Apr 30 2009

It’s dangerous all over

Here’s a map by the RedEye of murders in Chicago since January 1.

Red dots = murders in January, February, and March.

Blue dots = murders in April.

Total > 100 so far.  That’s actually a decrease from last year, when there were 133 murders from January through April.
View Chicago homicides map in a larger map

Apr 29 2009

‘Coworking’ offers new freedom to freelancers

Web programmer Brett Yates works on his own terms at the COOP coworking space.  Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

Web programmer Brett Yates works on his own terms at the COOP coworking space. Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

Forget the cubicle, get off the couch, and ditch the coffee shop.

Freelance technology workers these days have a new way to get things done –coworking (enthusiasts insist there is no hyphen). A new coworking space, opened in January, aims to provide Chicago’s independent workers with a different kind of occupational environment.

The COOP is a hip office space where technology workers such as graphic designers, programmers, and Internet experts can rent a desk for a day, a week or a month at a time. Instead of punching the clock at a soulless cubicle farm, freelance workers can call their own shots. Instead of writing code on the couch at home, where a variety of diversions threaten to sabotage productivity, independent contractors and telecommuters can get the benefits of having an office without the expensive overhead of leasing their own space.

The COOP space, located on Fulton Market, once housed a chicken processing business. The exposed brick walls laden with art create a comfortable, relaxed workspace. Young entrepreneur Sam Rosen, 23, operates his web design business,One Design Company, in one section of the loft. The other portion is reserved for independent workers and freelancers to use for coworking. The easily reconfigurable loft space can comfortably house perhaps a half dozen such workers at a time.

Coworking enthusiasts say that the spaces aren’t just useful for getting work done, but also can be a resource for generating new business and for fleshing out new ideas. “It’s an incubator model,” said Rosen. “We’re not by any means asking for a stake in anyone’s venture, but the idea is if they come here and they’re starting up something, and it works, they’re going to need help. And we can help, or we know people to help. That’s cool, and that seems a lot more natural and nicer.”

The coworking movement began several years ago in California, but has rapidly become a global phenomenon. “It’s pretty widespread,” said Eric Marden, a freelance web programmer and coworking advocate. “It used to be where there would be one city in every state, and now multiple cities in the state, and sometimes multiple spaces in one city are happening, and that’s become more prominent. There’s a third one about to open in Austin.”

“It’s great,” said Brett Yates, a freelance computer programmer and patron of the COOP space. “I spent probably at least a year working out of my apartment, and doing that just kind of drove me insane. I started to find I was getting a lot less done – I’d go to coffee shops and get more done in two hours than in a full day at home.” That lack of productivity drove Yates to explore coworking. “I got out and kind of checked out a couple different places and this one seemed exactly like I was looking for.”

Chicago hasn’t yet gotten completely on board with the idea of coworking, but it’s catching on. “It was kind of a slow start for us, getting things out there and advertising,” said Linsey Burritt, a designer for One Design Company and a leader of the COOP. “People in Chicago haven’t heard about it as much as other cities.”

Workspaces at the COOP rent for $20 per day, $90 per week, or $300 per month, and include T-1 Internet access.

An informal “coworker visa” program lets members of one coworking space use the facilities of other coworking groups when they travel. Open sharing of ideas and resources is encouraged. “Any time we’ve communicated with anybody, people have come to us, or we’ve gone to them, people are with open arms,” Rosen said. “They’re like, ‘Here’s what I’ve got, let me help you. How can you help me?’ It makes the pie bigger.”

Marden was utilizing the COOP space to work on programming projects while visiting Chicago with his family. He helps run a similar space in Orlando, Fla., and traded ideas with Rosen and Burritt during his stay. “The coworking [in Florida] kind of grew out of our BarCamps [open conferences on technology and culture],” Marden said. “For us, it’s the physical hub now. Sort of the creative club house for all the stuff that was already happening all over the city, but it kind of lets us gel and have an area to work. We still all do our own thing, but we all kind of come together for that sort of stuff.”

