Monthly Archives: January 2013

ORD Camp is over. Now what?

ORD Camp is quite simply my favorite event of the year. I mean that not only across tech and media events, but everything I do personally and professionally all year. At least 9 out of 10 attendees will tell you the same thing.

Squids. Cephalopods, actually. Protostomes, really. We're on a different evolutionary branch.

Squids. Cephalopods, actually. Protostomes, really. We’re on a different evolutionary branch.

ORD Camp is a Foo-inspired unconference, where the participants make the agenda. It is invite-only, FrieNDA, which leads to an incredible amount of intimacy and that makes the event so special.

Since our time together is so short, sleep basically doesn’t happen. The super-achieving attendees include inventors, scientists, artists, chefs, teachers, civil servants, and technologists. To quote the hosts, you were invited because you’re either: “amazing, or crazy, or both.” We don’t all come from the same industry, and that’s a great thing because we all came to be exposed to new ideas and to each other. We’re all fascinated about being fascinated.

Here’s a few things I did this past weekend:

  • picked locks
  • learned the evolution of print from calligraphy through the Gutenberg press
  • learned about bitters, which was a natural segue to…
  • tasting many types of gin 
  • tasted the perfect brew of coffee
  • observed a zombie makeup demonstration
  • led a session on map and compass navigation
  • played an electronic jousting game, Cards Against Humanity, and…
  • was a murderous werewolf more often than not
  • heard stories only Chicago map makers know
  • watched ORD Campers tell their personal stories after some expert coaching
  • discussed raising digital natives
  • talked about data visualizations and what they mean to us
  • watched others make belts, buttons, 3D printed objects, and wooden wine goblets
  • got a primer on mastering tricks with everyday objects
  • drank several mixed drinks that a robot prepared for me
  • saw Ignite talks on life, realizing childhood dreams, why automated trading isn’t evil, and how to fly a British airship.
  • saw same Ignite slide decks abused, for our amusement, as part of Ignite Karaoke.
  • learned I was a squid, came to be ok with that, and befriended eight other like-minded squids.

For every amazing session I attended, I missed seven more.

I also met a lot of incredible people. At least 5 of the best conversations I’ve had in the last year happened this weekend. I told one camper with whom I spoke last year that his words had stayed with me and influenced every big idea I chased at NPR in 2012. Another amazing individual — who is far smarter, more accomplished, and a better all-around person than I’ll ever be — said that he didn’t know what he’d do without ORD Camp: it made him realize he wasn’t alone and that energized him throughout the year. He’s not alone in that idea, most of us leave inspired to go big:

I met incredible new people and also some folks that I’d corresponded with online.  We talked about our work, our passions, and our families. I had a terrific hallway conversation with a few Googlers as we took turns escaping from handcuffs.

It sounds like a lot of fun doesn’t it? ORD Camp founders Brian Fitzpatrick and Zach Kaplan hold the event to “create more value than they capture”, using Tim O’Reilly’s shorthand for creating good for the sake of doing so and paying it forward. ORD Camp is an incredible gift.

While the post-ORD Camp glow was ever-present on campers’ Twitter feeds yesterday, today the reality is setting in that it’s over. It’s special because the guest list changes every year, because there’s more than you can possibly absorb, and because of the uncertainty of your next meeting with these amazing folks. Fear not! I’ve learned this year that ORD Camp is not an event: it’s a community that just happens to culminate in the best event of the year.

The ORD Camp community is trying to make the world more awesome, and Chicago is arguably the biggest beneficiary. Every city should be so lucky to have an ORD Camp, where city government, educators, entrepreneurs, non-profits, small business owners, technologists, and artists show up to talk about how to make their city more livable and prosperous. ORD Camp has spawned startups. This weekend there were sessions on city data, transit improvements, talks on history, and reviving Chicago manufacturing. I grew up in Chicago and despite not living there since 1996, I feel more connected than ever. Last summer’s hardware hackathon was only possible because of the ORD Camp community.  While a move isn’t on the horizon, I am finding reasons to come back to Chicago throughout the year and interact with the community.

Thanks so much to Groupon for hosting. Fitz and Zach, thanks for blowing my mind even more than you did last year.

So what’s next? Keep in touch ORD Campers, and remember that if you pass through D.C., it’s a standing rule that I have to drop everything and meet you for a coffee/drink.

How to navigate with map and compass: an ORD Camp session

This weekend at ORD camp I led a session on map and compass orienteering.  Even in the age of GPS, it’s an indispensable outdoor skill. Electronics break, fall in a creek, batteries die, or clouds blot out your satellite uplink.

It’s also a ton of fun for participants of all ages, and it really connects you to hundreds of years of pathfinding. My toddler knows that the red needle on a compass points North, which is where Santa lives.

The best way to learn is by doing. Map and compass fundamentals are the basis of the sport of orienteering — think: outdoor scavenger hunt — and Chicago even has it’s own orienteering club.

