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December 10, 2009 23:58 +0000  |  Science and Nature Seattle Society & Culture Technology Work [at] Play 4

Way back in September, I went on a "professional development" trip down to Seattle, Americaland for a conference called Gnomedex. The official line on the shindig is that it's all about "human circuitry", the ways in which society interacts with technology and what comes out of it all. The whole thing sounded rather interesting, so I convinced my employer to send me down there on their dime. However, as part of the deal, I had to "report back" on my experiences there... a job I've neglected 'till now. So, in an effort to fill that reporting gap, while simultaneously rejuvenating my slowly staling blog I'm going to post it all here:

General Impressions

I'll get these out of the way so you know whether you want to keep reading or not. I know that the title sounds rather interesting for the sociology-types, tech-nerds, and those that dabble in either but really Gnomedex can be summed up in one sentence: 300 people in a room for 10 hours talking about Twitter. That's it kids, if you're looking for a broader meaning or more interesting conference, Gnomedex isn't it. In fact, if you're a technical type (as I am), I'd go so far as to say that you should avoid this event like the plague.

For starters, the whole thing is a single-track, meaning that at any given time, there's one presentation happening and if it's more boring than watching paint dry, your only alternative is to step out into the hall and socialise with the herds of marketing people trading business cards and dropping names. For many though, this single-track focus is a feature and not a bug. The assumption being that everyone is collectively participating via Twitter during the presentation, people are constantly posting little 140character quips about the talk, and tagging everything #Gnomedex.

A neat experiment in social engineering to be sure... or at least it would be if the technology would cooperate. Internet connectivity was flaky at best, and when you could get online, sites aggregating the #Gnomedex hash-tag were freezing up, crashing out or just not responding. Behold: the future of monolithic service architecture. Look upon it and be unimpressed.

The conference also has a very cliquey feel to it, with the majority of people attending returning from previous years, most everyone knows everyone from the last time they were here. Much like Vancouver, Seattle seems to have a rather tight-knit community of social media junkies that really get off on this sort of thing. I'm sure it's nice for them, to have the opportunity to see in-person, those with whom they've been tweeting back and forth for a year, but for someone like myself, in from out of town to learn something... no fun.

The last general note I'll make here is that the event was a big hit with the big corporations. Micros~1 was out in force, pushing Bing like crazy, Starbucks was pushing their new instant coffee, and Amazon was trying to look all edgy by posting some Java code on a wall and asking people to attempt to "solve" it. The only problem? They didn't have anyone on-site that actually understood the code.

Talk: Thingiverse & Makerbot

The coolest part of the conference was generously scheduled at the start. The Makerbot is the future of product distribution. Here's how it works:

  1. You buy a makerbot machine
  2. You download a model file of what you want
  3. The makerbot "prints" it.

Often referred to as a "3D printer", the makerbot will make you anything you want (of a reasonable size) out of ABS plastic. Just keep it supplied with low-cost spools of plastic and feed in whatever 3D model you can find online and *poof* you have one. Potential uses include the practical: the little plastic knob on the A/C unit that broke off last week, to the functional: ornate boxes or jewellery, to the fun & crazy: a 1:1 scale model of Darth Vader's helmet, or Walt Disney's head. Really cool stuff, and lots of potential. The machines sell for just under $750/each, but are produced in batches so they might not be able to ship you one right away until they've filled the order for the batch.

I want one so hardcore.

fold.it

The premise sounded like a good idea, but someone really should have vetted the presenter. fold.it is a nifty video game that has you folding proteins. The idea is that protein folding (Wikipedia) is such a complex process that relying on computers to do the work just isn't practical. However, the scientific community just doesn't have the manpower to do it all manually. So instead, they made a video game that lets non-nerds use natural human understanding to do the job. Fold a protein and experience the joys of flashing lights, bouncing things and celebratory music. Rinse, repeat. It may sound silly, but this tactic is a growing field out there because it works.

