The Right to Resell

Just one of the many stories to get overshadowed by #frankenstorm today is the opening arguments of Kirtsaeng vs. Wiley in the Supreme Court.  This case will test whether we (as in, citizens of the US) have the right to re-sell items which may contain copyrighted components that were originally sold overseas.  So, for instance, an iPad that contains copyrighted software, or even a house that contains parts with copyrighted text or designs on them. Joe Mullin at Ars Technica is calling this the Intellectual Property case of the decade. Marvin Ammori has a detailed writeup in the Atlantic from earlier this summer. Demand Progress is launching a campaign today. I've been getting slightly mixed reviews from legal folks I know regarding the importance of this.  Is it, as Joe suggests, the IP case of the decade, or will this just make some limited set of commercial transactions more difficult.  For those with the inclination, the 30 Amicus briefs filed on the case should make good reading. The one thing I know is that it rubs me wrong that the content industry keeps trying to have their cake and eat it too re: ownership rights.  It's all about owners rights when we're talking about fighting piracy, but "it's really just a lease" when consumers buy stuff.


Le Burger Dog

This post has been a long time coming. This weekend, we hosted a BBQ at our house as part of the Summer of Internet Freedom.  Internet Freedom is nice and all, but really, it was just an excuse to fire up a batch of burger dogs. What's a burger dog? I'm glad you asked. A burger dog is delicious snack that solves two critical problems: 1) Burgers are too big.  Especially at BBQs with lots of delicious food, burgers should be snacks, not meals.  And 2) you should only have to buy one kind of bun, really.  And since hot dogs will never fit on a hamburger bun, there you have it. So, a burger dog is a small hamburger made to fit in a hot dog bun.  It's really quite good.  Here's how you do it: 1) Make the patties.   Start with a small handful, roll it roughly to the shape of a hot dog, and then flatten it out by slapping it gently with your fingers and shaping the edges.  As a guide, a properly sized burger dog, pre-cooked, should take up the width of your first three fingers, and extend from the your fingertips down to the inside of your palm.  Pre-cooked, a burger dog is maybe 1/5 of a pound (my 3 lbs of ground beef produced 15 burger dogs).

2) Grill it. Since burger dogs are relatively thin, you don't need to grill them for very long.  Over a medium-high heat, I grill for several minutes, without flipping, until the juices start to come through the top.  Then, a single flip.  Then, grill for a few more minutes, adding 1/2 slice of american cheese (or a whole slice, cut in half and then staggered lengthwise, if you're feeling cheesy) at the end.

3) Deck it out. The most important topping for a burger dog is a sandwich-sliced kosher pickle.  They (magically) happen to be exactly the length of a hot dog bun.  I also prepare tomatoes and onions -- half-cut, then sliced thinly.  This one has everything:

4) Enjoy. So delicious!  And since they're small, you can totally have two!  Our hand model is none other than Jake Shapiro, proprietor of Public Radio Exchange (and fellow lover of Internet Freedom).

That's it!  Burger Dogs FTW!



In some small way, I feel like I arrived as a member of the internet today.  Joi took some photos of me, which are now in his stream (along with photos of countless other internet heroes of mine). Thanks to Jess for making me smile and laugh as we got going. I am terrible in photographs. I always feel like I look stiff and awkward, and don't look like my real self. It's part of the reason why I use my simpsons avatar for everything.  A whole lot of the photos Joi took just now look that way too, of course, but there were a few good ones which feel pretty real and comfortable to me (especially b/c I'm rocking my Chicken Adidas shirt).  So, now I have a few real photographs of myself to use for important things like blog posts about those photographs :)


