Posts from March 2005

Yahoo! H*cks Group

I set up a Yahoo! Group for Yahoo! Hacks. The funny part is, the word "hack" isn't allowed in group descriptions, so I had to disguise the word as "h4ck". I'm hoping this book will help change that. ;)

the word hack is not permitted at yahoo groups

If you're interested in discussing potential Yahoo! h4cks or just want to follow along, tune into the Yahoo! Hacks Group.

Update (3/31): Unfortunately, I had to make the Yahoo! Hacks Group invite-only instead of open to the public. With this many years of working on the web, you'd think I would have learned some fundamental truths about it by now. ;) What can I say, I'd like to be optimistic.

One with Yahoo!

Yahoo! Hacks Now that etech has come and gone, I can finally talk about my latest project: Yahoo! Hacks. I'm writing furiously now, and the book will be edited by Brian Sawyer at O'Reilly. (Here's a shot Brian took of me signing the contract at etech. And vice versa.) If you've been watching tech news at all lately, you know this is an exciting time to be focusing on Yahoo! Somewhere between the Flickr deal, their new weblog tool, web services, the buzz game, Yahoo! Music, their publisher network, My Yahoo! RSS, (and the list goes on) it seems that Yahoo! is morphing into something new. I'm looking forward to writing about what they're up to, and how you can use the rest of their domain in unique ways.

As with all of the books in the Hacks series, Yahoo! Hacks will be a group effort. You can think of me as a hacks curator, bringing together the best tips, tricks, and code I can find. That means I need help from you—the hack artisan—in bringing novel Yahoo! uses to a wider audience. Do you use Yahoo! in a way that Yahoo! may not have envisioned? I'd love to hear about it. (And if you'd like to share a hack publicly, feel free to post it at the Hacks site.) I contributed Google Smackdown to Google Hacks way back when, and as you can tell that led to more and more hacks-related writing for me. There's something satisfying about showing others you can do more with technology than what you'll find in the help docs. Plus it's fun to see your work in (what feels like) a more permanent and tactile medium like a book—I hope you'll consider contributing.

The schedule for the book is pretty fast, so I'd like to apologize to my friends and family up front—see ya in a few months! ;) In the meantime, I'll be one with Yahoo!

San Diego Zoo Photos

Luckily I was able to change my schedule a bit last week so I could go to the San Diego Zoo on Friday. I've often heard it called a zoo that does things right, and it really was the best zoo I've been to. Here are a few photos—

snake at the  san diego zoo (click for more)
snake at the San Diego Zoo (click for more)
I'm glad I got to see a bit more of San Diego than the conference hotel.

ETech Day 3

ETech Day 3 (for me) was yesterday, so I'm a bit late with the GIPs (generic info-packets).
  • Lawrence Lessig started the day with a talk called Re:MixMe. He made the case that the ordinary way culture has been built has been through remixing—recombining pieces of the culture in different ways—and recent changes in technology have meant less freedom to remix. New "ordinary ways" to communicate mean laws need to change to protect rather than limit freedom to communicate.
  • JC Herz talked about some emerging military technology. There was an impressive demo of cheap and fast photorealistic 3-D rendering. And a look at some "scene understanding" technology that allows a computer to find targets in a video stream and move the camera to follow their movement. I had the creeps throughout. (It's an important reminder to me to think through the potential application of any technology I work on.)
  • In a very surprising session, Paula Le Dieu from the BBC announced that they would be encouraging their users to rip, mix, and burn their content. Instead of sending lawyers after people who use BBC material in ways they may not have envisioned, they'll be encouraging use of their "creative archive". Unfortunately, their creative commons-inspired licenses will only apply in the UK, but she said they're working internally to make it an international effort. She left with the question: Could big media companies enable massive creativity?
  • Chris Anderson from Wired explained his Long Tail concept in detail. One point: recommendation engines push people into the long tail of non-hit (or past-hit) products. And we have an abundance of recommendation engines these days.
  • I heard Marc Hedlund talk about getting venture capital funding for a project. It was interesting to hear his stories—like hearing travel notes from some exotic locale I'll probably never visit. A point: get your company to the point where you don't need VC funding to be in a position to get VC funding.
  • Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann talked about Life Hacks, which are productivity tips & tricks that alpha geeks implement for themselves, but don't often share with others. One point: change your work habits to make failure difficult. If you think about your system of working as if it was a software system, you can think about "hacking" it to improve efficiency and get more stuff done.
  • I saw Ev's demo of his new application: Odeo. This whole podcasting thing could be big. The app is surprisingly polished for something still in alpha testing. One impressive bit is a Flash interface for recording and mixing audio.
  • Ben Trott talked about making web services personal. He announced Six Apart Power Tools, and showed how you could grab existing data and turn it into some compelling applications. One point: there is a lot of metadata out there (FOAF, Exif tags) just waiting for the connections to be exposed.
  • And finally, Mark Fletcher of Bloglines fame talked about his "rules of thumb" for birthing web startups. Lots of practical advice about funding, servers, and system administration.
And that brings my emerging technology adventure to an end. It was a great conference and now I'm tired.

