordinary biographies.) So, yeah: Alan Wilkis for president.

  • Twine, Violets: Moody, atmospheric textures. Vaguely creepy. Good for late listening in dim rooms. Bad for jogging.

  • Fancey, Schmancey: One of the New Pornographers, his side-project. Very much like NP, but with a lighter production. At least, that’s when it’s at its best. Not electronic music by any stretch of the term. Guitars. Drummer. Organ. “Gulf Breeze” and “Lost in Twilight” I really like. And the super-catchy “Call.”

  • Pole, Steingarten: Pole is Pole. Minimalist German electronic dub. Somehow simultaneously warm and cold. Good to program by. Like every other Pole album.

  • Modeselektor, Happy Birthday!: Electro-flavored IDM. More Germans, and it sounds like it. Tendency towards a dense, nearly claustrophobic throbbing synth sound. I kind of got it just to study that a bit. “Happy Birthday!” and “Déboutonner” are my favs.

  • One Second Bridge, One Second Bridge: Dreampop a la Slowdive or Chapterhouse, with dips into glitched-apart drone guitar landscapes. Very lush. Nice. Good to leave on in the background.

  • Capitol K, Nomad Junk: Okay, so this is my favorite new find of probably the past six months. Definitely “indietronica.” A bright, colorful swirl of electronic pop laced with dense textures of sounds recorded while in southeast Asia. Process-wise, it reminds me a lot of Herbert’s Score, but just simply way catchier and friendlier, less academic (if that makes sense). Not weighted down by poltics. Fairly goofy at points — “Can’t Lie Down,” for example (which is great). “House of Representatives” is almost exactly what it sounds like in my brain when I’ve got my head down, hard at work doing something like coding (in case you wondered). When I’m experiencing flow, that’s what it sounds like. “Taipei” is a gorgeous sort of trip-hop affair full of samples of mysterious singing and atmospherics. “Barcelona,” uptempo dub, also very good. “Jamboree,” an appropriately festive little Four Tetian guitar jam that rises and rises. Really, there are very few not-great moments. And it reminds me somewhat of Sufjan Steven’s “Illinoise” — not because of the actual sounds or musical genre, but because it’s a similar sort of dense travelogue album — though it’s not nearly as serious about itself. (That may not make sense.) Also, like “Illinoise,” it rewards multiple listenings — there’s just a lot going on.

That is all.

Oh yeah: Why am I buying these albums, you ask? Y’know, as someone who earns a reasonable income, I just feel frankly weird not paying for music from independent artists. I’ll pirate the hell out of the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac or whatever — they’ve got their fat paychecks — but I know somewhat about what a financial pile of shit being a musician can be… I buy almost exclusively from Bleep or Amazon’s MP3 store, so I get non-DRMed music at a higher quality than I’m likely to find on Soulseek.



On Sean Tevis

Saturday, July 26, 2008

You’ve probably seen the Sean Tevis XKCD-style campaign comic. It’s a pretty fucking charming way for a politician to make their pitch, I must admit. (Tevis is running for Kansas House of Representatives District 15 — representing parts of Olathe, a Kansas City suburb, and some surrounding turf.) He seems like a great, smart guy and it’s sort of amazing to see what happens when an information architect — a web nerd (with a blog) — runs for office.

And while the outporing of internet love is great, people donating money to his campaign who do not live in his district are acting irresponsibly. He has apparently received donations from almost 6,000 people (~$50k). I bet almost none of those come from people who live in KS HR District 15. I’m not going to link to anyone specifically because I don’t want to be a jack-ass, but plenty of people who clearly do not live in Kansas have announced on their blogs or Twitter that they’ve given money. I don’t think this is right.

Everyone in the United States deserves proper representation in their state and national governing bodies. Sean Tevis is not running for representative of the Internet — he’s running for representative of Olathe, Kansas. I worry that by making him beholden to a vast network of contributors who live in California, New York, Texas, etc. that we are actually somewhat disenfranchising voters from that area. If you do not live in Olathe, you are not his constituent. If Olathe is conservative and would prefer to elect a conservative to represent them, well I certainly don’t personal agree with the politics. But that’s their decision. I have my own state and national representatives it’s their job to make my voice heard. Not Sean Tevis’. No matter how charming he may be.

I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My representative in the US House is Democrat Nydia Velázquez. She’s apparently quite a well-respected businesswoman — she chairs the House Small Business Committee and sits on the Financial Services Committee. My rep in the NY state Assembly is Joseph R. Lentol. And in the NY Senate, Martin Malavé Dilan. None of these people have cute web-meme-friendly comics on their sites, but I think the best way to use this excitement about Sean Tevis is not to give money to Sean Tevis — it’s to get excited about your local politics and learn a bit about what’s going on with the people who represent you. You’re paying them, after all…

End of rant.