For my session, I used the Silva Starter orienteering compass and a few USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps. USGS quads are the basis of many commercial topo hiking maps and are available free of charge at

I owe a big thanks to Dennis McClendon of Chicago Cartographics for attending the session. As a professional cartographer, Dennis was able to provide all sorts of details on how maps are actually created.


We primarily used maps of the ruggedly beautiful Blackbird Knob area of West Virginia, which includes portions of the Monongahela National Forest and Dolly Sods Wilderness.

US Topo, 2011 (25 MB) –  This was the primary map we used. The U.S. Topo map series is rendered digitally and includes many layer overlays and aerial photography that can be turned on/off when viewed in Acrobat Reader.

1995 Topo Map (13 MB) – The older maps are analog. While they may not be up to date, there’s something beautiful about them. They also contain detail on forested and cleared areas, trails, peak names, human-made structures and double track that the U.S. Topo maps lack. Of course, they’re also over 10 years old, so you may be looking for a clearing or a trail that no longer exists.

Chicago Loop 1997 Topo – We didn’t get into the Chicago loop map, but I printed it in case we headed outside. You can practice biangulation (finding where you are by shooting bearings to known landmarks) from nearby Erie Park. While standing in the circle at the corner of Erie and Larrabee, I could biangulate using Willis Tower (Sears Tower as I and the map remember it) and Aon Tower (formerly Standard Oil). Or, if standing by the sculpture at the east end of the park, I could see the Hancock building and Merchandise Mart.

Session Handout and Reading

map-compass-techniques: The session handout covered map contours and common navigation techniques.

If you missed the session, this was the best free navigation tutorial I found.

And here are a few of the books I’ve read over the years:

The Essential Wilderness Navigator – a great primer

Be Expert With Map and Compass – a classic, by the man who founded Silva

Orienteering – geared more towards the sport of orienteering than general navigation.

Advanced Outdoor Navigation – has some terrific information, but since the author was a former SERE instructor, he spends a lot of time on wilderness survival. Hopefully your navigation skill is sufficient that you won’t need this ;-)

Photo by Margaret Stewart

Session outline

Topo Maps:

  • Quandrangle info
  • Scale (i.e. 1:24,000)
  • Declination (Magnetic/True/Grid North)
  • Road/Trail information
  • Contour Interval

 Reading contours:

  • Peak
  • Saddle
  • Ridgeline
  • Drainage/gulley
  • Valley
  • Steep cliff vs. shallow elevation change
  • Depressions


  • Always know where you are
  • Orient your map (“thumb arrow” points in direction of travel)
  • Take roads/trails when permissible


  • 180 degree errors (north/south error) – check compass orientation direction
  • 90 degrees  – compass check cardinal direction
  • Parallel errors – are you where you think you are?
  • Following others – don’t do it!


  • Aiming off
  • Attack points
  • Biangulation/Triangulation
  • Catch points
  • Handrails
  • Bracketing
  • Contouring (altimeter?)

A Card Game to Teach Kids Computer Science and Math

Last week I was thinking (procrastinating, really) about how kids in other countries start learning computer science and programming as early as six. Scratch is great, but my kid is still too young. I’m also trying to keep her away from screens for a few more years. What I wanted was a basic card game like Memory that instead teaches basic boolean and set logic. I couldn’t find one, so I took a first pass at creating one. The goal: something easy and engaging enough for toddlers but with enough incremental complexity to entertain ages 7-10.


  • 1 standard card deck
  • Index cards or a blank deck for the operations cards
  • One standard die for the toddler version
  • (A second standard deck is needed for set logic expansion)

I found it helpful to have different colored decks for the game play cards and the operation cards.

Game Summary (Ages 3+)

The game is really quite simple. Using Ace – 10 in the standard deck, shuffle and deal cards face down into four equal piles. Ace is 1, all other cards are face value. Turn the top card up on each pile. The first pile is the “test card” pile, and it sits above the other piles. The last three piles sit in a row below the test condition and they’re the game play array.

Test card pile, game play card array, and discard pile.

Test card pile, game play card array, and discard pile.

Players take turns playing an “operation” with the test card and creating a test condition. The basic operations are > (greater than), < (less than), and equal (==).  If the test card is 6 and the game play pile is 2, 3, and 8, playing < (less than) would mean “less than 6” and the player picks up 2 and 3.

Game 1 Variation. Play until all three game play piles are gone. Whoever picked up the most cards wins.

Game 2 Variation (more strategy): Players display the cards they pick up in a sequence Ace to 10. The first player to pick up all cards in the sequence A-10 (any combination of suits) wins. Multiples of any single card don’t count except to the extent they prevent your opponent from completing the sequence.

Either version can be played solitaire or with two or more players.


