NYC recollections

For the past several years I've made a couple trips each year to NYC to see folks and to note trends in the internet business world. I got to visit a bunch of friends and tour the places they worked. Some places I visited and takeaways from each:

  • Buzzfeed – I got to meet Matt Buchanan and John W. Herrman, the writers behind my favorite new tech blog FWD. It's a technology blog unlike every other that came before. Instead of obessively quoting chip speeds from press releases, the guys behind it post one or two meaty essays about tech culture each day, along with a handful of small blurbs about topics of the day. Where Gizmodo and Engadget are giant firehouses of noise, and this is a quiet thoughtful little blog about technology.
  • OKCupid – OKC is a powerhouse in online dating. It's (mostly) free, has a sense of humor, and seems to be a favorite site for all my single friends. It's a huge website doing crazy amounts of traffic but you'd be surprised how small the team was. 
  • Etsy – I got to join the weekly employee-wide lunch, see friends new and old, and talk shop with the brainy bunch behind Etsy. If you haven't heard, they have an incredible technology team at Etsy, featuring many amazing people that were formerly at Yahoo properties like Brickhouse and Flickr. Keep your eyes on Etsy, they're doing a lot of amazing things behind the scenes.
  • CNN – I got to hang out with an old video editor friend that works at the cable news giant and seeing it from behind the scenes was pretty incredible. I saw a director cutting a show live that was very close to a conductor in front of an orchestra, I almost got run over by a CNN anchor late for a live shoot, and I got to see how insanely big every aspect of their operation is. I also got to hear about the insane technology it takes to distribute petabytes of video easily and quickly to any editor in various parts of the country and then on to stations for broadcast. 

I also did some shopping and enjoyed my time at the following places:

  • Worth and Worth Hats – I've always wanted to get an expert hat guy to figure out what shape suits my head best. I got a nice hat that looks dapper without looking dorky, and it was custom fit to my head. Don't miss Put This On's visit that turned me onto this place.
  • CEGO shirts – I've been buying a lot of clothes from Nau and Bonobos online lately and some of the shirts I've bought look good but don't fit my arm length or body quite right. Many of the those online shirt makers sell them for over $100 each and when you get up in that range, it turns out you can go full custom for about the same price. I met with Carl Goldberg, who was hilarious, opinionated, and very knowledgeable about fashion. We figured out what works for me, how to fit it, and I got to pick every last single detail on a few new shirts that I can't wait to see get made and eventually worn. Put This On also visited Carl and if you're wondering if a custom shirt is worth it, watch the first few minutes of this episode from last season of the show.
  • Freeman's Sporting Club – Really expensive, but really nice stuff that they will tailor to you. I visited a bunch of major Menswear shops but most are in this weird "preppy 1985 rugby" asthetic right now, but FSC seems to transcend trends and time and offer up a classic American male look that doesn't feel trendy. 

Oh, I stopped by NikeTown and bought one of their new Fuelband pedometer things (it's like a fitbit but feels more game-like). On my second day I hit my walking/fitness goals and now I understand why Fuelband owners do a little dance when it lights up and commends you for a job well done. It's fun.

When I go to NYC, I try to make every meal count. I got to enjoy the following cuisines:

  • Amazing takeout Indian food, as always
  • Steel Cut Oats from the Ace Hotel's Breslin kitchen
  • Chicken and Rice with White Sauce from a Halal cart on the street, something I try to do every trip (always tasty)
  • Perilla – Harold from season one of Top Chef has a pretty great restaurant in the Village
  • Fedora – My first foray into a NYC bar with a bartender so awesome he had a second cocktail of what I was drinking ready exactly when I finished the first, without even having to ask for it.
  • Paulie Gee's Pizza in Brooklyn – Super good with a surprising variety of pies

General NYC tips I learned on this trip:

Trains Not Cars: Every time I take a cab or car service from the NYC airports to Manhattan, I get very nearly car sick due to the drivers being crazy with the gas pedal and brake, constantly sprinting or slamming on the brakes. This time I stuck to trains from JFK (usually I fly to Newark and take a NJ train into Manhattan). On the trip out, I did the NYC Subway in to the city, but it took over an hour to get me near where I needed to be. There were too many stops in Brooklyn out by the airport. On the way home, I went from Penn Station to JFK via the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and it was fantastic, just 30 minutes or so between the subway station and the Air Trans station outside of JFK. I made it into a security line 40min after I left Manhattan. Both trips were under ten dollars, with an extra $5 for the Air Trans trip, vastly cheaper than a cab or car. Trains rock, especially during rush hour when all the expressways are blocked up.

Foursquare Explore is better than Yelp in major cities (Matt Buchanan is right): Yelp is great for strange cities and small towns, it never disappoints but in major city centers I've started to have some hit-and-miss results. Foursquare use in NYC is off the charts and everyone leaves tons of tips, photos, and details about almost every business in the area. Their explore feature showed me dozens of options in neighborhoods I didn't know too well and though I still think Yelp is the king of finding good eats while traveling, if you're NYC, try Foursquare instead.

