Things That Are Awesome

This is Donnie Yen's MOTHER, showing how Praying Mantis Kung Fu happens. Holy beautiful:

I'll repeat: that's his mom. Good grief. Why don't they cast HER in more movies?

And this is a guy with lots of time on his hands, making a pretty darn cool action sequence out of World of Warcraft. If only more Hollywood filmmakers showed this much inventiveness and fun:

The Craft of War: BLIND from percula on Vimeo.

And then there is this: The Most Inspirational Video of All Time (thanks to Kyle Voltti):

That is all.

Sustainable Silliness

#hohotoOn the left there is a picture from the now-legendary HoHoTO party. It's been on TV, it's been in the papers and all around the blogosphere and back again. A group of near-strangers came together and poured their energy into creating a charitable party. Nobody was in charge. Nobody gave orders. Nobody did anything they didn't want to do. And in a matter of days we raised $25,000.


What you're seeing there on the left is the DJ setup on stage (yes, the DJ is dressed as a Santa elf -- and yes, nobody did anything they didn't want to do -- you can figure out what that means), hundreds of people boogieing their faces off, and up on the wall an enormous screen displays live incoming Twitter messages tagged "#hohoto". Folks are making DJ requests via Twitter, and if you go to Flickr right now and search on "hohoto" you will see hundreds of photos people have posted of the beautiful craziness that ensued.

This is pretty awesome. I blogged before about how the future is looking pretty silly, and I think this is another part of the ongoing sillization of human society. And this is a GOOD thing.

Because while there's boogieing and Twittering and elf-dress-up-as-ing, there's also people having hard times, and current economic conditions aren't making that any better. But when people can come together in joy and silliness, and contribute to helping lessen those hard times, I say the world is getting better. I mean, we don't have flying cars yet, it's true -- but maybe there's more important work we ought to be doing besides flying around in cars. Because as cool as that would be, I'd rather there were less hungry people in the world than more flying cars.

HoHoTO was a tremendous success. It proves (if further proof were needed) that self-organizing groups can accomplish great things. I'm not sure it's a model for social change, but hopefully it will help to serve as an inspiration. The Toronto Twittersphere is all abuzz with ideas and movements and the notion of change and growth, and I truly believe that we're just opening the door to what's possible as the internets begin to realise the next stage of their potential. Somebody in there (might have been remarkk) mentioned the idea of "cells" like Resistance groups organized themselves in: each one self-sufficient and no more than distantly connected to the others, but sharing enough ideals and practices that they can work together to effect enormous change.

We don't need grand schemes anymore. We need tiny ones, but ones that infect others and replicate themselves. And silliness, as YouTube shows us, is pretty damn infectious. And as HoHoTO has shown us, it can deliver actual value to society.

Not sure I need to dress as an elf, however.

RIP Anne Filipowski 1970-2008

This is Anne Filipowski, one of my favourite people ever.

When I first came to Toronto, I was shuttling back and forth between two offices: the offices of BetCorp's software and marketing division, on Richmond Street at Spadina, and the offices of Bodog Music, on Yonge Street -- at FINCH (or thereabouts -- for you non-Torontonians, that's like TEN MILES from downtown). It was February, 2007, and after ten years in Vancouver, Toronto was ghastly. Cold, howling winds, and mile after mile of flat, unbroken cityscape. No mountains. No beaches. No bald eagles. Very very few harbour seals.

The Bodog Music office was a bit of a ramshackle affair, with customer service reps in dingy grey cubicles, office supplies scattered about and my team -- a couple of php developers, a few designers and a project manager -- stuffed into dark offices seemingly as far away from the rest of the company as possible.

There was a really kitchen area, though. And a great balcony, which in Toronto in February is not quite as enticing as you might think.

I knew not a soul in Toronto. I could barely find my way to the office. And Torontonian are, well, Lord love them, but they just aren't quite as... friendly... as Westerners. They try.

Some of them.

So it was kind of lonely for Corey in those first few weeks. But I always looked forward to the long trek up to the Bodog Music office, because I knew I would end up crossing paths and inevitably sarcastic barbs with the operations manager, Anne Filipowski. At some point in my day there would come the solemn exchange:



I actually had to practice saying her name so that I could deliver it in the same deadpan monotone she did mine. I'm not kidding. I'd be on the subway, repeating "Filipowski, Filipowski, Filipowski," the whole way up. Maybe the apparent unfriendliness of Torontonians isn't so hard to explain.

But of course, that was only the opening salvo. Then came the exchange of sarcastic quips, sneers, and non sequiturs. The goal was always to make her laugh before I cracked up, but I came off the worse most of the time. Filipowski had a serious deadpan, and had that knack for sprinkling her outrageous sarcasm with enough outrageous sincerity that you were always wondering if she really meant that or if... and then you'd see that grin and you knew she'd gotten you again.

It was exciting because it was a challenge. Filipowski had that effect on people -- she raised everyone's game. You had to pay attention around Anne, because she was so smart and always paying attention and if you didn't keep up, you were going to get shown up. But always with humour and always with respect for others.

Even if Toronto had stayed as unpleasant as it was that February (and it hasn't, by the way; love this town), it still would have been worth coming here to meet Anne. Last time I saw her we went to an Argentinian restaurant for lunch (Argentinian food means steak, apparently) and she told me wacky stories about driving around Greece and we laughed about the lunacy of this business we both worked in. I had hoped at some point that FreshBooks would find itself needing a woman of Filipowski's immense talents, but it never happened.

She also promised to take me out to lunch next time. Damn it.


So I've been involved in the planning of what looks to be the coolest holiday party in Toronto: HoHoTO! This is going to be a kooky event with Twitter DJ request, live video and photo feeds projected on big screens, drinks and dancing and all kinds of fun, all going to the Daily Bread Food Bank.

Sounds like something that took months to organize, right?


Try days. And without any official organization, no club secretary, no corporate sponsor (to start; we've got a bunch of them now). Basically a group of folks started talking about the idea on Twitter, and some of us met up on... Tuesday. Four days ago.

And now there's a website, a venue, a logo, sponsors and tickets selling like mad. Thousands of dollars raised and hundreds of people coming to something that didn't even exist at the start of this week.

It's phenomenal. People can sure be awesome.

Like YOU! You can be awesome -- especially if you come to HoHoTO!

Two Clicks to DEATH

So we were walking back from California Sandwiches and Gauthier started telling a story about clearing minefields with sandbags and I offered the suggestion that before long, someone would make a mine that compensated for that technique.

Kevin noted that land mine design is really just a special case of interface design. Special and murderous. We decided land mine manufacturers should hire Jeffrey Zeldman or someone to design their land mines. Kevin came up with a slogan:

"Never more than two clicks away from DEATH!"

This is the sort of thing we talk about at lunch. Current events, interface design, and DEATH. I love my job.

Post-Halloween Pumpkin Post (PPP)

So I originally posted this over on the FreshBooks blog and I kept meaning to post it here but now it's November. Oh well, I still think it's cool.

Fellow Freshbooker Taavi and I came in on the weekend before the big day with a can of spray paint and a defenseless Bondi iMac and today the FreshBooks office is now properly festive for Hallowe’en with our new iMac-O-Lantern!

We got the idea from this awesome Instructables article. Today somebody went and added a FreshBooks leaf to our newest little orange friend, so he’s properly branded.

The face changes every twenty minutes (I made them with OmniGraffle), using the JPEGView application described in the Instructables article. Here are some shots of the process:

Primed and Ready to Go!

Painting the iMac's bottom. He does look pretty helpless, doesn't he? Poor little guy.

And there you have it! Unfortunately, the iMac is kind of noisy — it emits a peculiar sort of high-pitched whine. Which was kind of unpleasant for the poor fellow (Rich) who had it right next to his head. But he seems to have survived and is no more peculiar than prior to the holiday. Which is good, cause we liked him the way he was.

Anyway, it's late, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Sustainable Communities

The very nice folks at Sustainability Camp 2008 have asked if I would be able to speak at their event on Sunday.

