Archive: June, 2007

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Saturday, June 30th, 2007

Feed reading

There are some great pieces of software out there dedicated to reading RSS, each with their own take on the task. As a Mac user, I’m spoiled for choice with NetNewsWire, NewsFire and Shrook to choose from.

Then there are the myriad online feed readers like Bloglines, Newshutch and Google Reader. They’re all pretty slick as long as you’ve got a relatively well-specced machine with a JavaScript-capable browser.

But I’ve never found an RSS reader that I’ve been completely satisfied with. I find all too often that the experience reminds of using an email client. Reading email can be an enjoyable activity but more often than not, it’s all about getting the unread count in your inbox down to zero, right?

I gave up on feed readers for quite a while and just started reading the few feeds I’ve gathered together at Adactio Elsewhere. But this doesn’t keep track of what I’ve already read.

I quite like the way the “favorites”(sic) feature on Technorati works. Here, the freshness of the post takes precedent over the author. Everyone’s posts are mixed up into one river of news. It feels more like reading through a single blog.

I didn’t think there was any new way to catch up on RSS feeds until James set me straight.

We have weekly Monday morning meetings at Clearleft at which everyone is encouraged to offer up a “lightbulb moment”—an insight or revelation that’s useful or just cool. This week’s meeting didn’t happen until Wednesday (we’re not the best clockwatchers). For his lightbulb moment, James pointed out a nice little feature now offered by Google Reader.

If you go to Settings and then look under the Goodies tab, you’ll see a bookmarklet marked “Next” that you can drag to your bookmarks bar. Clicking on this bookmarklet (or favelet, if you will) takes you to the next unread post in your river of news.

I really like this way of reading. Like the Technorati solution, the order is determined by date rather than author. But the authorship is very relevant in that you view the entry in its original context; on that person’s website rather than in a feed reader (something that I know a lot of my designer friends have strong feelings about).

This little bookmarklet manages to bring RSS reading back into the browser in a completely different way than simply emulating a desktop feed reader. Whenever I want to read something new, I click the “Next” link in my bookmarks bar. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to get but I know that it will something that I haven’t read before, it will be written by someone I enjoy reading and it will be fresh.

This solution manages to straddle the fine line between the convenience of RSS (pull rather than push notification) with the tyranny of RSS (a daunting list of feeds to read through). And I don’t need to keep opening new tabs or windows—something that’s hard to avoid with regular feed readers be they on the desktop or in the browser.

I’m thinking of creating an OPML file that consists of nothing but del.icio.us links (or quicklinks or blogmarks or whatever) from people whose taste I trust. Then clicking on that “Next” button would have a lovely touch of serendipity, constantly finding something new and fresh, landing me on a web page for no other reason than someone I know thought it was worth bookmarking.

It kind of reminds me of what it was like to surf the Web back in the old pre-RSS days before information overload overwhelmed us all. If you’ve got a Google Reader account, give the bookmarklet a whirl and see what you think. It might change the way you think about reading RSS.

YouTube - pacman

What else would you do in a maze-link environment other than recreate pacman?

Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace

Danah Boyd's essay is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in social networks.

strange maps

This blog devoted entirely to maps is far more interesting than it sounds. It's a treasure trove of weird and wacky stuff. Fascinating... and a complete time sink.

Friday, June 29th, 2007

£5 app

This has become a regular event here in Brighton. Developers get up and talk about cheaply-made apps. I want to try and get a slot sometime.

Social networking

Here’s a list of websites on which I have an account and which involve some form of social networking. I’m listing them in order of how often I visit. I’m also listing how many contacts/buddies/friends/connections/people I have on each site.

My Social Networks
WebsiteVisitsConnections
FlickrDaily154
TwitterDaily205
Del.icio.usDaily4
UpcomingFrequently95
Last.fmFrequently66
DopplrFrequently96
JaikuWeekly34
AnobiiWeekly2
CorkdInfrequently27
PownceInfrequently22
RevishInfrequenty9
FicletsInfrequently4
NewsvineInfrequently4
FacebookInfrequently59
Ma.gnoliaRarely7
Linked inRarely90
OdeoRarely10
XingNever2
DiggNever0

This is just a snapshot of activity so some of the data may be slightly skewed. Pownce, for instance, is quite a new site so my visits may increase or decrease dramatically over time. Also, though I’ve listed Del.icio.us as a daily visit, it’s really just the bookmarklet or Adactio Elsewhere that I use every day—I hardly ever visit the site itself.

Other sites that I visit on a daily basis don’t have a social networking component: blogs, news sites, Technorati, The Session (hmmm… must do something about that).

In general, the more often I use a service, the more likely I am to have many connections there. But there are some glaring exceptions. I have hardly any connections on Del.icio.us because the social networking aspect is fairly tangential to the site’s main purpose.

More interestingly, there are some exceptions that run in the other direction. I have lots of connections on Linked in and Facebook but I don’t use them much at all. In the case of Linked in, that’s because I don’t really have any incentive. I’m sure it would be a different story if I were looking for a job.

As for Facebook, I really don’t like the way it tries to be a one-stop shop for everything. It feels like a walled garden to me. I much prefer services that choose to do one thing but do it really well:

Mind you, there’s now some crossover in the events space when the events are musical in nature. The next Salter Cane concert is on Last.fm but it links off to the Upcoming event … which then loops back to Last.fm.

I haven’t settled on a book reading site yet. It’s a toss-up between Anobbii and Revish. It could go either way. One of the deciding factors will be how many of friends use each service. That’s the reason why I use Twitter more than Jaiku. Jaiku is superior in almost every way but more of my friends use Twitter. Inertia keeps me on Twitter. It’s probably just inertia that keeps me Del.icio.us rather than Ma.gnolia.

