#SXSW2009 – Bruce Sterling

I spent the last week at SXSW Interactive 2009 in Austin, TX. This was my second time attending. I’m still unpacking, physically and metaphorically, and I plan to post some thoughts and reactions over the next couple of days.

About the title: using # symbols is a trend that’s recently caught on in Twitter. It allows people to tag the context of their discussion. Use of these “hash tags” is hotly debated, but apppears to be here to stay.

I’ll start with the one of the sessions that I’ve been thinking about a lot these last couple of days. Author, journalist, futurist and “global microbrandBruce Sterling delivered his much-anticipated rant to a packed crowd. Bruce chastised us all for not doing enough. We’re all tweeting when we should be listening. We’re letting good art and good stories (and good publishers!) die by our inattention.

My takeaway from the session is this: I’m going to create more (things! not just digital artifacts). I’m going to try to be a better audience member and participant. I’m going to focus more on engaging people in conversation than just getting my point across. To quote Mr. Sterling: “Let’s talk about our relationship. Yours and mine.”

Illustrating With Comics: Pixton

Back in ’07, I saw an interesting presentation by Rebekah Sedaca that advocated using comics to help clients better understand a process/design/etc. Comics can help serialize interactions in a way that’s clearer than the output of interaction-mapping tools like Visio. With comics, you can also detail the responses that a visitor/user might have – something that’s not always easy to do with a wireframe. Scott McCloud’s Google Chrome Comic is an often-cited example of using comics to communicate complex ideas in a simple, narrative way.

One difficulty discussed at Rebekah’s presentation was the problem of creating quality comics. Even if you’re lucky enough to have illustrators on-staff, you’re probably not eager to spend budget on creating comics that may only be seen by your client.

Pixton, one of the sites I discovered while judging entries for the SXSW 2009 Interactive Web Awards, provides a fine set of tools to help you quickly generate and share comics. Check out their “trailer” demo movie for an example of how quickly you can build a nice looking comic. Pixton also makes it easy to embed the comics you create into blogs, web sites, etc. I also think it’s great that Pixton offers a variant that is specifically aimed at schools, allowing students to work in a “safe and secure” learning environment.


Call me a geek, but I think it’s awesome that whitehouse.gov validates. Has the site always had an accessibility statememt?

And while I’m thinking of it, three cheers for the jQuery image slideshow on the homepage.

Arduino Ambient Orb Weather Predictor Revisited


Back in February, I posted about some new enclosures I’d built for my weather beacon.

This weekend, I finally got around to tweaking the code for my beacon. I was inspired to work on it after receiving one of ThingMs spiffy new MaxM’s. They’re nice and bright and will work with any BlinkM code you may have already written.

I’m pretty happy with how my beacon works now. After my initial post, I got an email from Dave Lemons. Dave took my initial cobbled-together code and added the pulse support I’d been meaning to implement. I wanted the beacon to pulse according to the forecasted chance of precipitation. Dave’s code used delay()’s to effect the pulses. I found that when I hooked this up to my Processing script that’d pull in the weather data, I got no response from the beacon. It looks like the Processing script was delivering the data while the Arduino was “sleeping” during a delay().

So… I rewrote Dave’s code to offload the pulsing effect to a BlinkM script, saved on the MaxM. That frees up the Arduino code so that it pretty much just sits there and waits for input.

If you’d like to play around with this project, here’s my code. Be gentle… my code reads a bit like someone learning to swear phonetically in a foreign language. It might be ugly, but it gets the job done. There are 3 parts to the project:

  1. PHP code that checks the Yahoo! Weather API. You’ll need to put this code on a Web server of some sort. This code translates the weather forecast into a color(RGB hex) and a pulse code. It’ll also dump out XML – I’ve been experimenting with implementing a beacon in Flash on my Chumby. It looks like I’m using an old URL for the API, but it appears to be working OK. Put that on my TODO list.
  2. Processing code that sits on your computer that periodically checks the PHP in code 1, then delivers the color/pulse info to your Arduino.
  3. The Arduino code that parses the input from step 2 and sends the appropriate instructions to your BlinkM.