Jane Jacobs, Inspiration, and the Internet

Last night at 3am, our daughter Brieza started crying, Frannie and I woke up, and I couldn't get back to sleep.  So I crawled over into my office and started surfing the web.  For about two hours, I wandered from thing to thing, and seemed to keep hitting gems, like this classic Paul Graham article on doing what you love, this awesome Quora thread on how Apple keeps secrets, these posts by Joe Kraus on "seeing greatness" and the culture of distraction we're creating (most of these stemmed from McKenna Moreau's twitter stream).  And of course I logged my requisite Wikipedia time, reading up on Freidrich Hayek as well as the history of Fascism.  A grand tour, indeed. One post that really got me thinking was a Quora thread started by Christina Cacioppo asking "Why does Jane Jacobs garner so much respect?" It got me thinking about why Jane Jacobs is inspiring to me.  I read Jane Jacobs for the first time during my sophomore year of college at Stanford.  At the time, I was feeling rather displaced and isolated, having moved to the northern California suburbs (as beautiful as it is there, in many ways) from NYC.  I couldn't figure out how to engage with the physical and social landscape of the spread out strip mall suburbs of the Valley -- I couldn't see or feel the energy, I couldn't connect with people (physically, emotionally) the way I had grown accustomed to in New York.  The whole thing felt really weird and I didn't like it. Then, on a total whim (tagging along with my friend Carrie McAndrews), I took a class called "Introduction to Urban Design" (taught by the epic Gerry Gast), and Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities was our first reading.  I read the first few chapters, and that was it. I finally had a framework for understanding my feelings for the places I lived in, and without knowing it, I set off on a course of interest that would shape everything I've done since. Without getting into all the detail, the big takeaway was this: there is great power in the infrastructure we build, and the way we build it -- and quite often, when we "go big", making sweeping, top-down plans, we miss the mark, we forget the humanity.  Jacobs reminded us that cities are made of people, and people have peculiar ways of working, which are often counter-intuitive.  If we want to make great cities, we need to start with a people-eye view of the world, and work up from there.  Not a bird's eye view.  Bottom-up, open, and organic, focusing on identifying and strengthening connections. Jacobs was not a city planner.  She was a writer and an activist.  This first book, published in 1961, was enormously powerful -- it sent shock waves through the city planning community and influenced generations (and counting) of planners.  Beyond the book, she was famous for standing up to the forces of Big Planning (Robert Moses), and organizing opposition to projects like the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have put an interstate through Manhattan's Greenwich Village (an idea that seems patently ridiculous now, but was close to being real in the 60's).  She embodied an outsider's voice of reason, and she marshaled tremendous popular support. Fast-forward 15 years (if you're counting from my college days, 50 from the publication), and here we are with the Internet.  We have a complex, vibrant medium that's connecting people in incredible (and sometimes scary) new ways.  It was built with an open architecture, upon principles of decentralization, trust, and permissionless innovation.  It's chaotic and messy, and totally awesome.  Just like cities.  And we have big, powerful forces working hard to lock it down and control it. I believe in the diverse, open awesomeness of cities, and in the diverse, open awesomeness of the web.  Jane Jacobs isn't my only inspiration (there's also Steven Johnson, Joi Ito, Fred Wilson, Barbara Van Schewick, Larry Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, Yochai Benkler, and many many many others), but she's a big part of the foundation. Speaking of foundation, I'm kind of a sentimental guy, and keep a lot of meaning in my stuff.  Here's a picture of my desk, specifically the stack of books holding up my monitor:

Those three books are there for a reason:

  • PHP for the World Wide Web, by Larry Ullman.  This is the book that taught me programming.  I had taken some in college, but not really focused on it.  But this book helped me catch the bug -- I did all the exercises, then moved on to more and more.  It kicked me into a (now 8-year old) cycle of self-directed learning about technology, programming, and the web.  The best education in my life, by far.  So thanks, Larry.

  • Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson.  Steven is my favorite writer of all time.  He has an unmatched ability, IMO, to tie together phenomena from the worlds of biology, sociology and technology into an amazingly rich, compelling and long-lasting narrative.  The title of this blog, "the slow hunch", is drawn from this book (check out the video), and I always feel like he's inside my head with me as I go about my work.

  • and of course, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.  This is the actual copy I bought back in 1998, and I'm enormously proud to say that it's signed by Jane herself (I met her briefly in 2004, shortly before she passed away).