The sum total of all my connections on all these services comes to 890. But of course most of these are the same people showing up on different sites. I reckon the total amount of individual people doesn’t exceed 250. Of that, there’s probably a core of 50 people who I have connected to on at least 5 services. It’s for these people that I would really, really like to have portable social networks.

Each one of the services I’ve listed should follow these three steps. In order of difficulty:

  1. Provide a publicly addressable list of my connections. Nearly all the sites listed already do this.
  2. Mark up the list of connections with hCard and, where appropriate, XFN. Twitter, Flickr, Ma.gnolia, Pownce, Cork’d and Upcoming already do this.
  3. Provide a form with a field to paste the URL of another service where I have suitably marked-up connections. Parse and attempt to import connections found there.

That last step is the tricky one. Dopplr is the first site to attempt this. That’s the way to do it. Other social networking sites, take note.

It’s time that social networking sites really made an effort to allow not just the free flow of data, but also the free flow of relationships.

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Sisters Complain Of Nightmare Trip (from The Argus)

Yet another reason never to fly with Ryanair.

Talking with the BBC about microformats

I have now had the pleasure of visiting the BBC. Even though I know a few people who work at the BBC—and many more who used to—I’ve never had the opportunity before to get a look under Auntie Beeb’s new media skirts. Then I got an email asking if I’d be willing to come in and chat about microformats.

I’m always more than willing to rabbit on at length about microformats. Just wind me up and watch me go. It’s particulary pleasurable to natter on to a bunch of smart people working at Europe’s largest website.

There seems to be quite a lot of interest in microformats at the BBC. I spoke in a meeting room packed to the gills with people from a number of different departments. There are quite a few separate areas where people are already experimenting with hCalendar, hCard and rel-tag. Of those, hCalendar is clearly the forerunner: consider that schedule listings are essentially displaying a series of events.

Seeing as I was over at the BBC anyway, I took the opportunity to meet up with Ian for lunch. We compared notes on Hackday and he let me know the the Backstage folks were intrigued by Hackfight. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

With my visit to the BBC in East London at end, I hopped on the Central Line all the way across town for a quick visit to the Last.fm HQ. I always like getting a behind-the-scenes look at websites that I make use of on a daily basis. Hannah even managed to take some time out of her busy schedule to go for a coffee—it’s those CBS dollars at work.

All in all, it was a fun day out in London. But I was still glad to get back to Brighton… especially ‘cause I made it back in time for the fun at the Geek Wine Thing. London’s fine in small doses but I wouldn’t want to do that commute every day.

Dopplr Blog » Importing your social network from other sites

Portable social networks are no longer just theory: Dopplr makes it a reality.

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Zeldman vs Veen on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Life imitating art imitating life. The two Jeffs enact the Wii boxing match created by Cindy and Dan.

Zeldman vs Veen

Sussex Digital - Focusing on the Sussex digital community

A list of just some of the cool geek stuff going on in Brighton right now. This town really does rock.

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Upcoming Suggestion Board

Search on Upcoming is borked. Here's my explanation why. I criticize because I care.

LOL: Twitter / Jeremy Keith

I'm loving this mashup of lolcats, Twitter and Flickr. Occasionally the text and the picture matches up in a serendipitously hilarious way.

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

Hackfight video

I stumbled across this video that Neil Ford shot of the Hackfight project in full flow. The back-end guys are brainstorming, the front-end people are user-testing... this is the stuff of magic!

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

The final frontier

When I was rounding up my favourite hacks of Hackday, I can’t believe that I forgot to mention one of the most beautifully elegant mashups I’ve ever seen.

Paul Mison and Candace Partridge, two London-based astronomy geeks, presented their train of thought as follows:

  • Iridium flares are glorious bursts of light produced by reflections on satellites.
  • It’s fun to watch the International Space Station fly over.
  • Both of these events are tracked on the website Heavens Above.
  • There’s no point looking for iridium flares or ISS flybys if the sky is clouded over.
  • Weather information is easily available from, for example, Yahoo’s API.
  • By mashing up satellite information with weather information you can figure out whether it’s worth going outside to look into the sky.

The icing on the cake is the way that the results are broadcast. Instead of going to a website, you just need to sign up to a Twitter account. Now you will be notified whenever there’s a flare or flyby over London and the skies are clear. Pure class!

There’s quite a bit of juicy astronomy data available from NASA. Remember a while back when NASA and Google announced that they would be working together? I wonder if they’ve got some geeky goodness planned.

Jessica speculated a while back about reverse Google Maps. Suppose that when you entered an address, instead of just showing you the top-down view of that point on the planet, you also got to see how the sky would look from that point. Enter a postcode; view the corresponding starmap.

Make it so.

Peter Saville Graphic Design - fonts

Peter Saville is releasing some of his fonts for free. I'm grabbing the beautiful serif typeface used on the front of Joy Division's "Closer"; it's gorgeous.

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Geeks Bust Out Brollies as Rain Falls Indoors at Hack Day London

A nice write-up of Hackday on Wired. Oxford Geek Night gets a mention too (go, Nat!).

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Hackfight

Ninety seconds. That’s how long each team at Hackday had to present the fruits of their labours. That’s a pretty good timeframe to demonstrate the core functionality of an app but it’s nowhere near long enough to explain the background story behind Hackfight.

I was the third presenter (out of a total of 73). I knew I had to try to make every one of those ninety seconds count. At the moment that Chad Dickerson introduced me and the spotlight was cast upon my frame, I went into Simon Willison mode and began to stream out as much information as the bandwidth of the human voice allows.

“Hackfight is a mashup” I began, “but it’s a mashup of ideas: the ideas of Justin Hall with his talk of browsing as a kind of role-playing game and Gavin Bell with his ideas on provenance—your online history forming a picture of who you are.”

I was standing on stage in Alexandra Palace trying to give an elevator pitch of an idea that had been brewing in my head for quite some time.

