Honestly Kid

by Daniel Damkoehler


Archive for November, 2009

Confessions of an Audience Member

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
Rod Serling Never Braved the TwitterZone

Rod Serling Never Braved the TwitterZone

I should know better. As a guy with two theatre degrees, I know first hand the terrors (and joys) of putting oneself and one’s work before an audience. You can try to tell yourself that you don’t ‘need’ or even ‘want’ their approval, but the truth is you wouldn’t be there at all if you didn’t. Rod Serling’s voice is under any live presentation saying “submitted for your approval” to the audience.

I should know better. I have presented ideas, products, plans, and research to groups small and large. I’ve never been a paid conference speaker, but I have been paid to make sure presentations go well.

I should know better than to make a snarky comment publicly just because it struck me as funny for a fleeting moment. Apparently I didn’t know better at the Web 2.0 Expo last Wednesday in New York.

danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society whose blog and articles I’ve dipped into from time-to-time, was off to a rough start with her presentation and well… I was distracted by the Twitterwall backchannel and stupidly tweeted the first snarky comment that came into my head including the conference hashtag.

After a busy couple of days working and traveling I logged on Friday and realizing the error in my ways, expunged my Twitter account of the snarky comment and apologized to Danah on her blog via the comments.

Since then, Ilana Arazie at Social Times took another look at the Web 2.0 Expo Twitter Circus and Danah Boyd posted about what happened from her perspective.

Now, my comment wasn’t the worst of the bunch (you can find it quoted on a couple of blogs about the event if you try), but for me that’s not the point. I want to know what went wrong in my wiring as an audience member. Was it a fascination with the power of the new technology (this was my first Twitterwall experience)? Was I tempted by the chance to mock someone without her knowing? Look, I’m not hiding from the fact that I’ve been a bit of a wiseass my whole life, but I haven’t been rude or a scene stealer.

My confession here is that I simply don’t know why I joined in the snarkfest. I wanted to hear what danah Bbyd had to say. I wanted to be challenged after some relatively light weight keynotes (no offense to the other speakers, but boyd they ain’t). Much of the active online discussion around the event has involved known speakers or aspiring speakers, but relatively few audience members. Perhaps other audience members have already moved on to the next event or it just wasn’t such a big deal to them or maybe they just don’t think about this stuff. My guess is that most of us don’t know why it all happened, we twittered and tittered and indulged in the powerful ignorance and juvenile behavior of the crowd-mind without really choosing to and made up our excuses or denials as we went along.

I spent most of my time in school and a lot of time following it thinking about performance and the relationship of  audience to performer. I delved into Aristotle, Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, John Cage, the Situationists, and Dada, dabbled in surrealism, Fluxus, and the Wooster Group, I interned with Reza Abdoh, wrote pieces performed on the move through grass fields and cemeteries with characters named ‘I,’ ‘she,’ and ‘shirk,’ and sincerely wrestled with the angel of theatre that mutes an audience of the majority in favor of privileging the voices of the performing few.

Why does that relationship, performer to audience / audience to performer, matter so much? Why should we and do we recreate it in the face of all the technology that proves we don’t have to? My answer: we crave those relationships because we are hard wired to as humans. Knowing more about that relationship will help us know more about what it means to be human. The ambiguous nature of humanity is the true subject of much (if not all) of our art and science from the first cave painting experiments to our own twitter-fed-blogspiels. We want to know ourselves and creating audience-performer situations is one way we learn more, but only if we ask questions about what happened in the performance space/conference hall.

My next few posts will be about the Web 2.0 Expo and what I saw and heard there, particularly as it relates to audience relationships, performance, and the screen as a stand in for the theatrical frame/proscenium.

All About Coffee

Friday, November 13th, 2009

My old pal Balzac

My old pal Balzac

Simplebits pointed me to this great bit about coffee on theoatmeal.com. Great graphics, funny bits, and educational too.

I’ve been cutting back on my coffee drinking for the last few months – switched to green tea, which isn’t quite the rush, but keeps the caffeine withdrawal at bay. Without the medical evidence we have now, I’d probably go out with a 16 cup a day habit like my old pal Balzac.

Sure he kicked it (you know, ‘the’ bucket) when he was 51, but count up the volumes of his work in any decent library and you’ll know he didn’t sleep much either. The man lived! And he lived on coffee!

I’ll be in New York for the next few days and I’m looking forward to sliding off the wagon and into a steady stream of double shots no milk no sugar. That’s living, I tell you… that’s living…

Radical Converts part 1

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Radical Coltrane

For my money, the Radical Convert is where the action is. These include people like Che Guevara, St. Augustine, Tom Cruise, Chairman Mao, Ghandi, and John Coltrane. All of these people could point to a day or even a moment when everything changed, each one saw the light and knelt down on their own personal road to Damascus. Recovering from that blinding insight meant changing themselves and everyone and everything around them at almost any cost. If their will, determination, and commitment don’t scare you just a little then you aren’t paying attention or you’re one of them.

