Tags: 2006

11

sparkline

Time and motion

One year ends. Another begins. This is the traditional time to cast one’s gaze downwards towards one’s navel as Mark, Jonathan and Tom have already done.

There appears to be a meme circulating wherein the past year is tallied by places visited. This dovetails neatly with one of my busiest travel years yet so I’m going to run with it:

The highlight was visiting Australia. That really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was also a New Year’s resolution I was very happy to have fulfilled.

I’ll be reliving some of that Web Directions magic this year, but in Canada this time. I’ve never been to Vancouver and I’m really looking forward to it. By the way, if you’re still wavering about whether to go to this fine conference, take note that you have been granted a reprieve: the discount pricing has been extended to January 14th, so waver no more.

With Web Directions North looming, and South by Southwest still to come, 2007 is already shaping up to be another fun and busy year. It looks like this will be the year that I finally make it San Francisco.

In between the travelling, I anticipate that I’ll be doing more a lot more work with Clearleft. I spent most of 2006 slacking off real work by writing another book (more on that soon). This year, I want to sink my teeth back into some design work. I can feel my skills atrophying from too much writing and talking and not enough doing.

This year’s resolutions are:

  • to get back to some “real” work,
  • to keep travelling and speaking (I do love it so!),
  • to not write a book,
  • to play more bouzouki.

That last one is probably as unrealistic as “to get in shape” but I’m including it to induce the feelings of guilt required to motivate me.

Mashing up with microformats

Back in March, during South by Southwest, Tantek asked me if I’d like to sit in on his microformats panel alongside Chris Messina and Norm! The audio recording of the panel is now available through the conference podcast.

I’ve taken the liberty of having the recording transcribed (using castingWords.com) and I’ve posted a tidied up version of the transcript to the articles section: Microformats: Evolving the Web. You can listen along through the articles RSS feed which doubles up as a podcast.

I’ve also posted the transcript on the microformats wiki so that others can edit it if they catch any glaring mistakes in the transcription.

During the panel I talked about Adactio Austin, a fairly trivial use of microformats but one that I’ve been building upon. I’d like to provide some cut’n’paste JavaScript that would allow people to get some added value from using microformats. Supposing you have a bunch of locations marked up in hCard with geotags, you could drop in a script and have a map appear showing those locations.

Perhaps the geotagging won’t even be necessary. Google added a geocoder to their mapping API two weeks ago. The UK, alas, is not yet supported (probably because the Post Office won’t let go of its monopoly that easily… Postman Pat, your money-grabbing days are numbered).

Unfortunately, Google Maps isn’t very suited to the cut’n’paste idea: you have to register a different API key for each domain where you want to use the mapping API.

The Yahoo maps API is less draconian about registration but its lack of detailed UK maps makes it a non-starter for me.

Maybe I should step away from maps and concentrate on events instead. It probably wouldn’t be too hard too write a script to create a calendar based on any hCalendar data found in a document. Perhaps I’ll investigate the calendar widget from Yahoo.

Ultimately I’d like to create something like Chris’s Mapendar idea. If only there were enough hours in the day.

Back from @media

@media 2006 is over. All in all, it was a great event.

As Ben noted, there wasn’t much blogging going on during the conference itself. That was partly due to the crappy WiFi situation — provided in theory, but not really in practice — but also there was just so much going on that there wasn’t much time for blogging. As well as the twin tracks of the event itself, there was a whole lot of socialising going on in the evening. Having a pint and a chat takes precedence over a blog post for me. Besides, the hotel I was staying at, though lovely in every other respect, didn’t have free WiFi. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the swankiness of a hotel and the connectivity options available.

Apart from the network issues, the conference itself was pretty slick and professional. Most importantly, the subject matter was engaging and well presented.

Eric kicked off with a great trip down memory lane in his Thursday morning keynote. After that, the room was divided in two and the schedule was forked. I had to forego the design panel with Jon, Veerle and Cameron because I was speaking at the same time on Using DOM Scripting to Plug the Holes in CSS.