Coworking may not yet be mainstream, but Rosen said it has caught the attention of many successful independent professionals. “We’re lucky because we’re busy, but you hear so much about how people are struggling,” Rosen said. “People who come here are not struggling. People who come in here are thriving. The people who are sitting down working, they’re here because they have too much work to do. They need a place to focus. That’s interesting.”

Note: This story was first published on the Medill Reports website on 4/28/2009, as well as on the Windy Citizen on 4/29/2008.  It’s republished here for my own archives.

Apr 25 2009

The giant monster fish think it’s spring.

Taken yesterday at Northwestern's Evanston campus.  Those giant fish sure were squirmy.  The duck is for scale.

Taken yesterday at Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Those giant fish sure were squirmy. The duck is for scale.

Apr 22 2009

Digital media competition encourages educational experiments

Author Howard Rheingold demonstrates his Social Media Classroom project on Friday.  Photo: Kathryn Murphy/Medill

Author Howard Rheingold demonstrates his Social Media Classroom project on Friday. Photo: Kathryn Murphy/Medill

Whether it’s mapping an ancient Roman burial route over time, constructing a homemade flashlight or learning how to make art from recycled materials, HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation are helping fund the digital media experiments that could provide innovative learning opportunities for youngsters.

In an effort to bring education up to speed with the digital era, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation along with HASTAC, a consortium of humanities, arts and science professionals, awarded $2 million dollars in grants in the second annual Digital Media and Learning Competition on Thursday.

Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of the book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution“ was a winner in last year’s competition, and served as a judge for this year’s applicants. “The educational model that is 1,000 years old, that is based on handwritten books that are chained down to lecterns that some old guy stands up and reads to you, is severely challenged when all the students in the room are online and you’re competing with the rest of the internet,” Rheingold said.

“Young people are changing as a result of digital media,” said Julia Stasch, the vice president of human and community development at the MacArthur Foundation, “This has huge implications for teaching and learning.”

To celebrate the announcement of the winners of this year’s grants, HASTAC brought together 17 of last year’s winners to demonstrate what kinds of projects the grant money helped produce, develop and expand. The event kicked off with a reception and performance by PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra at the Newberry Library and concluded with an expo Friday afternoon at the Palmer House.

“[PLOrk] was one of the winners last year,” said Cathy Davidson, professor of interdisciplinary studies at John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and co-founder of HASTAC. “And they’re not only a performing orchestra. When they teach students, they’re teaching students everything from computer music to atonal music to signal processing.”

Both creativity and user-involvement are key factors in determining winners for the competition. The winners of this year’s grants will display the results of their projects at next year’s reception.

“We were looking for things that were not one-off’s, that can replicate and influence,” Rheingold said. “We’re looking at projects that have some degree of ingenuity regarding the technology and particularly projects that are centered on participatory learning.”

Some of this year’s grant recipients included: DigitalOcean, which will connect 200 classrooms worldwide to help observe and monitor declining fish populations; PlayPower, which will use an inexpensive ($12) TV-computer for interactive design of learning games; and Global Challenge, an online competition using media and social networking tools to develop and propose solutions to problems such as global warming and the future of energy.

The emphasis on interactive learning was evident in last year’s winning projects on display at Friday’s expo.

LEDs, resistors, and origami illustrated Ohmwork's winning entry in last year's Digital Media and Learning Competition.  Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

LEDs, resistors, and origami illustrated Ohmwork’s winning entry in last year’s Digital Media and Learning Competition. Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

Hypercities, scheduled to publicly launch this summer, allows users to take real maps of cities and overlay both geographical and time-based information. A HyperCity can include everything from its architectural history to the stories of residents past and present.

This has uses in both general education and for high-end research, according to Diane Favro, director of the UCLA Experiential Technologies Center.

“You can go through time and see the different maps and add your own content,” she said. “So you could add somebody’s trip through the city, or where riots had occurred in a particular historical time, or other events, and link that with music or pictures or, as we did with the Rome one, with 3-d models, so it just depends on what your goal is. It’s going to be open for everyone to use, and serve as a platform where everything gets geo-temporally tagged.”

