Think Inside This Box: The Bēhance Action Method

Ever since Matt Schulte mentioned Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010) on his site, I’ve been test driving Belsky’s and his company Bēhance’s “Action Method,” which is outlined in his book. Being the notebook nerd that I am, I had to get some of those Action Books to, you know, follow the method properly. So, if your new year’s resolutions are already slipping, think inside this box:

The Action Method consists of Action Steps, References, Backburners, Discussions, and Events, and the Action Book is designed to employ these categories to help to achieve your goals. Donald Norman once claimed that “attractive things work better” (one could picture that credo posted on a wall in Cupertino). That is, if something is aesthetically pleasing, we are more likely to use it. Howard Rheingold is fond of saying “Don’t skimp on tools.” I used these insights to justify my purchase of yet another notebook.

In her book Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986), Natalie Goldman suggests using whatever notebook you can find. She finds fetishizing the tool an inhibition to getting things done. While Action Books are pretty and made with fine materials, they’re also rugged and ready to put in work.

The Action Books come with durable rubbery covers and muted but colorful to-do lists. The back of every page is ruled with dots, which are subtly guiding without being as intrusive as lines or as restrictive as grids. They’re perfect for notes, sketches, diagrams, flowcharts, mindmaps, or any combination thereof. My favorite notebooks thus far have pages ruled in a similar versatile manner (lines on one half of the page, none on the other). At the very least, I find these arrangements helpful in that they aren’t the traditional notebook pages or blank pages we’ve all been staring at all of our lives. The tools we use affect the thoughts we have (cf. McLuhan, Nietzsche, et al.) — even at the most basic level.

So, don’t skimp on tools. In addition to nice software, see what nice pens and paper do for you. As the Action Book itself says, “Show your ideas some respect.” I’m still working through The Action Method, but if nothing else, I dig the notebooks.


You can check out the full line of Bēhance tools in the Bēhance Outfitter store.

Desiring Lines: The Path More Traveled

Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.

Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).

Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James

In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.

Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.

By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.

Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)

Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.


Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.

Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.

James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.


Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.

Bringing the Attack to Your Network: Hacking 2.0

Hacking, as the term is generally (mis)understood, gets a bad rap. The longstanding attempts at distinguishing between hacking and cracking have yielded little results. If you self-identify as a hacker, most will still assume you illicitly break into computer systems to steal secret information or vast sums of money.

In Hacking (Polity, 2008), Tim Jordan puts great effort into developing a solid, working definition of the term. Not only is Jordan concerned with differentiating hacking from cracking, but also in not watering down the concept (as he claims McKenzie Wark, Pekka Himenan, and Sherry Turkle, among others, do). “A hack…” he writes, “is a material practice that produces differences in computer, network, and communication technologies” (p. 12). Grounding hacking as a material practice allows Jordan to explore what he considers the two major categories of hacking: information gathering (e.g., cracking) and creative hacks like the myriad tools and toys of the Linux operating system and the open source software movement, both of which push technology beyond its intended uses. Jordan’s book is a cogent, clear, and concise look at what is usually quite a muddy topic.*

Speaking of clear, if you know anything about computer books, you know that O’Reilly publishes the best of them. Hacking: The Next Generation (O’Reilly, 2009) by Nitesh Dhanjani, Billy Rios, and Brett Hardin (all of whom are security experts, engineers, or advisers at large companies with lots at stake) is about as good as these books get. Much like their sister imprint’s book by a similar name (Hacking: The Art of Exploitation on No Starch), this is a solid guide to how to break into things and how to keep someone from breaking into yours. Subtitled “Bringing the Attack to Your Network,” Hacking thoroughly covers everything from the usual corporate firewalls and email accounts to Facebook and Twitter with the hands-on depth you’ve come to expect from O’Reilly.

Bringing hacking to a much larger scale network, environmental futurist Jamais Cascio’s Hacking the Earth (Lulu, 2009) explores the consequences of geoengineering. If you can imagine the global climate as a system to be hacked, then Cascio is speaking your language. This collection of essays (culled from the past five years of his writings at World Changing and Open The Future) covers everything from techniques and terraforming to geoengineering and geoethics. It’s a lofty and enlightening look at hacking the very system of our planet.