ETech Day 2

There was no less information on Day 2 (for me) of ETech, but some packets are definitely being dropped en route. ;) Here are some more generic info-packets from the sessions I was at today:
  • The theme of looking to biology for digital inspiration continued today with Neil Gershenfeld linking digital fabrication with ribosomes. He called the human body a machine that includes all of the instructions for making itself. (In a way.) He discussed the illiberal art of making things, and machines that can make machines; fabrication labs that can produce more fabrication labs. (His forthcoming book: Fab: Personal Fabrication, Fab Labs, and the Factory in Your Computer.)
  • As the discussion of fabrication continued, Gershenfeld mentioned the value of digital fabrication would be found in the "market of 1" where the prototype is the product.
  • Cory Doctorow eloquently discussed the dangers of giving up too much liberty in the pursuit of less complex systems. He said that we've given up a lot in the battle against spam (closed relays, time and effort) but haven't gained a thing. We all still get spam. More of the same type of controls won't fix anything, and what will we give up in the process? (The same goes for DRM.)
  • Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia talked about collaboration on a massive scale. The English Wikipedia site has over 500,000 articles—written and categorized by volunteers. (Also: he feels group sites solve problems he called author fatigue and quality control.)
  • Clay Shirky interviewed Stewart from Flickr, Joshua from, and Wales from Wikipedia about mass categorization and user-tagging. One point: hierarchies are completely different from folksonomies, so stop comparing them. (Also: tagging doesn't really address individual vs. group tension, but it's "good enough" at what it does.)
  • James Surowiecki quoted Pascal, "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone." (Which sort of sounds like Sartre's "Hell is other people.") But of course it's not that simple for a guy who wrote a book called The Wisdom of Crowds. He talked about the good and bad of group interaction, information cascade, and the value of diversity/randomness in group selection.
  • Joel Spolsky discussed the importance of aesthetics in design, and ways to let users feel they're more in control of the applications they use. (He mentioned the book, Learned Helplessness.)
  • Jeremy Zawodny gave a tour of Yahoo!'s Web Services, and their new developer network. He mentioned that they used their Web Services to add an RSS-subscriptions feature for Yahoo! search results. (It just took a couple hours to implement.)
  • And James Larson showed video of some of his crazy hardware hacks. They included a VCR he turned into a scheduled pet-feeder, and "biometric silverware" that can measure stress (sort of).
And such. I guess my info-packets are blurring into overviews.

ETech Day 1

I'm at the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego. ETech always expands my geek consciousness, and I can't possibly write a summary of everything I've learned today. Here's a stab at one generic info-packet from each presentation I saw today:
  • One point that Tim O'Reilly and Rael Dornfest made in the O'Reilly Radar session is that data is the next "intel inside" (eg. Navteq powers most web mapping applications).
  • Stewart Butterfield used the term curate when talking about Flickr's favorites feature. This is a nice improvement over sharing favorites, or publishing bookmarks. I think the term curate shows a respect for users and their data.
  • It's not always easy to extend firefox, but at least you can—and in many ways.
  • Danny Hillis demonstrated the value of interacting with technology in a group, face-to-face. He showed video of a table—with an interactive display as the tabletop—which lets the user scroll and zoom around map data. Like rolling a paper map out onto a table, this device allows for pointing, eye-contact, speech, and body-language. But it uses the dynamic digital display, which we're all used to using in isolation. (Also: he showed video of a 3-D topographic map table that looks like it's from the future.)
  • Jeff Bezos introduced an extension to RSS developed by Amazon that lets people syndicate search results. It's called Open Search RSS, and it adds a few tags to describe the results in the file: totalResults, startIndex, and itemsPerPage. (Also: vertical search columns in A9 provided by anyone.)
  • Microsoft Research is working on a wearable computing device called a SenseCam. It measures motion, temperature, infrared, gps position, and takes still photos at various points. It's like a "black box recorder" for people. He mentioned practical uses for patients with memory loss, or "automatic tourist recording" for vacationers—but I can't get past the privacy implications. What if the government could mandate that people wear this, and have all of the data sent to the home office?
  • Yahoo! Research Labs announced a joint-venture with O'Reilly called Tech Buzz Game. It sounds like a virtual stock-market for tech terms that may be able to predict/track tech trends through which words are "bought" and "sold" most.
  • Google Labs has some cool user-interface stuff like the slider for Google Personalization that takes you from min to max personalized results.
  • George Dyson gave a history of Von Neumann's pioneering inventions that are now ubiquitous in computer hardware. One idea that struck me is thinking about each individual node on a network (IP Address) as a cell. Thinking with this metaphor, it seems we're in pre-historic times, and the cells need to evolve into larger, more complex organisms. (Note to self: study more computing history. [And biology?]) Cory Doctorow's notes.
  • AT&T Labs wants to "virtually bleach" the network to get rid of spam, but I wonder what else might be sanitized in the process.
  • Chis Heathcote and Matt Jones talked about taking computing beyond the monitor. They showed that they could exchange business card data by touching their phones together, and mentioned that Dance Dance Revolution is the biggest success in body/digital interaction.
  • Nelson Minar from Google pointed out why SOAP isn't easy.
  • And then Sam Ruby pointed out why "simple" HTTP isn't easy. (Which reminded me that Bertrand Russel said, "Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise." Maybe we're getting to a point where we need the Web to be more precise.)
And those are the Day 1 packets—a lot to think about.

