Canonize: Creating a Personal Canon Template

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I love the idea of the “personal canon”: an encapsulation, in list form, of those things that have most shaped you. A sort of annotated bibliography of influences.

Over the past few years I’ve come across several excellent examples of people using a corner of their personal websites to provide such a snapshot. These range in complexity and number of items included, but all give an intimate sense at the forces that shape a particular mind.

My favorites of these include: Buster Benson’s canon, part of his public Codex Vitae / “Book of Beliefs”. Mandy Brown’s “A Working Library”, a refreshing inhale-exhale of her reading and writing. David Cole’s Personal Canon, the closest model to what I ended up with. And Bret Victor’s “Links 2007” page, an excellent list of books as well as other media items.

Last year I set out to create my own personal canon. I started with a perusal of the disparate lists I’ve kept haphazardly — books I’ve read via Goodreads, favorite articles and websites via Pinboard — and augmented this with some thought and self-research in combing through things in other areas, like music and movies, that have also greatly influenced me. I came up with five categories of material to include: books, media, websites, articles, and ideas. These are somewhat arbitrary, and there’s of course some overlap, but I found most things fell pretty neatly into one of these categories.

I started with a “longlist” of as many items as I could come up with for potential inclusion, which was nearly 250! That’s way too many for one webpage, so I took a pass at whittling it down to a “mediumlist” of more curated favorites, arriving at roughly half the initial number. Finally I played around with organizing / grouping these items, and in the process narrowed my selections down further to a “shortlist” of 80-some items. Ultimately I came up with 10 categories of my interests, each containing 7–9 canon items.

This project was also an excuse for me to actually try using GitHub for a project for the first time. My girlfriend helped with design ideas and creating the icons I used for each of the five item types, and we practiced making commits to a GitHub repo I made. I created an HTML structure for the canon, played around with design until I had a look I was happy with, and then uploaded it to a standalone page on my site. In the back of my mind I thought it could be cool to eventually make this a public template of some sort, but when I launched initially it was really just a project for me.

This year my friend Tom Critchlow asked about the project, mentioning that he was thinking about creating a “/canon” page on his own site. This got me thinking again that it would be fun to write a bit more about the project and flesh out the GitHub repo to make it more useful for someone thinking about making their own canon. I love finding this kind of thing on others’ sites, enjoyed making my own, and think it would be great if more people did something similar — it’s always a great way to both learn about someone on a personal level, and discover a bunch of awesome material for your antilibrary!

Two projects I really like, with similar aims, have helped guide my thinking on this. First is Diana Kimball’s “/mentoring” project, a “distributed mentoring movement” which encouraged people open to being a mentor to post information on their site making explicit how such a relationship might be initiated. The core of it is a simple mission statement articulating its goal, and a template providing structure for how someone could easily fork and adopt it. While Diana is no longer actively working on the project, I’m heartened to see its influence lives on. Second is the “/now” project by Derek Sivers. This started with a blog post encouraging people to post a “now” page on their sites, intended as a more active supplement to the standard website “about” page, to give visitors a concise glimpse into its author’s current focus. This caught on, and Sivers created a directory page that now lists over 1,000 examples of such pages people have made.

I’d love to see something similar with the “/canon” page. The GitHub repository I’ve created for the project, which I’m calling “Canonize”, contains more detail on the process I followed and how to use the files provided. I encourage you to check it out and consider creating your own personal canon and associated webpage. I’m also open to any suggestions for how to make this more useful — feel free to send me an email, or create an issue or pull request on GitHub. And if you create a “/canon” page of your own, please let me know — I’d love to take a look, and perhaps begin to pull together a simple directory list of these, too.

Again, you can check out my personal canon page here!

Surfing the Contrails of the CODEX Hackathon

The true value of a hackathon isn’t the output of a weekend’s work — it’s how the experience changes your perspective.

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I recently attended my first ever hackathon — and the effects have lingered in surprising ways.

CODEX, hosted this winter at the MIT Media Lab, has a unique literary bent: it’s billed as a community of folks who want to imagine the future of books and reading.” As someone excited about technology and storytelling, libraries and information, design and education, I found the premise to be right up my alley — a perfect first hackathon if there ever was one.

On my bus ride from NYC to Boston that cold January morning, I thought a bit about what to work on, how to spend my time wisely and make the most of the experience. I didn’t entirely know what to expect.

Looking back on the experience, it wasn’t an unmitigated success according to how I thought hackathons were supposed to work — I didn’t leave with a mind-blowing product built, or an instantly-formed new network. But reflecting further, I did get a lot out of it, in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. Read More

A Personal Niche, An Internet Cathedral, A Networked Empire

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Some people — and no, not the .gif virtuosi that walk among us — really are winning the Internet, sitting several cuts above the rest with really outstanding, intriguing, thought-provoking online presences. Oh, how I aspire to their ranks! It isn’t just that they blog well, or post great links on social media, though both are often the case. Beyond keeping a clean house and communicating with wit and aplomb, they manage to create a place that feels like an online home, a well-curated, carefully built space that shows the heart of their thoughts and creative work, reflects who they are and what they live for. Bret Victor. Derek Sivers. Frank Chimero. Diana Kimball. Lance Weiler. Jane McGonigal. Seth Godin. Robin Sloan. All — to name just a few of my favorites — sharing their musings and explorations and the traces of what they add to the world, built over time, with love and care and generosity and effort shining through.