Background

Ever since I first started talking about lifestreams I knew I wanted some kind of way of tying together all the disparate strands of my online identity. There’s a connection here with the dream of portable social networks: tying together the walled gardens of myriad social networks. The final piece fell into place when I was listening to the South by Southwest podcast of a panel discussion by Joi Ito, Ben Cerveny and Justin Hall. Justin says:

I’m working on this idea of passively multiplayer online games. Watching you surf the Web and giving you xp for using your computer. You might be as high level as Joi but just by doing what you’re doing… My model for this was looking at a D&D character sheet, which proposes to know a lot about people.

Something clicked. This idea really resonated with me but I wanted to tie it into a person’s long-term publishing history—their provenance, in other words. I started thinking about how this might work. I would definitely need some help. Then Hackday London was announced.

My recruitment drive began well before the day itself. I spoke to people at both @medias. Matt Harris—no stranger to the mechanics of role-playing games—expressed his interest. I noticed that Gareth was in search of a project for Hackday so I baggsied his brain. I even managed to turn my presentation at Reboot into a rallying cry for hackers. Riccardo and Colin were both there and added their names to the list of interested parties. Finally, I wrote a blog post right before Hackday to let everyone know that I was looking for help.

On the day itself—once the excitement of the lightning strike had worn off—I began quizzing my friends to find out who had plans and who didn’t. Ben and Natalie were both amenable to getting stuck in. An unsuspecting Paul Duncan was also roped in. I hopped on stage and put out one final call for help.

Planning

I had plenty of people. Now I needed to make sure they could work in managable teams. I divided the work into front-end and back-end projects, appointing Nat as head of front end and Gareth as delegator for the back end.

APIsBefore a line of code was written, we made plenty of use of the available whiteboards. We began brainstorming all the possible APIs we could potentially use. At this stage we were already thinking in terms of characteristics: how social you are, how many photos you take, how much you blog, how much you bookmark.

The long list of APIs was quickly whittled down to a managable number. The terminology was updated to be more game-like. Here’s what we had:

Charisma
Your social networking power based on Twitter. It’s not as simple as just how many contacts you have: your followers must equal or exceed your claimed friends to get a good score.
Perception
Your power of observing the world around you as decided by Flickr. The Flickr API reveals how long you’ve been posting photos and how many you’ve posted in total. From there it’s a short step to establishing an average number of photos per day.
Memory
Your power of cataloguing the world around you as revealed through del.icio.us.
Willpower
How much influence you can exert over others. This is gleaned from Technorati’s ranking algorithm.

Testing

Assuming we could generate a number for each of these characteristics, how should gameplay proceed? Should it be as simple as Top Trumps or as complex as World of Warcraft? It was Jim Purbrick who pointed out that we were closest to having beat-em-up game mechanics.

Now we needed to consider fairness. How would we deal with the uebergeek who has been blogging, Flickring and social networking for years? This was quickly christened “The Tantek Scenario.” Needless to say, I blame Tantek.

By giving each player a pool of points that always adds up to the same total, we could level the playing field. We chose the number 20 for the total points. This could then be split four ways amongst charisma, perception, memory and willpower. So even if you were superb in all four categories, you could only have a total of 5 points in each. Most people will have a high score in one or two categories and a correspondingly low score in others.

Gameplay proceeded like Top Trumps but with a difference: if you are attacked in one category (say, charisma), you can defend with another category (such as memory). But you can only ever use a category once. So one fight is exactly four rounds of attack and defence. At the beginning of each fight each player has 10 health points. If a player successfully attacks, the amount of health points deducted from the other player is the difference in category points. So if I attack with a willpower of 8 and you defend with a memory of 6, you lose 2 health points.

User testingPhew! The game mechanics were starting to get complex. Would people be able to understand the gameplay? There’s only one way to find out: user testing!

I mercilessly pounced on unsuspecting passers-by like Andy and Aral and thrust sticky notes into their hands. We then played a round using these paper prototypes. We tested a slightly more complex version of the gameplay involving the ability to bet high or low but the user-testing revealed that this was probably too complex to be easily grasped.

Building

Alright. Enough planning. Enough user testing. The clock was ticking. It was time for the front-end team to start working on the design and the back-end team to get coding.

As day one drew to a close, our numbers lessened. Riccardo and Paul headed for home (or in Paul’s case, the pub and then home). But I still had two incredible teams of ludicrously dedicated people. These are the people who would build what we were now calling Hackfight.

Team Hackfight

Back end
Front end

Watching these people work through the night was a humbling experience. It quickly became clear that my programming skills weren’t nearly up to scratch. I helped out a bit with some Flickr API stuff but I mostly just left the lads to it. I even snatched one or two hours of sleep. Colin and Natalie didn’t sleep at all.

By morning, things were shaping up nicely. On the back end, we had a good database schema, ranking algorithms and classes for combatants and fights. On the front end, we had a colour scheme, a logo and beautifully shiny icons. But could we tie the two ends together and still hit the afternoon deadline?

The result

In the end it was clear that we had bitten off more than we could chew. We had a solid infrastructure and a lovely interface but there just wasn’t enough time to build the interactive elements: signing up, choosing an opponent and having a fight.

We still wanted to demonstrate what was possible with this system. If we cut out the interactive elements for now, we could at least show an example fight by having the computer pitch two people against each other. We began adding some real-world data into the system and built a fight page where the moves were chosen at random.

Here’s the result using real data from Tom and Norm!’s online publishing history. It takes a while to load because the information is being fetched from each service at runtime but… it works!

Presenting Hackfight

The final result is more of a proof-of-concept but boy, what a proof-of-concept. Watching this idea come to life in the space of 24 hours was simply magicial. I honestly don’t think words can express how impressed I am with the people who built this. All I did was lay the groundwork. They pulled out all the stops to actually make something.

I had one last task. I had to get up there on stage and present Hackfight.

