Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SXSW: Facebook Developer Garage

Facebook Developer Garage, another open-to-the-public event I went to during SXSWi, left me with mixed impressions. It took place in the Pangaea lounge. With its curvy, low, plush benches, dim light, and a wooden decor accent resembling a giant pipe organ, it's a sleek place to hang out, but a poor venue to hold an educational tech event. There was no WiFi and no power outlets there to plug one's laptop into, and not many batteries last 3 hours. Wouldn't you want to take notes at an event of this kind? I'm sure I wasn't the only one who did, because every other person had a laptop. That is, if they found a place to sit. The line for the event snaked halfway around the block. After all those people crammed into Pangaea, a goodly percentage of them had nowhere to sit. The early birds who did find a place to perch weren't necessarily lucky, because people standing in the isles blocked the view of the projector screen.

I'm not sure what I expected from this "garage". Probably not a discussion of technical details such as Facebook API. No doubt it can be found on the web, and it makes more sense to study technical specifics at a computer than in a lecture. I guess I was hoping for a rationale of why would one build Facebook applications, ways to monetize them (not sure anyone has ever found one :-)), or social engineering strategies that would get Facebook users to adopt your application.

The first presenter, Josh Williams from Alamo Fire, talked about Facebook applications his company has built. He shared some interesting insights. Their applications were born of discovery that some people like to collect icons. Some people like to collect userpics and avatars for no specific purpose. They don't necessarily use them in games, websites or discussion forums -- they collect them just because they like icons. So Alamo Fire tapped into this hobby. I think he was speaking about the Packrat application. Here's a downside of not having WiFi at the event: you can't just go to the company's web site and check out what they're talking about!

They also have another application, Gowalla, which is kind of like digital collecting combined with -- or inspired by -- geocaching. Gowalla encourages people to take pictures of places they visited, and rewards them points for that. So for example, you can get points for taking a picture of yourself at the state Capitol. It sounds pretty useless at first. But a lot of people like to do useless things on the internet, and the fascinating thing about it is how such applications make little quirky time wasters socially acceptable. Maybe you secretly like to collect pictures of state capitols, but you don't show them to your friends for fear of looking too dorky. I can identify with it: in my teen years I liked to collect street names, despite them being not very tangible collectibles. :-) I even drew my own street maps, and was proud of finding obscure, well-hidden streets that I was sure none of my friends heard about. Not that I asked -- there was that weirdness factor. And what do you know: these days there is an Open Street Mappers group in Austin! I was 20 years ahead of my time. :-) Alas, I found more interesting hobbies since then.

But I digress.

This shows how internet gives you a medium for turning quirky, nerdy things into something cool. Pretty much anything you can do for points can be turned into competitive sport. And competitive sports is a paradigm our society understands.

This wasn't the first time I stopped to think about it, but the Alamo Fire presentation provided yet another take of this general idea. I've said in the past that a lot of tedious things can be incentivized by turning them into the game. Have people do chores for points (they don't even have to be monetary rewards) and they'll get excited about housework. Chore Wars game is based on this concept. Gowalla taps into human nature in a similar way. As I make progress in building my dream application, I'll have to keep in mind that this social engineering aspect may be crucial in its adoption.

Josh Williams from Alamo Fire talked about the social mechanics of the application, but not about how they are relevant to Facebook. Among them, he discussed the point system, and how to set it up so that the players won't try to "game" it. For one thing, the point system shouldn't reward players for doing mindless repetitive things over and over, because then they'll rack up points with no effort. He covered formation of groups. Yet all those things are not specific to Facebook.

All of this was interesting, but I did not stay to listen to other presentations. With SXSWi being as busy and full of wonders as it was, there was no justification for continuing to be deprived of power outlets and ability to take notes.

Pictures from Facebook Developer Garage, Barcamp, Dorkbot and other SXSWi events are in my photo gallery.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

SXSW: Barcamp 4

I didn't get to see much of Barcamp. Because Steve had classes that weekend, I stayed home with Erika most of Saturday. I got to BarCamp close to 5 pm. Since it started at 9 am, I missed most presentations. The few remaining ones that were still going on were by various companies (startups, probably) demonstrating their products. Most of them were specialized websites (e.g. a travel website) with a social networking element. None of them really intrigued me, but maybe I was too tired to pay full attention. I was more fascinated by tattoo artists plying their trade right there at BarCamp. They've set up a little shop in a corner of the room, and were doing brisk business. They tattooed 3 clients in about half an hour (and that was just while I watched). One guy got a barcode on the back of his neck. Must have been a pun on BarCamp? Not that anyone would recognize it in the outside world. The "victims" seemed fairly relaxed -- none of those people were screaming or writhing in pain, or even gritting their teeth. It made me even wonder if I should spontaneously get a tattoo as well. But no, I'm really not that spontaneous. :-)

