Friday, December 30, 2016

Toronto Vernacular

Is there a 416 equivalent to the Vancouver Special? Sure. I call it Toronto Vernacular, and it dates back to Honest Ed’s. I don’t know what else to call our uniquely lo-fi retail aesthetic.

I read Learning From Las Vegas many years ago. My garbled, taken from memory summary is: seemingly ugly signage can communicate effectively, which means maybe it isn’t so ugly after all.

What I can say with confidence is that I’m not the only person who thinks Toronto Vernacular is meaningful:

Let’s Be Ready by The Wooden Sky and E P L P by Teenanger
Pink City by Jennifer Castle

Analog Facebooks

I finished David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog over the holidays. I could have written the book, maybe. I don’t say that to be arrogant — I was obsessed with physidigital objects from 2011 to 2013.

I don’t think I could have written this, however:

“Tabletop gaming creates a unique social space apart from the digital world. It is the antithesis of the glossy, streaming waterfalls of information and marketing that masquerade as relationships on social networks. A Twitter conversation is nothing more than a chain reaction of highly edited quips; a Facebook friendship is more like an electronic Christmas card exchange than a real interaction; an Instagram feed captures just the shiny highlights of life.”

There are valid critiques to be made of social media. I read such critiques all the time. David Sax, you’re no JFK.

Now that I have my requisite cheap shot out of the way, some praise. Sax has a clear and easy-to-grok argument, and he does the hard work of reporting and research. There are moments of grey (digital needs analog, and vice-versa) but his thesis requires a lot of black and white. I suppose a book called Watching Atoms and Bits Make Sweet Love would be more difficult to market.

(Want to see a far more intelligent person explore the necessary symbiosis of digital and analog? Read this review by Navneet Alang.)

Sax is a solid writer, but I almost returned Revenge of Analog to the library after sentence number four: “The place smells like hot metal, sour water, and the sweet poison tang of warm plastic.”

Writers of the world! Please don’t use Whitesnake lyrics to describe a record pressing factory.

Thankfully there isn’t much purple prose in Revenge. And I might be the problem — perhaps no one else cringed at: “This wasn’t just a bookstore opening up. It was a symbol of hope, a lone flower poking up from the spring frost after a long, brutal winter for bookstores.”

I’m grateful that Revenge introduced me to Adobe’s Kickbox and Stack’s indie magazine rando-subscription. But despite my analog sympathies, I’ve realized I’m more interested in the revenge of digital:

“Moving through the dining hall, I passed the notice boards bearing photographs of the church youth. I take a cursory glance and spot my sister’s face. I wonder if Facebook is merely digital scrapbooks. Or if the recent resurgence of scrapbooks are merely analog Facebooks.”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Cartoon Illogic and Collaborative Delight at Hand Eye Society Ball 2016

I spent a considerable chunk of time admiring Cuphead at the 2016 Hand Eye Society Ball held on September 24 at the Masonic Temple. In part because it was projected onto a movie theatre sized screen, making it hard to ignore. Also, Cuphead is basically a playable cartoon from the 1930s, making it far more visually compelling for spectators than a typical videogame.*

The only problem with sustained observation is that eventually you start to spot flaws.** The most obvious is that Cuphead is a run-and-gun*** bolted to a surreal, Fleischer brothers, dream world. The result is a visually inventive game powered by standard-issue game mechanics. You might fight gourds, onions and carrots, but they’re still bosses, a trope that dates back to the 1980s.

It might seem cruel to critique an independent game maker, especially since I’ve seen the risk and struggle involved in DIY via Indie Game: The Movie. But I found the cartoon aesthetics without cartoon illogic to be constraining and unsatisfying.

Pico Park, meanwhile, will never be described as beautiful. But it only took two minutes with this 10-player, cooperative game before my dear friends Surprise & Delight appeared. The right amount of unpredictability and spontaneous problem-solving, coupled with group communication and strategizing, made this my favourite game.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I attended Society Ball last year, which featured multiple lineup snafus. (To their credit, Hand Eye apologized rapidly and thoroughly.) This year the organizers worked so hard not to repeat mistakes that it felt like a bizarro-world parody of 2015. During my time at the Society Ball, there were no lines of any kind (bar, bathroom, tickets, coat check). Yes, lineups to play the games, but that’s to be expected.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
*Approximately 90 seconds after writing this sentence I realized there’s a cottage-industry built around people watching gamers do their thing.

**This tendency might be uniquely mine.

***This is not a hot take: the creators describe Cuphead as “A RUN & GUN GAME FROM STUDIO MDHR.”

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Do not sell to Kandy Kat. Dangerous character.