Radical Converts speed past caring if they seem fools to the rest of us. They dwell in some sort of perfect personal knowledge and everything around them must conform. It may or may not be a ‘moral’ world they wish to create, but create it they will.

Your typical Radical Convert will go over like an ill-trained leg humping dog at most parties, but she’ll be a blast on a road trip – if your idea of a blast includes witnessing profound declamations on matters crucial through mundane while watching the feathers of all within earshot ruffle. They’re like little conflict generators and frankly that can be a helluvalot of fun if you can keep your sense of humor.

  • Take a PETA activist to the 4H pavilion at your local county fair and watch the feathers ruffle (pun intended)
  • Take a seminary student to Denny’s Vegas and egg him or her on to preach ‘the word’ from the top of one of the tables
  • Surprise your Marxist buddy with a trip to the New York Stock Exchange or your free marketeer stock broker pal with a sustainable development retreat weekend

It’s not just the believer you want to throw into these situations, but the guy you’re pretty sure won’t ever stop having to convince himself that that thing that happened when he converted, that special wonderful mountaintop feeling, is actually something really important and true. I’m always a bit suspicious that fired up radical converts are protesting too much, but that’s the delight of testing them and putting them in situations that test more than you ever could.

Seriously though, tweaking the noses of the converted is something too easy, like upsetting the sincerest person you know. I want to know what the heck makes them tick. What gears turn when they confront the things/habits/people that their new belief tells them must be removed from their life or even the lives of all those around them? Just how did Ghandi manage to stand tall in the face of the British Empire at the gates of the Salt mines? What made Che give up on medicine and start shooting anti-revolutionary forces? How did jumping on a couch on national TV seem like the best way to get a point across for Tom Cruise? Augustine basically unraveled an empire because of his new found faith. It’s pretty well documented that Mao starved millions of peasants in order to bring them the revolution. Coltrane made some of the most beautifully original jazz music in the midst of a quest to find a oneness with a single sound – OM.

That’s the power of conversion.

Whenever people tell me that people don’t change, I think of the converts.


Wednesday, November 11th, 2009
Are you in a user tunnel?

Are you in a user tunnel?

Working with web tech as with any segment of the IT/Computing world it is easy to fall into what I call a user tunnel. A user tunnel forms when we use the same technology the same way again and again with great or at least reliable success. User tunnels may or may not include work-arounds that compensate for software shortcomings and bugs, but they do keep the user attached to a relatively limited set of functions and options.

For example, someone who uses MS Word to create letters and mailing labels day in and day out may be an expert in mail merge functionality and letter formatting in Word, but she may also work in an MS Word user tunnel that takes her directly through the tasks most necessary to achieving her most common and important goals quite unaware of MS Word’s other functions like inserting and managing citations, or tracking changes. Those are both other user tunnels.

I confess to having formed a bit of a user tunnel in my use of WordPress. I use WordPress primarily as a CMS or blogging platform pretty much as intended with some additional plugins and very rare tweaks to the core code. It works great and achieves my goals.

Meanwhile, other folks have been finding ways to leverage WordPress into a kind of web app framework so that they can achieve far more ambitious and varied goals. Here are a few of the most popular and mature WordPress based web apps out there:

  • BuddyPress – social networking built on WordPress Mu
  • Scriblio -a media management system built from WordPress
  • RoloPress – contact management built on WordPress
  • bbPress – this forum software built by the makers of WordPress might not belong in this list – how much WP code they’re using they don’t say, but it certainly feels WP-esque – and it powers the WP support forums (and on top of all that it has the word ‘press’ in its name)

I wonder how long it will be before someone formalizes this web app framework idea a bit and develops an AnythingPress expressly for quickly building web applications without having to roll everything oneself. In my imaginary back-of-the-napkin version of an AnythingPress, some coder much more clever than me would provide a screen for defining content types, including, excluding, or re-purposing existing WP content types and their functionality. It would probably also include a raft of configurable (via drag and drop) end user forms. The trick of course is to keep it light and open, make it an AnythingPress not an overly complex EverythingPress.

Would AnythingPress turn into something like Drupal? Would it actually be useful and supportable? I don’t know, but I think there’s a de facto AnythingPress forming as developers innovate, don’t you?

