Sunday, May 11, 2008

Blog On the Move

I am in the process of transitioning my blog over to Wordpress at

Please check out to follow me there!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

SocialDevCamp East: Your To Do List

Hey folks,

I can't tell you how excited we are about SocialDevCamp East on Saturday. We've heard from so many of you saying that this is exactly the event you wanted, and we have high hopes that we'll have an engaging event that we'll want to repeat in the fall.

We've been busy doing all kinds of things in preparation. As this is a user-powered un-conference, here's your to-do list:

1) Visit the wiki page at

2) Be sure you're signed up as an attendee (or volunteer or sponsor) on the Wiki page (password is c4mp); if you do not list yourself there, there *will not* be enough food for everyone.

2) Know where you're going. Study the map and photos on the Wiki page.

3) Bug your friends. If there are people who *should* be at this event that are not listed, please reach out to them. We want smart people with interesting perspectives. Be sure they are there.

4) If you're not coming, please use Facebook to indicate that now; we need as accurate a picture as possible so we have room for everyone who wants to be there.

5) *Think* about the sessions you want to propose and/or lead. Remember, this is an unconference. Everybody should be prepared to lead and share. Lurking is strongly discouraged.

6) Be prepared to make a monetary contribution of at least $10-$20 (if you are not already a sponsor). While a contribution is not mandatory, we are over $1000 in the red right now. If everyone pitches in $10-$20, we can cover all of our costs and have some funds to cover some more food and beer at the afterparty.

7) Bring your brain. Seriously, don't leave home without it. Everyone is expected to contribute.

SDCE will be featured on WYPR 88.1FM Baltimore this afternoon at 5:30pm, on the Digital Café with Mario Armstrong. We'll have some other press at the event as well. This is a great opportunity to showcase all the activity in our region! It's not all about the valley!

We are at over 160 people now and this should allow us to have some great conversations.

Looking forward to seeing ALL of you on Saturday!


Dave, Ann, Keith, and Jennifer

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tip: Be with People who Love what You Love

This morning, I attended another of Jeff Pulver's Social Media Breakfasts.

Every time I go, I end up risking a parking ticket. The metered spots are invariably for 2 hours, and 10AM comes almost instantaneously. I can't tear myself away to go mind the meter; been lucky, so far.

At these events, I'm continuously engaged with friends new and old; like-minded people who love ideas like I do, and who can bat them around like tennis pros.

If you're like me, you find this kind of intense interaction to be exhilarating and stimulating.

This is what we want to facilitate at SocialDevCamp East -- a thoughtful conversation about new ideas and how to realize them. We want to discuss the future in an informed way, synthesizing the lessons of the past with today's emerging trends. We want to include economics, psychology, and design in this discussion. And iPhone and Rails and Twitter.

Anyway, if this sounds like a conversation you want to have, we guarantee that SocialDevCamp is going to be a blast, and that the day (and the party afterwards) will be a blur. A good blur; a blur you can leverage in the form of new ideas, relationships, and opportunities.

We want to thank our two newest sponsors: and Also thanks to David Kirkpatrick, Senior Technology Editor at Fortune magazine, for attending.

Looking forward to seeing you and your ideas in Baltimore on May 10th!

Dave, Ann, Keith, and Jennifer

Saturday, April 26, 2008

It's Official: Food is Oil

I would not have anticipated ever writing anything with this thesis: Fidel Castro was right.

A couple of years ago, he made it known that the global subsidy of biofuels would lead to an increase in the price of food because of the diversion of grain stocks (such as corn) into fuel production.

It seemed basic economics at the time and he's been proven correct. We saw it in the developed world first in the form of an increase in the price of milk (made from corn, essentially) and subsequently all dairy products.

Now we see it in the form of other grains, like rice and wheat, and there is no obvious end in sight. The craze to invest in biofuel technologies was nothing other than a stall tactic, to prevent investment in real alternative energy sources. While it's nice to re-use things like old fry oil to run your Mercedes or semi, there just isn't enough used restaurant oil to make a dent in our demand for energy.

Instead we've taken the final step in linking our food supply to the energy market: we've decided to invest heavily (and irrationally) in converting our food directly into energy with ethanol and soy biofuel subsidies.

It's not as though there had not previously been a link; oil companies have been powering agribusiness for the last 75 years at least. Petroleum waste products have been productively combined with chlorine and other chemicals to produce a huge number of chemicals that have proved useful as pesticides (and as PCBs, PVCs, and other plastics) and have led to the current abundance of food.

Ostensibly, this is a good thing; however as this has occurred, farming has become big business, and the same corporations that control the chemistry of the food supply (like Monsanto and Exxon/Mobil) now control the food supply itself. There's no monopoly like two monopolies.

If this theses are correct, one of the best things we can do to lower food prices and to promote investment in sustainable alternative energies is to loudly protest the investment in biofuels.

By removing subsidies for biofuels, we 1) direct food back to the food supply, thereby easing prices, 2) promote investment in sustainable alternative energy solutions, 3) agitate the monopoly link between corporate farms and the petroleum products they use, 4) put additional pressure on automakers to seriously consider the development of non-petroleum powered and, certainly, of non-biofuel powered vehicles.

So, I exhort you: help stop the subsidy of biofuel production. If there is a natural market for it, it will stand on its own.

Otherwise all we're doing is making food less affordable, creating agony for countries that can't afford these price increases, and extending the life of the petroleum monopolies.

Certainly new technologies like slow discharge capacitors hold real promise. Let's develop these ideas and show the oil companies that their stranded costs are their responsibility, not ours.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Building Tech Startups on the East Coast @ SocialDevCamp East

As we gear up for SocialDevCamp East in Baltimore on May 10, one of the things that we'd like to highlight is the diversity of Web 2.0 talent available here on the east coast.

