Thursday, March 5, 2009

IgniteNYC, February 23, 2009

The latest Ignite NYC was held on February 23rd at the Santos Party House a few blocks south of Canal Street (the center of New York City's Chinatown). Santos Party House is a small disco-like space, much smaller and less comfortable than Webster Hall (the site of a previous meeting).

There were only a few chairs available, and since the bar was in the same space, the rumbling of conversation was loud and intruded upon what came from the stage.

The first item was scheduled for 7:30 but began 10 minutes late. It was "Know Your Meme" a simulation of a TV game show which, in 20 questions to contestants on stage, was supposed to provide a history of Internet technology. It went on for an hour and it was terrible! It was not well rehearsed, not well delivered (they seemed to be talking to themselves and had no interest in being heard by the audience nor capturing the audience's attention), and it was amazingly stupid. Seeing it as a colossal waste of time, a number of people left. Memo to IgniteNYC and O'Reilly folks: NEVER DO THAT AGAIN!!

The main part of the program was scheduled for 8:30 but didn't going until after 9 PM, no explanations or anything. It made me and the audience somewhat irritable. Finally they began.

The format of Ignite is based on Pecha Kucha - 5 minute talks with PowerPoint presentations. Based on presenters' experience, there are two kinds of talks. Some are just a single idea, fleshed out with details. It's like a topic sentence followed by details. Those tend to be less interesting than those that try to give a cause-and-effect presentation (problem --> solution) which for me presents more immediacy. There was a mixture of both.

Michael Galbart's "Images On the Internets Seem Realer Than They Are" fell into the first group: a one-point talk about the frequency of altered images found on the Internet. His point was that Internet images seem more real than they are due to the ubiquity of Photoshop and similar programs that facilitate altering images. It's a good assumption that the majority of images you see on the net (even from news organizations) are altered, even if only slightly. The problem is that some images become fixed in the mind whether truthful or not, e.g. the photo of Sarah Palin's head grafted on to a swimmer wearing a US flag bikini and carrying a gun - apparently an image that has been seen by many as being "real."

These cloning techniques have now become part of main and popular culture. The photograph released by Iran showing 4 missles being launched simultaneously was a fake - it was really only one with the others being replicated. The image of President Bush's talk to the army - where you saw a sea of faces in the audience. Really they were just duplications of the same group of faces. (One clue for revealing crowd is to look carefully at the eyes - to see if they are all facing the same or different directions.) All magazine covers are Photoshoped.

What do we learn? That all images on the net are fake (e.g. Godzilla being attacked by a house cat). It becomes a lesson in trust - we begin to suspect everything.

So beware of fake images!

Next up was Jaki Levy's "How to Screw up Your Reputation Or the Reputation of Your Company Online." He spoke about PR mistakes and their resultant nightmares. Motrin: a bad TV commercial led mothers to protest. The company didn't respond to criticism (or praise). Their unresponsiveness was the path to ruining their reputation. Another road to ruin: Ask a question to which you already know the answer -- people will lambaste you. Wal-Mart: They want to show how college students should arrange their dorms. But students weren't interested - they already know how they want their dorms arranged. Another point: If you ask, you have to be prepared for all kinds of responses. When you ask dumb questions, expect dumb answer. Another way: call yourself a social media expert. Experts are deadly. Lying is deadly. Don't underestimate audience: they're smarter than you think. Be clear about your motives.

Karen Sandler's "Unchain My Heart" had no PowerPoint presentation on purpose. She went with OpenOffice, the open-source software. She confessed that she has an enlarged heart, meaning that she can die suddenly. So she has defibrilator, which she said was "like fairy godmother in heart looking after you." Being a geek, she asked for code to this medical device, but the company refused, telling her it was proprietary. So here she is with software that could potentially save or destroy her life - and it can't be studied by anyone. That lack of transparency makes it unsafe. Fortunately she came across a group that hacked the device, and found that it's data was not encrypted. In fact, the defibrilator could cause shocks which could be life-threatening. Fortunately, being a lawyer enabled her to confront the company on some of these issues - particular concerning transparency.

But the message is that doctors have to think about the devices they prescribe and whether they're really safe. They need to not ever take things for granted and need to know what these devices are about. We need to insist that people are safe on all levels. We need a free and open code.

Dennis Crowley presented "The Crowley Family vs. Family Feud: How You Too Can Win Fame and Fortune in LA." Dennis is the co-founder of Four Square - a redesigned Family Feud. His talk was how to get on a TV quiz show. How do you train? You become obsessive. You Tivo all shows and study them. Get a quiz book. Get into the mindset. Set up family tournaments for each other. Watch episodes on YouTube. You'll note: The best answers are the most obvious. Round numbers are your friends. Never pass. When they talk about "random people," what they really mean is "random people in L.A." His episode will be aired March 4.

Alex Bisceglie presented "DataVisualization: Muppet Fur Coats." It's about visualization (whether it's called data visualization or informaiton visualization) - translating data into comprehendible images. Without it, what can one make of the information that bombards us every day? Visualization helps us to navigate life. Visualization is how we help vet our presidential candidates (think of the various graphs and pie charts during the election season). It's how we encounter our social networks. It helps us understand the net. The main guideline is to keep visuals simple, otherwise they won't provide content.

