Notes for Visitors to Rome

Rome is a beautiful city to visit and be a tourist, but it is also a place that can show you how to be. For those who are visiting there, I made some notes, with some literary quotes, to try to help the place be more alive.

Invisible City: Rome — A Booklet of Literature and Ideas (eBook for Kindle).

React + Webpack + SCSS + Fetch dev boilerplate

I could not for the life of me find a good example of boilerplate for React with Webpack and loading external data from some kind of API, so I put together the parts with Babel 6, SCSS, hot reloading, and Fetch. (it’s only suitable for local development, though build pieces are started). I hope you find it useful and don’t have to waste a lot of time like I did!



Years ago, late at night in the hospital I had told mom how much I regretted how estranged she and I had been for so long, how miserable it had made me and how pointless it seemed, now that she might lose her life or at least large parts of it. I am not sure how much she heard me. She sighed, but said nothing. After a moment she said “and here I am, asking God for help, just like everyone else,” with a blank expression that changed into a lopsided frown. 

The next morning I woke up in the cramped sleeping chair, very groggy. Mom was snoring.

A vitals-taker was in the room. I had chatted with her last night, or probably days ago. I told her I couldn’t feel my legs

“We harvested them for other patients,” she said without looking up.

Then her head turned quickly as my mother’s body bent at the waist, slowly raising her head and shoulders up to look at me and moan “AND NOW I WANT YOUR BRAIN, BEN…!”

(This was funny because she was awaiting surgery to remove a brain tumor. Despite a great deal of trouble and pain between us, I am still grateful for this one moment where we truly understood each other.)


The day will come when all the screens are part of some exploitative apparatus, but for now: let the kids binge on their screens
There are some dark joys in a world that reacts to every touch, and games and messages are as comforting as a rerun when nothing else is on
Such an orderly universe prolongs innocence, and puts off experiencing the cold indifference of the world, for a little while

Material Design

Material Design is a set of guidelines from Google for forthcoming interfaces. It’s excellent work, beautiful and rigorously thought through. I especially love the solutions for animation, which feel fresh and a true enhancement to interactions rather than an effect. I do such design for work, and I aspire to this level of practice.

But calling it a design approach is confusing to me. Because networked applications and devices are such a prominent part of our culture, it seems that design work like this (or iOS 7, etc.) should be some sort of expression of the very best that design can offer, or some kind of philosophy. Certainly the language that the (extremely talented) designers use to describe Material Design (and giving it an ambitious title) seems to express that.

I think this work expresses a love of high-impact plastic, a feeling of safety, utility, and fun in the same vein as a set of Legos, but with a very finite set of possibilities. In other words, a great place to start, (fun and interesting, just like Skeuomophism or “flat design” used to be) but silly to think of as the goal for design in general.


Mel walks back as slowly as he can
Rod checks his phone rhythmically
Sal’s cart pulls violently to the left
Richard cannot picture her hand
Harold frowns as his gaze drifts around a screen
Lucy decides that this will be the last one
Hannah holds a piece of paper above her head
Melissa smokes in the dark
Bill trips over his words as he looks up
Carl locks the door and looks in the mirror
Julie smiles at the blood on her sleeve
Emma peels a rotten banana
Frank refuses to look at the exit




Cesare Angelotti, escaped political prisoner
Mario Cavaradossi, a painter
Floria Tosca, a singer, Mario’s girlfriend
Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police
Spoletta, a spy

Rome, June 1800. Napoleon, an army general and ruler of France, is invading Rome. Mario, Tosca, and Cesare want Napoleon to win. The Baron Scarpia is fighting against Napoleon.


Cesare Angelotti, loyal to Napoleon, escapes from jail and rushes into a church to hide. Mario Cavaradossi is there, working on a painting. Mario hides his friend Cesare in the back of the church. Mario’s girlfriend Tosca comes in, and wonders if the sneaking around means Mario has a new girlfriend. Mario tells her he loves only her. As she leaves, they hear the alarm go up: the secret police are hunting for Cesare. Mario and Cesare run away to Mario’s house.

Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police, arrives at the church looking for Cesare. Tosca comes back looking for Mario. The Baron thinks Tosca knows something, and he tells her Mario is in love with Cesare’s sister, to make her jealous. Tosca is angry and runs off to find Mario. The Baron’s spy Spoleta follows her.


Spoletta brings Mario to the Baron’s palace, and sends him to jail in the castle. He sends for Tosca and tells her he will hurt Mario if she doesn’t tell him where Cesare is hiding. She tells him, and Cesare is killed.