Ages 3-5 roll a die to choose their operation. I’ve used a die with two sides each for >, < and == and use the labels “BIG”, “small”, and equal or “same”.


10 clubs is our test. Our play cards are 3, 8, 10. Shhh… your kid is looping over an array.

After graduating from the die roll, all players are dealt three operation cards at the beginning of the game.  Players draw new operation cards at the end of their turn to replenish their hand to three.

I again start with the three simple operation cards for >, <, and ==. The added complexity here is that kids must choose which is the optimal play. (You can start your kids by playing operation cards face up and talk them through their decisions. After that, players keep their operation cards secret from other players.)

Once kids get comfortable with those three operations, I allow them to use == in tandem with > or <. If two cards are played, the player draws two more cards at the end of a turn.

There’s two more basic operation cards to work in as player skill increases:

  • ! (not) is used in tandem with any other operation card and creates the opposite condition. Not > equates to <=, for example. It’s most powerful when combined with == to make != (not equal) to the test card value.
  • * (wildcard) can become any single basic operation card. I’ll need * for multiplication so I should think of something else…
Player on the right should play > and == operation cards in tandem to pick up all three play cards.

6 of spades is our test. Player on the right should play < and == operation cards in tandem to pick up all three play cards.

Here’s the quantity of operation cards I’ve tried in my deck:

  • > (x7) greater than
  • < (x7) less than
  • == (x2) used alone or in tandem with >, <, !
  • ! (x4) not. must be used in tandem with >,<, == or set expansion cards
  • * (x1) wildcard. Can be any single basic operator: !, <, >, ==.

Right now I’m only allowing two operation cards to be played at a time.


Set Expansion Pack

This introduces basic set logic for added complexity. With the blank deck I created cards for set A, B, C, D, E. You’ll also need another standard deck with cards A – 10 in a single suit to populate our random sets.


You can introduce from one to five sets into the game during the initial deal. For each set A-E, add those cards to the operation cards and shuffle. Next, create a line of expansion sets that sit above the test card pile. From the standard deck A-10 cards, deal out two cards at random for each expansion set.

A set contains the two random cards it was dealt at the beginning of the game plus the value of the  test card at the time at which the set card is played. In this case, the set contains 5 and 10 (initial values) plus the test card 9. If set B is played now, the player can pick up any game play cards that are in the set (5, 9, 10). Sets cards can also be played with ! (not) and any game play cards not in the set are picked up. If the test card is already contained in the set — too bad. Sets contain only distinct values.


I’m thinking in the future that addition/subtraction(+/-), multiplication, and modulus division cards ( % 2) could be used to change the value of either the test or the gameplay cards.

Game Play

If the first player can successfully play an operation, they make their play and pick up whatever game play cards they earn. If they’ve picked up game play cards, the test card is turned down into the discard pile. A new test card is turned up and new game play cards are turned up wherever cards were picked up. Play proceeds to the left. Anytime a player can’t make a play, it skips to the next player and the test card is not discarded. (An option I’m playing with here: if you can’t make a play, you may discard one operations card face down and draw a new one.) Players discard operation cards after playing them and replenish their hand to three cards at the end of their turn.

When the test pile or operation piles deplete, shuffle the discard pile for either and start fresh.

Anyway, that’s my first draft, it’s still rough. The easiest iteration is definitely simple enough for a four year old, I’m more concerned that it’s not fun enough for… well, anyone. I welcome contributions. One caveat: if we’re doing this in the open, it’s open. Let’s say Creative Commons (or would that be GPL?) so don’t go calling Hasbro if we think of something clever.

NPR API Course Now Live on Codecademy

On Wednesday, Codecademy launched a full track of lessons on web APIs, and NPR was a launch partner with a course on the NPR API.  There was a bit of media coverage.

This entailed weeks of nights and weekend work but it was a ton of fun. For me, it started last November when I met Codecademy’s Sasha Laundy at DC Week. When she said they were about to pilot a track on APIs, I jumped at the chance.

I’ve been a big fan of what Codecademy is trying to do since it launched.  The world has a dire shortage of geeks, and they’re trying to make more. I’ve heard a few people scoff that you can’t learn to code just by spending 30 minutes here and there on Codecademy. To be clear — you can become a good programmer *many* ways as long as you’re willing to put in the time and struggle through difficult problems.

But even my argument misses the main point. By removing all of the friction in working with a new technology, Codecademy is betting that a lot of folks who would never have tried programming in the first place will give it a shot. And some of them will fall in love and might even major in computer science.

I have similar aspirations for the NPR API course on Codecademy. Perhaps the next generation of public radio listeners — those who don’t have radios and aren’t yet listening — will fall in love with this quirky open API that allows one to dabble with world-class content in the public interest. It’s important for us to be open and it’s important for us to be out there. Public radio has enough inspiration to share, we need the next generation of coders to help us realize our mission.