The conventional wisdom today says that to make it as a social startup, you should a) move to San Francisco (preferably East Bay or SOMA), b) meet a bunch of cool people (natch), c) get funded (cake!), d) get featured in TechCrunch, e) build your startup to 500,000 users, f) get snapped up in an early acquisition by Google for $90M, g) repeat.

For lots of reasons, the odds of this working are low and getting lower. Why? For one, this is the conventional wisdom; everybody's doing it, why shouldn't you? Loads of ditto-heads are creating a glut of ideas. They all can't win.

Second, VC investments are often a trailing indicator of successful business sectors. VCs follow what has worked previously, which leads to persistent failures at the end of a business cycle. Why else do you think they need to rely on outrageous 100x returns? To make up for their last round of losses.

Why do you live where you do? Family, a partner, school, friends, or do you simply love where you live? There are countless talented people who have made the same choice as you, and they've made this choice not as a runner-up to a life of glory in the Bay area. They've made the choice as a matter of personal identity and conviction.

As I meet members of the tech business community along the east coast, I hear two things consistently. One, that the Bay area is getting weird these days, and that they are "all smoking the same air." Second, that the "VC community doesn't get it here," and that it's hard to get funding and launch a web-based startup on the east coast.

Sorry, but we can't have it both ways. We must choose: do you want to live in the Bay Area and sustain the vagaries of that echo-chamber culture, or do you want to grow where you're planted and build viable businesses here?

The fact is that we can't expect to improve the tech startup climate on the east coast if we don't come together and make it what we want it to be. And that means we need to stop looking over our shoulder at the west coast and start building businesses here and now, using telework, co-work, or traditional workspaces.

The 37signals blog covered this topic today, and reflected many of my opinions on the subject.

This is part of what we want to address at SocialDevCamp East. If we want to have a thriving startup culture here, we need to build it -- one relationship at a time.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Being an iPhone Developer Has Its Privileges

It means you get to pay $99 (plus sales tax). Hopefully in a few minutes I'll have a certificate to test apps on my iPhone!

See you at iPhoneDevCamp in New York this weekend?

We'll be sure to have iPhone topics at SocialDevCamp East on May 10!

SocialDevCamp East, May 10 in Baltimore

The last few weeks have been really busy. So much has been going on I haven't had time to blog.

Since last time, I've launched a new company called Roundhouse Technologies and helped to organize an unconference here in Baltimore called SocialDevCamp East.

I'll be talking about Roundhouse Technologies in more detail in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it's important to get the word out about SocialDevCamp, as it's coming up fast -- on May 10.

SocialDevCamp will be held in Baltimore and is an unconference focused on the future of the social web. We're looking for developers and thought leaders who are interested in imagining the future of the web, not just where it is today.

While "monetizing Facebook applications" might have been a good topic for six months ago, we're after a little deeper reflection than that. What are the long term implications of platforms like Facebook? What effect will Google's Application Engine have on creativity? What direction is the ideation, funding, and liquidity process going in? Do we need to create new paths to liquidity, as some have suggested?

SocialDevCamp is an unconference, so the agenda is not cast in stone; we'll form the agenda based on the interests of the attendees. It's also free to participants. Our costs will be covered by some sponsors; we need sponsors. My new company is one, but we could use more. Please email me at dave at roundhousetech dot com.

Why is SocialDevCamp East in Baltimore? It's central to DC, Philly and pretty accessible to NY and Boston. Our hope is to draw deep thinkers from each of these markets. This kind of conversation is happening much more frequently on the west coast, but as a friend of mine recently said with tongue firmly in cheek, "the people in San Francisco are all smoking the same air." There's something to that. We have an opportunity to have a thoughtful, realistic conversation that's influenced by reflection and not so much by what might be happening on Sand Hill Road.

We expect to have about 100 people. Please spread the word. We're planning to have four separate break out session periods, plus lunch and an after party. We hope you can make it to what should be a great event!

Sign up to attend with the event page on Facebook and the Barcamp PBWiki event page.

And if you know someone who would be a great fit for the event, please pass on the word. We're really looking forward to meeting all of the fantastic thinkers in our midst here on the east coast.

And yes, the venue has not yet been confirmed, but we're working that now. We'll update as soon as we have more specific details.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Connections Episode: Pulver TV, The Tech Tax, Berlin!

This was another action-packed week for me which I'm just recovering from now.

On Tuesday, I headed up to New York to be a part of another of Jeff Pulver's social media breakfasts. This one was at Friend of a Farmer (Gramercy Park area) and featured about 100 of New York's most active social networkers. I had a great time and met a ton of people, some of whom could become potential collaborators.

Jeff's onto something with these breakfasts. It's not rocket science -- it's getting people together who are preselected via a common medium -- but his belief in turning online connections into real human connections is powerful, and it will be the basis of much of how we all do business in the future. The world is re-sorting itself. More on that in a minute.

After the breakfast I headed over to Jeff's offices in Melville, NY to be on Jeff's online TV program, Pulver.TV. I was a featured guest, as was Ann Bernard from, a new social networking service (and Facebook app) that "makes spontaneous connections happen". More on that in a minute too.

Interview with Dave Troy:

Interview with Ann Bernard:

On Wednesday, I made an important appearance in Annapolis, Maryland at Save Maryland IT Day. For those of you reading this from outside Maryland (I dare say most of you), our state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has passed a law that imposes a 6% sales tax on all "computer services" -- whatever that means. Anyway, it applies to me and what I do and I have been part of a team of technology business leaders fighting this law. There are several bills pending that would repeal this tax, but it won't be easy to do. We need to get the word out about this to everybody in Maryland. This tax is bad, bad, bad! Learn more at the website for the Maryland Computer Services Association.

I developed a tool to help fight this tax: Call your legislator for free and express your opposition to the tax.

The World is Re-Sorting Itself
I'm active in my local technology business community. I think that's all part of good citizenship, and it's good business and common sense to connect with people who are close-by and like-minded.