Ninety seconds.

Standing in the spotlight with Hackfight projected on the screen behind me, I rushed through the game mechanics and showed a sample fight. My mind was racing as face as my mouth. I was frantically trying to think of what I absolutely needed to get across. I quickly explained that Hackfight was a platform rather than a finished hack: something that could be built upon to create all kinds of gaming experiences based on online publishing. Feeling the seconds ticking away to nothing, I closed with the one remark that it was absolutely necessary to make:

The team that put this together was awesome.

And with that, I was done. It was later that I realised I actually still had 19 seconds left on the clock. My one chance to do the team justice and I blew it.

The future

Milling with my peers at the close of Hackday, one question kept coming up: would we continue to work on this? We’ve got a good codebase. We’ve got some solid game mechanics. I think it would be great to see this taken forward. The Hackfight team all seemed pretty interested in hacking on this thing a bit more.

I think there’s a lot of potential in this idea. Forget about the basic idea of a fight confined to a web page: think about all the other possibilities: fighting via Twitter, by SMS, on Jabber, even in Second Life. As long as the ranking algorithms are in place and the game mechanics are set, there’s no limit to where and when Hackfight might exist.

The best outcome would be for Hackfight itself to become an API so that other people could hook into the system and build cool fun stuff. That’s an ambitious goal and I don’t have the resources to see it through but having seen what can be accomplished by a dedicated team of unbelievably smart and talented people, I think anything is possible.

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Hacked and slain

I’m back in Brighton after a truly unforgettable weekend at Hackday. Most people wouldn’t think that being cooped up in Alexandra Palace for two days with hundreds of geeks with laptops without access to beds or showers would be much fun. Most people would be wrong.

On the afternoon of the second day, the hacking stopped and the demos began. Over 70 hacks were presented. That’s quite an astounding figure. What’s even more astounding is the level of work that went into these hacks. Each presenter had just 90 seconds with an intimidating spotlight shining on them in an otherwise darkened cavernous hall.

Some of my personal favourites…

  • Ann created a knitting hack called Buzz Knit. Based on the data coming from Yahoo sources like sport or music, a small knitting pattern is generated: here’s the pattern from TV listings. Then Ann knitted one of the patterns which she presented on stage. The real pièce de résistance was the way she closed her presentation by speculating that “maybe in the future, instead of writing my blog, I’ll knit it instead.”

  • The gang from Moo created a location-service called NetTwitchr. Enter a post code and retrieve information about your location as well as the current mood of its occupants. This was probably the prettiest of all the hacks presented, thanks to Denise’s leet design skillz.

  • A duo from the New York Times created a Mobile/RFID/Web integration package called Shifd to seamlessly sync RSS feeds between mobile phones and desktop computers when the two come into contact.

  • Richard and Andy created a truly social application called Get Us Organised. It’s for those situations when you’re trying to cat-herd a group of people into deciding on a time and place for an event in such a way that it inconveniences the least amount of people—perfect for Pub Standards booze-ups and Britpack geekends. It even creates an Upcoming event automatically. Richard gave a really convincing demo and the immediate chatter on the backchannel included phrases like “Upcoming should totally buy this” and “genuinely useful”. The boys quite rightly won the Most Useful Hack award and received an iPod nano for their trouble.

Watching all of the hacks come together in the space of 24 hours was really a sight to behold. Tom has been getting his thoughts down and he describes his favourite part:

It was the period between nine and two am where everyone was doing precisely what they wanted to do. Where the lighting was atmospheric, where the coding was focused and everyone seemed to flow, where the room was gently buzzing with key-strokes.

I know exactly what he means. The atmosphere was indescribable. It sounds like it should be the most anti-social thing ever: a bunch of nerds with their laptops open engrossed in their own projects. But it was incredibly social! There was a real connection—the kind of connection that’s usually really hard to maintain in a crowd. The level of collaboration on display can only be described as life-affirming.

At the end of the long journey back to Brighton, I was chatting with an equally impressed Aral. We both loved BarCamp. We both loved Hackday. We both love living in Brighton. I mentioned San Francisco’s SuperHappyDevHouse. Maybe we can organise something like that to keep the spirit of Hackday alive.

SpiekermannPartners › Le Monde Diplomatique

The newly-launched redesign of Le Monde Diplomatique is absolutely gorgeous. Whitespace on a newspaper: finally!

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Hacktime

Hackday isn’t really a day: it’s two days. Day two is well underway now. Some sleep has been snatched, breakfast has been consumed and everyone is in crunch mode.

Time is of the essence. In just three hours, the hacking stops and the hacks will be presented: it’s like a marathon session Ready, Steady, Cook with a less culinary and a more cerebral slant (although I have seen at least one cookery-related hack).

At this stage, there is little that I can contribute to the gaming hack. With real programmers like Gareth, Matt and Colin on the job, I’m realising just how crap my programming chops are. Meanwhile Natalie and Ben are doing a great job with the front end design; I don’t think they need any assistance so me.

So basically, I’ve become middle management. My only real input was herding everyone together at the beginning of Hackday, explaining the vague concept I had and then splitting people into groups. Ever since then, I’ve just been skirting around the edges and trying not to interfere too much.

I can’t even begin to express how impressed I am with the work and dedication these guys have shown. They’ve got 1337 hax0r skillz. Amazingly, I get the feeling that this is par for the course at Hackday. I think there’s going to be some amazing stuff shown at 2pm.

Hacknight

It’s just gone 4am here at Alexandra Palace. There are still plenty of hackers gathered ‘round their laptops, scheming their hacky schemes.

The gaming hack continues apace. Super-smart people are working ‘round the clock to put this together. It’s been a real journey of discovery: a mixture of game theory, APIs and maths. Everyone’s pretty frazzled at this stage though. I think my brain has ceased to function. I blame Tantek.

