Last Wednesday I spent a day in Boston, as part of a drive to “be more social”. My working theory is that by meeting new people, you learn new things you can’t anticipate, and I think that’s just what I need to be doing right now.
The Horror of the Morning Commute
My first meeting was with Karl G at 9:30AM in Central Square, so I left the house at 800AM. It used to take me about 45 minutes to reach Alewife Station when I used to work in Boston, so I figured I’d get to Central Square with about 15 minutes to spare. WRONG While Route 3 South was fairly quick, 95S was a parking lot. Even Route 2 was backed up. Maybe this has something to do with the Big Dig screwing up traffic patterns, but I ended up getting to Alewife around 930AM, and it took another 20 minutes to finally hook up with Karl. Thank God for cell phones.
Python and Comet and Dojo and Prototype and MochiKit Too
Karl had to get going, so we walked to Harvard Square and had a casual conversation about web development. As it turns out, he’s a Python guy, so I got to ask what it was that he liked about it. The gist of what he said was that unlike Perl, it was a rather well-structured language. I can’t stand Perl, so I imagine that I would like Python. He also gave me a little insight about the backend stuff you can do with Python with a framework called something like “TurboGem”, but I seem to be unable to find it so I must have misheard. He also gave me the lowdown on Prototype being an “object hacking” type of library, and therefore sometimes a cause of problems, and suggested I also look into MochiKit and Dojo, and Comet. This later one I hadn’t heard of; apparently it’s a server-push type of web application model that works by keeping an HTTP connection open. Apparently this trick of keeping the connection open is now to be known as Comet, much as xmlhttprequest is now collectively associated with the Ajax term. It’s all about branding, isn’t it? :-) Thanks Karl for all the info, and sorry for screwing up any information here. It’s great to listen to people who are passionate about development…I learned a lot in a very short amount of time.
After bidding Karl goodbye at the Harvard Square T stop, I paused to take a picture of these weird bean-like pods hanging from a few of the trees on Mt. Auburn Street near some of the Harvard buildings. Weird. What the heck are these?
I had some time to kill, so I headed over to The Million Year Picnic (my favorite comic book store). Unfortunately, they were closed until 11AM so I wandered over to L.A. Burdicks for a cold chocolate drink and a raspberry tart thing. Yum! It was something like 90 degrees out, and I was wearing long black pants. Important Note…this establishment has the best air conditioning in the Square.
A quick jaunt across the street took me to Bob Slate Stationer nearby. I love stationery stores, though I didn’t really have anything in mind. I did discover some useful factoids:
- Bob Slate appears to carry the full line of Moleskine products, including the colorful Museum line, in various sizes.
- They also carry a few other interesting small notebooks, such as several of the Rite in the Rain waterproof field notebooks. I picked up a small one to put in the bathroom, so I can continue my idea capture in the shower experiment.
- Bob Slate also was selling wooden slide whistles, so I bought one. I have wanted a slide whistle for a looooong time.
While I was checking out, I was looking over their supply of novelty pends and remembered my quest for a flat pen. I asked if they had any, but they did not. The flat pen of my dreams would be a high-quality silver pen with an oval cross-section, with slightly-grippy sides, and would fit nicely into a composition notebook with a sturdy clip. The closest I’ve seen has been this one from Taiwan. The clerks at Bob Slate didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for finding this pen, and hadn’t seen or even heard of one before, so I left disappointed. I may have to look at promotional companies; the flat pen is sometimes available there, except in cheap plastic.
I headed over to the The Museum of Useful Things and browsed for about 30 minutes, lovingly admiring the various bits of functionally beautiful and practical design. Affordably priced, even! They had a reproduction of a article on the way from some kind of retail space trade magazine, describing how the owners of The MUT ignored a lot of the traditional advice from retail space planners to create their own store by themselves. I really love the space; it does feel like a museum, except the gift shop IS the museum, and it DOESN’T SUCK. I asked the two store clerks whether they’d heard of a flat pen, and they were more enthusiastic about the idea of it, though they had not seen one before. They suggested Bob Slate, and also the Cross Store (as in Cross Pens). I didn’t even know there was a Cross Store in Harvard Square, so I went to check it out.
