Posts in "technology"

Next week is my last week at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

That’s right. After nearly seven years, I am moving on from the museum, moving on from the Labs, and moving on to the unknown. It was a difficult choice, which I made over the holidays, and which has mostly to do with reasons that are largely personal. But simply put, it’s time for a change. There are so many wonderful things on the horizon in my life, and so I feel it’s time to right the ship career-wise.

It’s been an amazing journey.

I started my career at Cooper Hewitt just before it was to close for a long term renovation. The job I signed up for, a consultant position to help the museum edit web pages, eventually turned into a full-time gig, complete with the title of Webmaster. My job was initially pretty simple. Staff members would send me red-lined word docs, requesting that certain pages on the museum’s website be updated as soon as possible. I’d take these requests and make the changes in HTML, and publish the website. It was laborious at best.

So, I eventually helped the museum move to a CMS, and then another CMS, and then finally the CMS we use today. Staff became more self sufficient in maintaining their areas of the website, and my job changed as our use of the CMS allowed me to focus on more strategic and technical initiatives.

And then we closed.

The museum closed for a long term renovation, restoration, and total rethink. We made some incredibly smart choices, hired a bunch of incredibly smart people, and created the Digital and Emerging Media Department. It was the first time the museum had a department devoted solely to digital, reporting directly to the director of the museum.

Digital & Emerging Media

Led by Seb Chan, we formed a team that included Aaron Straup Cope, Katie Shelly, Pam HornSam Brenner and myself. Together we began to develop a technical infrastructure for the museum with an eye toward a human centered design mentality around the development of a public collection dataset, a collections website and API, and of course our darling Cooper Hewitt Labs weblog, where we would document all of our work as we went along.

The New Experience and the Pen

While we were closed, the museum collaborated with a number of organizations to develop a host of new technological innovations in our galleries. These included the now infamous Pen as well as a series of applications running on multi-touch screens throughout the galleries. We were trying to solve a couple of problems.

The first was the basic issue of recall, and being able to remain “in the moment” and be able to “save for later” all of the things that you were discovering as you made your way through the museum. The Pen approached this problem as a tangible object that visitors could use as an elaborate way to bookmark the things they wanted to learn more about.

The second was a little more abstract, and I’m not convinced any of us really understood that there was a problem to solve until we saw it working right in front of our eyes. Like many museums, the Cooper Hewitt suffered from something Elaine Heumann Gurian calls “threshold fear.” Visitors didn’t feel quite at home in the museum, tended to keep their hands in their pockets, or would take personal dives into their mobile devices, in pursuit of a safe, comfortable place—their happy place!

The Pen did pretty good at solving all of these problems. It aforded our visitors a slick tool for bookmarking objects, and it gave them a tangible object they could hold in their hand that said “you are here to do things, you are allowed to touch things, and you can play designer while you’re here.” It really worked and is still going strong with over 10 million objects collected with the Pen in the first year.

We’ve all written about the “tech piece” extensively, have presented on the project a countless conferences, dozens of classrooms and tour groups and have talked about it over hundreds of cups of coffee. It was a huge success and it’s now positioned to continue to be hugely successful with the right kind of stewardship.

I am proud of the work we did.

Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners

Simon Wardley wrote an important article on his blog called On Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners and Theft. It was an incredibly useful bit of writing for me when it was posted about two years ago. In it, Wardley explains that there are three types of people within organizations. And it’s important to stop right here and reiterate what he says in the article, which is that each of these types of people are “brilliant people.”

He also explains that over the course of the evolution of an organization, different types make the most sense, typically in the order they are stated in the title. In the beginning you need lots of Pioneers, those crazy, spontaneous folk who come up with the concept, and help break out the vision. But, eventually you’ll need Settlers, to come in and keep the lights on. Later, you’ll definitely need Town Planners who are great at scaling things and building upon the foundation set by the Pioneers and Settlers. It’s a great analogy.

When I read this it occurred to me that Cooper Hewitt was just passing the Pioneering phase. It’s not to say that there is no longer pioneering work to be done at the museum, but more that the museum will now need to figure out how to sustain the work its done, help evolve the systems and infrastructure we’ve put in place into a more robust, finely tuned system, and turn focus towards building all the nuts and bolts that fell out of scope when we were scrambling to open the doors.

From Wardley’s post:

“Pioneers are brilliant people. They are able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn’t work properly. You wouldn’t trust what they build. They create ‘crazy’ ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible. Most of the time we look at them and go “what?”, “I don’t understand?” and “is that magic?”. In the past, we often burnt them at the stake.”

I like to think of myself as a Pioneer. Cooper Hewitt needs Settlers.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to those I’ve worked with at Cooper Hewitt over the years. The Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners that exist within the walls of the Carnegie Mansion are some of the finest people I’ve had the privilege of knowing.–one of whom I am planning to marry in just three months!

What’s Next?

To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I have a number of discussions going with people whom I’d love to work with, and that’s just it–I want to find a place filled with pioneering folks who are looking to build on their crazy ideas, and happy to embrace my sporadic way of thinking, and left-brain-right-brain conflicts.