It probably didn’t help that I stopped to play Werewolf. It wouldn’t be a proper geek gathering without a good round of organised paranoia and suspicion.

It hasn’t bee all keyboard-tapping and accusations of lycanthropy. There was a perfectly judged entertainment break earlier, courtesy of Doctor Who.

Of course it would be completely illegal for somebody to record Doctor Who and play it back to hundreds of people assembled together for Hackday. That would contravene BBC licensing agreements. I’m sure the BBC (and Yahoo) would never do such a thing… officially.

Unofficially, it was a good episode; cheers, Auntie Beeb and Uncle Yahoo.

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Hackweather

Hackday took a very interesting turn this morning. In the middle of a presentation on Fire Eagle—the service that Tom has been trying to hard to keep mum about—the weather turned rather nasty outside. We could hear the rain hitting in the roof of Alexendra Palace and take comfort in the fact that we were snug and protected inside.

Then there was a loud bang. At first I thought that Yahoo and the BBC had gone overboard with the pyrotechnics budget but then I realised that the building had actually been struck by lightning. Okay, no big deal. But the lightning bolt did some damage to the palace’s “smart” system. Believing itself to be on fire, the building opened up its roof vents thus allowing the rain inside where it could pitter-patter down on the many laptops arrayed within. I blame Tantek.

An evacuation into the covered courtyard. Who knew that the first hack of the day would be trying to figure out how to hack Alexandra Palace?

It was actually kind of fun—stiff upper lip; spirit of the Blitz and all that, what what?

Now everything is back on track. The roof is closed. The WiFi is (mostly) up. Everybody’s hacking on something.

I’ve assembled a fairly large team that I’ve split into front-end and back-end factions. Natalie is overseeing the former and Gareth is handling the latter. It’ll be interesting to see whether anything emerges at the end of all this but it’s a heckuva lot of fun in any case.

Herding Hackcats

I’ve arrived at Alexandra Palace after a long and circuitous journey from Brighton. Richard and I caught an earlier train than Andy but he still managed to get here before us. I blame Tantek.

Right now I’m listening to Aaron and Dan talk about machine tags—a subject dear to my heart.

There’s a great atmosphere here at Ally Pally… it’s a dark, dimly-lit atmosphere like Jabba’s palace but it’s great to be in one place together with so many fellow geeks.

Once the talks are done, the hard work begins. I think my job will mostly involve trying to organise all the people who have expressed an interest in helping me with my somewhat ambitious project. Some very, very smart people promised to help me so I’m hopeful that by tomorrow I’ll have something to show. The tricky thing will be making sure that things don’t get too unwieldy so I plan to split people into smaller, more focused teams. Andy thinks they should be called “Tiger Teams” but I’ve nixed that idea. ‘Cause it’s stupid.

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Help me at Hackday

Hackday is almost upon us. Tomorrow, I—along with hundreds of other geeks—will be converging on Alexandra Palace in North London for two days of dev fun.

I’ve got an idea for what I want to do but I think I’ll need lots of help. At XTech, Reboot, @media and other recent geek gatherings I’ve been asking who’s coming and who fancies helping me out. I’ve managed to elicit some interest from some very smart people so I’m hoping that we can hack something fun together.

Here’s the elevator pitch for my idea: online publishing is hacking and slaying.

Inspired by Justin Hall’s idea of Passively Multiplayer Online Games and Gavin Bell’s musings on provenance, I want to treat online publishing as an ongoing way of building up a character. In Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, you acquire attributes like stamina, strength, dexterity and skill over time. Online, you publish Flickr pictures, del.icio.us links, Twitter updates and blog posts over time. All of this published material contributes to your online character and I think you should be rewarded for this behaviour.

It’s tangentially related to the idea of a lifestream which uses RSS to create a snapshot of your activity. By using APIs, I’m hoping to be able to build up a much more accurate, long-term portrait.

I’m going to need a lot of clever hackers to help me come up with the algorithms to figure out what makes one person a more powerful Flickrer or Twitterer than another. Once the characteristics have been all figured out, we can then think about pitching people against each other. Maybe this will involve a twenty-sided die, maybe it will more like Top Trumps, or maybe it could even happen inside Second Life or some other environment that has persistent presence (the stateless nature of the Web makes it difficult to have battles on a Web site). I have a feel that good designers and information architects would be able to help me figure out some other fun ways of representing and using the accumulated data. Perhaps we can use geo data to initiate battles between warriors in the same geographical area.

Sound like fun? Fancy joining in? Seek me out on the day or get in touch through my backnetwork profile.

Of course, if you want to do something really cool at hackday, you’ll probably be dabbling with arduino kits, blubber bots and other automata. When I was San Francisco a few weeks ago, nosing around the Flickr offices, Cal asked me what I was planning for Hackday. “Well” I said, “it involves using APIs to…” “Pah!” he interrupted, “APIs are passé. Hardware is where it’s at.”

[this is aaronland] Mining for Pynchonite

This is a brilliant idea by Aaron: printing QOOP books of Flickr pics where each picture is accompanied by a map. It's all about the context, baby!

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

do i look like a terrorist? on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Brighton's Lomokev narrowly avoids a 30 day jail stretch without trial... a fellow commuter thought his beard looked suspicious and reported him to the police.

do i look like a terrorist?

When accessibility is not your problem (Joe Clark)

Notes from Joe's @smedias. Please read the whole thing before (mis)judging what he said.

One Sentence - True stories, told in one sentence.

Fray.com meets Twitter: one-sentence long true stories. This is the kind of thing that reminds why I work on the Web.

Headshift :: What other conferences can learn from Reboot

If you're involved in organising a conference, there are some really valuable lessons to be gleaned from Lee's examination of Reboot.

Advice for presentations: It happens! ¶ Personal Weblog of Joe Clark, Toronto

Joe shares his experiences of public speaking. There's some great advice here.