Well, to be honest, they asked my boss. And he said, "No." And they said, "Oh, pooh. We're maybe short a space." And then he said, "Hey Corey, what are you doing Sunday afternoon?"

But after SO MUCH FUN talking at ProductCamp just a few short weeks ago (and I should really write a piece on that, there's a good idea), and of course considering that there are few things in this universe I love more than the sound of my own voice (the sound of Julie Andrews' voice, for instance), it was pretty much a done deal.

So it's not yet 100% clear if I'll be speaking there or not, but my topic if I am will be Sustainability in Communities. I'm fascinated by the problem of building self-sustaining communities -- sustaining from a SOCIAL rather than an economic point of view. How do you create a community that will last? What makes long-lasting self-organizing groups different from those that collapse?

Lots of possibilities there, I think. New-style companies like Ricardo Semler runs (or that Chris and I are talking about), online hobby-based communities, and grass-roots political organizations.

Any thoughts from out and beyond? Any experiences with communities that persisted beyond expectations?

Linkslut, Nov 8

Some links that have built up over the past while and ought to be shared.

The best commentary I've read on the U.S. election:

Yesterday, we built huge corporations to do tiny, incremental things - tomorrow, we must build small organizations that can do tremendously massive things.

The Homeless World Cup. People can sure be awesome.

Utility-scale solar power. Plus Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Finally, I spent my morning re-reading one of my favourite stories of all times: Bad Aliens, Zombie Toddlers and Drunk Southern Girls With Guns, by the same author as the recent Transformers movie. And about six thousands times more fun (no offense, John, but there just weren't enough drunk southern girls with guns in the movie. Try to fix that in the sequel, okay?). Just so you understand how completely freaking awesome this story is:

“That,” Denis said authoritatively, “was no mutilated cow. It was just mutilated.” When the others stared blankly, he continued. “UFO mutilations follow a very distinct pattern. That cow – if it’s like the others – didn’t have that pattern. It was not clinically dispatched, it was killed, then the soft parts were eaten away by small carnivores. But not the ones you’d think.” He produced an evidence baggie. Within it was a small tooth. “I recovered this from within the brain matter remaining in the skull.”

“Doesn’t look like an animal,” Ross said.

“It’s not.” Denis held it up for all to see. “It’s got a silver filling. This is a human tooth.”

If that doesn't make you giggle with glee then, well, you're probably not a DM.

Colour Coolness

Notice anything extraordinarily cool about this picture, besides the fact that it's extraordinarily cool? No? Stunned by the extraordinary coolness?

Note the colours in the picture. Notice how they MATCH the colours on this website.

Amazing! How'd I do that?

Simple. I used Tin Eye's outrageous colour-based photo search.

Who thinks this stuff up? Clever people, that's who.

Photo by Vieeto Voom

The Five Stages of Refactoring

1. Disbelief

"Who wrote this!?"

2. Anger

"I'm not cleaning this up!"

3. Bargaining

"Okay, we'll fix up this module if you promise we'll just rewrite everything else."

4. Depression

"This is never going to get any better."

5. Acceptance

"I'll just create a wrapper..."

Caravaggio's The Incredulity of St. Thomas, there.

Shhh, Peaceful

I am helpless to explain this. But if you are the person who put that fez on that snowman, and gave him that facial expression, I love you.

Via "". I assume "" was already taken.


So along with a couple of other FreshBookers I'll be attending next month's ProductCamp here in Toronto Nov 2. I've proposed a session on the Big List so we'll see if folks are excited in hearing about that. If they are I'll make sure to post notes and so on here. For those who don't know, "the Big List" is kind of a cool system we've built at FreshBooks to manage our product management.

This is my first BarCamp event so I'm pretty excited!

If you're attending, let me know and let's try and cross paths.

FreshBooks is also sponsoring the after-Camp reception and we've got a fun challenge for product managers to show off their skills -- make sure you stop by and get your entry form.

Linkslut: October 08

...and yet more. From the blogroll:

The Price Of Freedom

From WorldChanging: What Else Could We Buy For $700 Billion? How about debt freedom for Africa, for one?

Always Amazing

Some pictures from the always-amazing Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Say "Hi!" to everyone in the NGC 253 Galaxy, only 13 million light-years away. Like somebody once said, if we're alone in this universe, that seems like an awful waste of space.

And on your right you can see a sight much closer to home, but possibly even more amazing. That is a single exposure you're looking at, presumably a pretty long one, but partway through the exposure the photographer set off a flash inside the cave to illuminate it for the film. Fantastic. Read about it here. People sure can be all kinds of awesome when they need to be.

The Dread Blonde

Speaking of all kinds of awesome, the d20 Blonde sums up what has swiftly become one of my favourite games ever: Dread. I played in a game this past year run by the d20 Hubby, and let me tell you, when a Scooby Doo episode turns Daphne into an axe-wielding madwoman, something in the universe has gone terribly wrong. But in such a fantastic way. Anyway, the Blonde does a great job explaining why this game is so incredibly awesome, and her later posts include some great tips on how to run a game of your own, so if you're into having insane amounts of fun, check it out.

DINO-PIRATES and the Importance of Being Ignorant

Been sick for a few days and coming off that, I'm feeling rambly. Realised I never posted a GenCon report -- so here you go, point form:

  • Wireless Connectivity at GenCon sucks like something that sucks a lot.

  • Hurray for Paul coming all the way from AFGHANISTAN just to help me demo a very cool game that I'll be talking a lot more about Real Soon Now.

  • REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS was actually MORE fun than it sounds like. I know you're skeptical, but I was there, and you weren't, so I know. MORE fun. Where else can you have ninja chicks cutting boats in half, dressing up like geishas, and building giant transforming Godzilla robots? Only in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, I'm telling you.

  • I'm not as good at improvising adventure stories at three o'clock in the morning as I wish I were.

  • I am, however, a phenomenal impersonator of Scooby-Doo. I may have found my life's calling.

  • It's important to know you can't recreate improvisational greatness. Trying to do it again, once it's been done, is a fool's game.

  • I missed JD.

  • It's entirely possible to spend almost nothing at GenCon on anything game-related and still have a great time. Assuming you spend a sufficient quantity on alcohol. Or, even better, your roommates do.
I'm sure that answers all your questions. The good news is that all four DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND games went like stink, largely due to the fantastic players at every session.

I also picked up a comic book for Steph that has turned out to beat expectations: Artesia. I met the creator and seemed like a nice enough guy, and the art was very compelling, so I picked up a hardcover compiled and brought it home and I've just now read it and I have to say, I'm planning on collecting the rest. Mark Smylie has really done his research and produced a fantastic story that feels deeply rooted in a world that operates on different assumptions than ours.

Too often fantasy authors produce cultures that operate according to the assumptions that drive our modern world, with ideas on justice or morals or social structure that don't reflect the trappings of the world they're supposed to be a part of. I'm no historian (Hi Stuart!) but even a little bit of research can make most modern fantasy writers pretty much unreadable.

So DON'T LEARN ANYTHING, for crying out loud! It only leads to trouble.

Unless you're Mark Smylie. You keep reading, Mark. Anyway, Artesia was a welcome acquisition and marks a new story for us to obssess over. Hurrah.

In other news, the game we demoed that I'll soon be telling you all about received a solid going-over and some basic usability issues were uncovered that determined craftsmen are even now working hard to eliminate. Determined. Hard. Honest.

And finally, the rules for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND have finally begun to stabilize. The stunt mechanic is solid now, as is the damage system (thanks, Baduin), and I'm working now with the clever crew over at the True20 forums to normalize the powers and the Fatigue mechanic. Once we're reasonably sure we have something that works, the full rules will become available online, and then ANYONE can play this game. Oh, yeah. DINO-PIRATES for everyone.

Also a quick shout-out to the Boston gang for some fantastic games and good times. Especially K and J, who were kind enough to put me up for a couple of nights. They did, however miss the comical moment where I was walking around downtown Boston and suddenly said, "Hey! This is the same Boston the Bruins play in!" Carl was amused.

So there you have it. GenCon 08. Nothing but good.

Creating Space

A couple of things came together for me today and as per usual, in my head they turned into ideas about making stories about imaginary people even MORE exciting.