But things are changing. The two local technology councils, and the economic development agencies who help to fund them, are primarily geared towards old-school, big-iron economic development. Convince a big company to put a corporate headquarters in your state (or county) and you've got a lot of jobs, tax base, and capital investment for years to come. This is not a criticism; this is naturally what they would want to encourage and it's great as far as it goes.

But that world is slipping away. Today, geography is no longer a primary concern for companies. Small, focused companies can be virtual, or distributed, and this is more functional than it's ever been. I am struck that Maryland wants to push its technology activities outside its borders.

Meanwhile, I am meeting my most valuable collaborators in places like New York, London, or Berlin, and finding that they live all over the world. I am more likely to start a company with people from six states and three countries than I am to start one entirely headquartered in Maryland.

Collaboration of subject-matter experts is what drives excellence in business and we are no longer likely to be able to convince these experts to co-locate near each other for years at a time. People choose where to live for a host of reasons that, ideally, should and can be disconnected from their professions.

Social networking tools now make it possible for us to locate and stay connected to our peers wherever they may be.

Likewise, Ann Bernard's brilliant WhyGoSolo concept helps connect people in an orderly way to share experiences. It's not a dating site; I described it as kind of like, only standing up. Meet new people, experience new things, grow your network, push your mind. A lot of people gravitate towards the more libidinous aspects of ideas like this, and hey, what happens between consenting adults is their business.

But again, that's not the point. We've only got about 80 years on the ship here, and life's too short not to use every last minute to its fullest. To the extent that social networking can help us make new connections -- both business and personal -- shouldn't we milk it for everything it's worth?

All these concepts -- Jeff's breakfasts, WhyGoSolo, -- help us make connections and maximize our life ROI.

Noel Hidalgo's Trip Around the World: CoWorking
As an experiment, I spent summer 2007 living in Berlin with my family. I got to know several ex-pats who were living there, or just passing through.

Coincidentally, I met up with Noel Hidalgo, whose "Luck of Seven" project was taking him on a trip around the world. Here's video I just found on of my interview with Noel in Berlin in July 2007.

Noel did a beautiful job editing this video. The kid with the accordion, the windmills, the street scenes -- he captured the zeitgeist of Berlin, summer 2007 perfectly.

Also with us that day was my friend Travis Todd, who coincidentally (and completely unbeknownst to me before meeting him there that day) is from Annapolis, Maryland and was a customer of mine years ago when I owned an ISP. And his little brother went to pre-school with my son.

See, Maryland? We don't need you. Tax us and we'll move to Berlin.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind: Opening Night

On Tuesday, I attended the press preview and opening night events for Design and the Elastic Mind at the MoMA in NYC. It opens to the public Sunday, February 24th and includes works from designers, scientists, digital artists and thinkers from across a wide range of disciplines; my projects Twittervision and Flickrvision are featured.

I strongly recommend that you check out this exhibition, especially if you're interested in the intersection between science, design, and art. There are some stunningly beautiful and provocative pieces. While the core ideas behind many of the pieces are technical -- computation, informatics, bioscience -- good design is required to make the information presentable and understandable to a broader audience. Paola Antonelli, curator for Architecture and Design at the MoMA, has done a remarkable job of assembling these pieces.

Here are some photos from the party Tuesday night.

Large scale, open-source Graffiti Projection System from Graffiti Research Lab. I need to build one of these. The graffiti is "painted" where the green laser hits. Note that the paint drips "up" in this photo. You can do that with digital paint!

This still seems improbable.

Sofia Lagerkvist (right) w/partner from Front Design. Creators of the remarkable "Sketch Furniture", which can be drawn freehand in 3-space, then rendered in plastic using a laser-based process. Insane. Create your own furniture that looks like it's straight out of a cartoon!

This is an example of an object created with the Sketch Furniture process.

The Painstation video game; where the punishment for losing is actual pain, inflicted by a table-mounted wristband!

Adam Putter and Janis Mussat. Their project helps beer drinkers in Toronto coordinate beer runs, navigating complex store-closing hours!

No contemporary design exhibit is complete without the OLPC!

Me and Paola Antonelli, MoMA Curator of Design & Architecture.
She curated Design and the Elastic Mind.

My favorite installation in the show, Shadow Monsters by Philip Worthington. Transforms people into amazing sights and sounds. You need to see this.

Me and Ian Spiro of, a Google maps project that shows the fast-food restaurants in the United States. He wishes he had more time to devote to this. He thinks Arby's is retreating, but he wants to prove it!

"I Want You to Want Me" is a project by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, of fame. This project scrapes data from online dating sites and attempts to make sense of it. It uses a giant touch screen and is visually quite impressive.

A giant, pulsating 15' tall "tree" made from what appear to be clear-coated fiberoptic strands. Really, really impressive piece of work. It is the "Sonumbra" by Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl.

Me and Noelle Steber of the Google Moon project. Noelle was responsible for assembling the Apollo data and is a student at MIT.

My wife Jennifer, showing off the digitally projected "Lightweeds" by Simon Heijdens.

My other project, Flickrvision

All in all, a successful evening. Design and the Elastic Mind will run through May 12, 2008! I hope you get a chance to see this exhibit in person!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Mashup Is Dead

Today I want to rant about a few things I hate. They include:

  • The Word "Mashup"
  • Proclamations of the form: "A Thing is Dead; Long Live that Thing"
  • People Who Insist on Continuing to Use the Word Mashup
  • The Term "Web 2.0"

I know it's heresy. Mashups and Web 2.0 are what's hot, right? I myself am considered to be a "mashup creator" working with Web 2.0 concepts.

But that era is behind us. The term "Mashup" made sense when coders were actually lifting data from places it was hard to lift from and putting it into contexts that were hard to access. This, my friends, is no longer the state of affairs on the Internet.