::HorsePigCow:: marketing uncommon » The insidious danger of danger

Tara talks about the damaging effect on women who believe that to protect themselves, they cannot be truly open online.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Bedrolling

One of the great things about having an international event like @media taking place in London is that I get to see so many of my North American friends without having to cross the Atlantic. I made the most of the opportunity to hang out with Dan, Tantek and Shawn while they were in town. I even went so far as to abduct Jason and Joe and bring them down to Brighton.

Before bundling them on a coastbound train, Jessica and I showed them the treasures of the British Library, a collection to warm the heart of any typography geek. We browsed through documents ancient and new, peering at the letters written down for posterity (Scott’s journal always give me the heebie-jeebies, opened as it is on the last page which reads “For God’s sake look after our people.”)

Once we reached my adopted hometown, they engaged in all the usual tourist activities, mostly involving tea and beachfront promenading. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t convince Jason to try jellied eels.

I have a tradition here at adactio.com. Whenever I have a guest over, I add them to my bedroll; kind of like a blogroll but with a higher barrier to entry. Needless to say, this bedroll is marked up with XFN to describe my relationships to each guest, and hCard to supply contact information.

Usually when I mark up somebody’s name, I can use fn optimisation, like this:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://joeclark.org/" class="fn url">
Joe Clark
</a>
</li>

Technically speaking, the n property is required in a vcard (and hCard is a 1:1 representation of vcard) but when fn is applied to a string like this, parsers can assume that the string before the space is the given name (Joe) and that the string after the space is the family name (Clark). This pattern fits the 80/20 rule pretty well: it works for about 80% of use-cases. There is an implied n value.

This will work as long as there is a string with a single space in the middle of it. Jason’s name throws up an interesting case. There are two spaces in “Jason Santa Maria.” How should parsers interpret this? Is it safe to assume that “Santa” is a middle name? Clearly not in this case.

So I have to explicitly mark up Jason’s given and family name like this:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://jasonsantamaria.com/" class="n url">
<span class="given-name">Jason</span>
<span class="family-name">Santa Maria</span>
</a>
</li>

Mind you, “Jason Santa Maria” is his formatted name so I can still add the fn value:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://jasonsantamaria.com/" class="fn n url">
<span class="given-name">Jason</span>
<span class="family-name">Santa Maria</span>
</a>
</li>

Jason has one of those double-worded family names, like Thomas Vander Wal. But it’s completely different to other three-word names such as “Mark Norman Francis”:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://cackhanded.net/" class="fn n url">
<span class="given-name">Mark</span>
<span class="additional-name">Norman</span>
<span class="family-name">Francis</span>
</a>
</lI>

See, Norm!’s middle name is defined as additional-name.

hCard still has enough semantic richness for me to add Jason’s middle name—which I happen to know is “Andrew”—should I wish to:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://jasonsantamaria.com/" class="fn n url">
<span class="given-name">Jason</span>
<span class="additional-name">Andrew</span>
<span class="family-name">Santa Maria</span>
</a>
</li>

So hCard scales up pretty well to some edge-case scenarios. That said, there is no confirmation-name property so I can’t easily add that particular bit of extra information. Jason’s confirmation name is… Andrew.

That’s right: his full name is Jason Andrew Andrew Santa Maria.

See, it’s traditional at confirmation time to choose a new middle name. But Jason obviously felt that he had enough words in his name. So his logic runs like this… “If, for my confirmation name, I choose the name Andrew—which is already my middle name—then it won’t actually count as a new name.” Alas, the system doesn’t quite work that way. And so Jason ended up with the same name (Andrew) repeated twice in the middle of his name.

I suppose I could double up both Andrews into a singe additional-name field like this:

<li class="vcard">
<a rel="friend met colleague"
href="http://jasonsantamaria.com/" class="fn n url">
<span class="given-name">Jason</span>
<span class="additional-name">Andrew Andrew</span>
<span class="family-name">Santa Maria</span>
</a>
</li>

But that’s probably overkill and anyway, Jason probably doesn’t want to broadcast his full, somewhat repetitive name. So it’s probably best if I don’t even mention the whole “Andrew Andrew” thing. Forget I ever said it.

In any case, it’s my pleasure to add Stan to the bedroll. Joe was already on there: he has the distinction of being the only one to have stayed over at my previous flat as well as my current abode.

I wonder if I should make the bedroll more like a tag cloud: the more often you stay, the larger your name appears. Brian, Joe and Norm!—all of whom have stayed more than once—would then all appear in a larger font size while Elsa—who just napped on the sofa—would be rendered smaller.

Nah… silly idea. But I will keep the bedroll going when I move into my next flat which hopefully won’t be too traumatic a move. I’ll be looking at some more potential properties tomorrow. Wherever I lay my sofa-bed—and unfold it when my fellow geeks come to visit—hat’s my home.

Vitamin Features » Web Design-isms: 7 Surefire Styles that Work

A nice well-illustrated article from Larissa Meek pointing to some design trends that can be applied to the Web.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Joe Clark, wanker designer - a photoset on Flickr

Having left web accessibility behind him, Joe camps out at the Clearleft office where he immediately turns into a wanker designer.

Mmm soyaccino

LOL: NEWS.com.au | Top Stories

Mashing up pictures of cats with news headlines. The result makes almost no sense but having my lolcat receptors triggered by real headlines feels weird.

www.myspace.com/rumblestripsuk

And the Hackday band is.... The Rumble Strips. Never heard of 'em. But they sound like they could be fun.

Hackday London

Hackday has a backnetwork. Nice work, Glenn. This may prove to be very handy.

Monday, June 11th, 2007

That media

@media Europe is all wrapped up. And a very fun experience it was too.