* Special thanks to John David Smith at Learning Alliances for recommending Tim Jordan’s book.

The End of Print

Magazines have always been my favorite form of media. Having grown up in rural areas of the South, I found the window to my interests opened in their glossy pages. The big photos and words from other worlds kept me connected to all that I wanted to be a part of. If this sounds a bit romantic, it was. The grocery store newsstand and the mailbox were the modem jacks of the time.

Back then, it was music, skateboarding, and BMX magazines, and though those still capture my attention on a regular, these are the ones of which I don’t miss an issue.

For my regular science fix, Seed is by far the best magazine out there right now. If Wired was still weird (like it was up until 1998 or so) and focused on science instead of the web, it might resemble Seed. Excellent visualizations and great writing, plus the Seed Salon in which two luminaries — whose interests are often unexpectedly juxtaposed — discuss a pressing science issue. Past Seed Salon’s have included such pairs as David Byrne and Daniel Levitin, Albert-László Barabási and James Fowler, Jonathon Lethem and Janna Levin, Benoit Mandlebrot and Paola Antonelli, Will Self and Spencer Wells, Jill Tarter and Will Wright, Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga, and Robert Stickgold and Michel Gondry, among many others. I’m obviously biased, but I love the fact that every issue includes this form of dialogue alongside the monologue of Seed‘s traditional articles, which are consistently stellar (oh, their website is excellent as well).

Coming in second on my magazine must-haves is Good. Some of the best infographics I’ve ever seen have been on this magazine’s pages. Good is not necessarily about anything in particular, except good things — good ideas, good design, good stuff. Each issue of Good is themed, which is both good and bad. It’s good because when they cover something, they cover it well. It’s bad because sometimes one might not be interested in the theme. With that said, they’ve often won me over anyway.

Though the common sentiment (I even expressed it above) is that Wired used to be better, it’s still one of the best. The lost art of long-form narrative journalism is alive and well in Wired. They’re also consistently refreshing their voice with new writers, staying true to much of their original blueprint, and challenging their readers with easter eggs. Their recent “Mystery Issue,” guest edited by J. J. Abrams no less, is chock-a-block with perplexing puzzles and hidden games. So times have changed and so has Wired, but you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a better read at your local Safeway.

Make is more like a quarterly how-to book — how to do everything yourself. It’s the D.I.Y. bible. Some of the most creative people and writers alike work for Make (people like our friends Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder), and they spread and network with makers from all over with the magazine, the website, tools from the Maker Shed, and Maker Faire — the latter of which is going down in San Francisco this very weekend!

There are a few more I pick up once in a while: Geek is never quite as cool as it purports to be, but I still snag it sometimes. Fast Company is sometimes interesting enough to buy. Psychology Today often reels me in in spite of myself. And despite everything I’ve written above, DIG BMX is still the best magazine on the planet.

Maker Faire, 2008: Austin, Texas

Wow, where does one start? The makers of the world convened in Austin, Texas one weekend in October to make, build, rebuild, battle, and exchange their stuff and their ideas. I even had visitors from two other states join in the fun. Perhaps the best way to approach a summary of Maker Faire’s controlled chaos, of this menagerie of goods and good-doers, of this DIY carnival, of the impossible to sum up is a list with occasional pictures… Continue reading “Maker Faire, 2008: Austin, Texas”

The Maker’s Notebook from O’Reilly

The staff over at O’Reilly Media‘s magazines, Make and Craft, asked around to see what features The Ultimate Notebook would include. The result is their newly published Maker’s Notebook. “Clearly, lots of DIYers dream of designing their own project notebooks. We incorporated as many ideas from this Notebook Braintrust as possible,” explains Gareth Branwyn, friend and contributing editor to Make. Well, being the journaling, notebook geek that I am, I got my hands on a copy as soon as I could. Continue reading “The Maker’s Notebook from O’Reilly”

The Interface and the Algorithm: Four Recent Books

The much-discussed, much-explored interface between humans and machines is seemingly our final frontier. Comparing the interface to the Victorian novel and the 1950s television show (both of which shaped society’s understanding at the time), Steven Johnson wrote, “There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences.” The graphical user interface has come to represent all of the many processes going on inside the computer — and the way we interact with each other through them.

The machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine. — Aviv Bergman

Buy This Book from Powell\'sWith Beyond the Desktop Metaphor: Designing Integrated Digital Work Environments (MIT Press), editors Victor Kaptelinin and Mary Czerwinski have compiled essays finding the limits of the current widespread user interface and imagining a post-desktop interface. Studies have found that our current virtual desktop doesn’t afford supporting services for the growing areas of computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW), the ever-expanding diversity of technologies, or the multiple roles or tasks we find ourselves filling. Beyond the Desktop Metaphor is a compendium that reaches just that — beyond the desktop.

Buy This Book from Powell'sLooking back to look ahead, Thomas Erickson and David W. McDonald compiled HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community (MIT Press). Erickson and McDonald asked fifty-one designers to reflect on one work — something at least ten-years old — that influenced their approach to human-computer interface design. The result is fifty-one brief essays covering artifacts spanning everything from books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (The Free Press) and Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, early innovations like Douglas Engelbart’s mouse and Ivan Sutherland’s SketchPad, and influential people like Edward Tufte and Jane Jacobs. In a field where the research and results are cutting-edge and exciting, but where the literature is often bogged down in minutia and, well, boring, HCI Remixed exhibits a novel approach and is actually fun to read.

It is all just an algorithm with enough unknowns to make a game of it. — McKenzie Wark

Buy This Book from Powell\'sNowhere has HCI been more “remixed” than in computer gaming. A simmering subculture for decades, supposedly the gaming industry has overtaken Hollywood in size, money, and attention. Making sense of this rapid growth and its influence on our culture has spawned confusion, reckless theorizing, and a whole new field of study. Fortunately for us, people like Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark have taken up the task of keeping things in perspective. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota Press) draws from over fifty video games — from PONG and Space Invaders to Half-Life and Halo — (as well as his keen critical eye and l33t gamer skills) to deliver a holistic and seasoned approach to gaming studies.

Buy This Book from Powell\'sWark’s Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press), which was originally published in-progress online as “G4M3R 7H30RY,” is written in the aphoristic style of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (not unlike Wark’s previous book, A Hacker Manifesto). While its being published online has gotten more attention than the book itself, this should not be the case. Like Wark’s previous work, this is an important text for anyone interested in progressive thought on media and technology — and our relationships with it. Gamer Theory is less about the avatars, images, and interface, and more about the philosophy that drives them. It’s the algorithm as allegory, the formula as form, the rules as rubrics, and what all of it might mean to the culture they’re shaping.

Depending on what end of the human-computer spectrum you’re interested in — from haptics and CSCW to gaming and philosophy — these four books tap the pulse of the melding of humans and machines.

Digital Media Demo Day at Georgia Tech

I ventured to Atlanta again this year for Georgia Tech’s Digital Media department‘s Winter Demo Day, and it definitely re-greased the mental wheels. When you’re stuck while thinking about technology and media, an event like this is sure to shake things loose.

The Digital Media program at Georgia Tech spans the spectrum that runs from Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to film production. Students and faculty come from all points on the spectrum as well, thereby making the input and the output of the department is as diverse as its people. Their semiannual Demo Days allow them to strut their wares, from fully immersive digital environments and emergent games to interactive TV and experimental film, from completed works to projects-in progress. A loose theme this year could’ve been merging the virtual with the corporeal: There were lots of projects bridging bodies and avatars and several others exhibited new approaches to haptics. It’s very difficult to keep a summary about such an event brief, but here are a few highlights.

Kenny Chow’s Generative Visual Renku project uses Fox Harrell’s GRIOT System to create a digital environment for collaborative, linked-poetry using pictographs. Renku is similar to Haiku except that it is a form of linked poetry. Chow’s project allows groups of people connected via a network (e.g., the internet, an intranet, or a social space such as Facebook) to collaborate on pieces of artwork using icons. In the process, GRIOT and Chow’s Renku system create a visual grammar by which the artworks can be built and interpreted.

Over the past couple of years, Susan Robinson has been quietly remediating her Oscar-nominated film Building Bombs (which is now available on DVD) into an interactive piece, the engine behind which manages the relationships among the various personalities and issues in the film. By dragging pictures and icons around on the screen, the user can see how they react to each other and watch video clips from the film. It’s much more impressive and interesting than I can make it sound here.