Today, we are working with a world of data that wants to be free and is published via countless, well documented API's. In the cases where API's are still not available (or whorishly published in hopes of becoming universally adopted), advanced tools and protocols are available to automate what used to be hard.

We must remember that the word "mashup" hails back to music, originally; a talented music editor might string together pieces of previously recorded music to create something new. This was an artform in itself, and implied a kind of subversion. A repurposing of content, often done without the permission or knowledge of the original creator.

Well, the days of this kind of thing on the Internet are, thanks to everybody's efforts to open things up, largely over. In a world where open source software is widely accepted, where it makes sense for companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Amazon (and gee, every other damn company out there) to publish API's that encourage their data to be woven into the fabric of the net, there is no need for the coy sense of subversion that comes from the word "Mashup."

What we've got now, folks, is DATA! Great flowing rivers of it! Software that helps us use it! Ruby on Rails, Asterisk, MySQL, PGSQL, Apache, Freeswitch, Flex! Where it's not open source, it's at least free! Everything has an API and the things that don't are falling away.

The next person that says to me with a straight face that they "make mashups" is going to get sucker-punched. The word has lost its meaning, so let's move on.

That said, explaining to a layperson what it is we "creative coders" do, sometimes you, well, have to resort to saying, "I make mashups." But do us all a favor, try to explain what that really means today. Let's move to a world where we can think about data, about tools (which is really just code-as-data), and imagining what we can do with it all.

Mashup was a good word for perhaps 2003-2007, but it implies limitations and barriers that simply no longer exist. We can do better.

What would YOU call the innovations that are possible with all the data and tools we have today?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Upcoming Events for Dave Troy...

Well folks, it's shaping up to be a busy few weeks!

This week, my projects Twittervision and Flickrvision will be opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an exhibit called Design and the Elastic Mind. A press preview will be held on Tuesday morning at 10AM, and opening night will be at 6:30 or something that day. It's pretty exciting; I never suspected my locking myself in a room and coding would lead to this sort of thing! The exhibit is open to the general public Feb 24-May 12, 2008.

Opening Night Photo Report!

Beyond that, here's what else is going on:

Jeff Pulver's Social Media Breakfast in New York - Feb 26 8AM
Jeff's been sponsoring these events in cities across the country (and around the world) the last few months, and I made it to the most recent one in Washington DC on February 7th. It was a blast; a chance to catch up with some old friends and make many new ones. If you are interested in social media, I suggest you seek out one of these breakfasts near you. Seek out the details for this event on Facebook and RSVP. They fill up fast.

If all goes well, I will also be appearing on Jeff's show PulverTV as part of my visit to New York that day. Please stay tuned for the details on that.

eComm 2008 - Sunnyvale, CA - March 12-14
I'll be speaking at eComm 2008 about open source telephony, social media and making wild and crazy things. eComm is the next version of what was O'Reilly Media's eTel show. While no longer affiliated with O'Reilly, it should be the premier venue for telecommunications innovators and will feature a good representation from the handset, carrier, and open-source worlds. Of all the shows I attended last year, eTel was one of the most valuable, and eComm is carrying the torch forward.

There's still time to get in on eComm. Please visit the eComm website for more information and to register.

VON.x 2008 Spring - San Jose, CA - March 17-20
This is Jeff Pulver's big semi-annual US tradeshow about IP Communications. While originally focused on VoIP, it has expanded to cover video and social media. I've been attending nearly every VON show since 2003 or so and have found the sense of community and camaraderie to be very valuable. Don't miss the party. Jeff manages to get some great bands and everybody always has a great time.

This year VON.x will be co-located with Digium Asterisk World, a joint-venture between Pulver Media and Digium. I'll be speaking at Digium Asterisk World on March 18th. Please visit the VON website for more information and to attend.

Other Jeff Pulver Social Media Breakfasts
I'll also be attending these other Jeff Pulver social media breakfasts:

  • San Jose, March 17 (as part of VON)
  • Baltimore, March 25 (it's in my hometown!)
  • Washington, DC, May 1

I'm looking forward to meeting folks at all of these events and hope to have a lot to talk about in the next few weeks. Meantime, please do stop by the MoMA in New York and check out Design and the Elastic Mind.

See you on the road!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Wire and the Wireless: Marc Steiner and WYPR

In Baltimore, life is imitating art this week.

If you have followed the HBO show The Wire, you know that it's not really just a "police" show, but is really about the economics of cities. It shows us in heartbreaking and sometimes humorous detail how the drug trade, police, politics, labor, education, and the media are all entwined, complicit in creating exactly the social landscape we inhabit. Good and bad, the show's creator David Simon likes to say that, "this is as much America as we've paid for," and hopes to show us how this ecosystem really operates.

I'm not much of a TV watcher, but because The Wire is about my hometown of Baltimore, I watch it with special interest. Besides the show's already complicated fictional storyline, there are parallels to the real world that those of us who live here can pick up on. The fictional mayor is a doppelganger for Martin O'Malley; the city council president is a version of Sheila Dixon. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich made an appearance as a security guard at the State House. I could go on and on; for lovers of Maryland the show is a rich trove of on-location shoots, cameo appearances and, really, is a kind of love-letter to Baltimore.

The current season focuses on the media. In the show, the Baltimore Sun is facing outside ownership (really happened) and cutbacks (really happened) and the closure of its foreign bureaus (really happened). The paper staff is asked to "do more with less" and accept that fact that the newspaper business is changing. More focus is placed on the bottom line than on reporting, and naturally, quality suffers.

While David Simon (the show's creator) has been criticized for creating an oversimplified caricature of the Sun and its woes (especially when compared to his somewhat more nuanced portrayals of law enforcement and political worlds), his portrayal of the media still rings true.

In fact, this week it seemed particularly prescient as Baltimore suffered yet another in its long line of indignities: the loss of Marc Steiner from its public radio airwaves.

