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Archive for December, 2009

Book 2.0

It took us a year to make a book, but we spent almost 8 months pitching various versions of the ideas to publishers and waiting to hear responses. This is time that is lost, never to be reclaimed, and the best I can say for that period is that we learned a lot about a business model that is stuck in a view of the world that hasn’t changed since 1950.

During this period we were forced to conceive and re-conceive our ideas so many times, that we began to see the mutability of book-ness in our modern age. Without even trying we managed to think of dozens of ways that our book could be experienced by “readers” including: paperback, hardcover, serialized in magazine, social nexus organized by topic, podcast, bookcast (episodic delivery of topics), video podcast (dramatic reading and demonstration of each topic), TV show, serialized curriculum, regionalized books with locally pertinent topics – and so forth.

Without the rigorous classic structure of a book to guide us, we had to invent a new way to create the book that would support all of these possible opportunities. Rather than re-tell it, I include here the last page of the book, which tells a condensed story of how the book was made:

How This Book Was Made
It all started with a mention in a presentation at TED 2007: Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do (http://on.ted.com/272G). The presentation was posted online where more than two million people have watched it, many of whom started asking about the book. After trying several different approaches to get it published by traditional means, we decided to do it ourselves.

We began by collecting potential topic ideas in a Google Spreadsheet. Each topic was marked with a list of possible dangers, expected duration, difficulty, and so forth. That list grew to more than 80 possible topics; from there we sifted and sorted until we had the best 50. While the list was being refined, versions of possible page designs (inspired by after-market car repair books) were generated and reviewed with friends and designers. That said, all of the poor design choices herein are the fault of our own inabilities to execute on the excellent advice and design feedback we received.

Each topic was expanded into a separate Google Document and versions were sent to volunteers to review and test. Meanwhile, illustrations were created in Adobe Illustrator. Because the topic categories (Activity, Project, Experience, and Skill) had yet to be finalized, every illustration had to be created in a way that let us pick the base color at the last moment.

As feedback came in, the topics were refined and updated. The final layout was still not quite ready, so these versions of the topics were ported to XML so that they could be ingested by Adobe InDesign. The book template was set up so content would automatically flow into whatever became the final design (made more interesting by the fact that this was the first time Julie had ever used InDesign). Perforce was used to version-track all of the XML and InDesign files and scripts (and should have been used for the illustrations as well).

While Gever was at a conference in Qatar, Julie threw together a cover design in Adobe Photoshop and an alpha test print of the book was produced to check colors and margins. Little did we know, her Photoshop project would take on a life of its own and be the on-going hiccup in our otherwise orderly Illustrator/XML/InDesign-based workflow. Third-draft versions of the topics were updated in XML to fit into the latest, and near-final, version of the page layout. These were sent to a smaller group of dedicated testers. Colors for the topics were chosen and two copies of a beta-version of the book were printed. During this review (which included extensive fact-checking), hazard icons were created, the book front and back cover designs were refined, and the front-matter (foreword, introduction, table of contents, etc.) was finalized as well. Final feedback was integrated and the last tweaks were made in InDesign. This page was written, and then the book was rendered as a PDF and sent to the CreateSpace print-on-demand facility.

Total elapsed time: three months of continuous effort while laundry and email piled up. Because of the process and the tools we are using, this book can easily be rendered to different page sizes and different output media. Every bit of this book was made by Julie and Gever, but we couldn’t have done it without all the help from family and friends. Your suggestions and feedback will help us improve future efforts: gever@fiftydangerousthings.com
gever & julie, december 2009

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//Doha//Thursday//Departure//0400

The alarm clicks on, and a singer fills the pre-dawn room with exotic consonants over a heavy background of strings and a plucked ood. It is 4am here, and in an effort to get on California-time, I will immediately commence to pretend that it is 5pm. I extricate the daily slippers from the plastic wrap and cram my wide feet into the narrow terry-cloth toe-cups, don the comically plush bathrobe, and Skype home to see the last light of dusk over her shoulder. She’s dog-sitting for friends, and he starts woofing when I say “Hi Kai!” It occurs to me that he might not have a real sense of simultaneous ‘here’ and ‘there’. Where do you start when you set out to explain time zones to a dog? You’re having dinner, I’m having breakfast. Woof.