The Cross Store was not very interesting. Lots of pens in cases. A couple of young guys who looked like they’d rather be clubbing on Lansdowne Street asked me what I was looking for, and I explained my Flat Pen quest. Nope.
By now, it was time to meet up with Susan Kaup for lunch at the Border Cafe, who I only knew in passing from some mutual acquaintances. She’s working now in Harvard Square, so I got a chance to catch up and find out about the various projects she’s involved with. The ones in particular that interested me are ExploitBoston and FreeAgent Boston. ExploitBoston is a kind of “currated event guide” that lists cool stuff going on in the city; they have a game night that I’ve wanted to attend, but never seem to have time for. FreeAgent Boston, currently dormant, is a kind of freelancer mixer of the kind that many of us would like to have. We don’t get to gather around the watercooler and trade gossip, and frankly it gets kind of dull not talking to people on a regular basis, so having some kind of group to go hang out with would be fantastic. As it turns out, Sooz also was at SXSW, and I didn’t know…small world! So it was a good lunch, with the exception of the overly-pushy waiter who kept interrupting our conversation with questions about drink refills. Thanks Sooz! I also got to see the Randstad office in Harvard Square, which I noted had some unexpectedly nice corporate branding spread consistently throughout the office. For noticing this, I got a free block of Randstad note paper. Yay!
The Long Walk
After lunch, I got in touch with Steve Head, a professional movie reviewer who I met about a year ago; he currently writes for IGN Filmforce. He’d just come back from an interview with Nicholas Cage, and was dead tired but pleased. He had to get back to work on his article for a deadline, so I walked back to his place near, as it turns out, Porter Square. This is about a 30 minute walk. After that, I walked back to Harvard Square to meet elusive joke writer Chumworth, whom I used to work with several years ago at a tech company. On the way back, my left leg started to twitch a bit, and I realized that I hadn’t walked this much since I lived in Boston. By the time I made it back to the Coop, I had a full-blown charlie horse. “Walk it off,” I thought, “Mind over body.” This sort of worked, but I would pay for it later.
After catching up over a refreshing beverage at Au Bon Pain, I headed back to the Million Year Picnic and browsed the zine section. I picked out a couple of titles that stood out for their overall design; at a buck a piece, it’s cheap inspiration! :-) As I was checking out, I noted the marvelous lettering on their “New Titles” whiteboard. I asked about this, and the checkout person said, “Yeah, Andy (?) is incredible. The illustration is also dry-erase marker.” Incredible! I asked if I could take a picture, so you can see for yourself how clean and straight the lettering is. That is dedication, man!
Off to South Station
It’s been several years since I visited The Interactive Factory; they’d moved since I last worked there, so I gave them a call and arranged to drop by for a visit. It was quite a change from their old digs on Congress Street, which had dozens of mouse holes and a single shared bathroom. It was a little weird to see familiar people in the new settings, but it was totally great to see them again. I felt a little nostalgic and almost wished I was working in a company again. That quickly passed when I thought about the daily 3-hour commute and not being able to work on my own projects.
While I was walking back to the T, I passed by the location of the old Boston Tea Party Ship, near the Children’s Museum by the water. There was a fire several years ago, and the ship has been closed since then. I was somewhat happy to see that it’s coming back, though it had the look of a pretty dull touristy thing to do.
This area, incidentally, is where Neil Stephenson’s earlier novel Zodiac places a boat chase scene, so it’s interesting to peer down into the water and imagine. The rotting piers that served as the chase scene backdrop have been removed as new construction has encroached into the bay, but you can still see a few remnants here and there at low tide.
Observation: Boston is Under Construction
One thing I noticed was that Boston seemed to have construction going on everywhere. The rapid transit system is changing from tokens to magnetic ticket cards called “Charlie Passes”, which completely confused me since Alewife was still using tokens. The station at Harvard Square was already on the new system, and they do NOT accept tokens. However, the Charlie Pass vending machines accept tokens and spit out the new tickets; this wasn’t clearly marked anywhere, so a MBTA worker kept having to guide people.