I never quite found my way into Alexandra Kleeman’s novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. But I did eagerly read every last word about Kandy Kat and his Kandy Kake obsession. Here are all the tasty bits in one convenient location:

In this new series, Kandy Kat would often successfully chase down or otherwise achieve contact with the snack cakes, but the cakes were pictured as live-action, three-dimensional objects while the cat was always a flat cartoon. The gag each time was that no matter how hard he tried, Kandy Kat could never put a Kandy Kake down his throat: the two types of matter were fundamentally incompatible.

Kandy Kakes were made of Real Stuff.


In this commercial, Kandy Kat faces off against his longtime nemesis Kandy Klown, a bulbous, Santa-shaped figure who consumes Kandy Kakes like it’s the simplest thing in the world, like it’s all he can do.


The slogan to that Kandy Kakes advertisement was off somehow. We know who you really are. It failed to sell anything, it wasn’t friendly, it sounded more like a threat than a promise. But then again, maybe it was a promise made to the worthy, that they alone would have all the Kandy Kakes they desired.


On-screen there was another Kandy Kakes commercial. In this one, Kandy Kat has become a scientist so that he can crack the problem of Kandy Kakes, find out what makes their matter so disastrously incompatible with his own. Kandy Kat guides us through a series of diagrams on the chalkboard that elucidate the basic structure of a Kandy Kake: outer coating of crispy candy shell sprinkled with crushed nuts and a patented candy substance known only as “Choco Shrapnel,” then a layer of gooey caramel followed by two layers of rich chocolate of slightly different consistencies.

At the center is the top-secret “Kandy Kore,” a dense, sugary substance whose chemical composition is known to only a few privileged individuals within the Kandy Kakes empire.


When Kandy Kat appears on two televisions screens at once, does he split in two? Two bodies with two minds pointed out at identical cartoon scenes? Two bodies responding identically, like twin machines? Or is there still one cartoon body, ribby and drained, with a doubled hunger for its double image?

Like in the commercial where an impish young Kandy Kake lures Kandy Kat on a chase through frame after frame of a happy suburban neighbourhood populated by cute yellow houses.

Then a stray claw snags on a piece of sky, and the world starts to stretch and then  slump in a startling way: Kandy Kat has literally torn through the scenery, caused a widening rip in the world. He stops to look, perplexed, at the fluttering material, blown by a breeze of unknown origin.

The shot widens, and we see that Kandy Kat is standing in a studio soundstage in front of a flat, painted background that slips past him while the little Kake turns a crank. One yellow house after another scrolls by before Kandy Kat looks down and realizes that he’s been running on a treadmill the whole time, a treadmill that yanks him suddenly backward and threatens to throw him off completely.


Maybe Kandy Kat survived like that, from images of eating and images of food. Light consuming light, the desire for sustenance a type of sustenance in itself. Even if he was always paused on the narrow edge of starvation, what he was doing in pursuit of Kandy Kakes sustained him. They made his life terrible, but at the same time they made him more himself.


It was just like that commercial where Kandy Kat turns to crime in a last-ditch attempt to achieve Kandy Kakes consumption. He goes from store to store trying to buy a single, measly package of Kandy Kakes, but nobody will sell him anything. They point at a poster behind the counter that reads DO NOT SELL TO THIS KAT. DANGEROUS CHARACTER. Kandy Kat’s face is on this poster, hollow and gaunt. So Kandy Kat hijacks a freight train made up of an endless number of cars painted with the Kandy Kakes logo, and off goes the Kandy Kakes alarm, ringing police helicopters and squad cars, then military tanks. As Kandy Kat barrels toward a military blockade, he reaches back for a box of Kakes and says a final prayer before opening the box. But the box is empty, and so are all the others in the first car, and the second, and Kandy Kat looks up toward the impending collision with tears wobbling in his eyes. Strings of drool hang from his mouth as he meets his doom.


In one Kandy Kakes commercial, Kandy Kat and a Kandy Kake are dropped into the right and left halves of a split screen. Time begins speeding up as they stand side by side: seasons change and the furniture starts looking more futuristic, hands on the clocks in the background spin around dizzily. Kandy Kat’s bony body grows longer and taller and wider as it ages, though never more fleshed. Then suddenly he buckles, beginning a serene crumple inward. His knees bend and begin shaking, his head hollows out and gets skully, sinking down toward the ground where the shedding hair collects in soft, fluffy clots that blow around like tumbleweeds. His shriveled tail looks like a chewed-up rope. Occasionally he raises a skeletal paw to the stark black line that divides him from the Kandy Kake one cell over and claws at it, but he’s clearly getting tired. On the other side of the split screen, the Kandy Kake is doing jumping jacks and calisthenics, practicing the cancan, hopping around, and looking bored. No matter how much time seems to pass, it remains the same: untouchable, impassive.