Unfortunately, the presenter was 99% scientist, 1% people-person. The presentation was dry, boring, way, way, way over-technical and few people, if anyone in the room had any inkling as to what he was talking about.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Spam

This presentation was done by an ex-spammer, about the tactics his former industry of choice use to do that which we despise. Some of the more interesting tactics included:

  • Paying $50 to a student for her login so they could spam an entire .edu domain from her account.
  • Hacking sites to insert code that would redirect people to another spam site, or just pay the site owner to do it for them.
  • Comment spam (posting "comments" on blog posts all over the web that tell you about the awesome power of Viagra)
  • Using tools like "autopligg" to spam digg.com with spam.
  • Creating new blog sites using content from other people's sites (they access your RSS feed) and then riddle the copied site with ads.

Ignite

This guy has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: bring the concept of brevity out of Twitter and into in-person presentations. Take a topic, any topic and talk about it for no more than 5 minutes with 20 slides, at 15 seconds/slide. We sat through about 5 or 10 of these. Uninteresting and uninformative. Seriously people, this is not a good idea, it's just a way to pretend that you can be informed on something while simultaneously not knowing anything about anything.

My Cancer is Social

Drew Olanoff has Cancer, and he's dealing with it by sharing his experiences with the world. For just over 30minutes, Drew talked about what it was like for him to be hit by the news, how it affected him and his family and how reaching out to his online social community (many of the members of which were in the audience) has helped him cope. He's since created a site called Blame Drew's Cancer as a way to make light of, and deal with his situation and there's been a rather large outpouring of support.

There was a lot of hugging, and touchy-feelyness which I obviously didn't identify with, but as a social outsider looking in on the process, I found the whole thing rather fascinating.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Frank Eliason - A Twitter Top 10 List with Humour

A Twitter success story. Frank worked at Comcast in support and decided that it might be a good idea to run a Twitter account for the company, so he set one up. Then, he started noticing people bitching out the company for one reason or another, so he responded with something to the effect of: "ok, I'll get right on that" and went about fixing it. The result: a spike in customer satisfaction and stuff got done.

For the purposes of the presentation, he put together a top ten list of reasons why a company should get on board with Twitter and I'm not going to re-post it here. It's already on the Gnomedex blog.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Hacker Journalism (Mark Glaser)

Far and away the most disappointing presentation of the conference, though admittedly this is due in part to the rather low expectations I had for the other talks. If anything, this one suffers from a poor choice of title. Rather than "Hacker Journalism", he could have properly adjusted my expectations with something like "Data Reporting with a Purpose" or something.

Glaser's position was simple: journalism is a way of presenting data in a way that helps people understand it, so hacker journalism is using one's mad it-skillz to take big blobs of data and turn them in to non-nerd-friendly graphs and maps. He asked the audience to make suggestions for data mash-ups with maps and/or pie charts etc and then went on to demo a few examples of similar work already out there. One that I make a note of was the Obameter, a graphing app that takes stock of the promises made, kept, and ignored during the course of President Obama's administration. Neat stuff.

Unfortunately, Glaser has a tendency to throw around the term "hacker" in all kinds of contexts 'till the meaning is really quite gone. I get the impression that he thinks that anyone who can use Yahoo pipes is a hacker, or someone who can use Google Maps to draw something nifty should also wear such a title.

In the end, the talk was more about how maps + stats = mash-ups = awesome, and not so much about front-line independent journalism. As this was the presentation to which I was most looking forward, I was rather disappointed.

NerdCraft (Beth Goza)

As cute and fun as this was, I really don't understand how this presentation made it into the event. There was nothing technical or really even social about it, rather Goza talked at length about the subculture of nerd crafters, people who knit, sew, and crochet all kinds of stuff, from sci-fi characters, to katamari costumes. Some of the stuff she had was crazy:

  • Crochet Star Wars characters
  • A knitted panel of the entire first level of Super Mario Brothers (wo baby, awesome)
  • Some crazy person knitted/crocheted a life-size Ferrari
  • A little crochet Hellboy
  • And DnD dice!