I’m hoping that whatever I do, I’ll remain doing work aimed at the cultural sector, because I think the work in that space is worthwhile, and I know that there are literally thousands of museums and cultural organizations out there that are in the same place Cooper Hewitt was seven years ago, primed for change, and open to what’s clearly possible.

To that end, if you are interested in talking with me about my future plans, I’m always happy to have a coffee. Or, if you are in town, feel free to come by to my little gathering after my last day of work on Friday March 3rd at The Milton around 6pm.

It’s been wonderful.

-micah

Calendars for everyone

Day 14,936

I’ve been thinking a lot today about calendars and calendar systems. This is who I am.

I loved this piece by Jason Fried on the way calendar systems are typically designed to allow anyone out there to manage your time. Jason thinks this is insane, and he’s right, but what’s the alternative?

I set up my coffee calendar using a system that literally lets anyone take your time from you. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of how Jason thinks the world should work. But maybe in this context…it’s good?

The thing is, we use calendars for multiple reasons. Managing our time is definitely one of them, managing other people’s time is as well, but we also use them for other things. We use them to visualize time, to get a sense of what’s ahead, to remind ourselves to do things, or to know what someone else is up to.

We use a single system, the calendar, to do all of these very different things. What could go wrong?

Have a coffee with me

Day 14,935

I drink coffee. Pretty much every morning. I have at least one cup. It’s more recently turned into two cups following a very nice Yeti mug I received for Christmas. It holds two cups, so..

If you also drink coffee, and if you’d like to drink a coffee with me, let me know!

I usually grab my coffee somewhere in New York City. So if you want to meet up, sign up using the link below and we’ll pick a place. If you are far away, we can do a virtual coffee through the Internet. Either way, coffee!

Have a coffee with me!

My writing setup

I had a mild nerdy breakthrough in the middle of the night. It was one of those “can’t sleep, why is this kinda stuff keeping me up at night moments.” I decided to embrace it. I got up out of bed and headed to the living room to figure it out. Usually, and hour of this will wear me out and let me go back to sleep. That’s just how I work.

I’ve been trying, for some time, to come up with a writing workflow that will work for me. I’m a little persnickety about these kinds of things, so just downloading and app like iA Writer and calling it a day isn’t gonna do it for me.

Basically I need the following.

  1. A clean, distraction free writing tool.
  2. The tool should work seamlessly across all my devices.
  3. I shouldn’t have to worry about saving or losing my data.
  4. I should be able to easily, simply, organize my work. (files and folders)
  5. It should have revision control that I can understand.
  6. I should be able to easily collaborate with others if I want to.
  7. It should be pretty simple to push my finished work to WordPress.

The first 4 describe iA Writer pretty well. I’m actually using it to write this post from my iPhone right now. I’ve been using iA writer for a good long while now, but I’ve never thought of it as my go-to writing tool. It’s always just been this nice thing I try out every once in a while. The main issue has always been, it didn’t do 5-7.

So, they fixed 7. You can now link up your WordPress or Medium account and let iA writer create a draft in those platforms when you’re ready.

For 5 and 6, here’s what I did, late last night, so your miles may vary.

  1. Set iA Writer’s default extension to .md
  2. Set iA Writer to sync your data with iCloud
  3. Create a symbolic link called “Writer” pointing to a special folder where iA Writer stores its data
  4. Use GutHub

$ ln -s /Users//Library/Mobile\ Documents/27N4MQEA55~pro~writer/Documents Writer

That last one is pretty vague, but basically, once you have a symlink to your data, it’s pretty easy to set up any kind of git repositories you’d like within. Here’s what I’m doing.

  1. Every post has a folder in a parent folder called “blogs.”
  2. Each folder has at minimum two files. One called README.md and the other called whatever the post is called.
  3. Use the README to describe the post, and later to link to where it lives on your blog.
  4. Push this all to a GitHub repo. This can be set to private while you work on the post and later switched to public if you want to.
  5. You can add repo collaborators if you want people to edit your work, but be careful as they will have full write access to the repo. (Can be more granular about that if it’s an organization account.)

I’m digging this setup. It pretty easily adds real, Git based, revision control to my workflow. Obviously people I collaborate would need to be a little GitHub savvy, but that’s ok with me for this sort of thing!

Now that this is all in place. If you see a typo, you can submit a pull-request to me. Yay!

The little Mac Mini that almost could

Between Christmas and New Year’s I decided to take some time off of work, spend some time with my friends and family, and relax at home. It was…great!

I didn’t really have much of a plan. Amanda and I took a trip to Long Island over the Christmas weekend, which was pretty packed with family visits and food eating, and then back in Brooklyn, we decided to just play it by ear.

At one point I realized I had a number of projects on my list that I thought I could tackle while on break and one of them was to start getting my “data” in order. It’s a monumental project, and one that I will be writing about quite a bit over the course of 2017.

The data, is very much, out of order. It’s everywhere. It’s on my phone, it’s on my old phone, it’s on my laptop, and the laptop before that, and the three other laptops before that. It’s backed up in places I no longer know about, it’s on broken hard drives, thumb drives, SD cards, DVDs, CDs, Zip Disks, cloud accounts, Dropboxes, Google Drives, and oh yeah, there’s a bunch of notebooks–that’s data too.