As long as you leave the water-repellent fudge casing intact, your Kandy Kake is guaranteed to stay fresh for twenty to thirty years. By this time, Kandy Kat is mostly a pile of hunched bone and hide, his two round eyes blinking blearily at the audience. He holds up a sign that reads MY LAST WORDS, while the Kandy Kake, which has found its way over into his half of the screen, dances a perverse jig around his broken body.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Fight your editorial urges, Jonathan Kay

Not everyone thinks Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is good at opinions:

Even contributors to his magazine question his judgment:

Kay seems deaf to criticism, but maybe Canadian writers and critics have misread the situation. What if Kay isn’t a mansplaining egoist? What if he's actually a compulsive editorializer who can’t control his habit? If that's the case, we should try to help him with tips for triumphing over temptation:

Identify opinionated situations and avoid them. Consider skipping documentaries, newspapers and podcasts altogether.

Find other pleasurable activities. Search for a new hobby that demands your full attention. Enjoy art? Take a watercolour class!

Place a rubber band around your wrist. Every time you get the urge to write an editorial, flick the rubber band. You will eventually associate opinions with pain.

When you get the urge to share your thoughts, quickly engage in an alternative activity. Play a game of Tetris or a few rounds of Kubb – anything that distracts you from the urge to opine.

Avoid touching your keyboard. The more often you use your computer, the greater the chances that you’ll start editorializing.

Exercise on a regular basis. Editorializing can be the result of excessive stress or tension. Exercising regularly will help relieve this stress and tension.

Best of luck Jonathan Kay! Struggle is a normal part of the journey to recovery. Keep fighting and don’t give in.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Canada Post's Deepak Chopra is a really big fan of innovation

Deepak Chopra, chief executive officer of Canada Post, recently wrote a Globe article about innovation. As the following snippets indicate, he's a really big fan:

a small innovation team

so-called innovation team

inability to innovate

the need to innovate

two models of innovation

innovation labs can thrive

innovate to seize the opportunity

innovate our core services

a string of innovations

we have innovated

we had to innovate

innovation is not the natural order of business

celebrating our innovation successes

the task of innovation

extracting the maximum value from innovation

thoughtfully incorporating innovation

innovation is about more than

innovation theatre rather than innovation culture

we saw the value of innovation

we can innovate

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Get yer red hot content-first UX here!

On February 20 I gave a talk entitled “Killing Lorem Ipsum With Content-First UX” at PodCamp Toronto 2016.

That talk inspired this blog post about how to overcome common barriers to content-first user experience.

Based on my PodCamp talk, I assembled The Super List of Content-First UX Resources on Medium, which should be self-explanatory.

I also put together a Medium article about prototyping with content.

Finally, because demand was so overwhelming, I gave an updated version of my talk entitled “Content-FirstUX: How to Design With Words” on Monday, April 18 at the Toronto Content Strategy Meetup

As I make abundantly clear in my PodCamp deck (and elsewhere), I did not invent content-first user experience – Steph Hay did. I’m just spreading the word(s).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Big Bang Theory Poetry

Fuck you. 
Where was the joke?
He just fucking named 
a bunch of shit. 

How is this 
Why are you 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Year of 2015, Summarized

Chronology is for chumps. Themes are keen.

I took three months of guitar lessons from Michael McKenzie at Red House Music Academy. He did all he could, but my lead guitar skills remain meh. Still, I managed to learn the solos for Touch Me I’m Sick (Mudhoney) and School (Nirvana).

My old drummer Stefan was kind enough to create a GeoCities CyberPage for my cover band SubPox. We played our first show (a house party) in September before Mark Cluett, bass player extraordinaire, moved to Glasgow.

I also caught a few great concerts: Weaves at the AGO, Metz at Lee’s Palace and Dilly Dally at the Horseshoe. And after convincing myself that Ride would never reunite, I was beyond ecstatic to see them at the Danforth Music Hall in June.

Bike Tourist
I’ve finally realized that my favourite part of travelling is being on a bike. I see more of a city, at the right pace, when I’m on a bike. And I’m in control: no waiting for subways, buses or taxis. I love to walk, but it doesn’t always do the job.

In September I biked across the Golden Gate Bridge. The next day I rented a bike from Mission Bicycle Co. and did The Wiggle to Golden Gate Park and kept going until I reached the ocean. Then I did the reverse and managed, thanks to Google Maps, to reach City Lights Bookstore with a minimum of pushing the bike up hills.
My Airbnb in Portland came with a bike, and I rode the hell out of that thing, covering a lot of ground on both sides of the bridges in two days. It was very difficult to return to Toronto after experiencing bike utopia.

I also discovered that Seattle now has Bixi, although I would dissuade most people from using one to get to Capitol Hill.

