Tag Archives: work

The Web is a Flat Circle

Twenty-something years ago, around my junior year of high school, I applied for an Independent Study project. The proposal: build a website for my school district.

That project was old enough that it predated archive.org, so I can’t even pull a screenshot out of the archives.  But a few times a week, I trudged along in assembling a website for the three schools in the district.

This was, strangely, not new work for me at the time: I was already holding a part-time job for the one web design firm in my tiny town. So roughing out a site structure, scanning photos via a SCSI flatbed scanner, hand-writing the HTML code and picking the right hex colors was a relatively familiar feeling.

The site launched at tburg.k12.ny.us, which was a particularly weird domain, even then. (In a weird bit of internet trivia, the hosting was provided by John R. Levine of “Internet for Dummies” fame, who not only lived in my town but later became the mayor.)

It wasn’t a particularly great site or deep site – you get what you pay for having an angsty teenager design your theoretically professional website – but it felt good to build an internet presence for the place I spent most of my time.

Today, after 13 months of work, 639 tickets, and more meetings than I can genuinely remember, we pulled the trigger on the relaunch of weill.cornell.edu.

Nothing about it is what would qualify as a marvel of modern web engineering. There’s no blockchain, no bespoke node.js content management system, no deep social integration at the cost of your personal data. It’s just a nice website that tells some important stories about a medical school. (I’m big on storytelling this year.)

I’m grateful to have had a great team working with me every day to pull this off, even when I’m spitballing new ideas late in the project.

I’m grateful to have management above me who trusted my vision and my approach, even when what I’m explaining is confusing and foreign.

And I’m grateful that I got the chance to leave my imprint, however temporal a website may be, on an institution like WCM.


A decade ago, I inexplicably got invited to present at Apple Store SoHo. For an hour, I tried my best to regale Apple Store customers with game demos, a few jokes, and my best sales pitches. It was my first real-world post-college “presentation”.

It was pretty bad, from what I can recall.

These days, I can’t seem to stop talking. I’ve given two work-related talks in the last month. I’ve appeared on four podcasts in the last week. I actually like speaking in public.

What’s the difference between now and then? Knowing.

It’s knowing what you’re talking about, and trusting in that knowledge. It’s easy to fill yourself with doubt when speaking publicly, and worry that you might make a fool of yourself. Truth is, so long as you can speak naturally, you won’t.

It’s knowing your audience. Who’s listening, and what are they expecting? What do they want to get out of it? Figure that out, and focus on it.

It’s knowing your tools. Some expertise in PowerPoint or Keynote goes a long way, sure. But know what your laptop does when you plug it into a projector. Know if the venue even has a projector. (Sometimes it doesn’t.)

It’s knowing how to tell a story. Maybe there’s a hook, maybe there’s a twist, maybe there’s a moral or punch line. Your job is to get your audience to that payoff in an interesting way.

It’s knowing when to talk, and when to let things breathe. Silence feels uncomfortable, especially in front of a crowd. Giving your ideas space lets them develop and sink in. Avoid talking just to fill the silence. Avoid stating the obvious.

It’s knowing how to improvise. Network connections go down, so figure out what you’d do without the live demo. Questions come out of left field, so be game for anything. Figure out how to deal with curveballs.

And here’s the curveball in my advice: presenting isn’t any different from the rest of your life. All these skills? You need them just as much when you’re not waving your arms at slide decks.

Don’t treat it as a separate activity. You’re always presenting. You probably just didn’t know it.

Some Thoughts On DrupalCon Portland

It was somewhat funny to attend my first DrupalCon this week, given my personal trajectory of CMS systems over the years. For those that haven’t been with me since the very beginning: after cobbling together my own rudimentary CMS in 2000, I switched to Drupal for a good 18 months. An attempt to upgrade to the bleeding edge around 2003 nuked all my data, and in a fit of rage I switched to MovableType. A later fit of rage would take me from MT to WordPress. At the office, we’re embarking on a big transition to Drupal – so this as a training event made sense, even if I’m over a decade removed from my personal experience with it.

My conferencing experience has generally been in one of two buckets: Apple (I’ve attended 5 WWDC events over my time at WCMC) and OReilly (Web 2.0 and the retrospectively hilarious ETech Conference). But an open-source conference was something new, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect – although my personal stereotypes and biases towards any given nerd software bubble started to come together.

A few scattered thoughts:

The Drupal community, happily, is more diverse than I expected. Women were well represented – not a majority, but a constant presence. There was a wide range of ages and nationalities. There were thankfully few neckbeards or fedora hats.

As someone who is far removed from his engineering days, I was thankful that the tracks are broad and diverse. Standouts were Relly Annett-Baker on content strategy, the NBC Universal team on “internal open source”, and all three of the keynotes – which strikes me as a rare thing to have three keynote speakers that all knock it out of the park. There are direct lessons that I’m taking away that will make a difference to our community as we move forward with Drupal.

