Baby It’s Cold Inside

It feels as if I’ve lived in a lifetime of cold houses. As a child, the thermostat was a battleground between my parents (a battle that, if the warmth of my parents’ house on my last visit was any indicator, has been won by my mother).  While I’m sure there was some genuine concern for thrift, it feels keeping the temperature low was a way of saying that we weren’t the kind of family that was so privileged as to throw away money for excessive comfort.

My first house in Bloomington was freezing.  Despite covering all the windows in plastic, it never felt warm, the pipes froze, and when we finally crawled under the floorboards into the muddy crawlspace, we found that most of the ductwork was disconnected.

During the polar vortex, the temperature in my Chicago apartment dipped below 50 degrees.  It still felt warm compared with the outside, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant.  I was pissed at my landlord for neglecting the cranky radiators in the apartment, but also felt like a whiner, knowing that others in the city were probably in a worse situation.  In general, it felt like one more thing that was bigger than me.

My best stab at dealing with the crazy weather, and the discomfort, was to wire up an Arduino to a temperature sensor and push the temperature readings to Xively.  The Arduino code is here.


I made a micro site called Baby It’s Cold Inside, to share the readings and link to resources about landlord responsibilities for keeping apartments warm.  In the future, I might try to incorporate data about no heat 311 requests that I FOIAed last year.

This project didn’t make the apartment any warmer, but it was a way to acknowledge my situation and create something out of that situation.

Youth migrate online as they lose IRL social space

As I’ve been thinking about ad-hoc basketball hoops in my Chicago neighborhood, one of the frames for these devices is that of the creation and loss of public space for youth.  This year there’s been a ton of media coverage about how youth engage with the Internet and social media, much of it problematizing a perceived overuse of such media, or a preference toward shallower, digital interactions over face-to-face ones.  In Clive Thompson’s write-up of  research from danah boyd‘s forthcoming book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Thompson draws a clear line between the loss of public spaces and social opportunities for youth and their migration online:

It’s true. As a teenager in the early ’80s I could roam pretty widely with my friends, as long as we were back by dark. But over the next three decades, the media began delivering a metronomic diet of horrifying but rare child-abduction stories, and parents shortened the leash on their kids. Politicians warned of incipient waves of youth wilding and superpredators (neither of which emerged). Municipalities crafted anti-loitering laws and curfews to keep young people from congregating alone. New neighborhoods had fewer public spaces. Crime rates plummeted, but moral panic soared. Meanwhile, increased competition to get into college meant well-off parents began heavily scheduling their kids’ after-school lives.

The result, Boyd discovered, is that today’s teens have neither the time nor the freedom to hang out. So their avid migration to social media is a rational response to a crazy situation. They’d rather socialize F2F, so long as it’s unstructured and away from grown-ups.

Ad-hoc basketball hoops are  interesting in the context of a trend towards digital social migration because, like online communities, they’re self-organized, ephemeral, and somewhat outside adult spheres.  But, they exist in physical, hyperlocal space.  Furthermore, they’re not mediated by commercial platforms and the conflict between creating a commons and finding ways to exploit that commons to maximize profit.

Hoops in my childhood neighborhood


I went home to visit my family in Central Pennsylvania this week.  Since I’ve been taking photos of improvised basketball hoops around my neighborhood in Chicago, I thought I’d share some photos of hoops around the neighborhood where I grew up.  When I first started noticing improvised hoops in Chicago, I was surprised at the number of hoops that I came across.  I shouldn’t have been. Visiting my childhood neighborhood, there are just as many hoops, they’re just all store-bought.  It’s not that store-bought hoops are nonexistent in Chicago, but for the most part the ones I’ve noticed are usually locked up in a back yard.

When I was growing up, most people had their hoops adjacent to their driveway in a way that was visible, but clearly private.

My childhood hoop, after my parents gave it to the neighbors.

In a new subdevelopment, built on what were corn fields and cow pastures when I was a kid, I noticed that a number of the basketball hoops were set up facing the street.  I thought this was an interesting border of public and private space, semi-formal infrastructure, erected by parents, establishing the street as play space, rather than the street being appropriated by kids.