Foursquare was also just simply amazing to use in a vibrant place like NYC where I have dozens of friends constantly checking in. It was also fun to see after a year of me not using the app, people really started to use the commenting feature and many check-ins garnered tips and questions from friends. I also ran into friends because I saw them on foursquare and could message them and track them down.

Maps: The iPhone app iTrans NYC was  godsend for getting around on subways. offering train maps overlaying Google Maps as well as the offline standard MTA map with info on all the lines. A perfect way to never get lost in NYC.

Overall, it was a great trip and I can't wait to get back there again. Thanks to everyone that let me stop by, shoot the shit, and share their time in the big apple.

GEL 2010 Conference trip to Dead Horse Bay

Walking along at low tide

The highlight of the GEL Conference was an amazing trip to Dead Horse Bay, which is on the outskirts of Brooklyn towards JFK airport. You can read about the place on wikipedia and here's a google map of the place.

Anthropologists Robin Nagle (her 2009 GEL talk was amazing) and Howard Warren took a group of about a dozen attendees on the journey, telling us the history of the place all along the way. At the turn of the last century, it was a place where literally dead horses were brought for processing into products (rendering, using their hides, etc). Later in 1953, when an expressway was being built through Brooklyn, they bulldozed straight through apartments and homes, dumping the refuse on Barren Island where Dead Horse Bay is located.

The trash from 1953 is still all around, as we happened to catch the beach at a low-tide revealing a quarter mile of coastline covered in old bottles and jars. It's pretty fascinating stuff and fun to think about how you'd interpret what life in 1953 was like given what was left behind. Of course, most all the fabric, paper, and plastics have deteriorated and gone, leaving behind mostly glass. If it was hundreds of years into the future, you'd think the people of 1953 Brooklyn sat around drinking soda all day, eating food that required loads of maple syrup, and spent most of their time bleaching things with Clorox (when they weren't applying nail polish or face cream). Those kinds of bottles compromised almost everything you see.

I put 17 shots on Flickr from the day here, check them out and if you get a chance, I can't recommend a trip to Dead Horse Bay enough. Two things though: there were loads of ticks in the trees and bushes above that dropped on top of us as we walked towards the bay, and please don't take things from the bay so others can enjoy it.

GEL recap

GEL Last week, I attended my third GEL conference in New York City. Like previous versions of this conference, it’s a day of talks from speakers that have a variety of stories to tell about “good experiences.” The diversity of the speakers’ backgrounds is the strength of the conference and this year didn’t disappoint. In a world of technology conferences that feature the same five subjects talked about by the same dozen people, I look forward to GEL every year to hear from health care workers, artists, restauranteurs, musicians, and yes, technologists.

A few years back, the conference split into two days where day one is an experience or tour and day two are standard talks given in an auditorium. Last year I had a blast touring MoMA and learning to juggle pins, this year I had a great time doing a Central Park soundwalk (pb describes it here in his GEL recap). The walk was great, you basically blindfold yourself, grab a rope, and start shuffling around for about 20 minutes. If you’ve never tried anything like this before, I can’t recommend it enough. The first few minutes are pure anxiety bordering on panic but eventually you get used to the shuffling feet and with your eyes firmly shut for an extended period, your hearing takes over. I was blown away by the variety of birds in Central Park and sounds of people and music that accompanied our walk. The biggest surprise for me was finding that my brain tried to start “mapping” sound as we walked — I remember hearing strollers rolling towards me or birds growing near and in my mind I was placing them in a virtual canvas so I knew where they were headed and when I could expect to pass them.

After the blindfold walk, we sat and talked about what we heard and experienced, then we walked and stopped at various locations in the park to enjoy sound (with our eyes closed) from a single location. The mind-blowing moment during this section happened when I was sitting next to a walking path just outside of both a softball game and a merry-go-round. As people walked past and balls were hit, I heard some light foot padding and instantly recognized it as a dog going past. The first thought that sprang into my head was “that is the sound of a small, light dog” and surprised at the thought, I opened my eyes to see a little poodle trotting past. Now, I don’t know if I figured that out by chance or if my brain has a database of various dog sounds by weight I wasn’t aware of, but being in that place and state of mind was a wonderful exercise in getting reacquainted with my sense of hearing. The other highlight was walking to the center of the park and being in a spot in Manhattan where I could see no buildings of any kind, I was completely surrounded by natural things like trees and grass, and I could barely hear any sounds from the city. I didn’t know a place like that existed in NYC.

The day of talks went well and the subject matter and style is a lot like the TED conference. The best talks were both entertaining and enlightening and even if I had to classify a few talks as less than superb, I at least learned something about an industry I didn’t know anything about. In past years of GEL, I’ve remembered a few break out amazing talks that stuck with me for weeks and a few horrible stinkers that had me looking at my watch. This year’s talks had a few memorable points but no single talk stood out as truly amazing but on the positive side I don’t recall wanting any talk to end early.

If you attend a lot of technology conferences and you’re growing tired of hearing the same old thing, try out the GEL conference — sometimes it’s hit and miss and all over the map, but it’s always a good time in a wonderful city.