The high standard set at @media America was maintained for the British version. Mind you, I did find the double-track programme a little off-putting. I think that the San Francisco event had more of a communal feel. Of course, that could be down to its more intimate nature—150 people instead of 700—but the fact that everyone was seeing the same presentations meant that everyone had plenty in common. When a conference is split over multiple tracks, there’s an inevitable corresponding fracture in the audience too.

As far as audiences go, the @media crowd may have been fractured into designer and developer factions but there’s no escaping the fact that these people are savvy… really savvy. They know their stuff when it comes to web standards and accessibility. I’m sure I was teaching grandma to suck eggs but I addressed the issue of Ajax, specifically Bulletproof Ajax (Hijax in other words). It seemed to go over pretty well. The fact that the material had already been road-tested in San Francisco probably helped. If you’re curious, you can see the slides (PDF). Once the podcast is ready, I’ll get the audio transcribed.

My duties weren’t done when my presentation was finished. As with the American leg of @media, I had the pleasure of moderating the hot topics panel that traditionally closes the show. I had been really looking forward to this and putting a lot of thought into which of my fellow speakers should be in the line-up. I definitely wanted Joe: he’s like Statler and Waldorf rolled into one. I also really wanted to have Hannah Donovan on board. I thought it would be great to have someone who isn’t so well known on the speaker circuit fielding questions—especially someone so passionate and entertaining.

Well, Patrick wasn’t having any of it. Despite my strong protestations, he insisted on a more well-known constellation of panelists. I pointed out that this meant that the resulting panel would be a very homogenously male affair but he said he accepted full responsibility for that.

Well, alrighty then. If he was willing to stand behind that decision then I made sure to let everyone know that they could direct all queries about the all-male line-up to PTG.

Afterwards, a lot of people—including Patrick—told me that they thought I was being a bit harsh. Well, I’ll probably never get asked back to speak at @media again but feck it… I’ve had enough of the same heads talking at every conference (yeah, I know that’s rich coming from me).

But just let me have my little rant…

I’m not suggesting that someone should speak “just because they’re a woman”—that would be tokenism and we can all agree that that is a bad idea. But I think that diversity can be a factor in choosing speakers.

It’s naive to suggest that choosing a line-up for a conference is as simple as just getting the best possible speakers. It’s more complicated than that. The truth is that many factors go into the choice of speakers. For instance…

  • How good is this person at public speaking?
  • Is the subject matter relevant?
  • Did this person speak recently in the same geographical area?
  • How far would they have to travel to get here?

All of these questions are addressed in the choice of any speaker for any conference. All I’m suggesting is that the diversity question be just one more to add to the list. So that’s a far cry from suggesting that anybody should be chosen purely based on gender alone, okay?

Anyway… I wanted Hannah on the panel ‘cause she kicks ass and she deserves a wider audience. Still, the final line-up of the panel—Joe Clark, Richard Ishida, Dan Cederholm and Drew McLellan—was pretty darn stellar. We had a lot of fun; fun that was lubricated with the addition of a long-overdue bottle of wine I got for Dan to thank him for the use of the word “bulletproof.”

Again, once the podcast is available, you’ll be able to hear it for yourself and yes, I will get it transcribed.

As usual, the social events were the real highlight of the conference. I had a blast meeting up with old acquaintances and meeting new people over a beer or two. ‘Twas a pleasure to converse with such knowledgable and friendly peers.

Update I think I need to clarify why I had my little rant here. I’m not trying to pick on Patrick: Patrick put on a kick-ass conference featuring such kick-ass female speakers as Molly Holzschlag, Shawn Lawton-Henry and, of course, Hannah Donovan. My rant is aimed is at all the people who came up to me in the pub afterwards and accused me of wanting Hannah on the panel just because she’s a woman. That’s not the case at all, hence my explanation above (which I’ve broadened out to a wider defense of factoring in diversity as opposed to choosing speakers just because of anything).

I’m probably conflating two different rants here: lack of female speakers and lack of new faces. But let me make it clear again that Patrick specifically told me that he would take full responsibility for the all-male line-up of the panel: that’s why I mentioned it (and, no doubt, embarrassed him) at the beginning of the panel. Frankly, I thought it was very brave of Patrick.

Anyway, for those of you think I’m bashing Patrick, I’m not… or at least that’s not my intention. I’m bashing all the people who think that factoring in gender into a conference or panel line-up is immediately equal to tokenism. I hope now I’ve made that clear.

In any case, the hot topics panel and the whole conference was a roaring success. Yeah, I know this post sounded like I’m a real nitpicker but that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to clarify my comments and my feeling about diversity… feelings for which I make no apology.

So I tried to make a well-meaning point but I got misread as simply being mean. Damn. I’ve been hanging out with Joe too much.

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats - a photoset on Flickr

The real origin of lolcats can be traced back to 1920s cartoons... who knew? This clever parody of a parody really tickles my funny bone.

The real origin of Laugh-Out-Loud Cats

W3Conversions .:. Web Standards, Accessibility and Training

Stephanie Sullivan has redesigned. Her site is now almost as smart and sassy as she is. Very nice work, Steph.

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

Settling down

As you may have noticed, I’ve been doing a lot of travelling recently. In the space of one month I’ve been to Paris (for XTech), San Francisco (for @media America) and Copenhagen (for Reboot). I’ve had a lot of fun but I could do with a rest now.

I was looking forward to spending June and July relaxing in Brighton. I figured I could finally get ‘round to doing all those things that I just haven’t had time for. Maybe I could dust off the bike or just spend time out in the sunshine somewhere far away from airports.

That was the plan. But that plan was dealt a deathly blow when I arrived home from work the other day to find a letter from my landlord waiting for me. Jessica and I have been given two months to move out of the flat that we both love so much. I’ve been through the various stages of grief—denial, anger, etc.—and now I’ve reached acceptance. I’m just going to have to accept that I’ll be spending my Summer trying to find somewhere to live, doing all the necessary paperwork, and packing my worldly belongings into boxes.