I've been re-reading Harrison Owen's Open Space Technology, which describes a type of meeting ("Open Space") that I've been dying to run for years. Yeah, it's weird. I wouldn't really care what the meeting was ABOUT, I just find the process so thrilling to consider that I just really want to see what it's like in "real life".

"The job of the facilitator is to create the time and space in which the group can realise its potential."

Also Steph was talking about what she loved about the book club she was part of back in Vancouver: that it was a place where each and every person was given time and space to speak and to share their ideas. She loved helping the group create that space, and found it extremely rewarding to be part of what they created.

Naturally I immediately thought of Dungeon Mastering.

I don't think it's quite as big a leap as it may appear to be. The job of the DM, after, is to create space and time for the players -- both in the imaginary sense by describing the scenes and characters encountered, but also in the actual, "real-world" sense. When the players come together at the table, and begin to interact, the DM has to manage the social situation, making sure that everyone around the group gets their chance to shine. While at the same time describing scenes that will give the players chances to do what they each long to do.

Great DMs listen to their players and identify what they need in order to realise their potential. EVERYONE at the table will have more fun if EVERYONE at the table has more fun. The biggest challenge a DM will face is making sure that all the varying definitions of "fun" around the table are manifested without destructively conflicting with each other.

The first step is understanding those definitions, and embracing them without demanding they conform to one's own. No player is ever going to have exactly the same definition as I do, and so it's futile for me to try and bend my players to MY definitions of fun. All I can do is try to understand what my players think is fun, and match that.

Of course, if my players think throwing dice at each other is fun, maybe the whole thing is doomed from the start.

I've remarked before that Dungeon Masters are a strange breed: like goalies, drummers and QA Analysts, DMs must have a very narrow set of skills, traits and interests in order to be good at the job, and not many people come with that mix. But how many other pastimes allow you to create space -- on two levels at the same time?

Photo by Barun Patro

Anyone But Harper

You've probably seen this already, or something like it, but it's important enough to keep passing around:

Anyone But Harper

That is all.

Them Bitey Jaws

I've been playtesting a variety of rules for the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game, and they're starting to settle down into a pretty cohesive whole. The process has been interesting on a lot of levels, but one in particular struck me -- the ability to adjust one's die roll AFTER one knows if that roll was successful.

Virtually every system that allows such adjustments (through some sort of point mechanic that allows the player to add to their roll or to re-roll a given die) requires the player to apply the adjustment before they know the outcome of the roll. The player is asked to gamble that A) the adjustment enabled by the resource will increase their result sufficiently to succeed, and B) that their original result was insufficient in the first place.

When I started working up the Stunt mechanic for DPoNI, which I originally got from iwatt, I used the same thinking. You could apply bonuses to your checks based on your skill ranks, if you got creative and gave me a good description. But folks didn't use the stunt rules all that often. Usually they'd forget in the heat of battle, or just shrug and hope for a good roll without the bonus.

I hadn't gotten the rules right. This was a cool idea, something very much in line with the feel I want for DPoNI, but my players weren't naturally gravitating to it. I took out a few of the other optional rules I'd implemented, but stunts remained a little-used feature.

It turned out the best way to get players to consider stunts was for me to suggest them -- and this started happening AFTER the die roll. If somebody had missed by only a little bit, there'd be a scramble to look over the character sheet and find some over-looked bonus that might apply. Stunts fit the bill admirably. Because they work as a static bonus, rather than a re-roll, they represent sort of that little extra effort that a character makes, using their existing skills, to just do a little better. And because you can apply them after discovering your roll wasn't quite enough, you don't need to keep track of every possibility while making your decisions -- you can discover possibilities afterwards, when you know you need them.

It means characters in DPoNI are a little tougher than standard True20 characters. They'll make successful rolls some 10% more often, depending on their level. And that's okay. DPoNI is meant to be more about coming up with cool stuff to do rather than managing resources and surviving (once again, like ALWAYS) by the skin of your teeth.

I tend to play more of a style where a player says what they want to TRY and do, and then makes a roll, the result of which tells us how WELL they did. So the actual narration of the event simulated by the die roll naturally comes after the roll is made and success is determined. The Stunt bonus, in this context, is more a function of the narration than the attempt. It works like this:

Player: "I attack! I get a... 14."
DM: "Oh, dear. You need at least a 16 to hit this guy."
(player looks over character sheet and notes she can get a +2 stunt bonus from her Acrobatics skill)
Player: "Okay, but I'm using my Acrobatics."
DM: "Okay, you'll just barely hit if you can do that. How are you using Acrobatics here?"
Player: "I run up the side of the cavern, somersaulting backwards and landing behind him, catching him just off-guard enough to skewer him before he knows I'm there."
DM: "Sold."

When a player rolls well, often the satisfaction of the roll is reward enough -- not all players feel a need to narrate something cool at that point. And likewise when a player completely botches a roll -- they're cranky and frustrated and not inclined to jump in with a bunch of creativity.

But nothing spurs creativity like the knowledge that if you can come up with something, you can snatch victory from them bitey jaws of defeat. So what do you think? Is this a reasonable way to run things? Does it require too much adjudication on the DM's part? Should NPCs get the same benefits?

Fish photo: Gavin Mills

The SLAVE QUEEN Arriveth!

She's been promised for months, but at last here she is. THE SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY is the first official DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND product available anywhere! On sale now at for the low price of $6.00!

With a fantastic cover from Claudio Pozas (who also provided a number of full-colour character illustrations), this True20 adventure provides plenty of thrills and chills, along with seven sample PCs, two 1"-scale maps of key encounters, new monsters, and handy NPC stat charts, all designed to make the job of turning these 32 pages into an evening's entertainment as painless as possible.

THE SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY promises pulpy goodness from start to finish. This adventure includes all five of the necessary elements for any DPoNI adventure:

  • Dinosaurs

  • Pirates

  • Ninjas

  • Monkeys

  • Robots

We're awfully excited about this release, and it's only the first in what promises to be a long line of thrill-laden products from Scratch Factory Productions. This release of THE SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY uses the standard True20 rules, but soon we'll be making the official DPoNI rules available and when that happens, you'll see a revision to this adventure to use those.

Just read the opening paragraphs and if they don't grab you, then what are you hanging around here for, you snot-nosed brat?

Hidden amongst the tangled archipelago off the coast of the Empire, the cliff-ringed haunt of the legendary SLAVE QUEEN is one of the most feared and storied of all. Legend says she lives in barbaric splendour amongst her pathetic thralls, always seeking more captives to bend to her will. Night and day, hellish screams echo out from the high cliff-side caverns. Even in the thrashing midst of a storm like the one you're sailing through, you can hear those screams.

Even over the crash of your ship running aground on the knife-like rocks beneath her cliffs. Your ship is taking on water. The captain just fell overboard. Things don't look good.

Huh? If that doesn't sound like the right way to start an adventure, I don't know what to tell you. I mean, either I had you at SLAVE QUEEN or I didn't, is pretty much my thinking.

The New Big Problem

At a table during last week's Business of Software conference, I met a fellow whose name escapes me now. Hardly a new occurrence for me, but I do recall the topic we were discussing.

His company does big data migrations for big government agencies. So for example if you're in charge of running the standardized health insurance across Ohio, you need data from every hospital in the state. And of course, each of these hospitals has been storing their data in some insane scheme that was cobbled together by the Pascal programmer who wrote the original record-keeping software back in 1975. It probably wasn't insane, actually. It probably made perfect sense. At the time.

The real problem isn't that this particular Pascal programmer was insane. The problem is that there was more than one Pascal programmer in Ohio in 1975 (I'm guessing, here, but give me a pass on that one). And so the solution that Pascal Programmer A chose for Hospital I was different (perhaps very different, perhaps a little different, doesn't matter) than the solution that Pascal Programmer B chose for Hospital II. Even if the SAME PATIENT was recorded in both hospitals, the data would look subtly different. Pascal Programmer A recorded First_Name and Last_Name as separate columns in a Patient_Data table, while Programmer B made sure NameF and NameL were stored as columns in a Personal_Info table. That's a trivial problem to solve, of course, if you're only worrying about these two databases. It gets more substantial if you're dealing with thousands of databases.

