Friday, March 26, 2010

Yet another application contest -- Alcatel-Lucent crowdsourcing at SXSW 2010

Alcatel-Lucent Eleven API lounge at SXSW was a fabulous place to hang out when I didn't have another place to be. Dimly lit, with sleek white couches arranged in a circle resembling a vaguely familiar corporate logo (but not the Alcatel-Lucent logo, so perhaps the similarity was incidental) it had plenty of power outlets to charge laptops and devices. Even better, it had free breakfast and free happy hours with amazing food in the afternoons. At those happy hours Alcatel-Lucent held application pitch contests. People in the room were asked to come up with ideas for software applications that would incorporate content and networking, and describe them in 5-minute pitches.

Such contests are popular at social media events. Last year I wrote about the Half-Baked Game that took place at the Social Media Camp 2008. Most of the ideas proposed at the game were endless rather uninnovative mashups of existing social networking functionality. Alcatel-Lucent contest was like that too, only more so. Then again, the ideas presented here weren't meant to be taken seriously.

As people pitched, an artist wrote down the application titles on a white board, creating a graph that resembled a game board. It started out blank and fresh, as seen in the picture below, and ended up full (see bottom picture).

Alcatel-Lucent Eleven API lounge and the application-pitching board

Here are some of the ideas.

One guy proposed an application that would capture all the educational content that your child is exposed to, as the child progresses from nursery to preschool to higher levels of education.

Another guy pitched a "build-your-perfect-mate" application. He didn't explain how it would work.

A woman pitched getfriended.com, an application that would help you find friends. "How many of you have ever been new to town?" she asked the audience in a cheerful tone of a motivational speaker lobbing a rhetorical question at the audience. "Did you find it hard to meet new friends?" Nods all around. Her application, she said, would let you meet new friends. Nobody asked her what it would do better than Meetup.com or Facebook, reminding me of the famous headline from The Onion: "Classmates.com employees don't have the heart to tell CEO about Facebook".

Then there were not just one but two guys who pitched two different post-apocalyptic survival applications. Those apps would provide instructions on finding food, shelter, etc. in a primitive environment, such as "how to strangle a sable-toothed tiger with your bare hands". They just neglected to mention where the electricity for your iPhone would come from. No, I didn't say this was a serious contest.

Among all this, I remember somebody proposing an application that sounded like it actually made sense -- it was somewhat innovative and useful. Not surprisingly, it did NOT win, possibly because it took more than 30 seconds for the judges to digest the idea. Unfortunately, I didn't write it down either, because, not fitting in 140 characters, it wasn't tweetable. And then I forgot what it was about.

Finally, some guy had an idea for an anti-search engine: instead of showing you in search results, it will scramble them so no one will find you. We all have people in our lives that we wish used just that kind of search engine, but what's to keep them from using a real one?

However, this lead me to further thinking about search engines, which will be explored in my next post.
Application-pitching board all filled up with app ideas at the Alcatel-Lucent Eleven API lounge


By the end of the weekend the white board at Alcatel-Lucent Eleven API lounge all filled up with application ideas, rendered by an artist in the likeness of a game board. Clicking on the link, you can get a big version of the picture and see most of those ideas for yourself. There were many more than what I described in this post.

The guy with the educational experiences-capturing application won. I think his idea is not bad, just hard to implement because it's too vague. Educational content is a very eclectic and unstructured notion, hard to capture in a unified format. Also it would put the burden of collecting such content either on various educational institutions your child would go to (but how would you bring all those institutions on board with this idea?) or on the child himself/herself, which is obviously impossible while he/she is a toddler, but may not be practical even when he/she is older. How many children actually pay attention to the teacher? How can they be expected to capture teacher's every word or scribble in a digital medium? This kind of software falls in the general category of lifelogging, which, to me, is a very interesting area, but few practical applications have come out of it so far.