Some of the projects, like Ohmwork, brought students in to help develop the projects. Ohmwork is a social networking site centered on do-it-yourself science and technology projects.

“About 70 kids helped develop the prototype, start and run the project,” said Corbett Beder, director of high school programs at Vision Education and Media. “We let them run wild with it.”

The site, directed primarily towards middle-school-aged kids, offers podcasts about experiments kids can try on their own, as well as the ability to comment on and contribute to the experiments of others.

The grants awarded in last year’s competition were also used to expand projects already in place. The Global Fund for Children created a hub for information and story exchange between grassroots organizations and vulnerable children.

“The grant allowed us to buy flip cameras to send to our partners,” said Monica Grover, a digital media projects manager for the fund. “It helped build this hub and post training in digital storytelling, so these people can share their stories, get their voices heard and help empower them.”

These stories can inspire additional learning, Grover said. People in India can learn from people in Honduras about how to cope in a food crisis, for example.

The MacArthur Foundation’s Stasch was confident the digital media competition would continue to produce innovative opportunities for learning.

“We’re looking around the corner at the best ideas of tomorrow,” she said.

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

An audio slideshow illustrating the concert by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) on Thursday.  The performance was to celebrate the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition.  PLOrk was a winner in last year’s contest.

Note:  Kathryn Murphy and I co-wrote this piece.  It was first published on the Medill News Service website on 4/21/2009, and is republished here for my own archives.

Apr 20 2009

Basic lessons in Facebook ettiquette

Found via Facebook.  Thanks D. Butler!

Apr 19 2009

Chicago entrepreneur wants to change the way you watch TV

Joe Born, CEO of Chicago-based Neuros Technology, discusses the new Neuros LINK device.  Photo credit: Ian Monroe/Medill

Joe Born, CEO of Chicago-based Neuros Technology, discusses the new Neuros LINK device. Photo credit: Ian Monroe/Medill

Joe Born wants to change the way you use your television.

Born, chief executive officer, of Neuros Technology International, is an entrepreneur in the classic sense. He got his start in the 1990s with a patent on a device for repairing damaged CDs. Then in 2001, he started Chicago-based Neuros Technologies, which started out making portable digital audio products, much like Apple’s ubiquitous iPod.

On Wednesday at the Neuros headquarters downtown, Born showed off his company’s newest innovations. In a small conference room with whiteboards scrawled with notes and flowcharts mounted on exposed brick walls, he walked through the operation of the Neuros LINK, a device that is known in technical circles as a “media extender.” A media extender enables users to access digital media such as MP3s and movies stored on a home computer, and then watch or listen to them on a television or living room stereo.

“Joe Born is an important pillar of Chicago’s technology community,” said Michael Krauss, co-chair of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Council of Technology Advisors. “He’s a true entrepreneur and inventor that has succeeded more than once, and is challenging convention with his Neuros products.”

The thing that sets Neuros’ products apart from many of their competitors is the emphasis the developers put on using open hardware and software systems as much as possible, instead of building proprietary, closed systems that leave the user at the mercy of the company that built them. “These products are all open source, all the source code is out there,” Born said.

He added that the LINK was Neuros’ most open device to date, and it relies heavily on community-driven development and open software.

The Neuros LINK device, photo courtesy of Neuros Technology

The Neuros LINK device, photo courtesy of Neuros Technology

The Neuros LINK is basically a PC designed to be the “brain” of the entertainment center in the living room. It’s a full-featured machine that is specially designed for audio and video applications. It runs on open-source Ubuntu Linux and uses open-source XBMC as media center software.

The device streams video from a home server or network attached storage, and supports a wide variety of video and audio formats. It sports high-speed ethernet and wireless connectivity, and will play back web video from sources, such as Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube.