And not all problems in this space are trivial. The same data (or same types of data) can be stored in literally an infinite number of ways, and given the oft-frustrating creativity and ingenuity of people, you can bet that there will be as many variations as there were people involved in the varying.

So this gentleman I met obviously has his work cut out for him, and from what I could tell appears to be doing a roaring business handling this sort of thing. Because if you do want this sort of work done, there's really no solution other than to get a bunch of people to go through all your varied databases and manually map one set of data to the other, then perform whatever complicated trickery is required to do whatever conversion you've decided to implement so that at the end of the whole process, you have ONE dataset that includes everything all the originating databases contained.

And I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be amazing if somebody figured out how to automate this process? If all the data in the world could just be connected to all the other data in the world? You'd never have to transfer information around, you wouldn't have to keep track of things in various places and forget to update it here after you've updated it there. It would be a transformative thing for the world, if every piece of information we had could talk to every other piece."

I used to think the big problem right now was latency. That the next big innovation was going to appear as some way to accelerate our ability to transfer information from one place to the next. But data normalization on a global scale is BIGGER.

I don't know how it can be done. Just thinking about it, it seems like the most tedious manual process of trivial decision-making imaginable, and yet, how can you derive a process that can look through the masses of databases around the world and understand how they connect to each other? But once you'd done it, well, that would be a world-sized oyster facing you, right there.

I wish I were smarter.

And that's hardly a new occurrence for me, either.

Photo: "network spheres" by gerard79.

Still More

Been catching up finally on my blogroll, and a few choice tidbits to share around:

Via Drawn -- Gremlins, in other movies. Fans are getting more and more fun to watch.

Via Kung Fu Monkey -- Ninja Tales online, from Boom! Comics:

And lastly, from Evil Bat -- another fan-made video, this time an animation around a Radiohead song. Arresting and original:

Okay, enough with the linkage. Soon, actually writing. Promise.

The Unfold

The newest trailer for the upcoming open-source movie being produced by A Swarm Of Angels:

Worlds Will Shatter - The Unfold trailer from Nine Orders on Vimeo.

Everything about this is incredibly cool.

Linkslutting, Aug 26, 2008

Honestly, it's just been crazy. I haven't even told you about GenCon yet. But all I have time for right now is a quick drive-by:

Here's a reminder of why some of us love Steve Jobs so much. Via Community Guy:

And here's evidence I gained a level at GenCon: a player writes a Story Hour of one of my DINO-PIRATES sessions.

Fame, makes a man think things over...

More soon! Pictures of cool cars! New experiments running amok! What you need you have to borrow!

Upwards Accountability

Khai Pad Kraphao is pretty much the best lunch around the FreshBooks offices. Though I do admit I pick out the chilies -- once I took what I thought was going to be a tasty bite of crisp green bean and found I'd chomped into an entire green chili.

I like the taste, but that was a little much. Not to gross anyone out, but I could tell exactly where that chili was in my digestive tract for the rest of the day. Oog.

But Rich and I were talking over our Thai food today, and in particular talking about the ideas of that crazy Brasilian, Ricardo Semler, and in particular particular, the notion of "public" salaries, and we decided that one of the things we liked best about that idea was how it enforced what we called "upwards accountability".

See, if everyone in the company knows when you give someone else in the company a raise, you'd better have good reasons for that raise or else you're going to have trouble answering their questions. Which forces you to actually THINK about how and why you give out raises, and to have a policy that's defensible in place. It makes you accountable to your employees, and it seemed to us, as aromas of basil, chili, and lemongrass came curling up from our plates, that such accountability is actually a good thing.

Because that accountability forces you to be active and organized, and to maintain your focus on the things that, as a leader, you should actually be focusing on. Defining your POLICY on raises is a more powerful action, a more important action, than deciding exactly how much one individual raise ought to be.

Of course, it's harder. Much easier to focus in on a narrower scope, a single relationship, than to try and design an organization. And yet, organizational design is, in my mind, the real job of a leader.

So policies that encourage or even enforce "upwards accountability" are the sorts of policies that a leader ought to seek out and pursue. We identified public salaries as such a policy. And I think public performance reviews are probably another.

I wonder if there are others?

That's the gas cap of an Aston Martin up there. Photo by Jeffrey van Bijleveld

Management Thoughts, By Me

I noticed that I've started building up a certain body of thought on management. It's entirely ripped off from other, much smarter (though possibly not quite as intensely good-looking) people, but isn't that part of the beauty of the Internet? The ability to shamelessly rip others off while aggrandizing ourselves. Yes, sir. Anyway, here's a quick round-up of some of the more management-y posts I've made over the past couple of years:

Approach 3: The Path to Hiring Great Talent

The best strategy for finding awesome people is to spend your time making yourself more and more awesome.

Couch Time

They took the couch away, of course, and projects started falling over. Way it goes.

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox

Not doing any work is key to getting lots done. Be lazy!

The 501 Method

See, the receipts in the pocket isn't the clever bit. The CLEVER bit is that when I get home, I take everything in my pockets out of my pockets, and pile it up.

Ding Ding Ding

Every single document that isn't used is organizational noise.

Everything I Needed to Know About Management I Learned From Satan

You stop arguing when you see someone so ready to commit. Logic isn't what motivates and excites teams. Commitment in the face of risk is what gets that ball rolling.

The Secret of the Whiteboard

It's interesting to note how some technologies are so fundamental that they're almost impervious to design improvement.

Art != Guitar

All of us need new information presented to us in the context of what we already understand, or else we just keep forcing the conversation back into our context.

A Purpose Worthy of Commitment

What's drawn me to management, I realise now, is my lifelong conviction that honesty, courage, humility and compassion really ARE the best ways to get things done and to make the world a better place.


Steph said I should post this:


So I did.

Via Dan.

Approach 3: the path to hiring great talent

A big part of my role right now at FreshBooks is hiring software developers. We’re trying to grow this team, to be able to meet the challenges of our expanding business, and that means hiring hiring hiring.

I’ve talked before about the importance of finding great people. But I wanted to talk here about a potential strategy for doing so. I call it “Approach Three”.

Steve Yegge has an interesting take on the problem, and identifies two basic approaches to finding superhero-level developers:

Approach 1: Get Lucky

Approach 2: Ask Everyone in the Whole World

He recommends #1, reasonably enough. I agree that it’s far more likely to yield positive results. Desperate attempts to network are doomed to backfire since anyone can see through that sort of self-centered socializing.

I think there’s a third approach.

Approach 3: Be Awesome

Great people can recognize not-great people really well — that’s one of the skills you need to acquire if you want to be truly great at anything. If you want to be an awesome tennis player, you need to learn how to evaluate other tennis players so that you don’t spend your time playing against crappy players who can’t teach you anything.

So you need to be awesome. The best strategy for finding awesome people is to spend your time making yourself more and more awesome. The great thing about Approach 3 is that even if you don’t find anyone at all, you’re more awesome than you were. Which makes it even easier to attract even AWESOMER people.

Getting Awesome

Start with recognizing that software developers are not factory workers — software isn’t something you assemble, it’s something you design. The energy that generates it is creative, not mechanical.

Here at FreshBooks we’re focusing on a few key things to increase the awesomeness of our team. We’re making sure our developers get chances to work on stuff they think is important. We’re making it easier and faster to deploy safely and reliably. We’re now managing business priorities separate from day-to-day task management. We’re making sure our developers get to spend the majority of their time solving problems in code, rather than sitting in meetings or filling out forms. Or waiting.

It’s working out. Increasingly we get resumes from people who say, “I’ve heard fantastic things about your company — it sounds like the sort of place where I want to work.”

And there’s a very clear correlation between people who say that and people who seem pretty awesome.

Down the road, what we need to do is to focus externally as well — not just being more awesome, but finding better ways to broadcast that awesomeness. But that can’t take away from our basic need to be awesome. Without that, our broadcasting is just phony PR, and the truly awesome ones will see right through it.

