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