Etech 2009 wrapup

I haven't been going to tech conferences too much in the past couple years so I decided on a whim this year to attend the Emerging Technology 2009 conference (I think I last attended in 2007). I've been to many of the previous iterations of Etech, way back from before Flickr launched at the conference.

Over the years, it's gone through some changes while always striving to look towards the future. My first memories of the 2002-2003 events featured lots of talk about programming, content management, and server infrastructure. The 2004-2005 events seemed to revolve more around social software, mobile devices, and futuristic applications. The 2006-2007 events started to bleed in bits of green energy and the keynotes talked about subjects we'd encounter in 20-30 years instead of things just a few years down the line. In a sense, it feels like Etech looked towards the future, but we eventually arrived at it and got to live within it, so the subject matter must shift forward each year.

For 2009, the session schedule looked a bit all over the map, blending half of what you might see in an issue of Make Magazine with the other half devoted to the kind of far off green energy/architecture future. Now that I've attended, I must say as much as I've liked the event over the years, it's going through a real identity crisis. Over the course of a couple hours one day I heard about what urban megacities might look like after the year 2050, what japanese teens have on their cellphones, exciting plans for future amusement park technology, and what food people typically grow in their Los Angeles backyards. Taken together, the subjects are all interesting, but trying to package that up under one banner seems almost schizophrenic.

Overall, I knew what I was getting into and I was looking forward to hearing about a bunch of topics outside my normal day-to-day study of current best practicies in community/content management/server performance. Building fuelly last year with pb was a new direction compared to my other projects and I was hopeful I'd glean some ideas from this year's Etech towards where I should be headed with it, or other projects I could build to solve future problems.

In the end, the hit and miss subject matter of the conference ended up being hit and miss in terms of what I got out of it. Sometimes I felt presenters were being a bit patronizing by telling us exactly how the future would be (ignoring numerous variables that can't be predicted), sometimes the subject matter was ethically dubious (gathering data in the name of data while ignoring privacy aspects), and sometimes the talks were just out of left field (the "why is this talk taking place here?" moments). The ratio of fascinating to not-so-fascinating talks was about 50/50 and nothing came across as completely mind-blowing as in years past. Audience size was definitely down due to the economy and the tone of talks was mostly downbeat about the future (someone should have coined The Long Doom since everyone seemed to agree on a general decline in economics, environmental health, and social issues), but outside of the current economic slowdown I kind of fear for the future of Etech. I don't exactly know who Etech is aimed at anymore or who will attend it in upcoming years. The organizers have moved a lot of the web tech talk and near-future discussion over to the Web 2.0 expo and conferences around the world. The far off future thinker stuff gets a lot of coverage at events like TED and there are loads of conferences about urban design, green cities, and architecture taking place elsewhere. I hate to say it, but I'm no longer sure what void Etech is filling in the calendar anymore.

See also:
Phil Gyford's excellent notes
pb's notes on day 1, 2, and 3

Bizjam Seattle

I’m going to be speaking at Bizjam Seattle this Wednesday afternoon about my high road approach to blogging (eschewing SEO snake oil and not being an annoying person on every social network). Judging by the titles, I suspect half the talks will be preaching the opposite of what I’m planning to say, so it’ll either be a breath of fresh air in a sea of insanity for attendees, or it’ll go over like a lead balloon. Either way, it should be fun.

Here are my slides:

update: I gave the talk and it went over well. I added my notes for every slide to Slideshare. Click the “view” link above, then click on the “Comments on Slide 1” tab below the slides to see my notes. It should look like this when you click on it. Then, use the arrows to go from slide to slide and you can read my notes for what I talked about on each slide (since the slides themselves have very little info on them).

GEL recap

GEL Last week, I attended my third GEL conference in New York City. Like previous versions of this conference, it’s a day of talks from speakers that have a variety of stories to tell about “good experiences.” The diversity of the speakers’ backgrounds is the strength of the conference and this year didn’t disappoint. In a world of technology conferences that feature the same five subjects talked about by the same dozen people, I look forward to GEL every year to hear from health care workers, artists, restauranteurs, musicians, and yes, technologists.