Now the Baron tells Tosca that he will kill Mario unless she agrees to be his girlfriend. Tosca says she will, if the Baron will let Mario go. The Baron promises to only pretend to execute Mario, for show, then let him go. She makes him write down his promise. As soon as he is done writing, Tosca kills him with a knife she hid in her clothes! She takes the promise he wrote.


Tosca sneaks into Mario’s castle jail cell. She tells him about the pretend execution, shows him the letter, and says that soon they will both be free together. When soldiers come, she hides, sure that they will only pretend to kill him. But the Baron betrayed Tosca; when they fire their guns, the bullets are real and Mario is dead! Spoletta rushes in to arrest her for murder. She cries out and tries to escape, leaping from the castle wall. Tosca dies.



Design is a good story

(I’m going to build out the ideas for the talk I’m giving in April here. This post will be incomplete and changing.) (tl;dr: There are many stories in design, first the stories a team tells each other about what they want to make, then the stories describing what to make, then the story an audience or users experience. Stories are best created as brutally simple pieces of of writing. Designers are in a great position to make stories to help a team and audience communicate, and make good things.) Creating an experience is closely tied to telling a good story. The pervasive nature of “experience design” often tends towards an abstract, complex, interconnected plan. But what’s needed instead is really just a compelling, simple story. A story that connects with a few emotional needs can be turned into many things; lunchtime conversation, a book, a product, a system, a service. When a person or a team sets out to build something, staying focused on what’s important is hard. Stories are naturally social, and tend towards simplicity. Keeping a story in mind is a very useful tool for making things good. Sometimes people spend time on exercises for team alignment, like mission/strategy/objectives. Or they come up with a tagline for a product. A story is neither one of these things. It’s not messaging, it is the thing itself. A story can help with other things, but it’s more essential. Many people have done wonderful work on story-telling. It’s an old, durable thing people do. Aristotle nailed it a long time ago when he said that telling a meaningful story is comprised of “events that come upon us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The …wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design.” Ernest Hemmingway, writing about writing his stories, says that his work was to set down “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.” Kevin Cheng, who has been working as an interaction designer for many years, fully exploits the abilities of a clear story in his designs. He even wrote a great book about it, See What I Mean. Some other places you’ll find great story techniques:

So, stories are great. But is story just another deliverable? Another abstraction that designers do and hand over to others? It’s useful in that way, but I would say no. The world is littered with the work of smart and talented designers that doesn’t work to make the end product good. The app development company 37Signals eschews design deliverables of all kinds. They say, for example, “We don’t use personas. We use ourselves.” In an interview about process, Ryan Singer is asked about various UX deliverables, and says that “all that stuff is terrible.” I agree with Ryan, but think he misses the point of these documents. They aren’t there so much to take the place of connecting with the audience/users of a product as they are to help a team have a shared understanding. It’s great that 37Signals has none of these problems (they are a small group that’s used to working together, and they design things for their own use), but their experience is the exception not the rule. Most of us live in a world where we have to communicate and work with other skilled people, and connect what our team does to an audience or users’ needs, and stories are useful for that. The process of building a shared understanding (between people making something, and between them and the rest of the world), is making a story. It is as much about figuring out how to work with a small group as it is designing something. Even when a team is just one person, who that person is and why they make what they make is fundamental (thus my fascination with author photos on books). Why a team comes together, what their roles are, and how committed they are to each other has as much to do with the story of making something as any fancy design. So the first story to work on is the story of the team. Then, that story has to be connected to the story that people (the audience, the users) will see. Designers are in a uniquely good place to tell these stories, and connect them. So what does that actually mean in practice? I think it means doing less deliverable, and more editing. It means writing; short, clear writing, not diagrams or other visuals. Some dictums from a book about screenwriting (Writing in Pictures, Joseph McBride) are helpful:

  • “Every story makes a promise for an audience”
  • “Don’t tell us what people are thinking or feeling or remembering unless you can show it. Don’t write what we can’t see or hear.”
  • “Remove everything you can: ruthlessly focus on clarity.”
  • “Write a simple arc. Don’t write an epic.”

All this is to say that stories (whether they are told in an instant-message window, a handwritten note, a sketch on a whiteboard, or an elaborate powerpoint presentation) should be the absolute minimum needed to communicate an idea (but no less). Examples of stories for a team Examples of stories for a piece or product Examples of stories for an audience or users