It's corny, but I like the idea that these people, stories, and values are propping up my work every day.  Standing on the shoulders of giants, so they say. So, when I think about the Internet, and the fight for the future of everything, I often think "What would Jane do?" (or maybe, WWJJD).  And I think the answer is that she would dig into the nuances of How Things Really Work, make a crystal clear, compelling case for what's great, and organize her fellow citizens to fight against the powerful forces that would change things for the worse.  Sounds about right to me.


Wanted: Highrise Chrome Extension

Update: I built it. I've used Highrise as a lightweight CRM for a few years now.  It's fine for my needs -- basically keeping track of people who I meet on email. The thing that really made Highrise start to work for me is integration with Gmail, via Rapportive.  Being able to add someone to my highrise, and add some tags and notes, right from my inbox, has been awesome.  I use it every day. But there is still something I really need that I don't have.  You see, tracking people and companies in Highrise works really well for people you're already connected to.  I.e., people who you've been introduced to over email -- so that you can add them via Rapportive; yadda yadda.  The problem wtih that is that there are lots of people and companies that I want to track in Highrise that aren't yet in my inbox. This is another version of the "strategic networking tool" problem that I wrote about a few years ago. So, for now, I have a hacked together solution that involves using Highrise for folks I meet on email, and Delicious for people and companies I don't know yet.  This is an OK start, but it's missing a key feature: collaboration.  The kinds of notes and tags we use in Highrise are internal -- meant for team discussion and not for public consumption.  So, by using Delicious, I can write public notes & tags (which are fine most of the time anyway), or I a can save private links -- but if I do that they're not accessible via API and I can't get them into Highrise no matter how much I want to. So here's what I want, ideally.  A chrome extension that gives me a delicious-like experience for adding content to Highrise.  I've taken a few half-hearted stabs at making one, but haven't gotten there yet. Here's the idea in pictures (click each to enlarge). In my head, I've been calling this "Eyes on the Street". I use Highrise via Rapportive to track people I meet over email.

This give me a nice, searchable browseable view in Highrise, which I can share with my team:

For people I don't know yet and haven't met on email, I use delicious to keep track.  There is a nice browser extension for this; it's really easy.

So I get a similarly nice, searchable view in Delicious.  However, any links I mark as private I can't share w/ my team :(

So here's what I want: A browser extension that looks a lot like the Delicious extension, that lets me tag people and companies in Highrise (just like I can do via Rapportive in my inbox).  If it's a new person, I create a new entry.

If the person is already in the system, I can add additional links / notes:

The same thing works for companies:

The extension could show a badge when other people from my team have noted a given URL and/or left notes.  Conversation (in the extension and in Highrise) ensues.

This is pretty easy to make, I think.  If I were a better programmer I would have made it already. But rather than burn another whole evening futzing around writing my first chrome extension, I'm writing up the idea here :).  Basically, the extension can talk to Highrise directly via JS/XML, or via a proxy server that sits in the middle.  The advantage to the latter (drawn below), is that you can take advantage of Highrise wrapper libraries, rather than writing directly to the raw API.

That's it!  Is there anything out there like this? If so I haven't found it.  If anyone wants to take this idea and run with it I would be forever grateful.  


Connected Learning

Yesterday at the Center for Civic Media, our lunch guest was S. Craig Watkins, a professor at UT Austin working on a variety of projects under the heading of "Connected Learning".  In his blog post about the idea, Dr. Watkins defines this as:

the increasingly complex ways in which young people’s learning ecologies are evolving.  It is the notion that, in addition to happening anytime and anywhere, learning happens across the many different networks that teens’ navigate.  School is an obvious node in a young learner’s network.  But school represents only one node among many others, which includes after school sites, extracurricular activities, online communities, libraries, family, and peer communities just to name a few.

In his visit, he pointed out a few really important points, namely:

  • the "learning & civic opportunity gap" we see in poor/marginalized communities is largely a result of what happens OUTSIDE of school, so there is perhaps the greatest opportunity to make a difference there;

  • these "informal learning environments" don't have the rigidities of the formal education system, allowing for greater creativity and innovation;

  • In "extreme" locations, such as the poorest parts of the world with the least formal infrastructure, traditional school simply isn't possibly, so we must take a more real-world, connected approach.