Alex then showed various samples of visualization. A kindergardener's visualization: vampire electronics.

Then some bad examples. They take away from content because they're too busy. Keep it simple! He can't repeat this adage enough. Trends in data visualization come and go within a single year.

Information visualization is not art. You can't get data out of art, which tends to be much more complex. Again: Keep it simple.

Jonathan Kahan's "Cutting Edge Technology: The Samurai Sword" picked up on the previous talk's adage to "keep it simple" by using the metaphor of a katana (a samurai sword). Originally having a straight shaft, the katana was later modified to be slightly curved, which increased the sword's efficiency in being able to cut through most anything. (His PowerPoint presentation had numerous film stills featuring Toshiro Mifune and few with Tom Cruise.)

Jooyoung Oh spoke about "Unemployment 101." She left her job of 5 years. Updating her Facebook status was like breaking up with a boyfriend. At first you don't want to tell your parents, and you buy drinks for your friends. Cute, amusing, not to much to say, and a message that everyone feared but fear wanted to hear.

Similar was Naveen Selvadurai's "In Case of Fire, Break Glass." He spoke about his unfortunate experience of having a fire in his building and gave many tips on what to avoid and to be aware of in case there is a fire. Somewhat humorous.

Britta Riley spoke about "R&D-I-Y" or research and develop it yourself. I forget the details but it had to do with filtration of urine into drinking water. Rather than do all the work, her project enabled people to do it themselves. When people heard of this project they wanted to get involved. But they felt they needed to ask permission. Britta and her colleagues realized that crowdsourcing was how the project got going. It has to be a real sharing of ideas - wikis and instructables are not enough. One has to build the continuum of work already started.

Scott Rafer spoke about "An Overnight Success in Just 15 Years." He seemed to have great ideas but introduced them too early, such as the camera phone in 1997, and blogsearch. His goal was to find that one-hit-wonder. All it takes is once. Be late, then, you'll be boring. There are zillions of things to do and find out - just look at directories of hot spots in NYC. There are always crazy startups - why not you? The secret is to hit that one thing, and then you'll be invulnerable.

Noah B. Zerkin spoke on "Near Future Augmented Reality Systems." It was hard to understand and was about the fusion of virtual and physical worlds. (I think he made a pun on his name "Noah Zark - sounds like Noah's Ark.)

[By this time my patience and attention to the proceedings were dropping off, so I just too notes on snippets. Apologies for the more discursive narrative.]

Cory Forsyth spoke on using telephony in unique ways, or "How to Piss Off the FCC."

Ed Purver's "A Show of Hands" humorously demonstrated that direction in life is not always good.

Andrew Hoppin's talk "NASA 2.0" was actually good. He mused on the possibility of Web 2.0 techniques being applied to the space agency. For background, he pointed out that NASA was at its best when it had a specific goal of getting a man on the moon. After that achievement, having a lack of clear goals, they seem to have been less stellar.

Hoppin proposed new leadership for the agency. They should ask what works outside the fence? Perhaps "open-space events" attended by many people from which they could achieve crowdsourcing of ideas and possibly research and resources. It would be a participatory exploration. But they must change their culture and infrastructure to one that welcomes collaboration and increases participation.

Hoppin then riffed on various ideas. NASA could mix reality events and cultivate remote participation. "Open space" events. They should participate in outside communities, such as the monthly Hackathon in Silicon Valley. They could support existing communities. As a result of being open, they would receive accolades. It might be more of a challenge to provide ROI (return on investment), and to face internal challenges. But ultimately it could result in a change of culture within the organization, and result in community building, outreach, and awareness.

Space exploration would become less "owned" by NASA and would be shared with people.

Jen Bekman spoke on "Overcrowded." Deceptively, she appeared to begin with a negative attitude: How crowdsourcing is ruining everything. Look at the poor reputation of Wikipedia. Look at the multitude of sunset photographs on Flickr. What's the point of so much?

As it turned out, she was building up to a plug: She has an art gallery that has displayed art using the prodigious images of sunsets from Flickr. So go visit.

David Steele Overholt's talk was named after his website, Fail Often. There are so many constraints that we face every day: lack of time, goals, and contracts. The point is produce consistently, to do something everyday and not be afraid to fail. He suggested adding a single picture to your Flickr collection. There would be no wrong or right way. Just do it.

Rob Seward, the final speaker, seemed to be well-known among the crowd. His talk, "The Collective Unconscious of 1980s Florida," spoke about word association test at a Florida university. When he was age 9 he would look up dirty words in the dictionary. He'd find them, but the dictionary would never tell why the words are dirty. Presumably this was intended to explain that he's long had an interest in words and what people mak of them.

He presented a metaphor of an iceberg: there's a little at the top but the bulk is submerged, going to the bottom. That was a way to introduce his interest in words that give rise to unusual associations among people at the University of Florida. (i.e. analogies, for example: cheeleader :: whore, and democrate :: asshole).

I'm so late in posting this blog entry that I don't recall the details of the talk, but the research results is all at his website: He actually looks like a creative person and I'm sorry this didn't come out during his talk.

All together it was a mixed bag. For my taste, there was too much that was amusing without providing much substance, and there were too many talks that were more like navel-gazing. But it was good to hear the beat of Sillicon Alley even if it was soaked in beer.

[All my pics from the event: ]