Space Vectors by Ari Velazquez, Jimmy Truesdell, and Kurt Stilwell is a tabletop video game for up to four players. Each player has a base to protect and three types of space vessels — controlled by tangible objects placed on the tabletop — with which to protect it and attack the others. As it stands now, players set up initial conditions, press “start,” and watch the game unfold. Eventually, Ari says, the game will be very active over the course of play. The interesting thing about Space Vectors‘ current state is how complex the game play is given its relative simplicity. Set up a few pieces, let the game go, and watch to see if your strategy works.

Notably missing this year — or maybe I just notably missed them — were Brian Shrank and company and their Mashboard Games (one of my favorites from last year, which explores haptics by mining affordances from the standard QWERTY keyboard). Also M.I.A. were Ian Bogost and Eugene Thacker. Next time, guys…

The EGG's Mermaids: Click to enlargeOther highlights included Second Life/Augmented Reality (which involved combining physical actors with digital avatars), Mermaids (an MMOG that explores the emergent behavior of large groups), Flourishing Future (an interactive children’s tangible-object tabletop video game involving making a city more environmentally friendly), and Machinima Futurista (which uses the Second Life/Augmented Reality project to recreate the 1916 Italian Futurist film Vita Futurista), among many others.

If any of you get a chance to attend GA Tech’s Demo Day and see what they’re up to there, I strongly recommend doing so: good food, good people, and lots of great ideas. Many thanks to the presenters, and Susan Robinson, Jay Bolter, and Janet Murray for making us feel welcome and for making it another brain-sparking good time.

Car-Race Meat Spiral Chief Restaurant Snail Button

No, it’s not some new awesome, all-purpose web widget. That was the subject line of an email I just received. The next one read “Butterfly Drink Book Army Data Base Aeroplane Space Shuttle,” and “Worm Data Base Rainbow Jet fighter Compass Pocket Telescope” was after that. They were spam of course, and, as much as it still frustrates me that there’s an entire industry dedicated to intruding my inbox (and phone line, and hard drive), I’m trying to see the positive.

Mind Performance HacksThe subject lines above are perfect fodder for Mind Hack #19 [Seed Your Mental Random-Number Generator] from O’Reilly’s Mind Performance Hacks (edited by Ron Hale-Evans). I mean, you can make that stuff up, but randomness is easier if it just arrives via email.

Another one I use a lot is Hack #27 [Play Mind Music]. Though I still often play Hip-hop when I work, I’ve been listening to more and more instrumental music. Here’s a sample of my recent playlist of “mind music”:

  • Explosions in the Sky All of a Sudden I miss Everyone, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, Friday Night Lights OST
  • Cliff Martinez Solaris OST, Wicker Park OST
  • Pelican City of Echoes, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw
  • Red Sparowes At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun
  • Main Hz, Motion Pool
  • Mogwai Zidane OST, Mr. Beast, Happy Music for Happy People
  • Peter Gabriel Long Walk Home (Rabbit-Proof Fence OST), Passion (The Last Temptation of Christ OST), Birdy OST
  • Brian Eno Eno Box I: Instrumentals, Music for Airports, Apollo, Discreet Music, etc.

(Brian Eno might be the best creative catalyst available, what with his cannon of ambient music and his co-creating the Oblique Strategies [Hack #23]). Mind Performance Hacks has nearly a hundred tricks and exercises to rattle your brain out of its usual patterns.

A Whole New MindI also just read The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown) by Tim Ferriss and am in the middle of Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind(Riverhead), both of which have exercises that will make you think differently. The former has more for achieving personal goals, delegating responsibility, and getting free of your work, while the latter has more regarding cognitive and creative concerns. Pink contends that the next revolution will come not from left-brained engineers and accountants but from right-brained creative types like designers, teachers, and storytellers (good news for artists that want to be formerly known as “starving” — thank you, Govone), and his book is rife with exercises for your right hemisphere.

Anyway, I’m now thankful for weird subject lines in spam messages. Anything that makes me think about things in a different way is welcome.

What tricks do you have for tackling problems creatively?