This resonates with so much of what I've been thinking about, regarding networks, and how they're creating new, connected opportunities across all sectors.  The idea that school is "only one node among many others" is the key idea.  This is such a huge opportunity -- to think about learning as something that can and should happen everywhere, and that can be facilitated and guided by many actors in the network. And of course, this also represents a disruptive force in the world of traditional education, which no doubt cause friction within the establishment (more on that in a minute). The idea of "connected learning" dovetails with another idea I've been following recently, which is "natural learning". The term natural learning comes from the Unschooling movement (a variant on home-schooling) which I got to thinking about this week via this article on  Unschooling is founded on the idea that humans are natural learners, and that the way that we learn in early childhood and adult life -- by exploring, wondering, asking questions, and doing -- is in line w/ our nature.  The unschooling philosophy puts learners in the drivers seat, letting them follow their own curiosity, and using that as the driving force for learning.  Adults (parents and others) act as facilitators, guides, and learning partners.  Rather than pursuing a pre-defined body of knowledge, unschooling is more about learning how to learn, and turning people into life-long learners.  From my personal experience with the unschooled (in the name of Nick Bergson-Shilcock, a life-long unschooler, fantastic human and blogger at, it works. By contrast, unschooling argues that the "structured learning period" that we enter in grade school actually stifles real learning more than it supports it. Quoting from the father of Unschooling, John Holt, via the wikipedia article:

 ...the anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don't know."

I am sure this resonates with nearly everyone who has attended school. It seems that we're entering a period where the values of natural learning and the technologically-enabled methods of connected learning will join together to produce awesome and exciting opportunities.  And seriously important outcomes, such as better access to learning opportunities and communities and deeper civic engagement. And of course, as with most disruptive innovations, we can expect to see three things happen, likely in sequence:

  1. Innovations in connected learning will be written off as "toys" -- irrelevant to the "real" learning in schools.

  2. Institutions that are threatened by connected learning will resist and fight back (countries, school districts, teachers unions, etc.)

  3. Connected learning will prove to be more powerful and significant than anything we've seen before, and the role of formal learning institutions will change dramatically.

This is perhaps one of the most exciting and important areas where networks can make a difference.  I'll be following closely.



Earlier this year, my friend and former colleague Thor Snilsberg started a new nonprofit organization called CityScience to improve the quality and relevance of science education for urban students.  In their words:

CityScience is committed to raising the quality of science education and supporting environmental stewardship. By using the natural and built environments of cities as laboratories for active learning, we transform teaching to make science relevant and engaging for PreK-12 students.

Thor has been working hard all year getting CityScience off the ground, and I'm excited to see it start to gain traction.  I'm writing about it today because I just got a really great update & fundraising email from Thor on behalf of CityScience which inspired me to make a donation.  That email is the real subject of this post -- I was really blown away by its clarity and sincerity -- as an introduction to the organization and an invitation to become a supporter, I think it's hard to beat.  Really nice work, Thor. Pasted below is the email.  Read it, and then go make a donation to CityScience.