Categorized as Hoops

Onetimers and Ol Scratch

Last night Hinged, the band I play in, played a show with two cool bands from Chattanooga as well as a violinist who was the grandson of a notable Chicago magician and drummer/guitarist who immigrated to Chicago from Tanzania.  The show was in a small, homemade theater behind a magic shop, presumably constructed for magicians’ performances.

You should check out music by the Onetimers and Ol Scratch:

Private publics

I’ve been looking for ad-hoc basketball hoops in my neighborhood for the past couple of weeks, taking alleys on my bike instead of the streets as I move from place to place as part of my routine.  I’ve run into these homemade hoops pretty much every day.  I shouldn’t be surprised, because, where I grew up, in a subdivisions bordering farmland, every block had a few basketball hoops lining driveways.  These hoops were more visible than the DIY hoops I’ve been looking for in the alleys of Chicago, but also more private.  It was clear who they belonged to and that they were meant for use by residents of that particular house.  While I’ve come across similar arrangements in Chicago: store-bought hoops, often locked behind a fence; most of the homemade hoops have more ambiguous ownership.  They’re often tacked to utility poles and it’s unclear which residence they’re associated with.  It seems entirely possible that the hoops persist long after their makers have moved to a different block or neighborhood.

Alleys are strange public spaces, they don’t feel owned, but they don’t feel welcoming, or even public, either.  Roaming around the alleys, it feels like you’re walking through a gauntlet of closed garage doors. This could be a function of the turning season, though, as I’ve stumbled upon bumping garage parties in warmer months.  As an adult, I find exploring alleys to be fun, but I wonder how kids feel about alleys as play spaces, their games relegated to a space, shared with dumpsters, broken down cardboard boxes and old couches, seemingly reserved for things meant to be kept out of sight.

Categorized as Hoops

About Hoops

A homemade basketball hoop in a Humboldt Park alley.
A homemade basketball hoop in a Humboldt Park alley.

Hoops is a project that I’m undertaking to find and document, homemade basketball hoops in Chicago. I became interested in these structures when I saw a couple of guys playing in an alley near my house in Humboldt Park. Around the same time, a schoolyard basketball court in the neighborhood had been inexplicably removed and I was feeling frustrated about its loss.  Space for childhood never feels easy in this city and the ad-hoc hoops felt like an interesting facet of the way youth in the city navigate changing resources and geographies.

You can help me with the project by finding and submitting DIY hoops in your neighborhood. I’ve created a mobile web app at that you can use from your mobile phone, or you can share photos using the #diyhoop tag on Instagram.

Illinois in the ICE Age

Illinois in the ICE Age Screenshot


Illinois in the ICE Age is a data visualization project that I made along with Jimmie Glover, Ruth Lopez and @taratc for Chicago MigraHack. The visualization is based on a data set provided by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse that describes the trajectory of 915 migrants detained in Illinois from the time they were taken into custody until they left ICE custody in November and December 2012.

We used Google Spreadsheets’ pivot tables feature to explore the data and develop questions and insights. This also provided a good way to double check programatically computed statistics.  The map animation is built using D3. I sucked the data set into a local SQLite database using the Peewee ORM and wrote some Python scripts to transform the data and export it as JSON to make it easier to visualize (especially the day-by-day updates).

The project won the “Best data visualization team project” and “Audience Favorite” awards.

I remember this place

Where it begins, and where you leave it,
that is a question
that’s more than coordinate systems can say

Oh brittle amalgam, oh unhappy mongrel,
how I long to hold you
in your contradiction and your size.

These are overwhelming times and territories that aren’t on the map
Visions of horizon lines get lost in the creases that fall in our laps
But I remember this place

Seersucker shorts, Cincinnati, Ohio
Coney Island in Southwest
and a diner off US-15

A seat at the counter
for those who stood up at Woolworths
I strain to hear those whispers in the same place