The slides from my presentation are now online. The presentation itself went pretty well. I got a lot of positive feedback from people afterwards but I didn’t feel I was knockin’ ‘em dead. I think I nailed it at last year’s @media so it was always going to be a tough act to follow. Still, I did have fun getting the crowd to identify Buck Owens, explain the Kobayashi Maru scenario and recite Jabberwocky.

I stuck around for Dave’s talk on Typography on the Web which I thoroughly enjoyed. During the Q&A, he was getting grilled with lots of specific questions about sIFR that made me want to ask a nice straightforward question like, “What’s your favourite typeface?”

After lunch, the accessibility panel discussed the merits and shortcomings of WCAG 2.0. There was a Joe-shaped void that dominated proceedings — his presence loomed large.

Jeffrey Veen finished off the day in typically superb style. He remains one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen. Once Jeff had finished speaking, the very first question from the audience was, “Where do we go to watch the match?”

Through the power of planning ahead, Patrick was able to avert a riot and provide a venue for all the @media attendees to watch some men kick a ball around a field. Jessica and I took advantage of the fact that the whole country was glued to the gogglebox and got a table at one of our favourite restaurants in Soho.

The high quality of presentations was maintained on day two. Dan got the day off to a great start when he walked us through some tips and tricks for Bulletproof Web Design.

The panel on JavaScript Libraries: Friend or Foe? was tremendously entertaining. I’m not just saying that because I have a soft spot for JavaScript. The panel was superbly moderated by Cameron and featured larger than life characters like ppk, Stuart, Simon and Dan.

The other Cameron turned out to be a very smooth talker indeed. I missed his presentation on Mobile Web Design at SXSW so I was very glad to be given a second chance to catch it. It was slick. While I admired Cameron A’s audacious use of Cooper Black for his slides, Cameron M’s slides featured the nicest use of Trajan I’ve ever seen.

For the afternoon, I listened to Nate give a behind-the-curtains look at three different projects from Yahoo Exclamation Mark: the Yahoo Exclamation Mark homepage, Yahoo Exclamation Mark Photos, and the new Yahoo Exclamation Mark Mail. The hands-on approach was continued with Tantek’s presentation on microformats.

As the day progressed, attendees were encouraged to fill out little cards with questions for a mysterious closing panel on Hot Topics. Sounds like my kind of panel. During one of the breaks, I asked Patrick if I could join in. It turns out he was going to ask me anyway. In fact, he asked if I’d like to moderate.

Would I like to moderate a panel? Of course I would! I’m a power-hungry dictator at heart. Panel moderators are the Dungeon Masters of tech conferences.

It turned out to be more fun than should be legally allowed. It was a dream panel of Molly, Jon, Eric and Tantek covering a nice range of high-temperature topics. I had a ball and, from the feedback I got later, a lot of the audience really enjoyed it too. I think it wrapped up the conference nicely.

Even though the official event was over, there was still time for eating, drinking and socialising with my fellow geeks. Thanks to Andy’s organisational efforts, we commandeered a pizza express before steamrolling onto one of the bars officially nominated for the evening’s carousing.

By Saturday morning, people were beginning to disperse. There was still time to hang out in St. James Park and watch the colour being trooped before heading off to the @media social on the other side of town.

After an afternoon in the pub immersed in geekery, I figured it was time to hit the road. I said some goodbyes (but, as usual, there were far more people I didn’t get to bid farewell to) and I caught a train back down to Brighton.

I had fun. I took pictures. Other people took pictures. I think they had fun too.

Off to @media

I’m just heading out the door to catch a train to London where I’ll spend the next few days enjoying the @media conference.

If you’re going to be there, let’s get together for some geekery and beer at one of the many social events orbiting the conference.

Ex-tech

XTech 2006 is over and with it, my excursion to Amsterdam.