Here are a few things that I will remember (actual conference notes and details are in my notebooks). The charter bus from the hotel to the conference center has curtains that like to stay closed, preventing us from getting any real sense of the city as we ride back and forth. There are people spending a lot of money doing studies and having meetings. Stephen Hippell uses a Finder window on his laptop to browse around and show photos and videos while he’s presenting – it’s both fascinating and annoying at the same time. Sauteed mushrooms over rice with steak medallions are a good breakfast – fruit on the side. The Sheraton Hotel is a tetrahedron. People and businesses are moving to Qatar because people and businesses are moving to Qatar. Because there is almost no “here” here, they are making one. The Persian Gulf is like a big bathtub full of epsom salts; warm, salty, calm, and shallow. If a woman has her face covered do not engage in conversation unless she starts one. Six kinds of hummus in a buffet is not excessive. The breeze coming in from the gulf smells like warm iron. Dust is the reminder that the desert is still here. The people that you meet during the breaks are often more interesting than the people presenting. A tree stands alone in a shallow depression in an open lot, sand and bits of debris piled up against the trunk – a testament to determination. The birds here sleep in the daytime, coming out at dusk and dawn to chatter and chirp in the imported palm trees. Architecture should be more than just surprising. The Islamic Art Museum puts all those geometric patterns that are on doors and screens in a context that makes them make sense. You hardly ever meet anyone native to Qatar. Instead of carrying your groceries in the souk, you hire a really old guy with a wheelbarrow and he follows you around while you shop.

I know almost nothing about geography, and often amuse my fellow attendees by asking where their country is. I use my hands to make the shape of their continent and have them point out where they live.
“Over here,” they will say after orienting themselves to my hand-map, “near the base of this finger.”
“Is it nice there?”
“Oh yes. You should come and visit us. But stay away from this area here,” pointing at the bend in my wrist, “things are a bit unsettled there.”
My carpal-tunnel irritation has evidently leaked into the neighboring country.

After a presentation on the new language of school architecture, wherein I pick up the evocative characterization of “classic” schools as the “cells & bells” approach, I turn to my row-mate and offer, “Those so-called ‘playful’ spaces looked awfully sterile to me, what do you think?”
He pauses for a moment, and says, “In my village, the classroom is a tree. It is the oldest tree in the village, and it is also used for town meetings.”
“So, no fancy desks or individual study places?”
“The blackboard is tied to the tree when school is in session. Sometimes, the tree is also the jail. If someone does something bad, we tie them to the tree until the police from the municipality can come and pick him up. Sometimes we would be studying and there would be a drunk man tied to the side of the tree opposite the blackboard.”

He is from Angola, down by the first knuckle of my thumb.

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Hex-tree GPS Encoding

I had the pleasure of attending PyWebSF and struck up a conversation with my old friend Tadhg about the idea of creating a web service (a’la http://bit.ly) that would provide a unique short GPS “tag” for any arbitrary GPS location. You can read Tadhg’s excellent accounting of the discussion here.

I didn’t write any code (yet) but I did have an idea that is a variation on the QuadTree solution that I proposed during the conversation. I call it Hex-tree and have no idea if it’s already been done, but I think it will create very short location identifiers algorithmically.

zoom level 0

zoom level 0At zoom level zero (on a standard Mercator-projection of the globe), we see that every place on earth can be crudely described by the numbers 0-F (hexidecimal). Suppose we are interested in specifying the precise location of San Francisco, CA. It’s in tile 4, so our address is going to start with a “4”. Already we can see that the first digit of a HexGPS coordinate contains enough lat/lon information to know what continent we are referring to.

zoom level 1

zoom level 1Zooming in to tile 4, we see the eastern pacific tile is now recursively subdivided, and that our target is in tile 6. The address so far is “46”.

zoom level 2

zoom level 2Zooming in again (and wishing I had used a higher-res map to begin with), we see that San Francisco is in tile 5. Our address is now “465”. The notion in this system is that you can visually determine if two addresses are nearby by just looking at the initial similarities of the two strings. Two addresses that started with “465…” would be known to be within 100 miles of each other (approximately). If you compare “465…” with “46E…” you can tell that they are within 500 miles of each other.

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