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Spirit Fingers: Gestural Art in Action with the Leap Motion

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I received the Leap Motion a couple weeks back, and have had fun using it sporadically and testing out as wide a variety of apps as I can without breaking the bank. There’s an impressive lineup already available, from educational to music, games to random art/physics interactive visualization simulators—and more being released each week—so it’s exciting to see what people are doing with this new technology and have the change to engage with it myself.

It must be said: for the vast majority of computing tasks as we currently conceive of them, the current incarnation of Leap doesn’t add much to practical human-computer interaction. It’s not 100% reliable; in fact it’s probably not even 98% or 95% reliable, at least for many of the early, first generation of applications designed for it. But the Leap is a fascinating and fantastic device for many other reasons.

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Twofivesix Conference Notes

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Below are my notes from the Twofivesix conference that took place in Brooklyn a few weeks back. I serendipitously discovered the conference via a tweet the morning of, and luckily was able to watch it via livestream and take notes at home. These notes are fairly comprehensive, though with a couple caveats (I missed the brief introduction at the very beginning so may be missing a bit of the scene-setting and context, and I didn’t identify speakers and attribute each point to a specific person). But this was a fascinating conference, both well-curated and expertly moderated, and I wanted to share what I learned. I hope you find this useful—I know I learned a lot!



May 11, 2013, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn


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The Best Stories

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Stories are the lifeblood of the human experience. They motivate our actions and desires, circumscribe our beliefs and relationships, and as such are monumentally important to how we construct the reality of our selves and our world.

Everything we do, are, and interact with in any way can be projected onto a narrative. This is something obvious enough that we more or less take it for granted, but I think it’s worth considering what makes a story great, what traits or characteristics the “best” stories share, and where the future might lead us in this regard. We are always capable of challenging prevailing attitudes and definitions, of inventing new ways of expressing our experience. The story—the eternal, original, archetypal narrative—may always guide us, but the boundaries of what a great story consists of will no doubt continue to stretch and change.

The best stories have no endings.

The best stories live indefinitely in our imaginations, provoke continued curiosity and empathy, impel us to create further iterations, extensions, revisions, deepening ideas and observations through out own interpretive faculties. They dwell subconsciously within us, shaping our perceptions and interactions, guiding our ideas, our morals, our worldviews and the horizons of what we know to be possible. This means that to write a great story is to wield a large amount of power. The best stories don’t hype up brand, rehash genre tropes, or suffocate us with dogma and ideology. They don’t merely teach, or merely entertain; in fact, they never serve only a single function. Rather, the best stories speak to us eternal truths, and, however imperfectly, reflect our thoughts and our perceptions, our feelings and our dreams. Not just reflect, but amplify and extract: the best stories purify our common threads of humanity, mirror them back to us in strange and fascinating ways.

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The Micro-Consulting Revolution—And Beyond

By | Business, Media | 2 Comments

These days, it seems everyone and their mother is available for some sort of niche consulting. This is both insane—how can so much deep niche expertise exist?—and incredible, because it means that there is an increasingly robust free-market exchange of these varying flavors of expertise that somewhere, somehow, must be creating a tremendous amount of value.

Anyone with a modicum of expertise in a topic others are interested in, and passable self-promotional abilities, can be a consultant. These days, all it takes is competency in a niche and the ability to let people know you exist; credentials are a twentieth-century relic, and a smart guy or gal with a blog following has the potential to earn more than any first year at Bain, McKinsey, or BCG.

I’ll be the first to tell you—I don’t know that much about anything in particular. Hardly anyone my age does. But although I’m not currently working as a consultant, many of my friends (my age—23) are, and I believe it’s a type of work that lends itself well to the chameleonic minds of young people like me who, incubated in the intellectual bathhouse of the modern university, are being birthed into the wider world with an overabundance of ideas.

I’m confident enough to brand my peculiar obsessions and interests as areas of expertise; able to recognize that some of my knowledge, creative- and critical-thinking skills, and problem solving abilities are valuable, and monetizable to varying degrees; and I’m interested in leveraging these abilities and interests to both help others and make money.

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Architecture of Language and Sound

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There are many ways we can talk about media, many lenses through which we can analyze the way the information and signals around us, both physical and digital, impact our lives.

I’ve long had an interest in different conceptual (and real!) dimensions of space: from the narrative worlds that can be constructed around and inferred from photographs, to the nested layers and networks of links and code that define and expand our digital spaces, to the social philosophy-play Situationist exploration and cartography of urban landscapes, the idea of “space”—mathematical, physical; imaginative, abstract—can be a very interesting framework and fertile jumping-off-point-of-reference for exploring many of my other interests, from narrative to design to technology.

I’d like to focus here on a few related strands of spatial thinking, centered on the idea that first language, and even more so, sound, can construct physical space in different, often more direct ways than other media. I’m still thinking through many of these things, meandering from point to point as I go, so forgive me if this comes across as more a meditation on possibility than thesis-bound statement of fact. (That seems to be one of the great benefits of writing in this format, and an approach I plan to continue taking; I’m more excited to learn from your responses than I am to simply publish a post and forget about it!)

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