All in all, it was a good conference. A lot of the subject matter was more techy than I’m used to, but even so, I found a lot to get inspired by. I probably got the most out of the “big picture” discussions rather than presentations of specific technology implementations.

Apart from my outburst during Paul Graham’s keynote, I didn’t do any liveblogging. Suw Charman, on the other hand, was typing like a demon. Be sure to check out her notes.

The stand-out speaker for me was Steven Pemberton of the W3C. He packed an incredible amount of food for thought into a succinct, eloquently delivered presentation. Come to think of it, a lot of the best stuff was delivered by W3C members. Dean Jackson gave a great report of some of the most exciting W3C activities, like the Web API Working Group, for instance.

I had the pleasure of chairing a double-whammy of road-tested presentations by Tom Coates and Thomas Vander Wal. I knew that their respective subject matters would gel well together but the pleasant surprise for me was the way that the preceding presentation by Paul Hammond set the scene perfectly for the topic of open data and Web Services. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the order of speakers and the flow of topics.

Stepping back from the individual presentations, some over-arching themes emerge:

  • The case for declarative languages was strongly made. Steven Pemberton gave the sales pitch while the working example was delivered in an eye-opening presentation of Ajax delivered via XForms.

  • Tim O’Reilly is right: data is the new Intel Inside. Right now, there’s a lot of excitement as to do with access to data via APIs but I think in the near future, we might see virtual nuclear war fought around control for people’s data (events, contacts, media, etc.). I don’t know who would win such a war but, based on Jeffrey McManus’s presentation, Yahoo really “gets it” when it comes to wooing developers. On the other hand, Jeff Barr showed that Amazon can come up APIs for services unlike any others.

  • Standards, standards, standards. From the long-term vision of the W3C right down to microformats, it’s clear that there’s a real hunger for standardised, structured data.

Put all that together and you’ve got a pretty exciting ecosystem: Web Services as the delivery mechanism, standardised structures for the data formats and easy to use declarative languages handling the processing. Apart from that last step — which is a longer-term goal — that vision is a working reality today. Call it Web 2.0 if you like; it doesn’t really matter. The discussion has finally moved on from defining Web 2.0 to just getting on with it (much like the term “information architecture” before it). The tagline of XTech 2006 — Building Web 2.0 — was well chosen.

But the presentations were only one part of the conference. Just like every other geek gathering, the real value comes from meeting and hanging out with fellow web junkies who invariably turn out to be not only ludicrously smart but really, really nice people too. It helps that a city like Amsterdam is a great place to eat, drink and talk about matters nerdy and otherwise.

The ugly American

I’m sitting in a big room at XTech 2006 listening to Paul Graham talk about why there aren’t more start-ups in Europe. It’s essentially a Thatcherite screed about why businesses should be able to get away with doing anything they want and treat employees like slaves.

In comparing Europe to the US, Guru Graham points out that the US has a large domestic market. Fair point. The EU — designed to be one big domestic market — suffers, he feels, by the proliferation of languages. However, he also thinks that it won’t be long before Europe is all speaking one language — namely, his. In fact, he said

Even French and German will go the way of Luxembourgish and Irish — spoken only in kitchens and by eccentric nationalists.

What. A. Wanker.

Update: Just to clarify for the Reddit geeks, here’s some context. I’m from Ireland. I speak Irish, albeit not fluently. I’m calling Paul Graham a wanker because I feel personally insulted by his inflammatory comment about speakers of the Irish language. I’m not insulted by his opinions on start-ups or economics or language death — although I may happen to disagree with him. I’m responding as part of the demographic he insulted. If he just said the Irish language will die out, I wouldn’t have got upset. He crossed a line by insulting a group of people — a group that happened to include someone in the audience he was addressing — instead of simply arguing a point or stating an opinion. In short, he crossed the line from simply being opinionated to being a wanker.