Dear Family and Friends, Many of you know that 2010 has been an exciting year for me professionally.  As the founder and Executive Director of CityScience, I have enjoyed the challenges and complexities of starting a nonprofit to improve the quality of science education in urban school districts.  As important people in my life, I am writing to update you on CityScience’s progress and to seek your support. Currently, the United States ranks 24th in international science scores; science is taught less than 3 hours a week in most schools.  Because these disparities are even greater in urban areas, CityScience strives to spark students' interest in science while training teachers to make science more hands-on and connected to students' lives. As our mission suggests, cities are natural laboratories for learning and scientific literacy is a key underpinning of our economy and society.  To learn more about our unique programs, goals and approach I encourage you to visit  Below is a list of CityScience's 2010 milestones.  Based on the feedback on our work to date, 2011 will be an exciting year. As family, close friends and existing supporters, I hope this note inspires you to make a tax-deductible donation to CityScience.  I look forward to visiting with you in the near future. Best wishes, Thor Snilsberg _____________________________________________ 2010 Milestones Mission & Identity – As you read CityScience's mission to the right, you will begin to see our hands-on approach to improving science education.  In developing our logo, we wanted to emphasize how thinking, problem solving and action are life skills learned through scientific inquiry. Recent Programming – In our first major partnership, CityScience provided curriculum for a youth program in the newest National Park.  Seeing students develop a passion for geology, forestry, aquatic ecology and architecture was the highlight of the year for me.  Our work was recognized by National Parks Service, as being the most "deliberate use of curriculum they have seen," earning us an invitation to present our approach to their educators. 501(c)(3) Incorporation– Thanks to the generosity of two attorneys at the law firm of Skadden Arps, CityScience earned its official nonprofit status June 19th.  I have been busy writing grant proposals and introducing the organization to foundations interested in supporting science education, project-based learning and the environment. Board of Directors– Building a board that understands the importance and promise of science education is especially important to me.  CityScience is fortunate to have eight board members that all have advanced degrees in science, education, or urban planning.  Their expertise and commitment has been essential to helping me tackle countless start-up tasks. In-kind Donations, Corporate Support & Fundraising– The in-kind support of Consider-it-Done Accounting, Durst Organization, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and All Star Moving and Storage have defrayed major overhead costs at key points.  Our first corporate sponsor, Carpet Cycle, is not only the region's premier carpet recycler, the founder and CEO has become a great friend and mentor.  And while I have a lot to learn about fundraising, the list of individual supporters continues to grow.  Every donation is like a vote of confidence that brightens my day. Office & Employees– CityScience moved into its first office in October.  We are walking distance from Grand Central Station, and I hope all of you have a chance to visit us soon.  Our expert instructors and teacher coaches deliver top notch programs and I look forward to continuing to develop our staff and pool of talented contractors. Curriculum & Science Equipment – The curriculum CityScience inherited from the Center for the Urban Environment (CUE) includes fifty subjects and well over two-hundred lesson plans that get students outside to learn science.  Developed and time tested for thirty years in New York’s schools, parks and after-school programs, these programs made CUE the largest environmental educator in the five boroughs before it closed in 2009.  While it was a capital project that sank CUE, the programs are exemplar and it is an honor to be chosen to carry them on.


Required Reading

At OpenPlans, we've hired two new Project/Product managers within the last month. I couldn't be happier with the hires, and they are already doing great work.  Jeff Maki is handling our work with public transit agencies (like the OpenTripPlanner and our shiny new real-time bus tracking project with MTA, building on the fabulous OneBusAway package).  Frank Hebbert will be handing our work on participatory planning, including our new project with NYC DOT. Jeff and Frank are both pros at what they do -- Jeff has been managing big consumer-facing tech projects (including his recent work on the FreshDirect iPhone app), and Frank has a deep background in GIS & planning (he comes to us by way of our friends at RPA), and a proven record organizing communities around planning issues. So as they're both getting started, I've been thinking about what to give them as background reading, to get ramped up into our work environment.  In the end, I've decided to keep it simple, and go with two books that have really made an impact on me, and that give a good sense of our perspective as an organization:

Getting Real, by 37Signals.  This book is like the bible to me -- I've been a 37Signals fan for a long time, and this book really helped me form my attitude towards project and product management. Producing Open Source Software, by Karl Fogel.  We are not just a product or service company, but also an "open" company.  With that comes many confusing and complicated situations -- even seemingly straightforward questions like "how do we promote ourselves on our product sites" are different when  you're an open company.  Karl's book is a great primer on the social dynamics of open source community management.  We've also been fortunate enough to be hosting Karl in our office (while he works for O'Reilly Media on Code for America and Civic Commons) for the past few months, and frequently find ourselves tapping him on the shoulder for some sage advice. So that's it -- all the reading you need to do if you want to come work on our team.  And if you're interested, you should also go read Traffic.  And The Four Steps to the Epiphany.