Soon Neuros LINK will support Netflix Instant Viewing streams as well. It outputs video and audio over HDMI, meaning it plugs  directly to a high-definition television with a minimum of hassles. It also supports six-channel audio and optical audio outputs.

Born says that the LINK fills a void in the current living-room electronics market. “On one end, there’s a full-fledged home theater PC, of whatever stripe or variety you want,” Born said. “Apple has the Mini, which is sort of in the low end of that vein … and then it goes all the way up to $2,000 or $3,000 machines, generally big, noisy, full keyboard, but no real navigation. On the other end you have AppleTV, Tivo, Roku [a device that streams movies from Netflix], a whole host of embedded devices, but each of those is very limited, it’s a cross section, and it doesn’t have that comprehensiveness. So the LINK [is] a box that is slimmer and has more friendly navigation, but gives you the comprehensiveness of the Internet.”

Neuros.tv is a website designed to complement the Neuro LINK home theater PC. It aggregates online video sources, and sorts videos in an intuitive way. Search for ABC’s “Lost” for instance, and Neuros.TV will return the results sorted by season, with the newest episodes first.

Born said the final version will remember which episodes you’ve already watched, and will highlight the ones you have yet to see. Because it pulls in results from other video services, such as Joost, Hulu, YouTube and FanCast, hundreds of shows are available immediately, on demand. The Neuros.TV site works on any computer, but also has an interface optimized for viewing directly on your television via the Neuros LINK hardware.

The Neuros LINK is currently in what the creators are calling the “Gamma Program,” a sort of public beta testing phase. The software and interface are still undergoing substantial development, but the device is available for sale at a small number of retailers, mostly to early-adopters and hackers that want to try out the platform and contribute to the development efforts.  The LINK is priced at $299, about the same as an Xbox 360.  Born said that this testing phase is essential to get the system refined to the point that everyday users can feel comfortable with the device.

“Having stuff that works, and the details ironed out is vitally important,” Born said. “You can look at doing this yourself, and you can get it 90 percent of the way there, but if you really expect it to be a consumer product that you can sell and someone can just drop in their house, then 90 percent  is not nearly good enough.”

Technology writer Ryan Paul previewed the LINK on the Web site ArsTechnica.com, and wrote, “for experienced Linux users, it just takes a little bit of the usual tweaking to get everything working just right. After that initial time investment, I haven’t had any trouble with it at all. It gives me everything I want in an Ubuntu-based set-top box, and it offers a broad assortment of options for third-party media center software.”

Born is confident that devices such  the LINK constitute an important next step in the evolving media environment. “It’s a very, very exciting and disruptive time; predicting the exact winners and losers and the exact time line is very difficult, but you can’t help but look at this and say, this is going to change everything.”

Note: This article was first published on the Medill Reports website on 4/15/2009.  Some edits were made for this version, now posted for my own archives.

Apr 19 2009

What? No updates in seven days?

Don’t worry, I have a whole pile of stuff in the works, and I think you’ll like it.

Apr 12 2009

Check out my new horror movie blog

I’m doing a blog for a Medill class on interactive publishing, and I’ve chosen horror movies as my topic.  If you know me at all, you’ll know that horror movies are one of my great passions, and I’m happy to have a chance to turn some of that into output.

Visit Windy City Horror, leave a comment, and let me know what you think!

Thanks!

UPDATE: this blog is now defunct.

Apr 10 2009

Want to know the best thing about union jobs?

It’s the training videos.

Thanks to D. Plotkin for the link.

Apr 10 2009

Digital designers do battle at Cut&Paste

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

How do you find out who are the sharpest, most creative designers in the world? With a good, old-fashioned, graphic design battle, of course.  The 2009 Cut & Paste Digital Design Tournament pitted the best graphic designers against one another in a competition like no other.  Armed with state-of-the art computers, designers squared off on the stage of the Congress Theater on Saturday to determine who would represent Chicago in the global finals to be held in June in New York.

This story was first published on the Medill Reports website on 4/7/2009.  Republished here for my own archives.