TOPP @ Green Desk

This week, TOPP moved into additional, (maybe) temporary office space, to alleviate some of the crowding at our office in the West Village.  We were looking for a place that was convenient, comfortable, and most of all, available immediately (backstory is that we’ve been basically sitting on top of each other at our W. 12th Street offices for the last few months, while our new space at 148 Lafayette is being renovated — it’s ridiculous, I know…)

Anyway, we found a GREAT space at a new-ish office incubator in DUMBO called Green Desk.  It’s a renovated 6-story warehouse building right at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge.  Each floor consists of a bunch of glassed-in offices which are home to various companies.  Gothamist is on the floor right below us.  Most of the folks from the Livable Streets Initiative and GothamSchools, and some of the OpenGeo team will be working from here now.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about office space lately, mainly spurred by our own impending move as well as Fog Creek Software’s recent move to new digs.  Having read Joel Spolsky’s writing about the importance of private & quiet office space, I’ve been getting a little concerned about the open plan of the office we’re about to move into.  I visited the Fog Creek offices last Friday for their new office open house, and was impressed by the combination of highly social space (kitchen, lunch tables, couches) and super-quiet workspace (private, glassed-in office for every single developer).  As a result, we at TOPP have been trying to subtly improve the layout (within reason, since construction is about to start and our concerns aren’t the only ones — the space will also be the future home of Tower Research Capital) of the new office to increase the amount of available private/quiet space, even if the floor plan is fundamentally open.

Anyway, I digress.  So, I’m sitting here at Green Desk for the first time today, and it’s really quite nice.  We can hear the sound of the subway rolling over our heads as it crosses the Manhattan Bridge, but it’s kind of like waves crashing and isn’t really disturbing.  We have four separate glassed-in rooms, each with about 4 desks, and there’s a shared conference room, kitchen, and sitting area.  Apparently there’s also a proper cafeteria and exercise room on the way.  It’s also nice to be in a space with other companies, although I haven’t met anyone just yet.

Here are some photos.  Even though I will continue to work primarily from the Manhattan office, I think I’ll plan to spend a day or so per week down here for a change of pace, and for the joy of walking to work and not leaving Brooklyn :)

Above: Green Desk building at 155 Water Street

Above: View from the front door, facing the river and Manhattan

Above: Ben Fried blogging away for Streetsblog in one of our rooms

Above: Glassed-in offices are somewhat reminiscent of the nice, quiet offices at Fog Creek

Above: Shared reception area

Above: View from one of our rooms, facing into Brooklyn

Happy Halloween

It’s really amazing how walking down the street with a funny hat on puts smiles on people’s faces.  Today, I’m going to pretend I’m not wearing a viking hat.  I only wish I had bought the hat before I got on the subway this morning.  Happy Halloween!

Goodbye Fresh Direct, Hello Max Delivery

Here at TOPP, we’ve been using Fresh Direct for a while now for our office groceries (even while being critical of them on one of our blogs).  It’s easy — we can order online and have food delivered right to the office.  However, the packaging Fresh Direct uses is really outrageous; items are delivered in cardboard boxes, and are packed as if they’re traversing the Atlantic, with on or two items per box surrounded by layers upon layers of packaging and padding.

No longer.  This week, we switched to Max Delivery, a service that offers same day delivery of many products within Manhattan.  Max Delivery is a hybrid of Fresh Direct and Urban Fetch/Kozmo — offering a full online catalog of staples as well as select items from NYC merchants.  The kicker (for us at least) is their reusable bag program.  Instead of packed boxes, they deliver using reusable shopping bags, with no extra packaging.  Simply pay a $1.50 deposit for each bag, and return them upon next pickup.  In between deliveries, you’re free to use the bags for your own shopping.  To boot, the grocery prices are lower at Max Delivery than at Fresh Direct (or so I’m told).

Same Bat Blog, New Bat Look

Gotham Schools

This week, we launched the new, improved GothamSchools.  GothamSchools is the latest media / advocacy initiative from The Open Planning Project, and our first foray into the world of education.  We’ve got a great team of reporters in Philissa Cramer, Elizabeth Green, and Kelly Vaughan, and the new site website was put together by the talented Chris Abraham and Phil Ashlock.

GothamSchools the news outlet is just the beginning; look for more as we build up community and tools around this initiative.