Marc has been a fixture in Baltimore public radio for the last 15 years. As host of "The Marc Steiner Show" from 1993-2008, he shed "light, not heat" on the complex world we live in; on facets of Baltimore, of Maryland, and the world at large. In 2002, Marc led an effort to purchase what was then WJHU from Johns Hopkins University (my alma mater) and make it into a public radio station with significant community involvement. By all accounts, he was instrumental in helping to raise over $750,000 to help purchase the station, and to many in the public was perceived as Mr. Public Radio in Baltimore.

However, the total financing required to purchase the station from Johns Hopkins was $5 million, and other investors stepped in to fill the gap. While it was a minor miracle to have raised the initial $750,000, the remainder had to come from somewhere, and several investors, including Tony Brandon, Barbara Bozzuto, and others helped to seal the deal. Since WYPR was launched in 2002, it has been very successful. Many new programs have been launched, and it has been one of a few things that Baltimoreans could be really proud of.

The Marc Steiner Show, running from 12-2pm Monday-Thursday, has been one of its most recognizable features. Marc's voice, his laugh, and his theme song are as much Baltimore as Natty Boh and blue crabs. Marc has been such a recognizable champion of Baltimore that he's even been included in The Wire; once as an unseen voice on a car radio, and again as a moderator of a political debate (something that he's also done).

The last Marc Steiner show was broadcast last Thursday. WYPR's manager Tony Brandon cited sagging ratings as the reason for the show's cancellation. While this may be true, a careful reading of history shows that there has been a long-standing philosophical gap between Steiner and WYPR manager Tony Brandon.

Like David Simon, who was offered a buyout deal to leave the Sun, Brandon offered Steiner a $50,000 buyout deal to leave WYPR and not speak to the media.

If there's one thing I know, it's that you shouldn't try to bribe a hippie. Especially one that's still got his integrity and that is beloved by a decent chunk of the local population.

As you can imagine, this has turned into a fiasco. It's not clear how it will resolve itself, what should happen, who's to blame for what, when. It's like something straight out of season 5 of The Wire. There is a complexity at work here; however, one thing is certainly true: Marc has done a tremendous public service to Baltimore and to Maryland the last 15 years, and he deserves recognition and thanks for that service.

As a former guest on Marc's show (I was on roughly once a month from about 1998-2001 talking about technology and internet topics), I'm a participant in the drama, even if in a small way. My friend Erik Monti, myself, and others have formed a Facebook page to help Support Marc Steiner. Whatever happens, we want to do what we can to make sure that Marc gets a fair deal out of this, and that people know how much he meant to Baltimore.

It's a shame that David Simon didn't get a chance to include this final coda of the corporatization of Baltimore's media in The Wire. Now, let's do a quick count:

We're down The Wire and Marc Steiner. We won't even get to hear Marc interview David Simon anymore. As WYPR's "owners" (if they are not the public) grapple with what to give us instead of Marc, I hope they consider that ratings are not the only measurement of value.

If that was true for television, we'd have only American Idol (a ratings star) rather than The Wire (which struggles in ratings); this would surely be a tremendous loss. HBO deserves credit for allowing David Simon to create important art and entertainment that transcends the need for "ratings".

WYPR should have allowed Marc Steiner the same freedom. Sometimes, a realistic portrait isn't what we want to see, but we need it nonetheless.

And as for WYPR, this is -- apparently -- as much radio as we've paid for.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

ActsAsRenderer Brings Output to Models

Judging by the fact that there are several posts about this topic out in the wild, and that I have come across a need for it more than once, I thought it would be helpful to wrap up this functionality into a plugin and put it out into the world. Give a warm welcome to ActsAsRenderer!

Before you go off on a tirade about the evils of violating MVC, let me first say I know the arguments and I agree with you. However, in a world of complex systems where not everything is done via full-stack HTTP, there are legitimate reasons to output data directly from models, and ActsAsRenderer helps you do it.

With ActsAsRenderer, you get four cool new functions.

For your model class, you get render_file and render_string. For your instances, you get render_to_file and render_to_string.

Probably the most common (and legitimate) use of this kind of functionality is for rendering data out of a Rails script (say with script/runner). Since that environment is not a full-stack HTTP view of the world, it's a real pain to render any kind of structured output. Not anymore! With acts_as_renderer in your model, you can render your views and give your model the voice it's been lacking!

I've had this need come up several times. Most recently, I built a server configuration management system using Rails. While it is nice to preview the rendered configuration files using Rails-over-HTTP, it is also essential to be able to write those same configuration files out to the filesystem. In another case, I had a background DRb process that needed to be able to render templated output to the filesystem. I had to go build a mock-controller and do some pretty unsavory things; all of that would have been obviated with acts_as_renderer.

Now, I can simply say:

class Server < ActiveRecord::Base

def build_configuration
render_to_file("configs/#{f}", "#{config_dir}/#{f}.conf")

The render_to_file function renders the templates located in configs (under app/views by default) and writes them to the files specified in the config_dir; it's also smart enough to know that render_to_file is being called from a 'server' instance and sets @server accordingly. So my templates in configs are simply:

; Configuration Snippet for Server <%=@server.description%>

<%= render :partial => 'configs/queue', :collection => @server.queues %>

Please do think before using this plugin. It can be used for some seriously evil violations of good MVC design practice, and you are responsible for your own actions. However, this can also be used to make your existing designs *much* more robust and elegant, and I encourage you to use it where that is true.

It's ready to drop in. Everything is there, including tests. Enjoy!

NOTE: Version 1.0 only supported Rails 2.0; I just added version 1.01 which will work with either Rails 1.2.x or 2.0.x. Please feel free to ping me with any questions.

acts_as_renderer at RubyForge

Monday, January 28, 2008

Announcing Spinvision.TV!

Well, folks, it's here. The new global time-waster video art project, Spinvision.TV!


Since releasing Twittervision and Flickrvision last year, I've been imagining what other kinds of visualizations could be created. It was really a natural progression. First text, then photos, and now videos. It's a trilogy of global media trivia.