A few years back, the conference split into two days where day one is an experience or tour and day two are standard talks given in an auditorium. Last year I had a blast touring MoMA and learning to juggle pins, this year I had a great time doing a Central Park soundwalk (pb describes it here in his GEL recap). The walk was great, you basically blindfold yourself, grab a rope, and start shuffling around for about 20 minutes. If you’ve never tried anything like this before, I can’t recommend it enough. The first few minutes are pure anxiety bordering on panic but eventually you get used to the shuffling feet and with your eyes firmly shut for an extended period, your hearing takes over. I was blown away by the variety of birds in Central Park and sounds of people and music that accompanied our walk. The biggest surprise for me was finding that my brain tried to start “mapping” sound as we walked — I remember hearing strollers rolling towards me or birds growing near and in my mind I was placing them in a virtual canvas so I knew where they were headed and when I could expect to pass them.

After the blindfold walk, we sat and talked about what we heard and experienced, then we walked and stopped at various locations in the park to enjoy sound (with our eyes closed) from a single location. The mind-blowing moment during this section happened when I was sitting next to a walking path just outside of both a softball game and a merry-go-round. As people walked past and balls were hit, I heard some light foot padding and instantly recognized it as a dog going past. The first thought that sprang into my head was “that is the sound of a small, light dog” and surprised at the thought, I opened my eyes to see a little poodle trotting past. Now, I don’t know if I figured that out by chance or if my brain has a database of various dog sounds by weight I wasn’t aware of, but being in that place and state of mind was a wonderful exercise in getting reacquainted with my sense of hearing. The other highlight was walking to the center of the park and being in a spot in Manhattan where I could see no buildings of any kind, I was completely surrounded by natural things like trees and grass, and I could barely hear any sounds from the city. I didn’t know a place like that existed in NYC.

The day of talks went well and the subject matter and style is a lot like the TED conference. The best talks were both entertaining and enlightening and even if I had to classify a few talks as less than superb, I at least learned something about an industry I didn’t know anything about. In past years of GEL, I’ve remembered a few break out amazing talks that stuck with me for weeks and a few horrible stinkers that had me looking at my watch. This year’s talks had a few memorable points but no single talk stood out as truly amazing but on the positive side I don’t recall wanting any talk to end early.

If you attend a lot of technology conferences and you’re growing tired of hearing the same old thing, try out the GEL conference — sometimes it’s hit and miss and all over the map, but it’s always a good time in a wonderful city.

National Writers Workshop in Wichita

I’m in Kansas for the National Writers Workshop put on by the Poynter people. They asked me last summer if I wanted to come talk about online stuff and I said yes, but to give you an idea of how much of a lightweight I am at this conference, I bumped into another speaker on the hotel shuttle and he modestly said he had to give a talk as well, so I looked it up (a keynote!) and this is him:

As a journalist for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis and the Baltimore Afro-American newspapers, Moses Newson covered almost every major event of the civil rights era. His stories included the 1955 Emmett Till murder trial in Mississippi; school desegregations in Hoxie, Ark. (1955), Clinton, Tenn. (1956) and at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (1957); and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962. Newson was one of only two reporters aboard the CORE Freedom Ride bus that was fire bombed in Anniston, Ala., on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961.

And I’m a guy with a blog that has comments. Can’t wait for my session!

SXSW 2007 recap

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The big room, originally uploaded by mathowie.

– SXSW was huge this year. Word on the street was 5,500 interactive attendees filled the halls. Due to this, a lot of the big public parties were full and required lines.

– The subject matter felt like a perfect mix of various subjects. Sometimes a SXSW feels like every panel is about blogging, or money, or mobile apps, or CSS, but this year felt like it had something for everyone. Kudos to Hugh and the planners for getting that just right.

– There was almost no hallway time! I think it was the crowds, because when panels would get out, it was like a flood of humans taking up every inch of the halls and you’d be swept up if you were sitting on the ground with a laptop. So all my schmoozing was at parties instead of the convention center.

– Having half the talks on one side of the convention center, and half a ten minute walk away on the other side seemed like poor planning. I felt like I was back at college, running across campus during a short break.