In other news, FreshBooks is hiring. If you’re awesome, click here.

Sunir kicked ass editing this. The original post is over at the FreshBooks blog.

Couch Time

We're discussing options for growing our office at FreshBooks, and somebody jokingly said, "Couches for everyone!" -- which got me thinking about the Queen.

See, the Queen came to Vancouver a bunch of years ago, and her route took her past our office at NGRAIN. I don't know where she was coming from or going to, but in any event, somehow everyone knew that the Queen would be going by that afternoon. (if you don't know, I'm kind of a fan of the Queen)

And conveniently, my couch was right next to the window overlooking the street. So everyone gathered at my couch and watched a Rolls with blacked-out windows drive by, flanked by motorcycle cops.

It wasn't really MY couch. Originally it had been somewhere else. In a meeting room, I think, where nobody ever sat on it, which troubled me, because it looked like such a comfortable couch. So I think it was Ivan and perhaps Derek and I who one day just picked it up and moved it to the window beside my desk. We brought a potted plant along as well, and so suddenly beside my desk was this nice little nook where someone could plop down and take a break.

Which turned out to be a great information-sharing device. I was managing half-a-dozen projects for NGRAIN at that time, and so I'd have stakeholders and developers and QA folks come round once or twice a day just to flop on my couch and hide from the crazy levels of work everyone was dealing with. And they'd tell me how their day was going, and very often just happen to mention that they were roadblocked on something, or that a date was not realistic, or that they were done a bunch of stuff ahead of time and really didn't have anything to do.

That couch made me about TEN times more effective a project manager than I would have been if I'd had to walk around and ASK everyone how they were doing. Possibly eleven. It was so easy to find out what was going on because folks would just come round and tell me. I didn't have to insist on weekly reports, or complicated time tracking systems, or anything fancy at all. I just needed a comfy couch.

They took the couch away, of course, and projects started falling over. Way it goes. Nowadays they probably pay a couple hundred dollars a month for some project management software, and congratulate themselves on spending so wisely. "Look! I can sort all tickets by estimate time divided by actual time, superimposed on a calendar and translated to the new Gantt 2.3 format!"


The lesson I learned from the couch was that if you structure your HUMAN environment so that information naturally flows to where it needs to get, AND you make sure that you're open and available for that information, you don't need a bunch of complicated tracking systems. It's less expensive and it makes for a far more pleasant environment.

We're social creatures (demented and sad, but social). The real art of project management is about understanding our social needs and inclinations, and working with those to help a team work together.

The Queen drove by (at least, I assume the Queen was in the blacked-out Rolls; for all I know she took the Skytrain) and the entire project team sat around arguing over whether or not the British royalty had any worth in today's world. No milestones got knocked off that day, and we didn't track that half hour against any project tasks. But as the team went back to work, I remember being pleased that we'd all come together as the social beings we are, and taken some time that didn't need to be accounted for just to share our worlds with each other. Sitting on a couch arguing politics may not seem like something that improves project effectiveness, but a shared world is really what it's all about. Once a team has built that shared view, anything is possible.

It's not my job to tell people what to do. It's not my job to get them inspired and "motivated". My job is actually very simple: to observe how people are communicating and to help alleviate any breakdowns in that communication, so that a shared world can emerge. One of the best tools I ever found for that was a beat-up old couch.

Photo: Kia Abell

ENnies, Here We Come!

Fantastic news the other day -- our wildly-hyped product Fire and Brimstone was nominated for a prestigious ENnie award (the primary awards of the tabletop RPG industry) in the "Best Web Enhancement" category.

This is really thrilling news for all of us who worked on this product, tirelessly playtesting rulesystem after rulesystem to ensure our elegant yet simple yet not-very-complicated rules properly delivered every nuance of the sophisticated lava experience so many games fail to deliver.

We are thrilled to be nominated for this award, and expect to deliver the lava experience of a lifetime at this year's ENnies show.

New Beginnings

Nearly two years ago I started thinking about how to restructure my life so that my work, my passions, and my soul could begin to converge. That process has led me on some unexpected journeys, and introduced me to folks I am now honoured to count among my society, and these days, it feels more and more like I've managed to honestly integrate all the things in my life that matter to me.

A lot of things are helping me with this, not least still Peter Senge's wonderful book, The Fifth Discipline, which is what sparked the original idea of all this in me.

And now I've maybe moved on to a new stage. I've joined FreshBooks as their new Software Development Manager (or as my new business cards say, "Chief Cat Herder"). This is a fantastic company that is based on the kinds of foundations I tried so hard to establish at previous places, only to discover that I can't do it myself.

You can't fake a collaborative environment based on the idea of a learning organization. You can't pretend to hand power over to your employees. It's really one of those all-or-nothing things. Either your employees are trusted to handle their responsibilities, or they aren't. Either you care about bringing value to your customers, or you don't.

I've been at FreshBooks for nearly a month now, and they walk the walk. Everyone here is utterly concerned with making sure our customers are insanely happy. And that translates into making sure our co-workers are insanely happy.

So I'm pretty much insanely happy right now.

And more than that! I mean, it gets better.

I can't reveal all the details yet, but there's a few like-minded collaborators, mostly folks I've picked up in my many travels, who are putting the final touches on a whole new thing. A thing unlike anything you've seen. Pretty much.

The DINO-PIRATES are by no means forgotten, nor have they been left to fend for themselves. We've been working on them all along, and darn soon now, we're going to have some SERIOUS revealage to undertake. These fantastic illustrations are just a backdrop to what's going to put a lot of folks into a great big "Holy Crap!" bit of shock and awe.

It's starting to feel like 2008 is gaining a little traction, and as I surmised, it's turning out to be a year entirely unlike any other. I have no idea where it's going, and I don't feel even a little bit in control. But I'm finding the illusion of control is dropping easily from my eyes, and in its place I find the ability to savour the turns and twists that my life is undergoing more satisfying, and more enjoyable, than any sense of my own power.

I tell my co-workers this all the time: "I'm making this up as I go." It worked for Indy alright, why shouldn't it work for me?

I've been reading some of the essays of Montaigne (French guy, 1500's), and came across this passage in the last of them, "Of Experience":

Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all. To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.

I was engaged in a discussion on a message board I sometimes frequent that got into why folks did or didn't choose to follow particular religions. I didn't post this idea, but it occurred to me in reviewing that discussion, that something I have sought in the study of swordsmanship is a practice that can help me to learn how to, in Montaigne's words, "live appropriately".

For some reason I have faith that if I simply focus on living appropriately, and do not spurn the opportunities that come my way, that things will turn out. That I will be able to "accomplish" things and to do what is required wherever I find myself. This faith has grown stronger all my life, and one thing I've learned in all the upheaval and trauma my life has gone through in the past few months is that often the best thing for me to do is simply to relax.

These are beginnings. In a sense, things are always beginning.

Sword and Foot

"Sword and foot!" is one of those phrases I associate with my time at Sugino Dojo; I can clearly recall Sugino Sensei roaring that at me again and again: "Sword and foot! Sword and foot!"

He was reminding me of a basic tenet of Katori Shinto Ryu: that the sword must act in concert with the body. When the sword starts moving, the foot starts moving. When the sword stops, the foot stops. Sword and foot.

This principle is evident in the most basic fundamental of Katori Shinto Ryu, the straight head cut called maku-uchi men. As the sword rises up, the front foot draws back until, when the sword reaches it apex over our heads, the front foot reaches the rear foot and we are standing with our feet together. And so as the strike comes down; the sword begins its descent and the front foot slides forward, so that at the moment the sword completes its movement, the foot has returned to its original spot and we are once again standing at the ready.

It sometimes seems like an impossibly difficult thing to manage, to cause an external object to move in perfect timing with our own body. I joke that I have never performed maku-uchi correctly, but it's not exactly a joke. Getting the sword and the foot to move in perfect synchronization challenges my awareness and my coordination.

Hence Sensei's constant admonishment: "Sword and foot!"