Upcoming webolution

At the risk of becoming API-watch Central, I feel I must point out some nifty new features that have been added to Upcoming.org.

Andy and the gang have been diligently geotagging events using Yahoo’s geocoder API. Best of all, these latitude and longitude co-ordinates are now also being exposed through the API. Methinks Adactio Austin won’t be the last mashing up of event and map data I’ll be doing.

On the Upcoming site itself, you can now limit the number of attendees for an event, edit any venues you’ve added and edit your comments. This comes just a few days after Brian Suda mentioned in a chat that he would like to have the option to edit this comment later (right now he’s looking for somewhere to stay during XTech).

Feature wished for; feature added. This is exactly the kind of iterative, evolutionary growth that goes a long way towards what Kathy Sierra calls creating passionate users. By all accounts, her panel at South by Southwest was nothing short of outstanding. Everyone I spoke to who attended was raving about it for days. Muggins here missed it but I have a good excuse. I was busy signing freshly-purchased books, so I can’t complain.

Design, old and new

One of the very first panels on the very first day of South by Southwest was Traditional design and new technology. The subject matter and the people couldn’t be faulted but there were some technical difficulties with the sound. I was at the back of the room and the dodgy mics made it hard going at times.

Khoi and Mark had some really good insights into the role of traditional design disciplines in the brave new media world. I enjoyed the fact that the panelists weren’t always in agreement: I like it when things get stirred up a bit.

Towards the end of the discussion, a question came up that turned the subject on its head: how has new technology affected old media. I didn’t get the chance to mention it at the time, but I immediately thought of last year’s Guardian redesign.

There are a lot of very webby touches to the new-look Guardian: blue underlined “links”, sidebars with the acronym FAQ, etc. Perhaps it’s a result of this webbiness, but I really, really like the paper’s new look and feel.

I’m not the only one. When Shaun came to visit, he was quite taken with the Guardian. The custom made typeface — Egyptian — sealed the deal.

I didn’t post my initial reaction to the paper’s new look because I wanted to allow some time to live with it for a while. My feelings haven’t changed though. I still like it a lot.

I do wonder, though, whether my emotional response to the design stems from the fact that I’m web-based kind of guy with a web-based aesthetic. It would be interesting to compare my reaction (or Shaun’s) with that of someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time browsing websites.

Talking about microformats

My Adactio Austin mashup proved to be very useful during South by Southwest. It was very handy having instant access to the geographical location of the next party.

Austin being Austin, I didn’t have to worry much about getting online: the city is swimming/drenched/floating/saturated in WiFi. After attending Tantek’s birthday celebrations at La Sol Y La Luna restaurant, which is not located downtown, a bunch of us stood on the street and began hailing taxis to get back into the town centre. In an attempt to ascertain exactly where we needed to tell the cab driver to take us in order to reach the next party, I whipped out my iBook, hoping for a net connection. There were five networks. That’s my kind of town.

While I had anticipated that Adactio Austin would make the evenings run smoother, I had planned on it affecting my daytime activities. As it turned out, my little experiment landed me a place on a panel.

When Aaron and I were preparing our DOM Scripting presentation for this year’s conference, I made sure that we nabbed ourselves a slot on the first day. I wanted to get the work out of the way so that I could relax for the rest of the conference. It was a good plan but the use of in my mashup prompted Tantek to ask me to sit it on his Monday morning panel. That’s how I found myself sitting behind a microphone together with Tantek, Chris and Norm, talking about the practical implementations of hCard and hCalendar.

I have to say it was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable talks I’ve ever given. We began the morning in a cafe geeking out about microformats, then we were in the green room geeking out about microformats and finally we were on stage geeking out about microformats. The movement from one location to the other went so smoothly that I felt as relaxed on the panel as I did in the cafe. I’m really glad Tantek asked me to say a few words.