There is, however, an odd tension in the community around Acquia, a consulting/hosting/development company that seems to be partnered and competing with every other vendor at the show. We spoke at length with Acquia during our planning for Drupal at WCMC, and it’s interesting to see the dance from vendors who both have to compete in their space and sometimes rely on them for business. “Mafia-esqe” is how one person described it to me.

While I really enjoyed the content of DrupalCon, the venue (the Oregon Convention Center) was ill equipped for a modern conference. Flaky wifi, bad cell coverage, and a complete lack of power outlets meant I spent an larger amount of time swearing and worrying about power management than I should have.

One technology shout-out: GroupMe is a life saver when you’re traveling with a team to a conference. We had a total of 7 people from my office at the conference, and for coordinating meals / session seating / late night outings, it was perfect. We already use it in the office for some level of emergency coordination, but as a non-emergency tool it was beautiful. Highly recommended.

The conference was in Portland, giving me cause to visit Stumptown for the fourth time in under two years. Removed from my usual downtown hotel, being stuck near the convention center gave me more cause to explore by bus and MAX, and I finally ticked off most everything that was left on my Portland todo list. Visits were finally made to Pok Pok (that drinking vinegar! those wings!) and Screen Door (that fried chicken! that cake!), to Bunk Sandwiches (that cubano!) and Voodoo Donuts (that Portland Cream!). Salt and Straw (that ice cream!) ended up getting my business twice. As I joked on Twitter yesterday – Portland is why I’m fat. (Bring on THE WEEK OF SALAD AND WORKOUTS(tm).)

Having now done Portland to excess, I’ve put together a [Foursquare list](https://foursquare.com/remy/list/dans-portland) of all the places I’ve been and loved. It’s surprisingly complete: hotels, coffee shops, upscale restaurants, quick eats, bars, and green spaces all made it in. (It is actually be longer than my similarly themed NYC list.)

Games of 2012: The Grading Game / Cook, Serve, Delicious

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

I’m breaking my own rules tonight and highlighting two games that seem like absurd things to have been made into games. Both of these games were released after I originally put together my list of games for this blog post series. In the end, I couldn’t decide which deserved the feature more – and seeing as I can’t stop playing either of them, here’s praise for both of them.

The Grading Game

The Grading Game is proof that eventually, everything will get turned into a video game. In this case, you are a poor hapless TA trying to pay off your student loans. Grouchy faculty member Dr. Snerpus is more than happy to give you sums of cash if you’ll just do one thing: flunk your fellow students.

No, really. A virtual term paper (culled from various places online) will be thrust in front of you, and your job is to tap on the randomly added errors. Typos, capitalization errors, grammatical mistakes, and run-on sentences are all right before your eyes, in an assortment of different game modes. Sometimes there’s only one error in a fairly long paragraph. Others, there’s more errors than normal, but tapping on a non-error drains your clock heavily.

As a gaming concept, I know this sounds completely ridiculous. Who would want to grade papers (particularly terrible ones) for fun? But like any good “find the hidden object” game, The Grading Game works because you’re having to process information very quickly to find the things that are out of place. The pressure of the clock and the bizarre topics for the papers (Grief houses! Sun sneezes! Jigglypuff! Shoe Throwing!) make it a tense, abstract puzzler.

Besides, is any game that can help improve your writing skills that bad? (Everyone loved Mavis Beacon way back when.)

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a little more traditional, but only just – it’s a “hardcore restaurant simulator”. The daily grind of operating a restaurant is an exercise in planning and multitasking.

Take menu construction: do you go with simple foods like french fries, which you can turn out quickly for limited return? Or do you tend towards expensive soups that require more prep work? You may think maximizing profits sounds great now, but when you’re fielding three orders and a sink full of dishes during the lunch rush? Not so much.

You’ll balance the need for equipment upgrades against buying new and upgraded recipes. Health inspectors will come by. You might get robbed and have to provide an artist’s sketch of the perp. Catering gigs become available. Invites to an Iron Chef-style competition arrive. I think there’s even a dating component and some sort of Kickstarter system.

It sounds like work, and it is work. And like all work, sometimes the reward is in doing a job well. When you get a large combo rolling and juggle complicated orders without missing a beat, you feel firmly in the zone. Completing a round in Cook, Serve, Delicious! provides a lovely sense of relief and completeness.

It’s a bit reminiscent of the original Cooking Mama, but with a shorter fuse and higher stakes. Definitely worth a look.

The Grading Game is available as a universal iOS app. Cook, Serve, Delicious! is available on Windows, OS X, and for the iPad. My experiences were largely with the iPad version. Both games are on sale for the immediate future.

Games of 2012: Super Hexagon

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

We were crammed three deep in the back of a taxi, feeling every mile and a half between our office locations. All I had on my mind was the upcoming meeting with the client – trying as one does to pre-plan my declarations and anticipating potential points of conflict.

One of my coworkers broke the silence: “Hey, Dan, random question – how did you get over 60 seconds in *Super Hexagon*?”

Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon [is self-described](http://superhexagon.com/) as a “MINIMAL ACTION GAME”. Two buttons, no written instructions – you can rotate left; you can rotate right; hit a wall and the game ends. If football is a game of inches, then Super Hexagon is a game of milliseconds – the leaderboards are solely on the length of the your survival across 6 progressively ridiculous difficulty levels. To “beat” any given level and unlock a future one, you need to survive for one minute. This is generally perceived as impossible when you first pick up the game. When 10 seconds of survival is a struggle, asking for 60 seconds is tantamount to emotional abuse.

When I first downloaded Super Hexagon, I actively hated it – the somewhat imprecise controls, the randomness of the levels, and the spinning camera added up to leave me wondering if I had been pranked. Where was the brilliant game I had been promised? But Super Hexagon is not a prank – it just took a few days to realize that it demands patience and practice. Your skill evolves as you identify patterns, find ways to position yourself, and learn the cues as to when the rules of the game change a little. Jenn Frank’s voice will haunt you, insisting “BEGIN” every time you restart after death. (For the longest time, I swore she was saying “AGAIN”, which seemed more fitting.)

There’s a continuum of gaming as to how complicated the player’s thought process needs to be. On the higher end of the spectrum lives things like *Civilization*, *Dwarf Fortress*, and *Football Manager*. Super Hexagon lives on the other end of the scale, getting as close to a raw twitch/reaction game as anything I’ve played as of late. No upgrade system, no micro-transactions, no story, no Facebook integration.

In a industry where “retro” typically means “pixel graphics and bad jokes”, Super Hexagon does retro the right way – in its core, and not merely the exterior.

So, back to that cab.

I would’ve loved to explain all the strategy and nuance for how I finally broke the 60 second barrier. But the parts of my brain that became good at Super Hexagon weren’t easily put into words. And while I was still considering the work day ahead, I went for broke:

“Well, let me show you.”

Internally, I was cringing as I pulled out my phone to start the game. The terrifying amount of bravado, combined with the fact that I had only ever done it once before, combined with the poor conditions of a crowded, bouncing NYC cab – there was no way this could possibly work as an answer to the question posed.

But somehow, it did. 69.24 seconds passed before I crashed into a wall. I couldn’t help but smile a little as I shrugged and said something along the lines of “So yeah, that’s how.”

That’s how I will remember Super Hexagon – it’s the one game that has ever made me look really, really good at video games.

Super Hexagon is available for iOS, OS X, and PC.

VIVO Conference 2011

Forgive the rare work-related post.

Tomorrow morning I will be heading to the Washington DC area for the second annual VIVO Conference, as well as some activities related to the wrapping up of the VIVO grant, which has been a part of my working life for the last 2.5 years. (I have been the technical lead for WCMC’s implementation over the life of the grant.)

VIVO — since I realize I have not mentioned it once on this blog in said 2.5 years — is a web application intended for use in generating profiles for research faculty at an institution. It’s based in a lot of semantic web ideas, and I will stop describing it right there seeing as the phrase “semantic web” tends to send both technologists and technophobes into a glazed-eye panic.

Were that not enough to make you want to book travel to DC immediately and furiously live blog, I am actually scheduled to present with my team on a side project we did during the main grant. It seems to be a very popular side project. I am only mildly terrified seeing “You’re Speaking At This Event” in my Lanyrd event list.

In any case, if I seem particularly out of touch for the next week, now you know why.

Moving Up

I am pleased to announce that effective March 21, 2011, I will be the *Associate Director of Design and Development* at Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. (This will be my fifth position since I joined WCMC in 2004.)

While I traditionally have had trouble describing what exactly it is I do professionally, the specifics this time are quite clear: I will be leading a team of ~25 talented designers, programmers, administrators and managers in providing web solutions for both the college and the hospital. This is a massive undertaking to say the least, with a lot of work ahead to get my bearings and start forming a robust vision for web strategy at both institutions.

That said, I’m incredibly excited and humbled by the opportunity, and can’t wait to get started.

A Love Letter To Freeverse

Touch Arcade and Techcrunch have details on ngmoco:)‘s acquisition of Freeverse Software. This has a lot of implications for the iPhone software market, but I’ll let the business wonks talk about that.

Freeverse is entwined in the last 15 years of my life in ways that few things can compare. Their games and software toys helped keep me sane during high school. When my life went into a slight free-fall during college, I became anchored with an internship with them.

Continue reading A Love Letter To Freeverse

In Memory of Bruce Prevo

Bruce Prevo, the Apple Account Executive I’ve worked with for most of my time at WCMC, passed away this weekend after a difficult battle with cancer.
It goes without saying that Apple is a huge company, with a extremely large number of moving parts. Trying to get support in the time of a crisis or to fight for a discount can feel like pulling teeth, as it can with all large companies. Bruce eased this tremendously – always being willing to do his best with the corporate office on our behalf.
He will be missed.