Sorry, Chandler

For a while now, I’ve been using Chandler to keep track of my to-dos.  Chandler is a semi-historic open source project which I’ve been following ever since I read Dreaming in Code (and in many ways, it’s saga parallels ours at The Open Planning Project with our work on OpenPlans)  I’ve been rooting for it through the last several releases, and have eagerly anticipated updates.

So, I was intrigued when I came across this post, which compares a handful of new to-do management applications for Mac.  My first reaction was “this field is getting pretty crowded,” and my second was “interesting to see that Chandler’s not on that list.”  Finally, my third reaction, after having checked out some of the tools, was “wow, these are just like Chandler, only better.”

Maybe it’s because it takes forever for it to load up, or that it takes forever for it to shut down, or perhaps it’s the fact that it heats up my computer and makes my fan go into overdrive every time I use it, but Chandler just hasn’t been working very well for me.  It’s a shame, really, because the project has such a long history, and is backed by so many good intentions.  But when it comes to the final level of polish and the feeling that the program gives you when you use it, it’s just not there yet.

Of the applications featured in the comparison, the two I looked closely at were OmniFocus and Things.  OmniFocus is the more powerful of the two, and is actually quite similar to Chander in many ways (both have “Clean up” button in exactly the same place). Both are proprietary applications that come at a price (OmniFocus is $79 and Things is $49), but I’m not an open source hard-liner (I’m typing this on a Mac); I’m willing to pay for software if it actually makes my life easier, though of course I prefer to use and support open source tools.

I’ve been using Things for a few days now, and in terms of usability and addictiveness it’s got Chandler beat hands down (at least for my needs).  It’s still pre-release, but the fundamental experience is very good, and the really important details are done right.  It does the things I need it to and doesn’t try to do the rest.  Creating, organizing, and viewing tasks is quick and easy, and the views they present me with let me focus on what I’m working on at the moment.

Above: Chandler’s main screen

Above: OmniFocus’ main screen

Above: Things’ main screen

So, the question is: how come these new applications are better (or seem better to me) than Chandler?  Offhand, I can think up a few potential reasons:

  • Chandler paved the way for many innovative features in task management (e.g., turning tasks into calendar items).  Not particularly likely.

And on to the more likely reasons:

  • Chandler is too complicated, and these other applications do less, better.  Yes.
  • Chandler couldn’t cross the chasm between early interested techies and the mainstream market.  Seems true.  Interestingly, Things seems to be starting with the mainstream market and doing well.
  • Chandler had too big a team and too much funding.  This much seems to be widely understood.  Looking through the project wiki, one can find years worth of theories and plans, but somehow those were never translated into actual, usable product, whereas Things was produced by a small, balanced team including just two developers.
It’s too bad, of course, but it definitely provides another valuable case study in the danger of not getting real early enough.

The power of releasing early and often

Release early and often” is a phrase often heard in software development, and is more like a mantra for most web development projects.  The idea being that it’s better to get something “out there” in a simple or reduced form, rather than wait and wait and wait for your grand plan to come together. (In Getting Real, 37signals calls this “half, not half-assed“)

Well, this applies equally well to projects outside the software realm, and there’s a great example right here in Brooklyn.  Anyone who walked over the Brooklyn Bridge this summer (possibly to see the waterfalls) probably noticed a new patch of park on an otherwise ignorable patch of land jutting out into the river.

This is, of course, the first public taste of Brooklyn Bridge Park project, called Pier 1.  It’s a temporary park, on the nearest edge of what will become the first major section of the park. It’s highly visible, and perfectly timed to capitalize on the buzz around the waterfalls.

A few quotes from Going Coastal demonstrate the power of this approach:

“Since popping up with little fanfare June 26 in Brooklyn Heights on a sliver of the future waterfront park’s construction site, a temporary playground at the edge of Pier 1 is giving the public its first real sense of what the long-delayed development will bring to the Big Apple.”

I love the “with little fanfare” bit — no need to make a grand launch; just put it out there and let people find it.  And of course…

“… critics of the long-delayed park project are still questioning why it took the city and state so long to offer a first glimpse of the breathtaking waterfront access the planned 85-acre park will bring.”

It sounds like a change of administration was what was needed to get things moving in the “getting real” direction;

“Even the development’s biggest critics agree that the project only gathered steam in November after Regina Meyer, a longtime Brooklyn planning director, was appointed president of the state-city Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corp.

She replaced Wendy Leventer, a Pataki administration holdover who was fired in March 2007 after the Post reported the agency at that time had spent $16.5 million over the previous five years with little to show expect mounting legal fees and continuously changing project renderings.