– This was my seventh SXSW but the first one that I truly enjoyed stress-free. In the past, I’d wake up early and hit the first panel and motor through the entire day, but I’d eventually reach exhaustion early in the evening and have to retire early. This year I stayed on west coast time and only saw one panel before noon the entire time. It was a great vacation, and it’s all about staying out until 2 and sleeping until 10.

– The panel I spoke on went alright, but I think what held it back was that I never met two of the participants before. My favorite panels always include people I’ve known and can joke with. I’m afraid the unfamiliarity came through to the audience and we would have been a lot more fun to listen to and watch if we were looser around each other. Lane Becker’s panel reminded me of this, and I always love Lane’s panels because he can keep things jovial and everyone seems to be old friends (without being chummy)

– There never seemed to be enough time for questions. Talks either ran too long or questioners rambled. If I were to redo this year, I would have brought a wind-up egg timer and convinced our moderator that after every 5 minutes of the panel talking to each other we’d stop and take a question (and those asking questions would have 1 minute to get it out).

– There were a lot of parties, but they weren’t outrageous. There was no imported sashmi platters or fire dancers like in 2000, this was simply a bunch of rented bars with free drinks (a party at SXSW this year seemed to run about $5k which isn’t an insane number, especially compared to whatever people did during the bubble of 2000).

– I heard a lot of advice on how to run a business online, both good and bad. I decided on the flight home that I’ll be starting a new blog talking about the lessons I’ve learned building and running a business. More on this soon.

– Wil Wright’s panel blew my mind. He talked a mile a minute, but not so fast you couldn’t understand or keep up. It was like a full 40 minutes of total laserbeam concentration for me. His slides were great too — revealing his points in several layers as he shotgunned us with his thesis — you barely noticed that he probably made them in Microsoft Paint using cilp art from the 1980s. They almost had a handmade quality to them.

He played Spore for about ten minutes and it was an incredible simulation game. It was a perfect mix of SimCity, The Sims, and the basic principles of science. It looked quite fun (a bit cartoony and Wii-like) and I could see it being immersive without consuming my entire life like I bet World of Warcraft would. I can’t wait until that game gets released.

Diverse means a lot of things

In the course of two posts, Anil completely nails the problem of gender (and other) biases in the web industry. When I think back to the most interesting talks over the past 3-4 years, it was always from someone outside the norm, something that could bring a fresh perspective instead of the same tired “here’s another CSS trick you might not know!” presentation. It was often a woman (like Linda Stone, danah boyd, Caterina Fake, and Amy Jo Kim, all of whom I’ve seen give kickass presentations before) but always about something new.

But to be clear, it’s not just a gender issue — gender is just one part of it. It’s about expanding your vision, hearing from voices you haven’t before, and learning something new. That’s not just happy hippie rainbow talk either, it makes perfect business sense to go after the market you don’t have, not merely the one you already got because the people you don’t know how to reach are often orders of magnitude larger than your current audience. I’m reminded of the other day a teen emailed me saying that MetaFilter didn’t fully function on Opera Mini, which was their only interface to the web. I never even thought about teens or phone browsers when I designed it, and I know I’m missing out on a lot of potential contributors because of it.

When I think back to the biggest breakthrough talks of the past few years, stuff like Guy Kawasaki’s talking to teens always went over huge. Blogging While Black opens some eyes and ears to something you’ve never known about. danah boyd’s regular talks on teens, community, and identity are loaded with new findings. Every time I’ve witnessed one of these talks, I’ve learned something new and most everyone in the crowd was blown away by perspectives they hadn’t even thought of before.

After seven years of regularly attending technology conferences, last year I reached the point of burnout and only went to two (Etech and Webvisions). This year I’ll again be attending just a couple events but this time with an eye towards diversity in topics. Things like last year’s IDEA conference give me hope (something I missed and wished I attended but thankfully they podcast the talks). A place where artists, librarians, anthropologists, park rangers, programmers, and sci-fi writers gather to discuss their experiences and the world going forward is going to offer a lot more new information to me than the run-of-the-mill tech gathering.