The educational content guy won some kind of domestic appliance or gadget for his idea, though. The box suggested a toaster, but perhaps not. :-)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

SXSW 2010: Online dating panel

In the "Seven Years in Online Dating" panel ("Since 2003, online dating has evolved in how web sites, profiles and photos are constructed to attract potential mates. Expectations and resultant relationships have changed as well. In this talk we illustrate how web site design and user savvy have created an alternate universe of intimate social protocols.", Twitter: #7yearsonlinedating), the audience participated in the discussion, setting the room abuzz with sex differences. Men and women have different expectations for dating-related online interaction. Women said they are most likely to respond to well-written emails, especially if the guy mentions, or responds to, to something interesting he saw in her profile. Guys, on the other hand, prefer to send short messages or "winks", and forego writing altogether. Being used to low rates of women's responses, they don't see a point in investing too much time in elaborate emails. (This looks like a vicious circle to me. If they wrote better messages, maybe women would respond more often?) It is also more common among guys to treat back-and-forth messaging as a chat, rather than exchange of letters. In that context, a short "hi, how are you" type of message is not "lazy", but merely an invitation to chat. But women more commonly expect every message to be a complete email.

The panelists and audience briefly touched on new kinds of online dating sites that have sprung up in the last few years. The most notable among them, Gelato, lets members integrate their social media feed -- Twitter, Facebook statuses, Netflix queue, favorite Youtube videos -- into their dating profile. The idea is that this gives other members a clearer idea of what kind of personality you truly are. If you say you love art movies, better make sure your Netflix queue reflects that. :-) (Gelato dating was one of the featured startups at Innotech 2009. I wrote about it in this blog post.)

Erhardt Graeff and Jonathan Beilin in the Seven Years in Online Dating panel

Erhardt Graeff and Jonathan Beilin in the Seven Years in Online Dating panel. More pictures from SXSW 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Both the panelists and the audience were a bit skeptical how useful social media was in dating. Once people start uploading their entire life on the web, you may start feeling like you are dating a resume, not a person, said a guy in the audience. When you finally meet him or her, you may discover you liked their electronic version better. Erhardt Graeff, the panelist, admitted he broke up with a girl because she wasn't as interesting in real life as online.

Still, online dating isn't going to go away, and new iterations on the concept are always waiting in the wings. Somebody in the audience suggested that BuddyPress (web application from Wordpress that lets you build your own social network) will let everyone to create their own online dating site. I personally am not certain how much good it will do, because any online dating site is only successful once it reaches a critical mass of members. So your homespun dating site would only stand a chance if it could transparently interoperate with the giants, such as match.com or okcupid.com, making their member profiles available to your members. But the giants wouldn't want another site to siphon off their revenues, would they? Off the top of my head I can't think what business model would make such make such interoperation possible.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Job search and religion, or lack thereof

As I said on Facebook, the reason I go to job search clubs at churches is because Texas Workforce Commision requires you to make 5 "job search activities" to receive unemployment benefits, and going to a job search club counts as one activity. (Somebody has informed me that it's easier to meet those requirements than I thought. Thanks, you-know-who-you-are, I'll keep your advice in mind and will revise my job search strategy in the upcoming weeks.)

All three clubs meet in churches, but two of them don't require any religious involvement. The third one, though... time will only show if I can stomach all their god-talk.

However, the third one also has some good stuff going on, such as resume critique sessions or personal statement help sessions. A personal statement is an answer you would give when an interviewer asks you, "tell me about yourself". The most vague and trecherous of all interview questions, it's so ubiquitous it has its own acronym: TMAY. It's also known as elevator pitch. If this club prepares you for interview pitfalls, it may be worth going to. I just don't know how much religious involvement it demands of its members. Some evidence suggests that they ask way more than I could comfortably ignore. For example, it encourages everyone to find their accountability partner -- a person to who you would be accountable for things you've done in your job search on any given week; that would be good except you are supposed to pray for your partner.

I didn't expect that when I went to my first meeting. The club's profile on LinkedIn says they welcome people "without faith background". Yet it was pretty clear at the meeting they assume everyone is a religious person. The Friday of the same week the president of the club called me -- he probably does that for all new members -- and asked about my experience with the club. So I asked him bluntly if have to be religious to be a member. He took my question calmly, and said I didn't have to pray. I was surprised by how he was completely unfazed when I said I was a nonbeliever. Maybe it's the whole "love the sinner, hate the sin" thing. :-) Many Christians may be intolerant of liberal point of view, but some of them show a surprising amount of tolerance when dealing with individual heathens, such as me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Gender imbalance in American atheism, as discussed by two foreigners

I went to brunch at Hickory Street Bar and Grille with friends from the Atheist Community of Austin and Center for Inquiry last Sunday. One of my table neighbors was from Sweden. He pointed out the glaring gender imbalance in the room. Out of 25 people at brunch, only 3 were women. He asked me if I had thoughts why there are so few women at atheist events in the U.S. In Sweden, he said, the balance was much closer to 50%/50%.