But learning to work in concert with the world around me has been a fundamental lesson, and it seems that the better I get at making that sword move in time with myself, the better I get and doing the same with other, more abstract features of the world.

It's not just a case of imposing my will on the world around me. That can get me to MOVE the sword, but in order to operate synchronously with it, I need to move myself in accordance with the laws of physics that govern the movement of a piece of steel. I need to enter into a more complex relationship with the sword, one that accepts and embraces its needs as well as my own.

I find the lesson over and over again in my life. Repeatedly I learn to forgo simply directing, or commanding, and to embrace connecting and joining.

Interdependence, not independence.

Especially when dealing with things considerably more complex and unpredictable than swords. Like, say, software developers. I find it very difficult to get software developers to do exactly what I want them to do. Which is probably a good thing, since I'm particularly ill-suited to telling them what to do, not really being much of a software developer myself. Doing my job properly (and by the way, I have a new job; more later) involves very little directing and a great deal of harmonizing. Connecting.

It's kind of hard to describe. Sort of like maku-uchi. I can show you how it's done (sort of), and I practice it a lot, but descriptions never really manage to get the idea across. Likewise managing teams. It's all sort of mysterious and beyond the ability of rationality to encompass. These are things that cannot (and perhaps should not) be put into words, but that can only be embodied in practice.

"Tao" character from Zen Sekai

My Crow Story

Now, I can't verify this. And I have a terrible memory. And I have a habit of convincing myself obviously untrue things are in fact the case. And I can find no verification of this story online. So take it all with a grain of salt.

But I SWEAR that when I was living in Tokyo, I heard the following story reported by the local news:

People living near a train line began to complain of loud bangs on the line as trains went by. Japan Rail officials inspected the line but found nothing untoward. They did not notice any loud noises as trains went by, but as soon as they left, complaints started up again.

It was surmised that somehow local hooligans (they DO have hooligans in Japan, but of course they're very polite hooligans) were getting into the JR right of way and leaving articles on the rails such as pebbles which then made loud noises as the trains went over them.

Bang! And whatnot.

JR posted guards. The noises stopped while the guards were present, but returned again as soon as they left. Nobody could catch the "train-item-bang-makers" in the act, so Japan Rail installed a surveillance camera where the complaints were most common.

And what did they find?

Flocks of crows would gather, perching on streetlights and power cables, chuckling amongst themselves. One would flap down and plant a rock on the tracks, then join his mates. They'd sit and wait. Pretty soon a rushing, roaring JR train comes screaming by and BANG!

The crows all fly up in the air, shrieking and swearing as only crows can, and then settle down. Another of their number (or possibly the same one, crows being tough to distinguish) would flap down again, select another stone, and do it again.

I love crows. What the heck were they doing? Who cares? But check out Joshua Klein's great talk on crows (thanks to Daryl):

It Has A Sword

From Larry. Okay, this is really just another random link post, but HOLY CRAP:

The robot has a SWORD.

Da, Da, Da

Some quick links just to keep your strength up:

The Grand Central Freeze

Via Searching for Tao: A hundred people swarm into Grand Central Station, New York, and freeze simultaneously in place for five minutes. Beauty happens.

New Wave Bondage

Via Pulp 2.0: Fantastic new covers for a hardbound Penguin edition of Fleming's Bond novels. I have most of the old Pan editions that I read as a kid, but I have to admit, these make me want to buy the whole set over again. So shiny.

Senor Coconut

Via Kevin Church: Trendy latino remake of an old techno classic.

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox

Along the lines of The 501 Method is another simple technique I use to keep myself organize. This one actually does have a name: it's the Zero-Tolerance Inbox.

The basic idea is really part of the fundamental principles of Getting Things Done, but I find GTD a little "heavy" for my daily use. I just try to focus on a couple of very basic techniques and implement them with as much discipline as I can muster.

The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is primary among these.

By Zero-Tolerance I mean that I allow nothing to remain in my inbox. I am not happy unless my inbox is empty, and I do whatever I can responsibly do to get everything that arrives in my inbox out of my inbox as quickly as possible.

Most emails that arrive are signals of some sort -- telling me that an action has been completed. For the most part, these emails can be immediately deleted. Once I know the action has been completed, there's usually no call for me to be involved anymore, so I scan these emails, look for anything out of place, and delete. Simple.

Some emails are requests for action. These have to be either done immediately or moved to whatever the action management system is.

(I sure like the idea of an Action Management System. It sounds like something that organizes car chases or something. Anyway.)

Most software shops have an issue management system, or a bug tracking system, or whatever. Emails asking me to get something like that done (bug reports, requests for data, angry denunciations of our interface design) need to get put into that system and tracked there. Again, simple and quick to do.

For my personal life, I have a very simple To-Do list using 37 Signals' awesome Backpack tool. So if I get an email from someone that describes a thing I decide I need to do, I add an item to my to-do list and delete the email.

Some emails are requests for information. These are often the most effort, but often the truth is that somebody else is better-informed than I (actually, that's pretty much ALWAYS the truth), and so I can dispatch the request to them and again, delete. Sometimes the better-informed person is not quite so available and in these cases I actually have to do some work. You'll note all the previous examples mostly allow me to avoid doing any work whatsoever. Not doing any work is key to getting lots done. Be lazy!

That covers probably 99% of the emails I receive. The remaining 1% are weird things like "I was thinking we should reorganize the company so that we can start selling soft-serve ice cream from the QA department. What do you think about that?"

Or, in other words, emails from the executives. For the most part, these can be safely ignored.

The key, like that of the 501 Method, is to avoid making things easy for yourself in the short term. Embrace the short-term pain of dealing with each and every item the moment it arrives. The Zero-Tolerance Inbox is a way of refusing to allow work to pile up just because you don't know what to do with it. If you don't know, this method forces you to find out. Enjoy it. Make a game out of it.

I mean, not Grand Theft Auto or anything. More like pinochle.

Photo: Dan Mulligan

Robert Lynn Asprin: 1946-2008

Wow, the past few months have been alarmingly full of significant losses. I guess I'm getting to the age where the folks who were my heroes in my youth are hitting that black wall at the end of the race.

Man, I'm so not prepared for Bobby Orr passing on. There'd better be angels and trumpets, is all I can say.

But today it's Robert Asprin, at 62, the creator of the Thieves' World books (which laid the foundation for the Bordertown books which I know you've never heard of, maybe I need to do another in my "Ones Nobody Knows" series) and the writer of the Myth Adventures books, both of which started off so well I can't help but be indulgent towards how they ended up.

Mr. Asprin was able to communicate a love of the absurd, the zany, and the unrepentantly sentimental. The first couple of Thieves' World books contained some great stories, and the whole idea of a "shared world" anthology was part of the cultural shift that Gary Gygax also contributed to.

In the 80's, fantasy culture began embracing the ideas of world-building, ideas that perhaps had been first developed by early pulp writers like Howard and Lovecraft (working as they did upon speculative writers like Verne and even More), and then suddenly Tolkien put a level of detail into it that went beyond what anyone had seen. Gygax and his cohorts, not content with just doing their own world-building, turned that activity into something with social worth -- if you were willing to put some effort into it, and had the requisite skills, you could gather a social group ("Demented and sad, but social,") and work together to generate stories in that world.

Authors continued to work in that style, and Asprin had the genius idea to bring together a number of well-known (and not so much) authors in a single setting. I remember reading his foreword (or possibly somebody else's, talking about him) to the original volume, and how at first the idea was to bring all the famous characters of fantasy together -- so that you could have Conan confront Elric, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser slit purses in Minas Tirith. But that turned out to be impossible -- probably my first encounter with the idea of "Intellectual Property" -- and so a new world and new characters were created.

It was a grand vision. It was a Good Thing To Do. The Sanctuary stories were part of the "gritty" trend in fantasy writing -- more Leiber than Tolkien, and better suited to short stories than to novels.