Mind you, I probably came across as a complete booze hound. Tantek talked about the philosophy behind microformats, Chris talked about the tails extension for Flock, Norm talked about microformats at Yahoo! Europe… and I talked about where to go to get free beer. At this stage, I had also been doing some practical research in the field so I suspect my voice was somewhat raspy.

It was really interesting to compare the change in the perception of microformats within the space of one year. At South by Southwest 2005, there were two standout presentations for me: Eric and Tantek independently gave talks about this new fangled idea called microformats. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of the concept, so it was a real eye-opener for me. This year, microformats were a recognised, exciting technology. One week after SXSW, Bill Gates announced that “We need microformats”. That’s a lot of recognition.

From my experiences with my own humble experiments, I think there’s a lot of value to be had with mixing up events (using hCalendar) and mapping (using ). Throw into the mix and you’ve got some pretty big steps towards a good lowercase semantic web.

Think about it: if you’ve got some kind of application that’s native to a web of data (as Tom so succinctly puts it), you’ve already got addressable objects (using the most basic RESTful interface of all: URLs). Now, if you can add geographical, temporal or semantic data to those resources (using geotagging, hCalendar, and tagging, respectively), you can increase the value of that data exponentially. Just think of all the mashup potential of that content.

Dammit! In hindsight, I wish I could have nabbed Tom, Reverend Dan, Thomas and Tantek in Austin to have an impromptu brainstorm in the corridor about this stuff.

A proper podcast for South by Southwest 2006

The South by SouthWest website erronously lists a series of downloadable audio files as “podcasts”. Hugh, don’t make me come over there and give you a patronising scolding like the one I gave to Ryan.

Confusingly, there is an RSS file available but it doesn’t use enclosures so podcast playing software like iTunes can’t find the audio files.

Jason Landry to the rescue. He’s hand-rolled an RSS file with enclosures pointing to the audio files. Point your podcast subscribing software of choice at the SXSW 2006 Interactive Panels Podcast.

Back from Austin

The interactive portion of South by Southwest is over. It’s been quite a whirlwind.

It was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Wherever I went, I met great people and I was able to put more faces to blogs I read. If I had one complaint it was that there just wasn’t enough time to really talk to everyone. I wish I could have cloned myself for the duration of the conference. There are a lot of people I would have liked to have spent more time with.

To anyone who came up and introduced themselves to me, thank you. Thank you very much.

To anyone who I went up to and introduced myself to, sorry. Extra special apologies to the woman whose foot I stood on while I was having a fanboy moment with Derek Powazek. I finally get to meet the person responsible for me “getting” the web all those years ago and I go and ruin the moment.

Just about everyone who was in Austin last year was back again this year except for Dan, Doug, Elsa and Joe who were greatly missed. Those who did attend came en masse. To paraphrase Bruce Sterling, people were showing up in buddy lists.

Attendance was up; way up. Fortunately everything scaled up pretty well. The rooms were bigger and the venues booked for parties were expanded. The Brit Pack contingent was at least twice as big this year, but we’re being given a run for our money from The Oz Squad.

The really gratifying thing about SXSW this year was the increase in the number of women attending. As Leslie put it, it’s a very good sign when there’s a queue for the women’s toilets at a tech conference. Compare and contrast to the Carson Workshops Summit here in England where, out of 800 attendees, the number of women was a low single figure percentile.

I think BlogHer helped enormously in raising the profile of women at SXSW this year. I really, really hope that this trend continues and spreads to other conferences. It just remains for us men to get over the ‘boys will be boys” jokes and downright sexism that rise to the surface with depressing predictability.

For the most, I kept myself offline for the duration of the conference. I kept my laptop firmly closed during every presentation and enjoyed them more for it. I’m relying on the audio files and Cindy’s l33t liveblogging skillz to refresh my memory. I have lots I want to talk about: microformats, tagging, accessibility and more on the role of comments and online communities.

Expect to see some rambling posts prompted by panels and corridor conversations.