All-in-all, I'm not convinced that her presentation was appropriate for the event, but it was a nice break from the rest of it.

Full video of the presentation can be found here. You should check this one out, it's fun :-)

Audience vs. Impact (Giant Ant Media (@giantantmedia))

There to talk to us about what works in social media was the couple that started Giant Ant Media. They opened with some examples of where they started: making 2min flicks about fart jokes, and followed this with what they were doing now, a documentary about youth in Africa called Bongo. The focus of the talk though was really about how to cultivate an online community. Find what both you and your users love and do it. Don't lie, or try to misrepresent yourself because your audience can smell it. Just focus on honesty in production, be it blogging or richer media and all will be good.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Closing

The conference was long, and really not much fun, but I salvaged a few nuggets of wisdom from the whole ordeal, my favourite of which was this:

The difference between knowledge and expertise is trust. Knowledge can be acquired, but unrecognised, isn't much use to anyone, while expertise is given by others who offer you their own credibility in praise of your knowledge. In the knowledge economy, this is kind of a big deal.

...and I think that that's where I'll close this one out. Next year, maybe my employer will send someone more marketing-friendly. Nerds really don't belong at Gnomedex.

May 10, 2009 09:01 +0000  |  Movies Society & Culture Star Trek 7

...but not Star Trek.

I have just returned from the new Star Trek movie and I need to take a moment to rant. Feel free to ignore this one if you don't really care about what Star Trek is and are completely happy with this movie. I won't hold it against you... probably.

For the uninitiated, perhaps this movie was as frickin' awesome as everyone has told me repeatedly. It does, after all carry a strong cast, some decent writing and some pretty damned impressive special effects. This alone would make it an exciting movie, something to entertain and keep you excited for the duration but that alone isn't enough to call it Star Trek. This latest incarnation of the franchise is nothing more than yet another summer blockbuster -- like Terminator, or Wolverine, or Transformers the plot is simple:

  • Introduce Good Guys
  • Introduce Bad Guys
  • Bad Guys are bad
  • Good Guys kill bad guys
  • Studio makes money

Generally speaking, I like mindless blockbusters. They're fun, and watchable, but Star Trek is better than that. We love the show and even some of the movies because it speaks to us at a higher level, encourages us to question abstracts in our society like morality, justice and peace. It's about exploration and the development of humanity into something Better than we are. It's about more than good guys, bad guys, and cool effects.

This was J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, which is nice for him, and for the hordes of people it will bring to the franchise, but if nothing else, this movie marks the end of Roddenberry's dream... and for someone who grew up on those Ideals, that hurts... a lot.

If only they hadn't dedicated the movie to Gene and Majel...

January 15, 2009 21:02 +0000  |  Society & Culture 8

My brother sent this to me today and I wanted to share. Brilliantly done, and with a nice take on the future:

Lost Generation

And Melanie posted this to her twitter feed. The Ukulele is coming back I tell you:

sweetafton23: Tom Cruise Crazy

June 28, 2008 22:42 +0000  |  Society & Culture Vancouver 3

Between the hours of 1:30am and 3:30am last night, I attended FUSE, the Vancouver Art Gallery's new attempt to draw in more people and introduce art to a wider audience. And while I obviously can't speak for everyone there, for my part I have the following review: Bad Idea.

For some reason, I had it in my mind that the event would be an "adult" affair. I had images of nicely dressed people wandering through the gallery at all hours listening to music, drinking wine and having a civil good time. Call me an ignorant old fart if you like -- after last night, I couldn't blame you.

Instead, what I found was a horde of drunk 20somethings getting hammered before they even showed up, puking outside and running around the halls of the building. Horrible, screechy digital music blasting from the inner chamber throughout the building and a few kids in cosplay garb hopped up on LSD attacking their "mortal enemies" from anime-land.

It would seem that I'm continuously forgetting where I live.

One highlight of the evening came just as I walked in: I bumped into k-dot, a girl I know from way back in my high school choir. Of course, she couldn't even remember my name, but I suppose that's alright since she's simply more memorable than I am :-) Anyway, it was nice to see a familiar face in that zoo.