Sanctuary gave rise to numerous other shared projects, none of which ever carried the same cachet as the original. But the idea has stuck around, and moved into different media, and even for myself, has influenced much of what I think about IP ownership and creativity.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is going to be a shared setting. It will be open for folks to contribute to, and to take from. I'm still working on how exactly the presentation will happen, but when it rolls out, I think it will be quite unlike any fantasy setting ever seen before -- at least in terms of HOW it gets created and fleshed out. It will be an exciting project, and given that I've spent several years of my life just getting it this far, I think it's fair to say that Mr. Asprin has had an immense impact on my life.

Thank you for Sanctuary, for Skeeve and Aahz, and for the lofty idea that creativity is better when it's shared. I believe you were right.

Novelty Lunchboxes!

I can't refrain from noting that somebody recently came to this site after searching Google for "novelty lunchboxes".

I am NUMBER TWO. Number two on Google for "novelty lunchboxes".

In Canada. If you include the quotes.

But still! Number Two!

The Infinity of Data

Reading Mr. Tony Judt's lovely elegy for history in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by this phrase: "Most people in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa have access to a near infinity of data.".

Particularly the use of the word "near".

Is the amount of data to which we have access to best described as "near-infinite"? Or is "infinite" itself a better descriptor?

There are now well over 2 million articles on Wikipedia. There are 24,000 texts on Project Gutenberg. Little Canada published 20,000 new books last year; the United Kingdom published over 200,000.

Even assuming a great deal of overlap, there's a phenomenal amount of data being created on a daily basis in our world. If data is being created faster than anyone can ingest it, doesn't that mean that there actually is an infinite amount of data available to us?

What does that mean? What does it mean to say that nobody can grasp human knowledge? Or even keep up? How do we keep track of where we are if none of us can take in enough of the new data to maintain a "50,000-foot view" of the human race's progress?

I think it partly means abandoning the idea of progress in the first place. How can anything so unsupervisable be referred to as "progress"?

Mr. Judt's axes are sharpening in a different direction; he is taking on the idea that torture could ever be acceptable in a republic devoted to freedom. But I think part of what makes Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib possible is the "infinity of data" that he tosses off -- in a world where we accept that we can never acquire ALL the information, aren't we in danger of being unable to ever trust that we have all the RELEVANT information?

And without all the relevant information, how does each one of us find our way? Step by step, through the fog, always uncertain of our path? It's strange to think that an infinity of data requires us to shrink our horizons, to minimize our worlds. But maybe stepping smaller and lighter isn't such a bad thing.

Bridge photo: Utpal Deka

The NewPulp Manifesto!

The man declared "The Mad Pulp Bastard" by none other than the original Kung-Fu Monkey has written a Declaration of Intent that describes the emerging idea of NewPulp.

It's a document that captures many of the ideas Scratch Factory tries to embody, and so I'm excited to see other folks sharing similar goals and aspirations to mine. I'm struck by how well the Story Hour fits the NewPulp mode: it's generated quickly, it embraces rather than parodies genre, and it involves its audience often very directly.

Telling stories is fun. It is its own reward. I'm not suggesting that folks who do it really really well oughtn't to be paid for it; hells no. But we all love to tell stories and many of us do so without any notion of ever getting paid for it. Some professional writers get uppity about that but I don't think amateur storytellers present any great danger to the pros; on the contrary, I think a healthy culture of storytelling generates more GOOD storytellers, and if you've ever listened to a publisher you'll hear them lament how hard it is to find a good storyteller.

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is likewise firmly in the NewPulp camp, and RPG gaming makes for a natural delivery mechanism. There are going to be some exciting developments in this regard over the course of 2008, so watch this space!

And carry the NewPulp banner proud.

Astonishing Adventures Number Three!

Published by the good Mr. John Donald Carlucci (who also did the very suitable cover illustration), Astonishing Adventures is 70 pages of pulp story-telling full of verve and style. Hard-bitten mugs and swanky dames fill these pages, influenced by all sorts of crazy stuff -- there's some pretty cool science-fiction in here, some economic theory, and plenty of two-fisted action.

It's free, and it's cool. It's what I call good. Read, and be better than you are.

The 501 Method

I'm not an organized person by nature. I have a terrible memory.

(really, I'm not kidding. My memory (or rather, the gaping hole in my brain where other people have a memory) is legendary. I've forgotten things you people wouldn't believe. I forgot that I'd planned a department-wide trip to a local gallery. I forgot my family's vacation to Hawaii -- it was only when my Mom came in to find out why I wasn't packing that anybody realised I didn't even know we were going on holiday. That day. As in, the rest of the family was IN THE CAR, waiting for me.)

So in order to make it through an ordinary work day, I have to take some extraordinary measures, otherwise everything I'm supposed to get done falls apart. For example, I have to write EVERYTHING down. Anything that Corey doesn't write down doesn't get stored. As those who know me say, "Corey doesn't use his brain for storing things. Besides dinosaurs."

It's true. My brain does feature a remarkable collection of dinosaur-related data. But career opportunities in the dinosaur field are few and far between. And pay like crap.

So anyway, this morning I was in Le Gourmand, picking up my sandwich, when it occurred to me that one of my principal organizing systems was a little idiosyncratic, and might, at least, provide some light entertainment for my three readers (hi JAmes).

And maybe even be useful, if (like me) you occasionally suffer from memory lapses, and (like me) don't find new toys particularly helpful.

My organization system doesn't require web applications, moleskin notebooks, iPhones or even sticky notes.

I call it The 501 Method. Well, that's a lie. I don't call it anything. But the primary tool required IS a pair of Levi 501 jeans, and The 501 Method sounds kind of catchy.

Actually, any article of clothing with a pocket will do -- though it's best if it's an article you wash regularly. The key here is inconveniencing yourself a little bit. Not too much, but a little bit. A little inconvenience is how I keep myself organized.

Basically, I put stuff in my pockets.

I know that doesn't sound too remarkable, and perhaps it isn't, but bear with me.

See, I HATE having my pockets all full of stuff. And key to this whole process is doing things I hate. So I don't organize this stuff. I don't put it in a neat little wallet or something so it won't get munched up. That would reduce the inconvenience, which is counter-productive for The 501 Method.

The stuff, in particular, is pieces of paper. Receipts, or to-do items, or whatever I need to track. Mostly receipts. Whenever I buy something, I ask for the receipt, and I put it in my pocket.

"Okay," I can hear you saying, "You put receipts in your pockets. Fantastic. Great. Earth-shattering."

But see, the receipts in the pocket isn't the clever bit. The CLEVER bit is that when I get home, I take everything in my pockets out of my pockets, and pile it up in front of my iMac.

The iMac isn't really critical to The 501 Method. I know, neither are the 501s, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

So far, the critical bits are:

1. Pocket (for putting things in)
2. Things (for putting in and taking out of pockets)

So you don't really need the iMac so much just yet. What you do need is a place where the receipts will get in the way. Where you can't just keep piling them up day after day.

Remember, inconvenience is what this The 501 Method all about.

So we've gone from stuffing things in our pockets to piling things up in front of an iMac. Onwards.

What happens now is that eventually I get so frustrated with the pile of receipts in front of my iMac that I take action. For myself, I record expenses in a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet is kind of like the iMac -- interesting, perhaps as a personal detail (hey, Corey knows what a spreadsheet is), but not a key part of the process.

No, our critical bits list for The 501 Method has increased by one:

1. Pocket (for putting things in)
2. Things (for putting in and taking out of pockets)
3. Place (for putting things)

You'll note that the pocket and the place are similar. In fact, we've already wrapped this process and are back at the beginning, so really, the whole process only involves steps 1 and 2.

1. Have a pocket
2. Put things in it.

It's all about inconveniencing yourself so that you end up having to deal with things. Really, I've just inculcated in myself a certain tolerance towards inconvenience, and a caution whenever I find myself doing something that makes things more convenient for myself. Because typically convenience ends up not so convenient. The 501 Method is about embracing inconvenience.

So I'm skeptical of anyone who tries to convince me that a new tool or a new process will make things more convenient for me. The capacity to get things done doesn't necessarily involve things being convenient.

I know The 501 Method is never going to catch on. It's not complicated enough. It doesn't have enough steps. It would be hard to write a book, launch a lecture series or even a PowerPoint presentation about it. Heck, I can't even turn it into a line of clothing without getting sued by venerable Levi Strauss' great-grand-nephews.