But this past March, construction kicked off despite there only being enough government funding to build about two-thirds of the park. Including $6.1 million recently donated by the City Council and Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office, the project’s current budget now totals $231.1 million.

Meyer said she felt it was important to finally get the project going and then lobby to fill the remaining budget shortfall at a later date.” [emphasise mine]

This is really the important part, and where the power of the “early-and-often” approach is really evident.  Instead of tweaking the plans forever, Meyer decided to just go and build something (anything!), to show progress and give people a glimpse of how awesome things will be.

And man, it is awesome.  The photo above really doesn’t do it justice, but the view from the new (temporary, mind you!) Pier 1 is incredible, and it really opens up the waterfront in an entirely new way.

The secret life of the subway

In doing some photo hunting for a side project, I came across this gem of a photo on Flickr.

Riding the subway all over the city, I often think about the fact that most great subway moments (and many great city moments, for that matter) go unrecorded. Perhaps this is part of the beauty of it — there are only participants; no watchers — but I often wish I had a camera built into my eyes to catch the great little moments that happen almost every day.

Musicians on the train are a real special treat; I love the fact that for just a few minutes, perhaps just the distance between two stops, a little concert takes place.  For that short period of time, riders goes from being disconnected strangers to inadvertent partners, with feet tapping and heads nodding.

This photo has an almost Rockwell-esque quality to it, and you’ve gotta love the angry glare from the woman in the corner.

Coming soon: Park(ing) Day 2008

In the spirit of blogging all the cool stuff we’re doing at TOPP, I’d like to announce the launch of a new website: Park(ing) Day NYC. Park(ing) Day is a global event, originally conceived by awesome SF-based arts collective REBAR, where for a single day, regular parking spaces are “leased” for use as temporary public parks. This year’s Park(ing) Day will be held, worldwide, on September 19th.

Here’s the description from the national Park(ing) day website:

On November 16th, 2005, REBAR opened eyes worldwide by transforming a metered parking spot into a park. Locating a site that was underserved by public outdoor space, we installed a small, temporary park that provided nature, seating, and shade. By our calculations, we provided 24,000 square-foot-minutes of public open space that afternoon. See the original PARK(ing) video!

Since the initial PARK(ing) project was created we’ve been contacted by people worldwide. What began as a simple, playful idea has become a lively and visible symbol of the desire to reprogram the street and increase public open space in cities all over the planet.

TOPP produced the website that supports Park(ing) Day NYC, working with Transportation Alternatives, who is organizing and promoting the event here in NYC. TA is giving out mini-grants of $200 each for Park(ing) spot makers, so apply now. This year’s event is also co-sponsored by the EyeBeam Art & Technology Center, who will hopefully encourage some creative submissions.

(For you web geeks out there, the Park(ing) Day NYC site was made using Pylons and jQuery, and was built using the codebase we originally created for Block Party NYC)

Be sure to check out these videos, which are the best way to get the feel for the event.

The original Park(ing) experiment in 2005:

The first Park(ing) Day in SF in 2006:

and Park(ing) Day 2007 here in NYC:

Streetfilm about Bastille Day


Bastille Day on Smith Street is one of my favorite days of the year.  It’s great fun: the streets are closed, sand is trucked in, and a giant Petanque tournament is held.  But the tournament is just an excuse to be there: the real fun is the great food & drink put out by Bar Tabac and other neighborhood restaurants, live music all day long, and hoards of neighborhood folks who come out to spend the day lounging in the streets.

This year, Nick Whitaker from Streetfilms and I spent the afternoon filming the event, and the result is the Streetfilm you see above.  Can’t wait until next year!

More on this year’s event from Pardon Me for Asking and McBrooklyn.  Also, I heard a rumor that there’s a time-lapse video of the setup, event, and tear-down from a few years ago that I’ll try to get my hands on.

New TOPP Website

Over at The Open Planning Project, we’ve always had a bit of a hard time explaining what we do.  That job just got a little bit easier, with the launch of the new-and-improved TOPP website last Friday.  Reactions from within the staff have been remarkably similar: something along the lines of “Phew, now I can finally tell people what the heck it is we do here!’.

Kudos to Vanessa, Jackie and Cholmes for distilling a lot of information about our various projects and goals into something remarkably coherent.  I’m proud to work at TOPP, and now I have somewhere to point people when I want to show it off :)

Web App of the Week: SmartyPig

I stumbled upon SmartyPig this week while looking through the Happy Cog website, after reading a Zeldman post, linked to by Daring Fireball, which was brought to me via Melkjug. Gotta love the blogosphere.