Aside from product demos, there was a presentation on "death of advertising". But as my experience shows, a talk or an article touting the death of advertising is really just about new ways to advertise, and this one was no different. I don't know if the whole BarCamp was like that, but product demos and conversations about marketing are not why I would go to this event. Learning about other companies' products is not the kind of techie learning that would bring me to a BarCamp. But really, I can't judge it, having caught only the tail end of it. Still there were a few people around -- both old acquaintances and new ones -- to chat about our Twitter strategies and what not. :-)

I really liked the "bar" in which BarCamp took place -- the former Paradox night club, which is currently vacant. Our devoted organizers set it up with plenty of folding chairs and tables to put laptops on. I had no trouble finding an extension cord to plug my laptop into -- but maybe only because it was half empty at the moment? It turns out a nightclub can work very well as a conference room. All its interior details -- balconies, stages, little side lounges -- separate the room into many cozy spaces for groups to hold conversations. And we had sponsors that provided free (though mediocre) fish burritos for lunch, and munchies with a curious name "dillodog" for dinner. The name lead to a goodly number of puns. But really it was just a hotdog with bacon crumbles... I think. That's as far as I could tell in the dark. :-)

Pictures from BarCamp and other SXSWi events are in my photo gallery.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Once in a while I get drawn into those debates...

As I said on Facebook and Twitter, I had an argument about atheism at the Ethical Society gathering. The other person said every atheist will experience God during their lifetime, just like everybody experiences love, even the people who say they don't believe in it.

Contrary to what some people said on Facebook, this guy was not at all an idiot; he seemed quite smart. But his argument was not very well thought out, even if it was superficially based on the latest neurological discoveries. Basically he said that God, like love, is one of those things human brains are hardwired to experience. I know God belief is not hardwired into everybody's brains, and I'm not even sure love is. There is a minority of people who never fall in love, much as they would like to. The same way, even as neuroscientists have found some evidence that many (if not most) people's brain have a "God module", there is a sizeable minority who do not "experience" God. It's possible that it comes down to differences in brain wiring, though I don't know how that would explain all the deconverted former theists (of which I met many). Maybe their former religious beliefs came from social conditioning, not from a direct, mystical experience of the ineffable. :-)

So I asked the guy to clarify in what sense does everyone "experiences God". Maybe he meant it in a primarily secular sense, such as "awe at the beauty and mystery of the natural world". Most people, including atheists, get that feeling that at some point. Some choose to call that God, but in reality that's a perfectly secular experience. But the guy declined to clarify. He said, how would you explain to a deaf person what music is? It's something that you know when you find it. I said, if you start from a position that experience of God can't be explained in rational words, then this argument is meaningless. If we don't have the language to talk about it, you can't present any arguments supporting your opinion, nor can I present arguments supporting mine. And so the topic was exhausted. We were too nice to ruin the afternoon going at each other's throats. :-)

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

SXSW: Dorkbot

You would think that everyone at an event with a name like Dorkbot would be fond of technology. Certainly the presence of the Robot Group could lead you to think that. Almost fooled me! I saw an interesting sculpture, and assumed it was interactive, like everything else there, only at that time it wasn't interacting with anything. I would have never found out what it signified, if I hadn't run into Silona, who was standing next to it and chatting with its creator, a guy of mediterranean looks and vaguely european accent. So I stopped to chat with the artist as well. He said he was actually against "these guys", meaning the robo-geeks. Not only his sculpture didn't have a techno-element, its whole point was to illustrate a thesis that "technology is a virus". Now that I've been told, I saw it really resembled a virus. The body of the sculpture was made out of wood, perhaps a tree branch. The head was studded with various spiky techno junk -- old light bulbs, thingamabobs and such. They were very definitely not going to blink. I wonder if this artist felt like a sole fundamentalist Christian protester at a gay parade, or what. :-)

Then I saw people doing something I've previously heard about, but haven't seen with my own eyes: playing iPhone like a flute. Here's a short video of an iPhone duet.