Elevator pitches, weddings and babies

At OpenPlans, we're busy signing up new clients for our products & services, and we're also spending a lot of time fundraising (from individual donors, foundations, etc.).  As such, I've been thinking about how we pitch our organization, and have recently spent some time over the past few days reading some of the great stuff over at VentureHacks. Their book, Pitching Hacks covers the fundamentals, from what matter to investors (traction), to how to get introductions, to how to structure your pitches (whether high-concept, elevator, or slide deck). Then, this morning while reading Hacker News (or more specifically Nirmal J. Patel's full-content RSS of Hacker News), I came across this posting which caught my eye:

Technical co-founder wanted for disrupting the wedding industry.

Hi, my name is Tracy. The wedding industry is huge, overpriced, and with insane profit margins. I’m looking to disrupt it with WeddingType. In wedding invitations alone, there are two options: spend hundreds of dollars for custom designed invitations (expensive but pretty), or do-it-yourself (cheap but ugly). I want to build a web application catering to the price sensitive couples who have an aversion to Comic Sans. A do-it-yourself wedding invitation kit costs $45, while professional wedding invitations are hundreds or thousands of dollars. With WeddingType, the service will guide the user through a constrained flow of inputs which will populate a set of pre-designed templates with professional typography that they can print out and get hitched. The completely automated service will charge $25 and send the user a PDF by email. My goal is to get this out really fast and start making revenue from the start, then see how big we can grow it. From here, there are multiple ways of increasing value and revenue — licensing to wedding invitation template manufacturers, selling custom design solutions, offering templates through the site, etc. Large scale, could sell templates through the site, printing and mailing like I freelanced and worked at a startup for five years as the primary designer/jack-of-all-trades for everything relating to their web properties, including analytics, usability, design, HTML/CSS, and multivariate/AB testing. I need a technical partner who is enthusiastic about the business and a web programming whiz. Preferably in the Bay Area, and if everything goes right, we’ll apply to Y Combinator for the next Winter session. Intrigued? I’d love to meet you, perhaps work on a small project together.

This is not a perfect pitch, by my or VentureHacks' standards -- in fact, I am not fully convinced by it after the first paragraph. However, I think the title and first line are good, and they are what drew me in. Speaking from recent experience of getting married (in 2005) and having a baby (last year), I can say with absolute certainty that these are both huge markets where there's an opportunity to be smart and offer products that will serve people well, save them money, and be profitable.  In this pitch, it was the problem/opportunity statement ("The wedding industry is huge, overpriced, and with insane profit margins") that got me.  I certainly agree with that part.  Wedding invitations are one piece, and there are many others.  My wife has a million ideas for businesses in this space.  If I were an investor in XX Combinator, I'd definitely start here.


Wanted: Aggregated Group Playlist

I love music, but I am really bad about keeping up with new stuff.  My iTunes library is only so-so, so I spend most of my time listening to playlists on 8tracks.  This is good for variety, and great for finding the right background music for a BBQ or party, but there's something missing: my friends. I have a few friends who have great taste in music, and who are totally on top of what's new and good.  As it works now, every once in a while I'll get a recommendation from one of them, I'll buy the album on Amazon, and then I'll listen to it non-stop for a few weeks.  It's great when it happens, but it doesn't happen that often.  I want something more automated and frequent. A few of these friends publish their music on the web (see Piecemaker and My Brooklyn is Better).  Problem is, they each use different platforms to publish, and as far as I can tell, there's not a great way to combine these into one stream.  Piecemaker uses WordPress and outputs a standard podcast feed, and My Brooklyn is Better uses Tumblr, which embeds a flash player and forbids linking directly to the audio file.  I'm sure I have other friends who are publishing on platforms (, 8tracks, Facebook?) that I don't know about yet). So, what I want is a way to take these streams, regardless of platform or format, and create a mixed feed or webpage.  I don't care about actually downloading the music; I just want to be able to listen on the web, keep track of the ones I like, and have the option to buy the albums later. I'm sure this is possible using some combination of tools that are already out there.  For starters, I'm playing around with Yahoo Pipes to see if I can mash something up to my liking, with an eye towards playing it on the web using StreamPad.  We'll see if that works.  But is there something out there that I'm missing that already does this in a more straightforward way?  Seems like there must be, but I haven't found it yet.