July 27th Update: Sean Tevis responded in the comments (cool!) and I’ve somewhat revised my thoughts on the matter.


Reassembling the Studio

Friday, July 25, 2008

Andreas Tilliander at my Oscillate Night 01.

I’ve decided it’s time to reunite the band. Sort of like in the Blues Brothers, except instead of wrangling up my old hands at diners and dive bars I’m gathering together my software install DVDs and product activation codes. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but this afternoon it dawned on me that I could get Apple’s Logic Studio for cheap. Which includes Logic Pro 8 — the updated version of my compositional weapon-of-choice — along with a variety of other audio tools I don’t know but might be fun to fool with (like the Impulse Response Utility, which apparently lets you “snapshot” the reverb acoustics of a real-world space and import them into virtual reverb and spatialization plug-ins — whoa). So I purchased Logic Studio. Good for me.

Logic Pro, Ableton Live, and Native Instruments Komplete. My holy trinity of audio production and performance. They’re a good combination for the synthy sound I like. Flexible. And they don’t require any equipment besides the laptop. So now I’ve reacquired Logic. And I got the new Ableton Live free as a part of my Laptop Battle winnings — so I’m only really missing Komplete. My four-year-old, three-versions-out-of-date Komplete 2 install DVDs didn’t really work (not a huge surprise). So I’m deciding what I want to do about that.

Anyway, it’s been bugging me not having my little electronic music creative outlet these past couple of years. It’s also refreshing to think about making something that’s not interactive for a change. Maybe you’ll get lucky and if I know you I’ll start bugging you with my shitty techno.


Interview with Noel Chandler of Mosio

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Note: This is the first of a few interview pieces I originally wrote for the now-defunct Nokia Workshop blog. That blog died before these could go up, so I’m going to post them here instead. Thanks go out to the folks who took the time to participate — and apologies that these couldn’t wind up somewhere slightly more prominent.

Say hello to Mosio, if you haven’t already met, another application exploring new ways to build social software on top of simple text messaging. Mosio do Q-n-A: Text out a question and if someone using the service knows the answer (or is at a computer), they’ll send you a response. They won a 2008 SXSW Web Award — that’s where I first heard about the project. Co-founder Noel Chandler was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Josh: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for the blog.

Noel: My pleasure.

Josh: So the primary Mosio app is a crowd-sourced question-and-answer system that uses text messages. It’s like Yahoo! Answers or Ask Metafilter, maybe, but focussed on mobile.

Noel: Exactly, with more on-the-go focus, specifically tied to speed of results. People who are mobile want info asap.

Josh: To start, how did you arrive at this idea? Did you find that you were often in a situation where you needed such a service? Or did you begin by looking at the mobile space and dreaming up new modes of social interaction?

Noel: It was a little bit of both. My Co-Founder (Jay Sachdev) and I were working together on some cool projects for our regular jobs, found out we were both passionate about mobile over some drinks after work. From there we started talking about cool things you could do with your phone, built a few apps and then the “how cool would it be if you could text any question and have it answered by a real person?” idea came up, so we started building it. It sounds sort of cliche for a start-up to say “it all started out as an experiment,” but the truth is, it really did. In fact, the name Mosio is taken from “mociology” (mobile sociology), the study of how humans interact socially with mobile devices. We really just wanted to see what would happen.

Josh: Mosio seems like something that’s useless until you reach a critical mass of users. How did you go about building the Mosio community? Does receiving an award like the SXSW Web Award result in a boost of users?

Noel: Yeah, building a self-sustaining community is definitely not easy, but we were determined to make it work. Also, we were lucky enough to have a small group of friends and people who truly wanted to see it succeed, wanted to be able to have the service around when they needed information. Some of those same folks are still an active part of asking and answering, but in addition there’s a whole new group of people who we’re grateful to for continuing to make the service great. Without them it wouldn’t be helpful, informative, funny or addictive.

Winning at SXSW was such an amazing experience. Mosio started out as a “2 dudes in a garage” idea, our first office was literally in my garage, so being able to go to Austin, have a great time in a super fun city and bring home an award was great. The win has definitely helped increase the number of users and partners for us. I’m a marketing guy and Jay is the engineer, so while I’ve always wanted the party to be so big the house falls apart, he’s done a good job reminding me of the fact that if the house falls apart, everybody has to go home or find another place to party. Somewhere in between we have an incredible steady growth of amazing users sprinkled with growth spurts of new people who really like the service, so we’re both happy.

Josh: Are there any groups of Mosio users that you’re just totally surprised by? Or people using Mosio in ways you hadn’t thought of?

Noel: Definitely. I’m constantly surprised by people using the service, so helpful, yet there seems to be an irreverent and smart ass tone that they use when answering. People sometimes ask “why would I ask Mosio about the weather when I could just use Google SMS?” The reason is because Google SMS doesn’t respond back and tell you you’re lucky that your weather is warmer than where it is or that you should probably pack a jacket just in case. The human element keeps it really cool and the fact that people are volunteering to help each other makes it even better.