Steve Carell Retrieval Problems

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

It was May of 1992. I was driving across the country in a tiny faded yellow early 80s model Honda Civic. We stopped in Chicago. While Los Angeles rioted over Rodney King and other cities reacted in sympathy, Chicago remained calm, cool, and good humored. I remember many things about that trip: meeting my first Pynchon fanatic, seeing the White Sox, drinking Old Granddad from a bottle in Nashville, teaching the Bostonian in the group about scale via a partial descent into the Grand Canyon, and the utter shock we felt upon arriving in San Luis Obispo – How could there be so much blond hair? So much tan skin? Why wasn’t anyone wearing black? Did anyone there read the New York Times? One year in New York city and we were becoming Seinfeld characters.

I also have a distinct memory of seeing the Second City comedy troupe one night in Chicago with my friend Gillian.

But wait… was that the summer of 92 or the fall of 94? Was I driving with two guys or one woman? Did we stay with the Pynchon maniac or the family who collected Oosik (a.k.a. Walrus penis bones)? Was I with Gillian?

I remember laughing at some guy dressed like Fabio on the Second City stage. He was the one guy that never failed to get a laugh that night. I remember remembering at some point that his name was Steve Carell. Yes, that Steve Carell.

Why is this all so jumbled? Do I remember Steve Carell or do I simply remember remembering him or worse do I only think I remember him because I remember thinking that I remembered him?

I have always thought of this type of internal confusion not as memory lost or jumbled, but as a faulty retrieval mechanism. My files have warped and stuck together like the labels peeling off the folders of a carefully organized filing system, but the information in the files would still be readable if I could just figure out which file is which. Turns out there’s some neuroscience that vindicates my view. I give you Karl Pribam.

Plants Singing In Moonlight

Friday, November 6th, 2009

I’ve been reading Wade Davis’ book Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures in fits and starts over the last year or so. You cheat yourself of a chance to better understand just what you are if you choose to ignore his well researched insights into humanity’s current condition.

WordCamp NYC

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

WordCampNYC – Nov 14-15I’ve been using, installing, administrating, figuring out, breaking, fixing, hacking, tweaking, and pushing WordPress since back in 2006 when I created this blog (I never bothered much with WordPress.com until much later when a client asked me to customize the look and feel of a site hosted there).

I have used WordPress for a wide variety of sites, most of which  required a simple CMS that would be easy to install and administrate. The blogging functionality took a back seat or wasn’t used at all. Joomla was overkill (and nothing I wanted to learn to administrate at the time) and Drupal would have meant pounding thumbtacks with a jackhammer.

In order to make some of the sites do what the client requested I piled on plugins, wrote custom queries, and even dug into core and tweaked tiny bits to make extra special categories and sort orders. It’s been a great way to learn PHP, get a leg up on the power of CSS, and quickly build and deploy sites following web standards.

I confess to having had a few security snafus with sites purely because I failed to make all the requisite updates in a timely fashion, but all were rectified in short order and I’ve learned my lesson on that score.

Based on decisions made prior to my arrival, my current employer uses WordPress.com to host its blogs. This has worked fine as a way to test the viability of those sites without further overburdening our IT /Web team and of course, the price is right for a non-profit: Free. The blogs thrive, attracting a steady stream of new and repeat visitors. This success and the success of blogging in the non-profit and academic worlds has attracted some overdue attention from the strategists.

The dot com URLs aren’t going over well with people on the boards of this org and editors/authors are beginning to feel some of the technical and design limitations of not hosting the site ourselves. Even though it’s not the primary focus of my current position, I hope to be able to chime in on the decisions in the offing about blogging tech. I know what blogging solution I would recommend now, but I also know there’s more to making it work than the a single site install.

So, after a few years of hanging back and watching the WordPress community develop and grow and playing catch up via forums and trial and error on my own server, it’s time I jumped in to learn a bit more about the beast and its offspring. I’ll be down in New York for the whole meeting with eyes and ears open.

Vitamin D

Monday, November 2nd, 2009
Beautiful Vitamin D3

Beautiful Vitamin D3

It’s dark out when I wake up and dark out when I return home from work. And it’s cold.

Why am I smiling?

I’ve become a user. A habitual daily user. Such nice tiny white caplets too. They go down easy with breakfast, dinner, or lunch. No ill side effects either.

Vitamin D3.

Watching The Botany of Desire this weekend on PBS, Michael Pollan, et al made it clear to me that we humans are subject to the whims of the natural world not the other way around. A little shot of D3 in the morning can make the dark and drear of early winter feel bearable. Our moods, whims, and even memories serve, distract, or buoy us up at the pleasure of the chemicals in our bodies and brains.

Sure, the intake of information through our sense organs can change our mood, but it does so via chemical impulses (and vice versa).

So, yes, I am a user and so are you.