Overall, though, I didn't see many new exhibits at Dorkbot. By "new" I mean something I haven't seen at every event where Robot Group is present. That includes local science fiction conventions (e.g. ArmadilloCon), Maker Faire, and some SXSW events, such as Plutopia party. I even wondered if it will make any sense to go Maker Faire this year -- will I really see anything new? Not that I blame the Robot Group for not coming up with new things several times a month. Their interactive art pieces are still amazing when you see them for the first time, as I'm sure many out-of-town visitors to SXSW did. I just have a mixed blessing of living in a town where they frequently exhibit their creations.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SXSW: prelude

I can finally summon some energy and time to blog, not just tweet, about South by Southwest. First of all, I didn't even go to SXSW, only to public events. That alone was enough to keep me very busy.

My SXSW experience started out with Austin Tech Happy Hour on Thursday. One of the startups featured at ATHH was Other Inbox. (I didn't find out what the other 2 were -- either there weren't any, or they were well hidden.) A woman at the Other Inbox table approached me with a pitch: "Do you need a cure for email overload?" I decided to play a devil's advocate for a while. I said I didn't really have email overload. That's not quite true -- I would feel very overloaded if I had to read the posts from all the email lists I am on, but I didn't go into detail. She replied that I am a lucky person. I said it's not a matter of luck: the only real cure for email overload is real-life management, not email management. In my opinion, the email you get is merely a reflection of responsibilities you take on. Don't take too many responsibilities, commit to only what you can accomplish, say "no" more often, unsubscribe from mailing lists that don't add much value to your life, and you won't be overwhelmed with email

I asked how can Other Inbox technology do all that to a person. They admitted it can't, but it can recognize which emails in your inbox come from real people versus mailing lists and such. Hmm. I was quite surprised one needs an application to do that -- I never had trouble telling real people's messages from mailing list messages. But you never know what kind of interesting difficulties some folks might have! :-)

I still think that no matter how you organize your inbox, if you have an average of x emails to read every day, it will take you the same amount of time. That's not to say that certain approaches to email don't help. Some people read it all first thing in the morning, others last thing at night, and so on -- to avoid being constantly interrupted by new emails. That's all good. But ultimately I think a cure for email overload is simply not to get too much of it.

Then I inadvertently crashed Austin Interactive Marketing Association meetup. I was told about it by one guy from Austin Linux Group, who said it was a "welcome out-of-towners to SXSW" happy hour. AIMA people at the registration desk have not heard of such a thing, though sure enough they took me for an out-of-towner. With my accent it was almost guaranteed. :-) (They asked me if I was from Sweden.) Anyway, I met with two people from Austin Linux Group, and we chatted for a bit. In their experience, Linux user groups are dying, at least in Austin. Or if not dying, they are going virtual. Some of them, including ALG, have strong email lists, but they don't feel much need to meet in person. Some people think it's a matter of there being so much good info about Linux on the internet, you can google anything, so you don't have to meet in person to ask for advice or help with hands-on installations, etc. But that's not what these two ALG people thought. The high likelihood that a typical newbie will run into serious problems with WiFi and thus lose interest in Linux, is one reason that Linux desktop is not gaining popularity. But there's also a more interesting reason. For many young people Linux is not in the running if they're considering an alternative to Windows. And not because they are Mac afficionados. A smartphone is a more likely competitor. Many people these days no longer want to carry around laptops when a smartphone is enough for their daily computing tasks. Thus, a phone becomes their primary computer.

Pictures from this Austin Tech Happy Hour and other SXSW events can be found in my photo gallery.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Blellow beta review

I joined Blellow -- a web service that enables people to collaborate and share knowledge -- in its beta stage. So far I've only been on it one day and haven't done much. I've only tested its basic features. I'm writing this review so as to enter a drawing for an SXSW badge. :-)

Here are my notes on some of Blellow's features.

Meetups. I already have a suggestion for Meetups pages (though I realize meetups are probably not the most important feature of this site). I wish each event page had a message board so we could post questions to other members or the organizer. It would also be good to be able to contact the organizer of the event with a click of a button (or in any way at all, really. Right now there is no way.)

The "follow" thing. I clicked a "Follow" button under a person's name, but did not understand whether that meant I now was following her on Twitter, or if it was a special Blellow-specific "follow". I looked for help pages, but couldn't find any (another very important feature that's missing). My Twitter account (@elze) does not show I'm following her, so I guess a Blellow-follow is different from a Twitter-follow.