My favorite things are the “above and beyonds” with the site, true favors. They come in the form of making a phone call for that person, some people have asked for someone to make a dinner reservation and others have called a store to confirm something before they text back an answer (“I couldn’t find store hours on their site but I called for you and they’re open until 9pm.” or “They said they’d fix that kind of watch for $30 plus $5 for the battery.”) I never would have imagined that so much relationship advice would be given out or that people would be so nice and encouraging to those asking for it. It’s really cool.

Josh: It’s interesting to me that even in this age of sexy high-end phones like the Nokia Nseries and iPhones and such that the lowly text message still seems to have so much potential. Obviously Twitter, for example, has capitalized on this. Do you feel like this is just the fragmentation of the mobile communications space — similar to how we have instant messaging and e-mail and such co-existing on our computers — or will mobile applications eventually absorb the SMS function? Does Mosio have any plans for a mobile application?

Noel: Very true. I heard a quote the other night at a mobile event that was basically “targeting smart phones means 10% of the market. Targeting ‘dumb’ phones means 100% of the market.” While I agree and understand why it was said, at Mosio we believe in the near future almost all phones will be smart phones and we’re working under that premise. That said, I’m not sure if other mobile apps will completely absorb the SMS function, but I feel like there will always be a need for SMS, even if “short” means 500 characters instead of 160. We live in a burst culture where RSS feeds, headlines and status updates keep us informed. There’s always going to be a need for that quick, set-it-and-forget-it communication function on your mobile, kept separate from email. We love that SMS is ubiquitous, but we also have our SDKs open and studied. You’ll see a “beyond messaging” element to Mosio within the next 3 months.

Josh: How do you feel about the 160-character limit? I see you try to adhere to it, but there are some questions (and answers) which I suppose were asked via the web that go much longer. Do you consider it a limitation, the character limit, or a tool for keeping people a bit more concise and to-the-point?

Noel: I really think a lot can be done in 160 characters, but at times it can be limiting. This will show itself even more when a lot of free services begin to monetize and need the real estate to do so, cutting 160 characters to 120 or less. The way we extend that character limit is through a tool on our site that enables you to send a two message response, showing you what your response will look like before you send it. We did it so people could see all they had to do was truncate/abbreviate a word to save the asking person a text and I think people both utilize and enjoy the thinking behind it. I definitely like the by-product of keeping people short with their answers, because it prevents someone from just copying/pasting a whole page and blasting it, which is the exact opposite point. Mosio members now use the acronym WYGO (When You Get Online) to send a link where more information can be found later (or now if you’re really interested and have mobile web access). WYGO links are super helpful for that extra information, giving you the option to read it now or later.

Josh: I see you’ve integrated the Mosio Q-n-A service into the Twitter API. What led you in that direction? And how do you feel about the Twitter API? Are they offering an interesting sort of social platform for SMS-based apps a la the Facebook App platform (a stretch, maybe) where you plug into their social graph so people don’t have to go through the hassle of duplicating it on your site? Or is it just the popular hang-out of the day?

Noel: Our decision to develop it came down to two things:

1) We’re big Twitter fans and there’s an interesting thing going on with people seeing it used in certain ways and then immediately thinking of how they could use it or what they could create for it.

2) When we first built the Twitter Answers App, it was because we kept seeing all of these cool applications being built for Twitter, but mostly in the ways of either repackaging the tweets gleaned from the public timeline or new ways to post to Twitter. Through the same thinking I mentioned in #1 above, we created Twitter Answers.

Our thinking didn’t too much to do with plugging into the social graph or anything like that, we just thought it was a cool way to use Twitter. We haven’t created a Facebook App yet because we haven’t thought of anything yet that we feel would be a great way to use or contribute to Facebook for a long period of time. I think the social graph elements to all social networks is incredibly interesting, each has it’s own small nuances. For example, I found out a friend died from Facebook updates, I found out Tim Russert died from Twitter and I found out Heath Ledger died from Mosio when a handful of people all asked if it was true. Not to bring up such a sad topic, but each example is the distribution (and confirmation) of immediate information that is important to people.

Josh: Finally, where’s Mosio going in the future? I see you have a myriad other text messaging services at the site — everything from random humorous Chuck Norris “trivia” to automatic birthday reminders. Are you branching out to more services or are you keeping your focus on the Mosio Q-n-A application itself?

Noel: I can’t go into too much detail with specifics, but it’s a little bit of both. It all comes down to listening to what our users want. You can now post photos (video posting coming soon) which has turned out to be really well received in spite of the fact that we haven’t promoted it heavily on the site. The apps are helpful and let people use their phones in new ways, so we’ll be building out more of those with some more specific focus on Q&A + location.

Thanks so much for the interview!