Art Tourist
The other big reason I like to travel is to see stuff framed on walls. I was mesmerized by Rebirth of the World, an enormous triptych video installation by Chiho Asoshima at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was narratively and visually dense, packed with surreal, beautiful and otherworldly landscapes and characters. I watched it three times.

In May I attended a performance of Nyloid at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. The first 10 minutes were mesmerizing and awe inducing, even a touch scary. Then the giant triffid stopped working, and the spell it had cast broke along with it.

The Art Institute of Chicago is enormous, serene and heated – all important qualities when you visit that city in February. The security guard at the Seattle Art Museum showed me a new route to the ticket desk with so much enthusiasm that it set the tone for my entire visit.

The Portland Art Museum seems small but isn’t – a whole bunch of modest rooms eventually added up to a lot of art. Similar phenomenon at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Traditional Tourist
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Newseum in Washington, D.C, and without trying, I spent almost three hours there. Also glad that the nasty-windy walk to the Chicago Museum of History from the “L” was worth it.

I went to Alcatraz and yes, the audio tour is great, and yes, my neighbour Matt was right to tell me to buy tickets way in advance because it sells out. Without a doubt the most touristy thing I did this year, except for taking the Seattle Great Wheel, which was whee!-ly fun.

I also had lunch at the Facebook campus. It was delicious and free. I “liked” it.

Other Art
I hate writing sentences like this, but the best exhibit I saw in 2015 was “The Flesh of the World” at University of Toronto Art Centre. I liked it so much I created a tagline for the show to help promote it. It was difficult to determine the theme of the show based on the marketing materials the gallery produced. I lost track of how many people I told to see that show, but I fear my enthusiasm might have had the opposite effect.

I attended three art lectures this fall, something I’ve never done before. They were all great, each in very different ways, and I’m grateful for the insights from Hito Steyerl, Janice Kerbel and Taryn Simon.

I heard Micah Elizabeth Scott talk twice this year – the first time at a poorly promoted free talk at TIFF in early March about how she created Forest for digiPlaySpace at TIFF. The second talk, a month later, was a not free talk at FITC. To my surprise, the FITC talk was far more personal and revealing, despite her speaking to a larger audience.

This year’s Maker Faire at the Toronto Reference Library was fun and offered an affordable, well-organized option to solder your very own blinking LED rocket ship pendant. I admire well-planned, large-scale experiences, because I know how difficult it is to make them function smoothly.

I’m not sure if visiting a bunch of 8-bit arcade bars counts as technology, but this year I went to both Chicago locations of Emporium, Ground Kontrol in Portland, and Shorty’s in Seattle. (I also went to Brewcade in San Francisco, which was a pale imitation of the real thing – that being Barcade.) And, of course, relatively frequent trips to Toronto’s Get Well.

I went to Startup Open House again this year, and enjoyed it, although maybe a little less than last year. The Varagesale offices were something to behold, however.

And I attended a handful of Civic Tech Toronto hack nights before I became too overwhelmed with full-time work. A shame, because I heard some amazing guest speakers, including Iris Ko and Kevin Branigan.

I did a fair amount of volunteer work with Story Planet in 2015. Their Alpha Workshops (now called Storymaker Workshops) are where I seem to add the most value. That’s a weird thing to say, but being an effective volunteer means figuring out what you’re good at.

I took my best friend’s son to Vancouver’s Science World in June and again in December He’s 8.5 years old, which meant the outing required zero heroics from me, but I was inordinately proud that we had lots of fun and that I brought him back home in one piece both times.

I made a t-shirt for my annual street party, and it’s awesome. I wrote an article about dive bars, and it’s also awesome.

Food and Drink
I travelled solo through Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. I’d like to extend special thanks to the waiter at The Publican (Chicago) for treating me exactly like anyone else in the restaurant. And extra special thanks to Colyn, the bartender at Tasty n Sons in Portland, who gave me three great suggestions – Kennedy School, Pip’s Doughnuts and Sen Yai.

I spent many hours at Propeller Coffee during the first part of 2015. Great coffee, great space, cool baristas. Based on my receipts, The 47 is my favourite local spot. I also had a great Saturday in July on the patio of The Gaslight, enjoying a BBQ sausage dog with potato chips and all the fixings.

In terms of local craft beer, I spent quality time at Wisebar and Wenona. The best beer I had this year was Allagash Curieux (aged in Jim Bean barrels) at Mikkeller in San Francisco. The best cocktail of 2015 was a Glasgow Smile at Barlow Bar in Portland. (Scotch, smoked rosemary, honey, dandelion-burdock bitters, barlow cube.) The second best was a Dead Something [I forgot the rest of the name] at The Matchbox in Chicago.
Summary of 2015 in a tweet
Beer, bourbon and bikes in seven different cities. Art, 90s tunes and old video games back home.