Groups. I was able to join groups without a problem.

Projects. I saw a list of other people's projects, but clicking on any of them produced the standard Ruby on Rails error "We're sorry, but something went wrong". Oh well -- it's beta.

How do I login? One thing that really baffled me: when I went to blellow.com home page on another computer, I could not find a "Log in" link. It was embarrassing. Made me feel really stupid. Yet there was truly no link. I eventually logged in again by following a beta invitation link that was emailed to me. I can only assume that the login is deliberately hidden from the general public, and will appear when Blellow is out of beta.

So far it seems the main activity one would do on this site is answer "What are you working on?" question. There is a lot more to do, such as participate in group discussions, but the "What are you working on?" page is the one you get immediately upon logging in. Well, this question certainly makes more sense to me than Twitter's "what are you doing?". It's good that the status area (which, at 300 characters, is much more roomy than Twitter's 140) allows you to attach a file and to check "I feel like sharing this" or "I'm looking for help" radio boxes. Obviously, though, you can't share your company's code in a public forum, so this is at best good for hobby or side projects. But, since I often get stuck on some Ruby on Rails problem (new as I am to this technology), I could see myself asking for help in this manner. It's good to have a framework where asking for help is built into the system, thus doesn't feel awkward.

One more thing -- maybe I'm just not thinking creatively, but I can't "unpack" Blellow's name. What exactly does it stand for? Blue and yellow? That's a stretch even considering the prevalence of green on its website. Does the "ellow" part signify it's kind of like yellow pages for freelancers? That would make some sense, though I think yellow pages is an outdated metaphor for a site whose goal is to promote collaboration and interactivity (as opposed to browsing a static list of people available for hire). In any case, I'm sorry to be blunt, but the name is a bit offputting. The "ble" part immediately evokes such associations as blech, bleary, or bleat. I think this site deserves better than that.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Dr. Michael J. Ryan's Darwin Day talk

Dr. Michael J. Ryan from University of Texas was one of the speakers who gave a talk at the CFI Darwin Day celebration. It was "Sexual Selection, Darwin's Second Great Theory: Why males are dying to mate". A provocative title, somewhat -- and indeed, the idea of sexual selection was thought to be provocative and radical in Darwin's times. To me it was those historical footnotes that made up the main interest of his speech, as the idea itself wasn't new to me.

Sexual selection theory says animals evolve certain traits not because they help them to survive, but because those traits help them to attract mates -- even when doing so runs counter to survival. This helps explain why in some species males and females are so markedly different in their appearance and behavior. This is evident even in humans, if we believe "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" brand of stereotypes. :-) Behavioral differences between men and women sometimes seem so dramatic, they can make you wonder if men and women are from different planets. In the animal realm one of the most striking examples of appearance differences between sexes is a peacock's tail. That tail is what got Darwin thinking that natural selection in itself was not enough to explain how it evolved. How is it that this trait allowed peacocks to survive better? Darwin decided he needed another theory. So he came up with the sexual selection theory.

Often the traits that help males attract mates are also the ones that makes them more likely to die. Such is the case with tungara frogs, which Dr. Ryan has studied at length. The males of this species are more likely to attract females if their calls are more complex. (Here Dr. Ryan amused the audience by imitating tungara frog calls. He had to do it because sound wasn't working in his presentation. This was just as well, because, according to him, he can make frog calls so realistic he can even trick the frogs into conversing with him. Apparently male tungara frogs view conversation as a competitive sport: they respond with calls that are more complex than the ones they hear.)

However, tungara frogs predators, such as bats, also favor males that make more complex calls. So the individuals that are more attractive to females are also more likely to die. Both selection and counter-selection forces play a role in evolution.

Michael Ryan gives a lecture at the Center for Inquiry Austin Darwin Day 2009 celebration

Back in Darwin's time people had hard time accepting the notion that sexual selection is driven by females choosing males with particular characteristics. They said, we only need to reflect on human species to realize how ridiculous this idea is. In Darwin's Victorian England women had very little choice in most things. So Darwin's idea at that time was radical.

Dr. Ryan (who, by the way, considers himself a feminist) noted that even these days there's large feminist literature that absolutely rejects the notion that female choice of mates is the driving force of sexual selection (among animals, at least). They are incredibly critical of this idea.

Pictures from Darwin Day can be found in my photo gallery. I will keep adding new pictures in the days to come.