Just about everywhere I went, something was being dug up or reconstructed. Bob Slate Stationers was in the middle of a 4-month sidewalk reconstruction project. The area around South Station was undergoing a transformation, as the area that was once I-93 slowly becomes a new park. Right now it’s just another Boston mess.
Flash Platform Users Group
After leaving Interactive Factory, I shot over into Brookline on the T to meet up with another friend of a friend who goes by the handle Novel, on the way to the Flash Platform User’s Group meeting. It took quite a bit longer to get there than I thought, but I was able to meet Novel and talk about all kinds of comic books and cartoons. That was awesome; apparently her husband is also a big comic book person, so it was great to meet people who actually were into the media. A new connection made!
After that, it was off to the user group meeting, which was being held at the New England Institute of Art. Christopher MacDonald was the presenter, discussing the challenge of Designers working with Developers. The presentation mostly focused on the design work that he’d done in context with his company, EMC.
I learned a few things that I didn’t know before:
- You can buy the Zoomify plugin for Flash, which implements a Level of Detail (LOD) bitmap zooming algorithm. It seemed like the kind of thing that anyone could just implement with a bit of math, but buying the plugin is probably faster.
I heard about FlashLoaded, a resource for buying plugins for various Macromedia products. I have been in a more don’t reinvent, buy mood in the interest of expediency lately, so this looked like something worth looking into.
I was fairly impressed with FlexBuilder and its ability to pull together components into real applications with a minimum of fuss. Here’s one place where I need to be less picky; I tend to create my own custom components, but you know what? Slapping together the default components is probably faster, especially when combined with data binding. My only issue with this in the past is that the resulting code seems a little bloated and slow, and I like to have a detailed understanding of the implementation details. This helps me debug, but it doesn’t help me build quickly.
An interesting comment was made by Chris about how 5th through 8th graders have a complete unawareness of American history. I’ve thought that teaching history might be more interesting if it was re-enacted as a psychological drama to give the lessons some teeth. The High School experience could set the framework for the context of history in many ways: everyone understands the difference between popular and substance, how reputations can be made or destroyed, the nature of power and intimidation, and the desire to rise up against the establishment. In fact, nothing much changes once you leave high school…it’s very much the same!
p>By this time, my legs were ready to fall off, so I just got back on the T afterwards without socializing much, though I did talk to Nanu from the Robotech Center in Nashua—they teach game development and robotics to kids and interested adults. It’s a pretty cool operation.
The next day I was in Portsmouth, NH to have lunch with Mark Reeves, who I met briefly at one of the Refresh Boston meetings. We had a great conversation, I thought, about working in web development and the possibility of doing something interesting in the New Hampshire area. He’s working now up in Portsmouth, so that’s a big win for New Hampshire Tech. He’s another ASP .NET programmer, which has been on my radar since Ian Muir first waxed poetically about it during a New Media Group meeting.
I was planning on walking around Portsmouth and enjoying the scenery, but my legs were so sore from all the walking I’d done the previous day that I could barely stand up. I had to hobble back to the car and head home. It was too hot anyway to really feel good about walking around the town, despite its loveliness and plentitude of intriguing ice cream shops. Maybe next time.
This is the most socializing I’ve done in a long time. What I find absolutely amazing is how all these semi-random collisions with people yield new ideas and insights…and I liked it. Is it possible that I’m actually more extraverted than I thought, now that I am more comfortable in my freelance identity? Before, I was never quite sure how to describe myself, but now I’m pretty happy just saying I’m an “information graphics designer” and explaining what that means.
I also realized, in the process of just describing what I’ve been doing to all these people, that I have developed a life philosophy of productivity: make stuff that people can see and spread what you know to as many people as you meet. These are the two fundamental principles behind the original Printable CEO, more so than the bubble chart or the checklist. I don’t think I would have had this insight unless I had actually gone out on Wednesday, and now I have a basis for writing a book around my version of productivity. Awesome!
Yes, I’d say it was a day well-spent.