Download the code here.

The code might be a bit ugly. Give a yell if you run into a snag or make some improvements.

iPhone copy and paste

Ha – My friend Charles hit the trifecta this week – Boing Boing, Gizmodo and the Digg front page! Congrats!

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I’ll laugh when I finish crying. I was in that meeting.

Maker Nirvana

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an info session for a TechShop that will be opening in the Durham, NC area later this summer. TechShop is a well-equipped project center built by Makers, for Makers. They say: “It is like a health club with tools and equipment instead of exercise equipment…or a Kinko’s for geeks.”

Based on what we heard last night, I’m really excited. They’ve got laser cutters, mills, welding equipment, industrial sewing machines, and the like. There will be classes and workshops on a number of topics. If their first location (in Menlo Park, CA) is an indicator, there will be an active community of Maker folks to chat with and trade tricks and ideas. Sound like a great place to work on your projects and have access to a bunch of great hardware that you wouldn’t generally have access to.

Can’t wait!

me and my Kindle

If you know me well… heck — if you know me at all — you know I like me some gadget. I’m also an avid reader. I’d been eyeing Amazon’s Kindle since it was announced with the understanding that for me it was a question of “when”, not “if” I shelled out for one.

I put in an order in early January, flush with post-Christmas cash to burn. The gadget had already been on back-order status for a while. Figured I’d get on board. Soon after, I configured a Google Alert to scan headlines and blog postings so that I could stay on top of Kindle news. I’ve seen a lot of trends that surprised me and I note some of my thoughts below.

Steve’ Jobs’ whole “nobody reads” thing:

From the NYT article: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

I was surprised to see this. Yeah, perhaps he’s sweating the Kindle’s entrance into the consumer electronics market, but I think he really believes what he said. I read. I love to read. I figure that I read ~10-12 books a year, mostly fiction. This excludes the ~12 books that I listed to in audiobook format (from my beloved Audible.com) each year. My friends read, too. I’ve recently started sharing book notes with several of my friends via GoodReads.com. What was he thinking?

Kindle-formatted books are selling slowly:
So far, the only things I’ve read on my Kindle (in the week I’ve had it) are a couple of newspapers and blogs, the Kindle user manual and a couple of chapters of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Why haven’t I rushed out to purchase a bunch’a Kindle-format books? I’ve got about half-a-dozen dead-tree-format books sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. Hey – it’s February. Didn’t you get a bunch of books for Christmas?

Kindles aren’t for “paper-book lovers”:
Yeah. Whatever. I love paper books. The cover, printing, dust-jacket, etc. for Dave Egger’s What is the What? is truly a thing of beauty. The flip-book passage and page treatments from Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts just “work” on paper in a way that I don’t imagine they would in an e-book. (note: neither of these titles are available in Kindle format) But – I also really love the idea of carrying a small library around in something the size of a paperback. That’s just plain awesome.

No Kindles have been spotted “in the wild”:
Dunno. I’m a normal-ish person. I’ve got one. Haven’t really had it out of the house, I guess, for the paparazzi to get a good shot. Kindles’re out there and not just in the hands of reviewers.

So much fuss – Amazon’s gotta be doing something right. I love my Kindle. Reading on it is nice. Internet access isn’t great, but I’m not too bummed about that. All-around, I’m excited about the future of the Kindle and the direction it’s heading.

ps – if you’re interested, it took just under a month for my order to be delivered.

Arduino Ambient Orb Weather Predictor

Update – check out the new lamp enclosures I’ve made for my orb.

I’ve recently begun to experiment with an open-source hardware platform called Arduino. Arduino is kinda like an amped-up basic stamp. You program it using C via a handy standardized cross-platform GUI. There’s an active community around the platform and lots of good example code out there to farm and repurpose.

