Today I got a package from O’Reilly containing Essential SQLAlchemy, for which I did a technical edit. I remembered that much, because I got a nice check from them, but I forgot that I’d also been asked to provide a quote for the back of the book. Too bad that was before I started my own gig:
As part of my week of wearing nametags I headed over to the third incarnation of Ignite in Boston. It was nice to see some familiar faces from BarCamp and catch a few talks. I also learned about post-apocalyptic Rock Band fan-fiction in comic form, and I’m not sure what to say about that except I’m pretty sure “nice” is insufficiently descriptive.
I only saw about half the talks but Jonathan Zdziarski’s discussion of iPhone forensics and working with law enforcement was fascinating. I love tech presentations that reach out into the real world. Drug dealers need to catch The Wire on DVD — even I’ve heard of a “burner” phone.
Here’s the complete list of talks, which is mainly interesting in the way that presenter Polychronis Ypodimatopoulos’s name pushes out the table formatting.
Echoing some other bloggers’ criticisms of the event:
- There was insufficient division between the “talking” and “listening” areas, and the acoustics of the long space made even reasonable conversation disruptive for some listeners (although I had to laugh at the impressive multitasker who was shushing people while talking on Twitter).
- There were too many keynotes who spoke for too long. I’d prefer zero keynotes.
- In other Ignite events the slides run on auto-play. Here speakers had to cue when their slides should roll over (they didn’t seem to be able to easily do it themselves). I like the discipline required of the auto-play paradigm — I got tired of lots of “skip this slide I’m running out of time.”
But overall I’m glad that the event continues to draw big crowds. I think Boston’s ready for a biannual event in a larger space.
(On a more tragic note, I did not get a women’s t-shirt.)
Conveniently located a five minute walk from my house, BarCampBoston 3 was my first East Coast unconference. In fact it was my first East Coast tech conference since I was a volunteer at the fourth web conference in 1995. (I mean it — the fourth).
Like Foo Camp, the organizers put up a physical calendar with room names and people fill in the slots with whatever they want to talk about. Unlike Foo Camp, people here sort of ambled up the board slowly, or hung back and put talks instead on the “session ideas” board, waiting for enough other attendees to put check marks next to the desired ones. It’s New England, we’re more reserved. Although there were a lot of gaps, especially on Sunday, it was a pretty good mix of topics.
I was excited to see John Resig talk about his astonishing Processing.js, but the presentation was more of an intro to Processing itself. Likewise the Google App Engine talk by Shimon Rura and Brian Olson (of Google) — they were both good overviews but I already knew the material. If the App Engine talk had more time I would’ve asked some questions about developing for non-relational databases, but 30 minutes is surprisingly short.
One lesson I have to keep re-learning is to not go to talks on subjects I know anything about, so after that I hit the “Future of Videogames” roundtable and that was the most fun. I appreciated hearing game developers agree that wasting players’ time — making people do repetitive or boring tasks — is increasingly frowned upon, the same way that modern interactive fiction eschews hunger puzzles and mazes. (For me the greatest innovation in Grand Theft Auto IV is being able to take cabs instead of driving across “Manhattan” all the time.)
The random conversations I had while waiting for pizza or talking to people in the lunchroom were a lot more enjoyable than the ones at conferences like ETech. Expensive conferences attract too many evangelists and not enough coders. Here I got to argue with people about text editors, Python debugging, which part of Java do you hate the most — and the one guy I met who was not a programmer apologized about it. It’s nice to meet other people who type, not talk, for a living.
I have no complaints about working from home so far, although it’s inevitable that I will go insane from lack of human contact. Until then, I’ve been busy writing code and playing with the dog.
This morning the Tools of Change blog published my post on collaborative online fiction, highlighting some interactive fiction projects.
Let me say how bizarre it is to see my site in someone else’s screenshot.
The fun part’s almost over, though, as it’s getting to be time to hit people up for real jobs. As long as I can still take the dog to the park every day, I can deal.
I’ve started a development blog for my open source publishing software project, threepress.org. I’ll use it to post news and software releases. I’ve got a backlog of posts to make describing the various features in more detail.
I was this close to setting up the blog on a hosted service like blogspot rather than installing WordPress directly on my own subdomain. Then I recalled that the main point of threepress is to illustrate my technical skills, and not my laziness.