So yeah, FUSE was not cool -- at least for me. And in my book, I honestly think that it takes a way from the dignity of the place. Just once, I'd like to see nightlife in Vancouver happen without public drunkenness, but perhaps I'm asking too much.

March 19, 2008 07:11 +0000  |  Society & Culture 1

I read the following posts in Savage Love tonight and just wanted to share. If you haven't already read them, I suggest you do so. Savage's response to the first letter is beautiful and the second letter made me teary:

I'm in my final year of high school and I decided to come out as a lesbian – a very foolish move as I live in a small town that's not exactly brimming with tolerant people. But I know there are other closeted people at my school and I figured if none of us ever take the first step, it won't ever get any better around here.

But the response from my peers was worse than I expected. It's nothing too terrible, no physical violence, and in the beginning I could cope. But it's been a while now and I guess I need some advice. It just isn't getting better and I'm getting tired of it.

I have to park two streets away so people don't write shit on my car, someone's hacked my user account and deleted important coursework, I'm either told I'm dressing like a dyke or trying to be a girl depending on what I choose to wear on any given day. I'm avoiding classes that I don't have friends in because even if nothing is said (though it often is), the atmosphere is horrible. And none of this is that big a deal compared to what others have to go through, I know, but I'm sort of at the end of my tether.

Reporting it to staff is useless because they just tell me there isn't any proof and do fuck all. I've got some teachers looking out for me, but they can't really do anything either. I have some supportive friends, thank God, but it's all just becoming a bit too much, and I need some advice on how to cope through the last few months until I can get out of this shithole town.

Here's what you need to do, TALI: look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself that is the nadir, the bottom, the worst it's ever going to get. Once you get out of your high school and out of your shithole hometown and get your ass off to college – to a big state school or private secular university – you won't be the only out queer any more. Hell, you'll be surrounded by out fags and dykes and bisexuals. I can't promise you that you'll never encounter a bigot again, of course, or that all the fags and dykes you meet over the course of your life will be good people. But you will never again feel as vulnerable or persecuted or alone as you do right now.

And while you're talking to yourself in the mornings, TALI, tell yourself this, too: "Fuck my school, fuck my classmates, and fuck this town." The shits conspiring to make you miserable, TALI, are unlikely to have lives anywhere near as interesting as the one on which you're about to embark. Your classmates are making you miserable now because they know, deep down in their little black hearts, that their lives are going to be duller than day-old douche water compared to yours. Their lives aren't going to be dull because they're straight, TALI, but because the value they place on conformity – that's the reason they feel they have a right to abuse you now – is a prison they've constructed around themselves.

Right now they're making you feel like an outcast, TALI, and the malice stings. But what exactly are they casting you out of? Your high school? Their asshole cliques? That shit town? You haven't been cast out, TALI; you've been liberated. Freed. Sprung.

If only every kid in high school could hear that.

Four months ago, my mom walked in on me messing around with my boyfriend in our garage. I'm also a boy, age 15, and I hadn't gotten around to coming out to my parents yet. I felt bad that my mom had to find out by seeing what she saw. I stayed in my room crying until my father came home. They called me down to the kitchen and told me they loved me and that they were very, very sorry if they had ever done or said anything that made me feel like I couldn't be open with them about who I am.

My boyfriend is 17. He came out to his parents at Christmas, and our parents met for the first time last night. We don't have a question. We just wanted to thank you and thank all the other gay people who came out back when it was much tougher to do so. Our parents wouldn't have reacted the way they did if it weren't for all you guys that already came out.

We're Out Now

Thanks for the sweet note, WON. It's too bad that all teenagers, gay and straight, don't have parents as loving and supportive as yours.

June 17, 2007 14:58 +0000  |  Society & Culture 4

Joss Whedon's take on so-called "honour killings". Please read. Everyone should read this.