Which would be profoundly inconvenient.

Ding Ding Ding

One of the things virtually every software office will tell you, usually with a sheepish sort of "Yeah, we know" kind of expression, is that their documentation sucks.

Everyone knows updated docs are critical. Everyone knows outdated docs are deadly.

And yet, I've never walked into a place where people didn't tell me their documentation sucked.

Why this happens is pretty well understood -- everyone's busy and there's always tasks to do that either

A) are more critical to company health; or B) are easier. Usually, it's B.

Because let's face it, updating documentation feels like being the art critic, compared to the artist who's out there fixing bugs or launching new campaigns. In the words of H.L. Mencken, it's like being the bell ringing frantically at the crossing as the train roars past. All the action is really up with the train. Who wants to be the crossing signal?

But the organization isn't just the train, it's the whole map: the tracks, the highways, the farms inbetween, all that. And (bear with me as this metaphor starts to creak under the strain) in that respect, the crossing signals are critical elements in making sure the trains, cars, pedestrians and what not don't run headlong into each other.

I was standing at Spadina and Richmond, the other day, waiting to cross, and watching oncoming traffic, and the light changed and I just stepped out in front of thousands of pounds of fast-moving steel. It occurred to me that I didn't have to make any sort of contact with the drivers of each and every vehicle coming my way in order to be sure that they would stop -- the crossing signal took care of that for me.

It seems like much of our technology can be understood as mechanisms for enabling communication between large groups of strangers. A crossing signal is really a way for me to send a message to a few hundred drivers, saying, "Okay, I'm crossing the street now. Please stop." Because I don't have to create a relationship with each and every driver on the road, I can get to work even though there's thousands of people trying to travel down the same roads I am. If I had to negotiate each and every social interaction as I travelled, it would take me hours to get to work.

Crossing signals simplify social interactions.

So does corporate and process documentation. And, understanding these organizational tools as crossing signals maybe helps to explain why keeping them up to date is so important.

And why, fundamentally, doing so is the boss' job. Not that it's the boss' job to decide on everyone else's process and tell them what to do, but it is up to the boss (note that we're using the term "boss" here pretty loosely. You decide if that's you or not) to make sure that the signals are up to date, that they are actually helping to manage the flow of traffic -- not just flashing pointlessly while everyone moving through the intersection ignores them.

A lot of things can make documents useless: inaccurate information is only one. Besides being out of date, plenty of corporate docs are just boring, if not actually painful. An organization where communication skills are not valued ends up with reams of documents that can't be understood or that just don't connect with readers and get them on board. And every single document that isn't used is organizational noise -- imagine if the city were full of crossing signals, multiple signals at each intersection, some of which were accurate and some of which weren't. In order to get anywhere you'd have to have someone show you which signals to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. This is exactly the situation in most offices -- you get led by the hand through a maze of outdated documents and told which ones matter and which ones don't. The latter list is almost always larger. Much larger.

Tools can help, but whether they use Word or Wikis or whatever, the real answer for most offices is investment in communication skills and the time needed to develop and most importantly maintain documents. This is why (and perhaps I'm biased on this point, what with an English degree and all, but still) solid writing skills are essential for a company to thrive. Along with a boss who understands the value of reliable crossing signals.

Ding ding ding....

Typewriting photo: Roberto Clix. Crossing Signal photos: Michal Zacharzewski

Sad Long Box

Dave has shut down the Long Box. I am sad.

Dave has provided some of the biggest laughs I've had on the Internet since this whole thing began. But it was his review of NEW MUTANTS #18 that really cemented the one-way relationship. That post marks one of the few times I've ever been compelled to comment on someone's blog post. God I loved that comic.

There's a gift that some people have of being able to illustrate the essential goofiness of something without betraying it; they see the goofiness, and they can show you the goofiness, but they still love the goofiness. They love it BECAUSE it's goofy -- but not in a campy way.

Somebody over on Circvs asked me why I love pulp stories and my answer swerved around this stretch of road. I said something about how I love stories in which the self-importance and essential goofiness of human existence is illustrated, but at the same time the heroic view of the universe is maintained. There's something that happens inside my brain when I read Dejah Thoris shouting "Fly, Sola! Dejah Thoris remains to die by the man she loves!" that manages to simultaneously expand and implode.

Which probably explains the expression on my face at the time.

It's hard to explain Dave's consistent funny. Quotes don't do his posts justice, because he's so good at set-up and then paying off with goofy lines like "Mandroids: big, loveable, and yellow. Just like Big Bird."

See? On it's own, that's not funny. But you read the mandroid post and I tell you, you're dying.

Steph said she recalled some hilarious She-Hulk post. I couldn't find it, but I did read a lot of funny stuff.

I will restrict myself to two of the greatest posts Dave (or any other blogger in the HISTORY OF THE INTERNET) ever wrote:

Clean Underwear Tuesday: Honestly, I don't even know what to say. SIGN SEZ STOP PLEEZ. If that doesn't crack you up, you need a new brain, dude.

No Post For You, Dr. Jones!: Well, there are bears in this one, too. But I tell you, if there were any justice in this world, "Sometimes bears win," would be a total catchphrase.

Thanks, Dave, for three years of hilarity. I'm really glad you're making a living at this now. Those bastards at ABC are lucky to have you. Milk 'em for all they're worth!

Rock Dragon

Some Things You Just Can't Discuss

Yes, that is what you might possibly suspect it is. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I heard about before my (ahem) "departure". No, I wasn't involved. Yes, it's possible that it's worse than you think. No, I didn't get a free copy. Yes, I would have taken one if they'd offered.

No, I can't comment.

Seriously. And anyway, Kevin's already said everything that needs to be said. And he's much better at this than I am.

What would I say? What could I possibly say except, "Yes. I know."

The First Lesson is Walking

It struck me a few years ago, as I practicing the first kata of omote-tachi -- the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu -- that the very first thing a student learns is walking. Walking two steps.

Katori is not a practice in which one learns a technique and moves on to the next. It is an endless circle of practice, insight, and more practice. I have been doing these two steps for many years now, and I still feel that even just taking two steps backwards is a process more full of possibility than I could ever completely encompass.

The kata opens with the two participants facing one another, swords at the ready. The senior member (uketachi) advances forward, driving back the junior member (kirikomi). One step. Two steps.

That's it. Just two steps. If you're kirikomi, you just back up two steps and you're done. Hardly a sophisticated maneuver.

And yet, like everything else in Katori, there is much, much more going on here than can be easily seen.

First is ma-ai -- "correct distance". At the opening of the kata, before the steps begin, uketachi and kirikomi are separated by a precise distance -- just too far to reach each other without taking a step. Their swordtips just meet.

As they walk, uke pushes forward and it is the job of kirikomi to maintain ma-ai. Sometimes uke pushes quickly and sometimes he pushes slowly -- nevertheless, kirikomi must maintain the correct distance. After two steps back, their swords must still be in precisely the same relationship as before.

There is also timing to consider. It is uke's forward step that prompts kirikomi's backward one. Tong Sensei says often that swordplay in Katori Shinto Ryu is a conversation, an exchange -- as a junior student I found concentrating on these brief, simple steps a chance to establish that communication with my uketachi. A chance to listen, pay attention to what uke is telling me. One step. Two steps.

One of the ongoing lessons of Katori is that of listening. You must maintain, not just the correct distance, but actual contact with your opponent. Only by fully experiencing their presence, with all your senses, can you hope to attain mastery over them. You must be aware of their sword, their feet, their eyes, all of their intent and their spirit. From any position an opponent can launch a multitude of attacks -- the only way to respond correctly is by sensing them without preconceptions and allowing the correct response to come forth.

Without total attention, you cannot possibly succeed.

And so it has always struck me how, when I first began studying Katori Shinto Ryu, my first lesson was to do nothing more than walk two steps. And when I watch new students walking backwards, with so much of their attention just focused on "What's next? What's next?" I am reminded that just two steps can contain lessons that always need re-learning.

Photo: Jason Conlon