It’s exciting: I can actually write programs that interface with the ‘real world’. Arduinos can sense temperature, light, heat, touch, etc via whatever sensor you care to connect to it. It has a bunch of digital and analog inputs and outputs, allowing you to Frankenstein a wide variety of fun projects.

I received most of my help from Lady Ada’s awesome tutorials. Once I was comfortable, I began to work on some personal projects.

Todbot featured a cool project that let you grab a color from a Web page and display it as a color using LEDs connected to an Arduino. I built a similar Orb using Tod’s (via ThingM) BlinkMs. The BlinkMs (as seen on BoingBoing) are “smart LEDs” that allow you to output a color based on RGB or HSB color input. My prototype currently uses 2 BlinkMs and it’s reasonably bright.

I have some PHP code that I wrote to display glanceable weather info on my Chumby. I’m trying to replicate the behavior of my Ambient Weather Beacon.

The code grabs today’s forecasted high temp based on a zip code using Yahoo!’s APIs and maps the temp to an RGB color (ala #ff0000), returning XML containing the temp and the chance of precip. After 3pm, it should display tomorrow’s forecast.

I mixed Todbot’s example and my own PHP and I now have a pretty decent Arduino Ambient Orb Weather Predictor.

So… program 1 (PHP) lives on a Web server and grabs data from Yahoo!, program 2 (Processing) runs on my PC and grabs output from program 1, then reports it to program 3 (Arduino) that displays the color.

If you want the code: weather predictor PHP.

You’ll need PHP5 (I used simplexml). There’s lots there that needs to be cleaned up and I’ve only partially implemented the precipitation pulse. If you find it useful, please let me know.


A couple of months ago, my almost-6-year-old son started using Headsprout – a Web-based reading program aimed at the K-2 crowd. We’ve been really happy with my son’s progress. He’s just about completed the first 40 lessons and is getting really good at reading words that contain syllables taught by the program and confident at attempting to sound-out words he’s never seen before. It’s pretty amazing.

Headsprout is a Flash-based program that “runs” in your browser. As the student works through a lesson, the program seamlessly adapts to how successful they are with correctly completing goals. I’ve watched as the program figures out that my son needs some reinforcement on an idea and “goes remedial” for a bit before returning to the regular flow of the lesson.

Lessons are animated “games” that make the repetition and learning of new words/syllables fun. Success within a segment of the lesson earns a short animated sequence. The animation and sound are of good quality and my 3-year-old even enjoys watching her brother complete lessons as if it’s a cartoon on TV.

About a week after signing up, we received a packet from Headsprout containing some informational literature, some color soft-cover books that the child will be able to read after completing key lessons, and a nice progress map for your child to use to show how many lessons they’ve completed. Many of the episodes include digital books that you can download and print once a lesson has been completed. These books highlight skills that your child has learned on the most recent lesson and help to increase their confidence. There are also flash cards that you can print out after many episodes that help to reinforce new skills.

During many of the episodes, I’d watch as my son interacted with the program, so I had a good idea of what he’d learned and what words/syllables he should be capable of reading. Parents receive progress emails and the ability to check their child’s progress online so that I could check things out when I didn’t watch him complete a lesson.

I had a lot of questions before signing up for the program and Headsprout pre-sales support was pretty good at fielding my questions. In hopes of helping someone else figure out what Headsprout is about:

What do I get when I pay for Headsprout?
With Headsprout, you don’t install any program on your computer. You run Headsprout by connecting to their site with your Web browser. Each episode takes 20-30 min to complete. You can only re-play the most recent episode, but it turns out that that’s a reasonable constraint – each lesson builds on the previous and there’s little reason to repeat an episode once completed. Since you’re not tied to a specific computer/installation, your child can work through a lesson at the grandparents or wherever you have internet access.

Can I re-use Headsprout with my other children?
No. Think of Headsprout as more of a reading tutor than a program or a game. Headsprout tunes itself to one student. They do, however, offer a 50% discount for additional learners in the same household.

We’ve been really happy with the program. Questions to support are answered promptly. There’s a nice level of polish to the program itself and the resources (both provided and printable).