I’ve been added to the roster of authors at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change publishing and technology blog. I’m going to be posting about issues relevant to developers in the publishing industry, and also speculating on some directions that publishers can take when dealing with online content. TOC’s primary audience is trade publishers, but I’ll occasionally address topics from the academic publishing world where I spend most of my time.
My first post is on the sexy topic of ebook file formats.
A few weeks ago I was thinking that I wanted a bug tracking system for my own personal use. I’ve used a lot of bug trackers both commercial and open source, but my favorite, hands-down, is the home-grown one we use at iFactory. I didn’t write it so I’m relatively unbiased, but what’s great about it is that it is absolutely simple and feature-starved. Clients can use it. Anyone can use it. You do not have to fill out fifteen drop-down menus just to say “home page broken.”
Its only flaw is that I can’t use it for my own projects and I was dreading trying to find a free one that was just as austere. I could write one, obviously, but even with a rapid-development stack like Django it’s still a lot to implement — not so much the bug tracker itself but the underlying user accounts and access control. Plus I have to host it somewhere.
Enter Google’s sort-of-proprietary hosting and development platform AppEngine.
There’s a lot to say about it, but for me as a developer the key point is how close this (and similar services) get towards making software applications completely disposable. AppEngine uses Python, which I know, and supports Django, which I know, and Django/Python enable lightning-fast web development. AppEngine gives me access control and identity via Google Accounts for free. I get hosting for free. I get one-click deployment (possibly the only thing I would miss from a Java/Eclipse/Maven/Cargo stack). I have to install one thing — Google AppEngine — and after that, nothing.
So instead of wasting 4-6 hours downloading different bug trackers and their dependencies, getting them running, trying them out, and (at best) putting up with the ways in which they aren’t quite right for me, I’m spending, max, 10-12 hours writing exactly what I want, for free.
If in a few weeks I decide my software sucks, or I find a better bug tracker, I can just throw mine away. Nothing lost but a little time, and that’s time I spent learning a little more about Django and AppEngine. The next time I want some kind of tool, I’ll build it in even less time, and maybe throw that away too. It’s just bits.
The project is subtitled “Digital Fiction”, which immediately brings back memories of dreary academic “hypertext fiction”. Those projects often amounted to “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style short stories with multiple endings, where clicking on words to move through a branching plotline was deemed sufficiently interactive to be interesting.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously doesn’t see the appeal of videogames, but he’s astutely observed that a story with multiple endings really has no ending at all: as soon as he (the audience) realizes there are multiple endings, he’ll want to experience them all, and then loses the pleasure of knowing what “really” happened. Interactive fiction has grappled with this too, and as a player I generally side with Ebert. Once I’ve “won” a game by achieving an obviously acceptable ending, I lose interest in finding any other good or bad endings. I’m ready to move on the next story, not traverse the whole plot tree. (Admittedly I’m also the kind of player who wants every modern videogame to be twice as easy and half as long as it is.)
Some blogs are calling the first We Tell Stories episode “interactive fiction”, but The 21 Steps is not really interactive at all. It’s a linear story told through new medium: short text overlaid on the Google Maps interface. It’s an interesting idea that, like many kinds of experiments, could be compelling once the novelty wears off and an author really dives into the medium. Unfortunately the actual “story” behind Steps is pretty thin, with an ending that reads like a clever high school writing project, and the plot didn’t feel like it truly made use of the map paradigm. Conceptually, co-opting a straight information-based API for use in storytelling and gameplay is definitely intriguing — I’d love to see what someone could do with Google Street View. No doubt stories told in short blurb-bursts are here to stay, given all the attention that mobile phone fiction has been receiving.
I imagine the Google Maps component does work well when combined with the story’s alternate reality game, but the ARG requires one to be in the UK. I’ll be interested to read reviews from people who’ve played it through.
The next episode of We Tell Stories comes out tomorrow, March 25th.
Although I enjoyed most of the talks I saw at ETech, I started having the best luck when I stopped trying to go to ones that seemed useful.
The Commodore’s bartender Scotto Moore performed his “digital fairy tale” called Intangible Method. It’s short, watch it.
Also as part of the Ignite series, Matt Web’s Science Fictional Tour of the Solar System, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything:
Two good talks that I don’t have video for:
Las Vegas: Behind the Scenes. What Sensors? What Privacy? What Anonymity? The Whole Story