On the plus side, at least I won’t be skipping out to go to any conferences in distant locations (I was going to be speaking at an event in Seville but that’s fallen through). I am speaking at one more conference but it’s mercifully nearby: I’m at the European leg of the @media roadshow in London.

The shoe is on the other foot now. All the North American speakers are wandering around in a jet-lagged daze, complaining about the time difference. All I had to do was hop on a train from Brighton to London.

As with the American edition, @media Europe kicked off with Jesse James Garrett delivering a keynote entitled Beyond Ajax. He managed to resist the urge to expose himself this time.

A lot of the talks here in London will be ones that I’ve already heard in San Francisco. I was originally going to do a different talk but, at Patrick’s request, I’m repeating the Bulletproof Ajax presentation. I’m not complaining. It means less work for me and I’m guessing there won’t be too many people here who were also in San Francisco.

This is a double-track conference. I was hoping that I would be going head-to-head with one of the other San Francisco presenters so that I wouldn’t feel like I was missing anything new. But fate and the schedule has conspired against me. I’m going to be up against a double-whammy presentation from the awesome Hannah Donovan of Last.fm and the ever-entertaining Simon Willison who seems to be able to naturally synthesise amphetimines when he’s on stage.

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

movabletype.org: Welcome to MTOS: the Movable Type Open Source Project

This is the secret I've been keeping ever since I visited Six Apart a few weeks back: Movable Type is going open source.

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Multimap :: Open API

Multimap's API is now open and free as in beer (as long as the traffic is within reasonable bounds). This is good stuff. And they're all in with the Open Street Map guys too.

Monday, June 4th, 2007

Copenhagen

The ninth Reboot wrapped up in Copenhagen on Friday. It was a really enjoyable experience for me.

This was the second year I attended so I had a good idea of what to expect. I remember sharing many of Andy’s frustrations with the philosophical nature of the presentations last year. This year I was positively wallowing in the blue-sky thinking—it made a nice change from the usual tech conferences I attend. Warning: Reboot should only be taken as part of a balanced conference diet.

With that said, I did find myself gravitating towards the more technical end of the spectrum of talks: Anne and Håkon both gave fairly meaty presentations on the tools of our trade: markup and CSS. With my tech appetite satiated, I was able to enjoy the more hands-off stuff a bit more.

I was really looking forward to hearing Leisa’s talk but a last-minute impromptu discussion of OpenID, microformats and portable social networks meant I had to give it a miss. It was, by all accounts, excellent. Methinks we have chosen wisely for dConstruct.

There was a lot of talk about social networks. Most of the discussions were psychological in nature but it was gratifying to see that a lot of people are sharing my frustrations and getting behind the concept of portable social networks using OpenID and XFN.

The nice thing about Reboot is that it can act as a platform for talks that are unlikely to show up on the agenda of a more commercial conference: Stephanie’s talk on multilinguilism and Tom’s discussion of energy consumption, for example.

Reboot had an almost Barcampesque feel to it at times. The micro-presentations and five-minute demos were especially fun in an ad-hoc kind of way.

Mostly, as with all the best meatspace events, the real pleasure came from meeting people. Some of the highlights of the conference involved sitting outside in the Danish sunshine chatting with smart friendly geeks. I had a lot of fun catching up with the great people I met last year as well as adding rel="met" to:

…and many others who were most excellent company and provided me with a surplus of inspiring conversations.

Even when the conference itself was over, I was luckily enough to share the plane ride home with some fellow geeks… fellow geeks also called Jeremy: Jeremy Ruston and Jeremy Stone. To avoid confusion, let’s address the latter by his geological nom-de-plume Jem Stone, the name under which he wrote a nice write-up of Reboot on the BBC website.

Dopplr Blog » Slides from the Reboot talk

Matt J's slides from his Reboot presentation on travel, serendipity and Dopplr.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Neatorama » Blog Archive » Star Wars: Family Guy’s Version.

Star Wars and Family Guy: the perfect mashup. This illicit footage is pretty darn hilarious.

afeeda » Feed » adactio on afeeda

I saw afeeda demo'd at Reboot. It looks like a handy place to create a lifestream. Here's one I made earlier.

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Reboot slides

The first day of Reboot 9 in Copenhagen is at an end. It’s been quite an inspiring day: lots of good talks but, more importantly, lots of great conversations with smart interesting people. This is my second year here so today has been a nice mix of meeting up with old friends and getting to meet new people.

This year’s theme is “human”, a typically philosophical subject for this blue-sky conference. Getting into the spirit of things, I gave a presentation called soul. It wasn’t quite as pretenscious as last year’s talk but it was certainly a rambling, haphazard affair. I really just wanted to tie in a bunch of ideas that I’ve been thinking about lately: lifestreams, portable social networks, online activity as gaming… but mostly it was a recruitment drive for Hack Day.

You can download the slides of “soul” as a PDF (with notes).

I was in the first speaking slot and I was very happy to get it over and done with. I had been slightly panicking over this talk and only really got it together during an extended stay at Stansted airport on the way to Denmark. Thanks for the two hour delay, Easy Jet.

Even with the main talk done, I had one more task to accomplish. I foolishly agreed to do a micro-presentation—we can’t call them Pecha-Kucha, donchyaknow—of 15 slides with exactly 20 seconds per slide. I finished the slides for that shortly beforehand and then started psyching myself up for it by hyperventilating and increasing my heart-rate.

I think it paid off. I had an absolute blast, people seemed to enjoy it and Andy asked if I had been possessed by the spirit of Simon Willison.

Oh, and the subject of the rat-a-tat talk was Hypertext: a quick list of tips for improving your links with rel, rev and various microformats. Help ourself to a PDF of the slides.

Update: Here’s a video of my micro-presentation. I was even more incoherent than I feared.