Amazon's Improbable Phrases

How did I miss this? Amazon is analyzing the text of books to find Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs) contained within. This is a funny, interesting way to get a glimpse inside the book before you buy. For example, here are the SIPs for Gladwell's Blink: rapid cognition, intuitive repulsion, sip test, adaptive unconscious. (Overheard on #ETech.) I hope someone builds this for weblogs.

Corvallis Boosterism

The town of Corvallis, Oregon (where I'm currently a proud resident) was recently ranked the 7th best place to live in the United States by Men's Journal. Local Paper: Corvallis: We're Number 7! Men's Journal is often considered the foremost expert on livable cities. ;) Here's their teaser article with the top picks: 50 Best Places to Live. Oregon had a good showing with Bend listed as the Best Adventure Town, and both Portland and Ashland getting a nod.

Making ETech

The good news is that I'll be heading to San Diego next week for the Emerging Technology Conference. I was looking at the conference schedule yesterday and I'm really looking forward to it. In fact, I can't find a time to skip out on the conference to visit the San Diego Zoo. That will have to wait for another trip sometime. If you're going to ETech, and want to talk at some point—drop me a line. Or just say hi at the conference. I'll be the introverted computer geek staring at my laptop. (That joke never gets old.)

Missing sxsw

This will be the first year since 1999 that I won't be making the annual trek to Austin, TX for South by Southwest. (And I started going to sxsw music in 1996.) I'm going to miss seeing friends that I only see in person at sxsw. Not to mention the shiners, margaritas, barbecue, and good salsa. (The salsa in Oregon is pretty watered-down, and barbecue is non-existent.) The conference is always great too, and just hearing about the projects people are working on is inspirational. Many of my project ideas can be traced back to a week of conversations at sxsw. Unfortunately, the timing didn't work out this year. So I'll just have to tune into sxswBaby!, the Flickr sxsw tag, and any public backchannels I can find. If you're going to sxsw, have an extra shiner for me.

My podcasting aha moment

One of my favorite programs on NPR is On the Media. I always seem to miss it on the radio because it's on at an odd time for me. So I've messed around with FM tuners on my PC, and TiVo-like programs trying to catch them. I could never find the right combination of hardward and software. They recently started podcasting their shows—On the Media podcasts—and I haven't missed one since. New episodes just show up in iTunes and I can listen to them whenever I have time. I didn't quite understand the appeal of the subscription component of podcasting before, but now I see that if there's a program I always want to catch, podcasting is very handy.

Susan Jacoby on secularism

Tonight sk and I went to hear Susan Jacoby speak at OSU. She's written a history of American secularism called Freethinkers. She was quick to point out that the secular American government was the first of its kind. The American constitution says that the power of the government comes from "we the people" rather than the divine. I couldn't help but think of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur runs into some peasants working in the field and has some trouble when he asks for info:
Arthur: I am your king!

Woman: Well, I didn't vote for you.

Arthur: You don't vote for kings.

Woman: Well, how did you become King, then?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!

Dennis: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet!
The scene is funny because it points out that ideas about government have changed over the centuries. Of course this has little to do with Jacoby's talk, and I'm not doing her talk justice with a Python quote. But it was great to hear her speaking strongly for freedom of thought, and pointing out the reasons why we have a secular government today. Even though discussing secularism isn't in vogue right now, I do believe it's important to remember that separation of church and state—ending the idea of a compulsory state religion—has been a key element in the success of the American experiment. I picked up her book, and I'm looking forward to learning more.