Thanks, Jane.

April 29th, 2006

Jane Jacobs died this week. She permanently changed the way I think and see.

Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” overwhelmed me with feelings of serendipity and intimacy. It dug deep into a long series of my questions and observations about cities and neighborhoods and public spaces.

I kept bumping against these issues in the dark, struggling with common-sense suspicions that so much of the logic behind recent North American urban planning and housing development is just plain wrong and destructive — until Jacobs flipped on the spotlights and revealed the very real sources of those feelings.

She led me to an ongoing fascination with urban studies and architecture. I realized through Jacobs how important it is to understand the workings of places and flows of people in the city when designing new communications tech.

She underlined the need to break out of academic and professional echo chambers. To simply get out there and watch how things work, from the ground up. To plant the right seeds and get out of the way, rather than attempting to overdesign, to dictate, to predict the unpredictable.

She did all this through plain, passionate, human language, without an ounce of pedantry or arrogance.

Thanks Jane.


April 7th, 2006

Friends at Berkeley’s School of Information (formerly SIMS) are building something intriguing. It’s called Mycroft and it replaces Web site banner ads with tiny tasks for users to complete. In aggregate, all these tiny completed tasks can solve massive problems that computers can’t tackle on their own.

Here’s an example:

It’s still a student project but already you can publish the banners on your own site. Details here.

To take it further, consider: Mycroft presents each puzzle piece to multiple users to verify the solution(s). So the second or third time a puzzle piece appears, why not present it in a different setting: not as a Web banner ad, but as a captcha test for someone creating a new account on a Web site? (Captcha tests are those “type the letters you see in this scrambled image” tasks that verify you’re a human.)

So when verifying that a new user is human, Web sites could offer a Mycroft test and boost their revenues or help solve problems for nonprofits — with no extra work or hassle for users. That’s powerful stuff.

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Flash Mob Flashback

March 29th, 2006
flash mob retrospective

Nobody asks anymore, but now I can finally tell people who invented flash mobs.

He’s Harper’s magazine editor Bill Wasik, and he revealed his identity to the public in this month’s issue.

In the article Bill credited me with naming flash mobs flash mobs.

Bill, thanks for kicking off the fun. I don’t share all your interpretations of what flash mobs were. I certainly don’t view Stanley Milgram through your eyes. And I think flash mobs turned out less hipster-centric than you expected, at least beyond Manhattan. (How many hipsters can you count in these photos?)

But bravo; this was one the funniest spectacles I’ve taken part in. Core to the fun for me were all the wild interpretations people put forth, how earnest and sure of themselves most commentators seemed, and the vast differences between interpretations. Now the guy who started it all finally chimed in with the most surreal interpretation yet, closing the circle.

Thanks Bill and the rest of the flash mobbers. If nothing else, we slipped a bit of prankster graffiti into the Oxford English Dictionary.

(A minor correction: the article claimed that I named the phenomenon after “Flash Crowd,” a 1973 short story that I’d never heard of until the flash mob fad was in full swing. For the record: Howard Rheingold’s book “Smart Mobs” probably influenced the name, but “Flash Crowd” didn’t.)

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Seeking Office Space for Coworking

March 28th, 2006

The Coworking project’s goal is to create a new sort of digitally-augmented office/collaboration space for independent workers in cities around the world.

I’m psyched about this because (1) I don’t have an office and I’d love to set up shop in such a coworking space for at least a day a week, and (2) location-based tech and digitally-augmented urban spaces are things that make my heart go pitter-patter. Coworking spaces can be great incubators and testing grounds for this mojo. This stuff is what PlaceSite is all about, and I’m excited to see how we can adapt PlaceSite to boost collaboration and creative cross-pollination in these spaces.

The San Francisco coworking project is looking for a largish, relatively inexpensive office space or warehouse in town to house our first coworking space. We’re particularly interested in the areas around 20th and Mission, 16th and De Haro, and South Park. We’re open to other places in the city near BART and other transit, and preferably near cafes.

If you know anyone who might lease out such a space, please drop me a line.

To learn more about the Coworking project and to contribute, check out the project wiki.

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feral marketing?

March 27th, 2006

Someone mailed me a wonderful mysterious object. It glows and pulsates red, green, blue. Two now-cancelled postage stamps are attached. It’s painted with my name and address, a funky little face and the phrase “SAVE THE WORD.”

“Save the word?” What could that mean?

If this is part of a marketing scheme, bravo. I’ll bite, I’m spreading the word about who knows what. If the sender is reading this: thanks!

In other news: I think it’s time to resuscitate cheesebikini.

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March 7th, 2006

Props to Chris Messina for the flyer

PlaceSite at ETech / New Partnerships

March 7th, 2006

I’m presenting PlaceSite this afternoon at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. If you’re attending, please come say hi! Also: we’re teaming up with a few other scrappy startups to rent out a bar and host a party Wednesday night starting at 9 pm at the Caskroom, 550 Park Blvd., San Diego. If you’re in town, drop in and say hi!

In other news — today at ETech we’re announcing two new partnerships, with Sputnik and WaveStorm. Both are wi-fi infrastructure companies who help retail establishments and other venues to set up, maintain and manage public wi-fi networks. Sputnik’s an American firm based in San Francisco; WaveStorm is based in Paris and serves customers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. PlaceSite’s community wi-fi software will be offered to customers of these firms.

“Not a Bad Way to Go”

January 26th, 2006

Bravo, Dav. Powerful words.

What Matters

December 27th, 2005

It’s not where you go that matters. It’s whether you put the toilet seat down afterwards.

Jane’s Graveyard Games

October 10th, 2005

Jane McGonigal excels at such a deep and broad variety of things that I really should be jealous of her. And I try. But she’s so thoughtful and innovative and fun to be around that I just can’t keep the envy alive.

A year ago I invited her to a party at my house. She couldn’t make it because she was out of town. She apologized profusely, and to make it up she arranged for a cadre of performer friends to come over and carry out a full-on rock opera involving simulated Internet chat rooms and blue topless singing aliens.

You’ll be sorry if you miss Jane’s “Graveyard Games” this Saturday in Colma, the home of San Francisco’s dead. Details here. (You’re not allowed to bury people in San Francisco. Colma is a bizarre suburb south of the city that’s made up largely of cemeteries housing countless deceased San Franciscans.)

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