Spinvision.TV takes videos from YouTube and plots them on a moving globe. The globe is provided by my friends at Poly9 and is built in Flash; since Flash includes video player capabilities, it was a matter of tweaking things to get the Poly9 FreeEarth component to work the way I wanted it to, and Poly9 was very helpful in making this happen.

We also had the idea to show night and day imagery of the earth, and I worked with Poly9 to put that together; the part of the globe that is illuminated is where it's really day when you're watching!

The end result, I hope, is an innovative, fresh look at "Video On Earth" and it's a view that I hope is captivating, educational, trivial, humorous, ridiculous, and truthful.

The simple idea behind Twittervision and Flickrvision was to show the earth in a new way. I think Spinvision does that too. While there is no shortage of online video content, it seems cloistered, disconnected, and partitioned. My goal with Spinvision was to break down those walls and provide the context of place and time.

Geography may seem irrelevant today, in the age of the global Interweb, but it still matters. The content that comes from our hometowns says much about who we are. Video posted from Saudi Arabia says something that people in France or in the United States need to see. Of course, we have more in common than divides us, but we need to visualize and comprehend that. And of course, we should be aware of our genuine cultural differences, and what they really are.

On YouTube (and other video sites) it's all too easy to watch videos from people just like you about people just like you who like the things that you like and who live in the country that you live in. While it's possible to break out of that and watch just about anything, the user interfaces don't encourage that.

Spinvision.TV wants you to watch outside your comfort zone.

We are seeking to partner with other video content sites besides YouTube, and would ask you to please contact us if you have video content that you would like to see presented on Spinvision.TV.

I like to think of Spinvision as a love-letter to the world, written in Javascript. I hope that you find it to be an engaging visualization of life on Earth -- or at least fun!

Please help me spread the word, and thanks again for your continued support and interest!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Update: iPhone Location Data EULA

My previous post got me wondering what Apple's EULA says about location data collected by and on the iPhone. Like most people I breezed past the 1.1.3 EULA agreement without studying it, and then found I had to dig around online to find the iPhone License Agreement, which I finally did on Apple's site.

Section 4(b) is the relevant piece:

4. Consent to Use of Non-Personal Data.
(a) You agree that Apple and its subsidiaries may collect and use technical and related information, including but not limited to technical information about your iPhone, computer, system and application software, and peripherals, that is gathered periodically to facilitate the provision of software updates, product support and other services to you (if any)
related to the iPhone Software, and to verify compliance with the terms of this License. Apple may use this information, as long as it is in a form that does not personally identify you, to improve our products or to provide services or technologies to you.

(b) Apple may provide certain services through your iPhone that rely upon location information. To provide these services, Apple and its partners may collect, maintain, process and use your location data, including the real-time geographic location of your iPhone. By using or activating any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple's and its partners' collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data to provide you with such services. The location data is collected in a form that does not personally identify you. You may withdraw this consent at any time by turning off the location-based feature on your iPhone or by not using the location-based features. Turning off or not using these features will not impact the functionality of your iPhone.

A couple of basic points here. First, Apple asserts that they may collect and share with its partners location data from the phone. They secondly assert that the location data is collected in a way so as not to "personally identify you." I am not sure I agree with that statement based on my previous post, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Second, they go on to say that the user can "withdraw their consent at any time" by "turning off the location-based feature." How? Where is that button in the preferences?

Third, they make the statement that "turning off or not using these features will not impact the functionality of your iPhone." Uh, yeah it will (assuming it were possible). I won't have location-based services or maps, which is a real reduction in the functionality of the phone.

Let's take a look at the newly published iPod Touch January '08 Software Upgrade License Agreement, which we would expect should address the newly-added location features specifically.

Once again, the same section 4(b) contains the same text as the iPhone Software License Agreement. So, they consider the location services in the iPhone and iPod Touch to be legally equivalent, which is interesting to note.

Seems to me Apple's in an interesting place with this location data business. The location data that is collected is packaged in HTTPS, so we can't inspect it. It is theoretically possible that it contains nothing that can identify a given user "personally," but what does that mean?

Does it contain an iPhone serial number, or an IMEI number, or a phone number? How is this data stored? While that data, by itself, may not personally identify you, could it be correlated with data that does? Is that possibility covered by the SLA as written?

I will assume that Apple and its lawyers have thought this through. However, there are some interesting issues raised here. Now that the iPhone/iPod Touch has location support, we should expect Apple, and possibly third party developers, to leverage that location data in interesting ways.

The most interesting ways involve tying identity to location, so if anything is going to happen down this path, then the SLA, as written, is not going to suffice.

In the meantime, you can bet that somebody is going to consider whipping up a class action suit because there is no clearly marked way to turn off the location-based services, and because "turning off LBS" does affect functionality -- your phone doesn't know where you're at!

And keep an eye on that SLA for future versions -- you can bet that the wording on the location data is going to evolve.

Apple Knows Where You Are: Sniffing the iPhone Location Service in 1.1.3

When Apple announced yesterday that the iPhone would now be "location-aware" with the release of their 1.1.3 software, I was curious how they had done it.

I've been working with location information quite closely (see Twittervision, for example) for the last year or so and have had some conversations with different companies about how Apple might geo-enable the iPhone.

There are three options available:

  • GPS
  • Cell Tower ID
  • Wifi Access Points

GPS is not an option at present. E911 laws in the US have required carriers to provide location information for some time, but that could be via GPS or from cell tower triangulation data. TruePosition makes this their entire business, and is the primary location information provider for AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. A pretty cozy gig, eh? They do this by way of tracking cell tower information within the network, from what I understand.

GPS may be an option later if Apple adds an AGPS (assisted GPS) chipset to the iPhone or supports external Bluetooth GPS units, but external bluetooth will never be a true mass market phenomenon, and AGPS is at least going to have to wait for the next iPhone refresh, probably not til next year.