Now, after all that, not only do I have a new Favorite Web App, but I have a new bank. My friends know that I’m a bit of a Web App Slut, willing to give away my most personal information for a chance to try out a shiny new web app (here’s looking at you, Wesabe). Well, I’m not doing anything to dispel that notion today.

Here’s the gist of it: Smarty Pig is a social savings bank, where you create personal savings goals and then set up automated deposits to reach them. They have a noble goal: to get people back in the habit of saving, by making it fun. And I must say, I think it’s a great idea.

I haven’t gotten into the social side of it yet, but the idea there is that you can create public goals that your friends and others can contribute to. So far, I’ve just been experimenting with creating private goals; for example, saving a little $$ for our federal income taxes (for which we always seem to come up a bit short):

As you can see, your personal savings goals are tracked using a cute little piggy bank, which you can watch fill up and feel good about your progress (I already do, with my measly 10%). More importantly, the money is actually in a completely separate account, making it that much more difficult to spend in a moment of weakness. Meanwhile, you’re earning 3.9%.

I’m going to give this one a shot and see how it goes, but I have a feeling I’m going to like it

Sendible: "inspired by" Facebook

I came across a post this morning about a new service called Sendible. The basic idea is this: create messages of various types (email, sms, twitter tweets, facebook messages, etc) in advance, then sit back and relax as they get sent out right on schedule. Interesting idea — apparently there are a few other services out there who do something similar — not something I knew I needed, but intriguing enough that I decided to give it the old college try.

This isn’t a post about how Sendible works; I wasn’t even able to get that far. This is a post about inspiration and, dare I say, plagiaration. What struck me from my first interaction with sendible was the remarkable likeness it bore to Facebook, in terms of visual design. Take, for example, the login screen:

I thought: “Wow, those look a lot like the Facebook blue buttons. Interesting… perhaps Facebook is inspiring some sort of standardization in UI elements”. Then, I thought: “Wow, look at the sidebar over on the right side; that kinda looks like Facebook too. Lemme take a look”:

That was enough to get me thinking, and mentally prepare this blog post. But I waited and decided to give Sendible a little more time. Next stop: my homepage:

Maybe it’s just me, but I was again really blown away by the near exact likeness this (albeit in reverse) that this bears to Facebook:

Of course, I’m all for “fake it till you make it” and “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but this seems to take it perhaps just a step too far. At least make it green or orange! Thoughts?

Now, time to me to get back to the real business of deciding whether or not I need a message scheduler in my life…

Make Music New York 2008

In addition to being the first day of summer, yesterday was the second annual Make Music New York festival. It’s really an incredible event — musicians of all abilities and genres take to the streets to play free mini-concerts. The event came to NYC for the first time last year, and we had a great time playing, but it’s been going on across the world for over 25 years:

Make Music New York is based on France’s Fete de la Musique, which has been a great success for 25 years. Since it was inaugurated, the festival has become an international phenomenon, celebrated on the same day in more than 300 cities in 108 countries, including Germany, Italy, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Australia, Vietnam, Congo, Cameroon, Togo, Columbia, Chile, Mongolia, and Japan.

We didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have liked exploring the event, but we saw a few nice moments. Sax on the Brooklyn Bridge, above, and this accordion concert (!) at Houston & 1st:

Coming soon… Pedestrian Power

I’ve heard this story in various forms over the past few years, but according to the London Times, pedestrian power is ready to be harnessed:

Underfloor generators, powered by “heel strike” and designed by British engineers, may soon be installed in supermarkets and railway stations.

The technology could use the footsteps of pedestrians to power thousands of lightbulbs at shopping centres. It works by using the pressure of feet on the floor to compress pads underneath, driving fluid through mini-turbines that then generate electricity, which is stored in a battery.

Apparently, this technology can also be used to harness power from anything that regularly moves due to environmental factors: train & car bridges, antennas, buildings, etc.

Photo: Preshaa on Flickr, who is also working on turning this graphic into a t-shirt. Vote for it on Threadless!
Story via Antonio

T-shirt roundup

Everyone is strutting their best transpo Ts here at the Towards Carfree Cities conference. Here are a few highlights…

Official Carfree conference t-shirt. We’re trying to get our hands on a couple of these babies.

Lots more after the jump. Updated many times so check back for new ones…