In my opinion -- and this is really just my personal opinion, for which I know I'm going to catch flak -- it has to do with the tone of discourse at atheist meetings. Freethought communities tend to attract people with radical socio-economic views, that are also quite loud about expressing those views. It takes only a few of such personalities to set a confrontational, even combative tone for the discussion. When a meeting turns into one-upmanship between a handful of individuals, most women (though not necessarily men) are put off.

The Swedish guy evidently didn't expect this answer. In his opinion, the reason women are underrepresented in freethought groups in the US is because of "family cult", which demands perfectionism from American mothers. He wonders that maybe most women don't find atheism compatible with the standard of a selfless, devoted mother. In Sweden, he said, the concept of a family is more loose and flexible; Sweden is far less obsessed with the idea of nuclear family. He even went so far as to say -- but maybe I just didn't hear him right across the noisy table -- that Swedish language does not have a word for family, or that it has a different, looser shade of meaning than the English word. An absence of such a word would seem mighty strange to me, so I'll assume, for now, that I misunderstood. I'll have to ask my friend who lives in Sweden, to what extent this is true.

Thus the Swedish guy thought gender imbalance in the US freethought groups merely reflects gender imbalance in the population of nonbelievers. I, however, doubt it. I think there are many more nonbelieving women than come to meetings. My case in point is the Ethical Society. They don't self-identify as atheist, though most of their members probably are. I didn't meet anyone in it who believed in gods. But they built their society not around nonbelief, but around finding a moral way of living based on secular principles. And guess what -- at least two thirds of the society (at least here in Austin) are women. Their discussions revolve not around atheism, but around topics of ethical living, learning, and meaning of life in general. The tone is very different -- cooperative, non-combative, with the whole group making sure all individuals are being heard. It makes a huge difference, though these two groups come from very similar premises.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Revenge of flowcharts

My other gripe regarding automated job search application goes towards Texas Workforce Commission. It makes you fill out an enormously long profile that lists various aspects of a programmer's work, and asks you how much experience, if any, you have in each of them. Then it matches you with jobs based on how much overlap there is between tasks you are experienced in, and ones required by the job.

One minor imperfection of the Texas Workforce Commission job match system is that sometimes it sends you email notifications of job matches, but when you login into the system, it says you have no new matches. It's a bit annoying. Occasionally, though, it's possible to find the missing job posting by searching the TWC site. One time I was able to find a .NET developer job it notified me about, but didn't show in my job matches. When I viewed the posting, it said I wasn't qualified for this job. I was surprised, because on the surface there were no requirements I didn't meet (such as programming languages or business areas I haven't worked in). But there is a button that lets you compare your qualifications to the ones required by the job. Clicking the button revealed that I am not qualified because I checked "none" in the profile box asking for years of experience in... creating flowcharts.

I thought creating flowcharts was something my mom's generation of programmers (hi, mom!) did before they punched holes in the cards to feed to a machine. :-) I haven't had to create a flowchart in my entire 13 years in the industry. Well, this job is at a government agency, but still... If they use .NET there, they can't be complete dinosaurs.

And then flowcharts had their revenge on me. I am volunteering for a nonprofit that want developers to do some coding -- for free, of course, but the developers benefit by having something to put on their resumes, learn new skills, make networking contacts, etc. So far I haven't done any coding yet, because project managers (who seem to be overrepresented among the volunteers) are still setting up the infrastructure for the group communication, collaboration, sharing documents, etc. We have not yet written specifications for the piece of software we will be writing, but one of the project managers has created -- you guessed it -- a flowchart of users' expected actions when they login to the website. So... I don't know. The person who wrote it was half a generation older than me, but maybe flowcharts still have their uses?