Cell Tower ID is another option. Carriers know where their cell towers are (we hope), and by comparing the signal strength and the intersection of multiple cell tower antenna distribution patterns, you can make a pretty fair guess about where the user is. It's not always spot-on accurate, but it's pretty close.

Wifi AP's are the third option. There are millions of Wifi AP radios running around the world at this point, and for the most part, they tend not to move around that much. They do, however, come and go from time to time. However, there are a lot of them, and with a modest investment in driving around populated areas, one could build up a pretty accurate database of what APs are where. Then they could sell that database to people who want to know where their Wifi client radios are.

This is exactly what my friends up at Skyhook Wireless have done. You can try out their Loki service for your laptop (Firefox/IE plugin). Suddenly, if you have Wifi, you also have a pseudo-GPS capability.

Judging by the fact that Skyhook invited me to stop in and see them today at MacWorld (which I would have loved to do, but am sadly unable due to my being at home in Maryland this week), it seems Skyhook got the contract to provide some location data to Apple. Apparently, the iPhone uses both Cell Tower ID and Wifi (Skyhook) data for location, while the iPod Touch uses Skyhook exclusively. Good Job, guys!

This explains why when I went to see Skyhook in June and said that a company like Apple might be very interested in their technology, there was a definitive "no comment." This happens a lot; companies like to protect what might be a very early-stage negotiation, or even an intention, a lot of the time. But in this case it looks like Skyhook bagged what might be their killer deal.

Yesterday, I succumbed to the hype and "Revirginized" my iPhone (we had been engaged in some unsavory hacking) so I could safely install the new 1.1.3 software update that Steve said would be available. The revirginizing and upgrade went as clean as could be, and now my phone is running 1.1.3.

I thought I might "inspect" what the phone is doing when you do a location lookup. I have a bunch of resources on my home network, including a multipurpose Linux server, so I thought if I could pass the iPhone's traffic through the Linux box, some tools like ngrep and tcpdump might reveal what exactly happens when the iPhone tries to position itself.

Well, turns out I was mostly right. In typical Apple fashion, though, they're keepin' it real with HTTPS, revealing nothing very interesting about how the location information works.

The iPhone is and my proxy is

Here's what I saw:

T -> [AP]
User-Agent: Apple iPhone v1.1.3 Maps v1.0.0.4A93.

T -> [AP]

T -> [AP]

So, alas, nothing to see here, really... move along. However, we do now know that Apple is grabbing data from the phone via HTTPS, processing it network-side, and rendering a response to the phone about its position. We do not, for example, see a variety of calls to Skyhook, Google, or elsewhere, which is not inconceivable without verifying it.

After the HTTPS call, we see this unencrypted call:

T -> [AP]
Accept: */*.
Accept-Language: en.
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate.
Cookie: s_vi=[CS]v1|46B904DB00003607-A290B210000599B[CE]; s_nr=1199572400032.
User-Agent: Apple iPhone v1.1.3 Maps v1.0.0.4A93.
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded.
Content-Length: 145.
Connection: keep-alive.
Proxy-Connection: keep-alive.


T -> [AP]

T -> [AP]
HTTP/1.1 200 OK.
Date: Wed, 16 Jan 2008 12:38:31 GMT.
Server: GFE/1.3.
Content-Type: application/binary.
Content-Length: 113.
Cache-control: private.
Connection: close.

Not sure what this all is, but it looks like it has my iPhone serial number in there. It's so nice that Apple wants to know so much about my phone, its serial number, its position. Why, if DHS ever has any doubts about me, perhaps they could simply just ask Apple? Maybe they know where I am.

What is Apple's position (pun intended) on customer privacy, now that they seem to be in the location data business?

Other firms like Boost Mobile's Loopt service have gone to great (ridiculous) lengths to inform their customers about location data privacy and to protect collected data. So as to avoid potential problems, Loopt does not even save a location track for its users, but instead stores only the current location of the user. (This was the case when I spoke with them in May 2007.) They figure this makes them less of a honeypot for DHS types, and keeps their customers happy.

I have never believed that consumers are as paranoid about location data as the press (and the most paranoid among us) would have us believe. Most people are willing to generate, share, and publish some limited amount of location data if it provides some value to them in return and they can control the data sufficiently.

What seems like a simple software update for the iPhone is actually the consent of millions (4M+ according to Steve) of users to potentially publishing their location information. And not just for the iPhone, but for the iPod Touch as well.

Now the question is what a theoretical 1.2.0 software release might hold: location of your iChat buddies? Location-enabled Twitter clients (using the Twittervision API)? Your friends conveniently plotted on the Google Maps client? All of this is now theoretically possible with the iPhone and iPod Touch now, and Apple holds the keys.

It will be very interesting to see how the iPhone SDK (Software Development Kit) works next month. If Apple opens up this location service to third party developers, we can expect to see some very interesting applications emerge this year.

The fact that the location service is not down to meter-accuracy is irrelevant (it put me, alternately, within a few feet of my house and across the river at the Annapolis Mall -- I suspect because it was alternating between an accurate Wifi position and a more general cell tower position). To make social location services work, all we really need to know is generally where someone is (nearby) and that they are really there (device has reported location).

There are plenty of apps where approximate location is sufficient (stores nearby, friends nearby, homes for sale nearby, etc). Only for driving-direction or aviation applications do you need meter-accuracy. A later update to the iPhone hardware with an AGPS chipset will solve that problem, but even without that, this opens up an amazing array of possibilities.

Mostly, great credit should go to Apple for pushing out a technology so seamlessly, so effortlessly, that so many others have found so problematic and full of legal and perceived landmines. This is a big deal. Skyhook, Loopt, uLocate, Nokia, Navizon, and dozens of others have been grasping for this holy grail for some time, and they've been told variously that it's "impossible to get the data," or that "consumers won't go for it", or that "no one would fund it."