June 02, 2007 23:25 +0000  |  Nifty Links Noreen Society & Culture 5

Those of you who know Noreen probably know that she's been working tirelessly on a special project with UBC in an effort to expand the curriculum to include Asian Canadian History. To that end, she's working with both SFU and UBC on a project called Asian Canadians Reframed and she needs our help. Below you'll find information about a survey they're conducting about the public impressions/ideas about Asians and it takes a total of 3 minutes to fill out.

Please note that everyone is eligible to fill this out. White people, Toronto people, rich people, poor people, whatever, they need everything for a balanced look at the issue, so please do what you can.

"Asian Canadians Reframed" is an art project comprised of students from SFU and UBC. We are conducting a survey on common perceptions of Asian people in Canada and from the data that we collect, we intend to produce a photo exhibition showcasing the responses. The survey is an online one and should take no longer than 3 minutes if not less.

Please help our project grow by filing out our online survey! Tell your friends and family about us, spread the word, fill out the survey several times! We’d love to hear all that you have to say and we’ll do our best to showcase them all!

Thanks for your help.

May 24, 2007 17:45 +0000  |  Society & Culture 0

I heard a story on CBC radio today and thought that I would share.

Way back in the 60s, when it was still illegal to sell condoms and pregnant teens were ejected from school as a matter of course, a fifteen year-old girl met a nineteen year-old boy, had sex, and conceived a child.

Her father was outraged and insisted that the couple marry immediately, and the school banished her from the classroom without a second thought. But despite all of this mess, one of her teachers, at that time a young man in his early twenties, went the extra mile and came to her house after school to tutor her and help her finish her classes.

The young couple are still married and have been for over forty years. The teacher remains a family friend.

Here's to all the teachers who go that extra mile to make things right.

May 15, 2007 19:56 +0000  |  Society & Culture 4

CBC confirmed it this afternoon. All around the world, it's as though every rational person is breathing lighter. The bigoted, racist, antagonist is dead, and as one person I spoke to today asked: "so where do you think he ended up?"

Can I have a Halleluiah?

April 25, 2007 01:28 +0000  |  Geek Stuff Society & Culture 6

I had this thought today on my way home and I thought I would share it, if only to be able to say later: "I saw this coming years ago" :-) The following may sound technical for the non-geek, I'll explain myself better if you ask questions, but if you're bothered by geek-speak, you probably just want to skip this post.

One of the big problems with online communities is the load on a centralised server. The wider your user base grows, the greater the load on your servers. This issue leads to the second problem: corporate control and need to use advertising as a revenue stream to support the server load.

Now with most sites, this in an unavoidable problem. After all, sites like imdb.com are largely a repository of information in a centralised location for access by all. However, with community-oriented portals like MySpace and Facebook, the content is largely member-generated and hosted in one place either out of tradition or because the user base lacks the capacity to host that information locally.

But as hardware gets cheaper and wireless access more prevalent, we're going to start seeing a lot more in the way of mobile computing. The inevitable result then is that we'll be able to host our own information on our own machines and provide (or not provide) that information to the public through an open protocol.

So, for example, under this system, you would go to a central site (for the sake of argument, we'll use Facebook) and search for "Daniel Quinn". The site will have a basic record that these n people match your search criteria and that their information services can be found at their respective addresses. You could then issue a friend request to that user which would be managed only between you and me and the servers we're running on our personal devices.

Once a relationship is established, it exists only on my device and yours -- the key being the host site doesn't store this information, doesn't need to collate and back it up, or handle the bandwidth requests for other users wondering who my friends are. All relationship information, images, shared notes, etc. etc. would be managed by the devices operated by the user you're querying.

This sort of thing is a while off I would think. Frankly though, I think the real limiters would be the writing of an open and scalable protocol to handle a network like this, and the fact that most computer users are idiots who would have no idea how to configure their own server. A system like this, however inevitable, will have to depend on really slick software that does the majority of the work for you, and a solid, open framework upon which to base each application.

Ok, I'm done. Rant over. Wait for the "I told you so" in about 10years.