I don’t think I’m unique. In fact, I think most people are just like me–data basically everywhere, without any kind of a plan, or maybe better put, any kind of a realistic plan.

So, one of my “big projects for 2017” is to at least approach the problem with some kind of a plan and see where it takes me.

The first step in my plan (and this plan will evolve in real time) is to gather all the data in one place, and get it to be all “live.” What I mean by that is, to power it up, put it on a computer somewhere so that I can easily access it, and start to deal with it.

To do this, I figured the easiest way to start would be to build a little home server, attach a big drive array and start pumping in all the data I can find. So, over the holiday break I decided to build a small home server out of an old Mac Mini I had lying around. It went pretty well, until it broke.

I tweeted my progress, which you can read about here, but what is missing is the why part, which I will try and explain in this post. And then of course, the part where it all broke down and sent me basically back to square one–that part has yet to be explained as well. So here goes.

Mac Mini

The computer I chose for this project was an old Mac Mini that had been sitting on my bookshelf, powered off, for a few years. It was a pretty nice machine in its day. Small form factor, HDMI display port. I think it was an early 2010 model, which I bought in the “server” configuration, which means it has twin 500Gig hard drives and 8 gigs of RAM. In fact, I bought this computer about 7 years ago to do basically the same thing I am trying to do with it now–build and run a home server.

Home servers have come a long way since I bought the Mac Mini. You can basically buy an off the shelf solution, complete with massive amounts of redundant storage and a built in operating system for a pretty nominal amount of money. But, I already had the Mini, and macOS was going to be part of the overall plan (more on that in another post next week) so I decided to see if I could resurrect the Mini and get it up and running without much expense.

It didn’t take long to get the Mini working again. I used the Internet Recovery feature to get a fresh install going, and then quickly upgraded it to macOS Sierra. This all seemed to work just fine, no glitches, no gotchas. I purchased the $20 Sierra Server app from the App Store and got that up and running pretty fast as well. Basically, within one evening, I had a fresh installed, working server waiting for me to tell it what to do.

I found a nice spot for it on top of a bookshelf in the living room, and wired up the Drobo S I had lying around. The Drobo S is a drive array I’ve had for about the same amount of time. It’s got tons and tons of files on it, and usually is just lying dormant on the floor somewhere until I need something form it or want to copy some files to it for cold storage. I figured it would be the perfect storage solution as it always seems to work just fine, has plenty of room to spare and already has a large chunk of “the data.” I plugged it in and it worked right away.

I spent the rest of the time tweaking the server to make it do a few basic things.

I wanted it to:

  1. Be a file server on the local network
  2. Provide internal DNS so it would be easy to find on the local network
  3. Be always backing itself up somewhere to the cloud
  4. Maybe do some other fancy things some other day.

By the end of the day I had 1, 2 and 3 working just fine.

For 1 and 2, I just configured the Sierra Server options. It’s pretty easy to do, and the hardest thing was understanding how the internal DNS should be set up so you can get to the local network as well as the external “Internet” without having to think about it.

For 3, I chose to use Backblaze, which is a pretty easy to configure, backup everything, unlimited space, cloud backup solution. You just install it, and over time it backs up everything for a small amount of money. I use this on my laptop as well and it works great. I’ve used Crashplan and others in the past, but this is what I’m using now.

Everything was going perfectly smoothly. I found one issue which was that the Mac Mini and Sierra have a hard time when not attached to a monitor. That said, it works just fine, except for trying to do any screen sharing. So, I found this little device that plugs into the HDMI port and makes it think its plugged into a monitor all the time. This seemed to do the trick and screen sharing worked perfectly form that point on.

Once it was basically all set up, I started work on the files. The first big project there was to set up an Apple Photos instance and start pumping in photos from the archives. I’ll of course get into that plan in a future post, but it’s just the very first step in a long line of steps to build what I am calling my “Penultimate Photo Archive.”

I got Photos set up and started importing everything from 2003. The files were set to all live on the Drobo (One big Apple Photos Archive stored on the Drobo volume).

It sat there and chugged along for a few days, and then all the sudden on the last day of the vacation it just stopped working. The computer switched off, and I haven’t been able to get it working since. It will power up, but after a minute or so of going through the boot sequence, it just shuts itself off. From everything I’ve read online it looks like a drive failure. I’m sure it’s repairable, but ugh… what a bummer!

Back to the drawing board!

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to do now. I suppose I could try and fix the server, reinstall macOS and basically start over. I could buy another Mac Mini, one that’s under warranty and start from there, or I could go down the rabbit hole of trying to use something else, like an off the shelf NAS. Also, I could just plug my Drobo directly into the Airport Extreme so I could at least have access to the files, but I don’t really want to do that. Gonna have to think the next steps through a bit before I make my next move. Till then… happy for any thoughts, feedback or ideas. 😉

Here’s the Twitter version, which I created as a Twitter Moment, since that’s a thing you can do now.