Apple did it via iTunes with a software update. Agree? Kudos, Steve.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Where are the Great Men and Women of our time?

As we enter into 2008 and a new US presidential election cycle, I am once again struck that the available candidates are all compromises; compromises between our ideals and the political and economic realities that rule the world today.

As we look back on the arc of recent history, we can point to some truly great individuals who managed to crystallize the mood of their era and, like a flame, transform it into something greater. From the French Revolution and Rousseau's social contract, Napoleon cast modern France and set the stage for many nations around the world.

Unlike Napoleon, who offered equality and efficiency but a near totalitarian government, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Franklin wanted a government that could somehow withstand the forces of upheaval that had plagued so many before. They wanted to build a nation which could outlast the lifespan of just one Great Man, for they correctly supposed that Great Men were hard to find.

The three governmental branches and the deference of power to local governments are major strengths of the American Constitution and, really, have enabled the nation to hobble along between its handful of Great Men. In a sense the American system does its best to transform Ordinary Men into Capable Men. Sometimes it has transformed Capable Men into Great Men.

Lincoln was faced with the task of reconciling our ideals (all men are created equal, we the people, etc) with the economics of the day. Slavery was an economic reality that some felt was unavoidable, insurmountable, and even sanctioned by scripture. However, Lincoln realized that a divided nation was vulnerable. Lincoln had the unenviable task of explaining this to the nation, which he did so eloquently and forcefully.

Lincoln was called to tell the nation that which it did not want to hear. Washington and Jefferson did much of the same. Even Napoleon had to make a case that efficient government was better than a nonexistent but ideal government. In each of these cases, intelligent and thoughtful men have been called to reach beyond what's politically and economically expedient to inspire, coerce, cajole and charm their constituencies into doing what is in the long-term best interest. It has seldom been easy.

In the distant future, when we look back on the last 100 years, I believe that we will see is a nation which has not learned to reconcile its politics with its economics, and which has hobbled on on the shoulders of but a few Great Men. Arguably the greatest transformative leaders of the 20th Century were Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill were called to greatness by being locked in conflict with Hitler and Stalin.

While it is very tempting to include other American presidents like Wilson (father of the UN), Kennedy (a leader of the civil rights movement and an inspiration in the light of the Cold War), and Reagan (a truly great communicator who deserves some credit for the fall of the USSR), the simple fact of the matter is that these people were reacting to their circumstances. In a sense, Kennedy and Reagan were cleaning up Stalin's aftermath, and Wilson unknowingly laid the groundwork for HItler's ascent by presiding over Versailles.

But the Great Men have reacted to their circumstances, as well. Somehow, though, the Great Men are called to do more than simply react, more than simply show up, more than simply hold to their convictions. The actions of Great Men are outsized, just-right, artful and inimitable.

They have led us forward at times when we did not want to be led; showed the way at times when economics and politics offered more expedient paths; cast a visionary spell on the populace at a time when we needed to believe. Great Men have the power to call ordinary people to become extraordinary.

Today, our politics is inextricably tied to our economics. The founders expected that; the state system is designed to give regional economic interests fair say in the process and to insure that no one state dominates our national political debate. Today, however, this seems quaint.

The economic debates that matter today are not about whether to build a canal in New York or in Michigan; our economic debates are about the regulation of global corporations, human rights in China, global free trade, and immigration. Somehow it doesn't seem the founding fathers anticipated the rise of the multinational corporation, and specifically its potential to influence American and global politics.

Today, the measure of a candidate's popularity or viability is their ability to raise money. The candidates with the most money are generally those who are most agreeable to American Corporations. The candidates who are the most agreeable to American Corporations are also those who are most agreeable to global, multinational corporations. Therefore, we have a system where global multinational corporations get the first and most influential vote.

In a world of uneven regulations and where global corporations have only one mandate -- to make money for their shareholders -- we face a situation where our candidates are hostage to companies, and indirectly of governments other than our own. If Exxon/Mobil supports a candidate because they believe they will take a laissez-faire attitude towards environmental regulations in China, and if the Chinese government prefers to operate without environmental regulations because it believes it will generate more revenue, we indirectly have candidates who are locked into a variety of unsavory positions around the globe.

This is not news. It is also not realistic to suggest that we decouple the American democracy from capitalism; it is reasonable to have our system of government be influenced by and aligned with our engine of economic progress. We can temper the flaws in capitalism with sensible regulation and policy. We do a fair job of it.

The question remains, however: where are the Great Men, or Women, of 2008?

We have various people who think it's their turn, or who have been anointed by global capitalism as acceptable, but to be frank, it is hard not to wonder if Ronald Reagan was right: that the best minds are not in government, that if they were they would be hired away by business.

That maxim may be true, but the converse probably isn't. If it was, the best possible candidates would be hedge fund managers. However, Bloomberg may still run.

It seems we have lost a sense of what it means to be a public servant. With the scrutiny, the media, and the schedules that come with presidential politics, you really do have to be crazy to run. Is it any wonder, then, that we ended up with the oddball mix that we have?

It is doubtful that a Roosevelt or a Lincoln would fare too well in today's races. Why is that? Maybe Roger Ailes could tweak Lincoln up a bit. (Lose the top hat, ditch the beard, a layer of foundation and a $400 haircut and you still flub Hannity & Colmes?)

Perhaps we have some Great Men and Women in our midst here in 2008. Certainly Obama is using the soaring rhetoric of a great leader, however it's tough to know if he has the mettle to withstand the global political/economic machine once in office. Ron Paul certainly has no problem saying things that are unpopular. Hillary is trying hard but has a hard time inspiring, not unlike the rest of the candidates.

I am left feeling, as I think we all are, that we still haven't found that one great leader who can crystallize and transform the challenges of our time. But if history is any solace, we know that a great leader comes but a few times a century. Maybe it's just not our turn.