Friday, May 29, 2009

Half of TEDx Sydney 2009

Thanks to Josh Anstey's generosity I was able to attend TEDx Sydney last night. Whilst it was enjoyable, I ended up leaving at the half-time break and spending the evening with my family instead. Nevertheless if you're interested in TED then I would recommend giving an event like this a go, if nothing else there were some great people there like Mark Cohen, Jodie Miner and Brian Maguire.

Some background: TED is an event that focuses on thought leadership in the Technology, Entertainment and Design fields every year and has as its catch-cry "Ideas worth spreading". The TED conference sells out quickly every year (despite some unusual conditions) and attracts all sorts of luminaries and leaders. A TED event is the place to meet movers and shakers and has been the birthplace of some wonderful ideas over the years. They make the videos of each event available online during the year, and part of the focus of a TEDx event is to create that same buzz in a local venue by mixing TED videos with local speakers.

So without further ado here is my thoughts on TEDx Sydney 2009:


The Australian Technology Park hosted the event, and as that is where Elcom is based that proved convenient for me. The theatre used was a great venue for watching TED videos and live speakers alike and I think it did a good job of providing some atmosphere - although I wonder whether other venues could have made a bigger impression? (e.g. Darling Harbour Convention Centre)

MC/Host (Nils Vesk)

I don't think a Gen-Y host was the right choice for an event like this - I think less entertainment and more credibility was needed (although it was Mark Cohen who blew Nils' credibility for me). However, Nils got the job done, and managed to do the more cheesy sales aspects of his role without making it seem too cheesy (more about that later).

Craig Rispin (Futurist)

I have heard of Craig Rispin, and indeed knew someone who he'd invited to the event. Unfortunately his recursive telling of the history of futurists who tell the history of the future left me bored and dual-tweeting with Mark Cohen.

I'm not sure Craig had an idea worth spreading, perhaps he intended it to be that we are all futurists, but it felt more like he was telling us that we were smart and forward-thinking people - which was nice of him, but didn't give me a reason to care about his talk. He also pointed out the prophetic nature of speculative/science-fiction in a way that might have impacted those who didn't yet care about it - but I've known about that for most of my life so it was wasted on me.

Patti Maes (Video, MIT Media Lab)

Patti Maes is from the MIT Media Lab and demonstrated a form of augmented reality where her students had cobbled together a wearable apparatus that linked a camera, phone and some software so that you could make any surface around you into a computer work area, and interact with your environment in ways that could both instruct the computer/camera to do something (e.g. take a photo by holding your hands up in a rectangle) or could bring digital information to you based on your context (e.g. talking to a person, reading a book, looking at a product label).

She pointed out that the technology could be cobbled together for a few hundred dollars easily enough, but their point was that they were investigating what were reasonable ways to augment reality. Some of this has been done before with for example the head-up displays (HUD) that Boeing engineers use when wiring plane bodies.

This was the most exciting talk, but hardly surprising to anyone who has been following technology for the last 15 years or so.

Peter Baines (Hands Across the Water)

Peter Baines was one of the forensic specialists sent to Thailand in the aftermath of the recent Boxing Day Tsunami. He gave us a fairly somber account of that, especially dealing with the human side when giving bodies back to relatives. He went on to show how this created a desire in him and his colleagues to do more than they were for the Thais - out of that desire was birthed Hands Across the Water.

I think that Peter's idea worth spreading was that if you just focus on the results, and not the obstacles, then you can achieve your dreams - whatever they are, whoever you are. I think this was a great message, and Peter is obviously a good example of this in action. Focus, and the single-minded pursuit of an idea, is too often given lip-service as a reason for success, when I believe it might just be the major factor in it.

A large part of Peter's story was a dig at the international aid agencies that quickly went into Thailand and then just as quickly pulled out around a year later. One of his ideas is that charities should be forced to put some stats on every piece of marketing literature telling the reader how much money they spent on admin versus aid in the last financial year. The idea (much like the MIT Media guys) being to give people information to make informed decisions about where to give their money. I think this ignores part of the bigger picture, which is a question of how much admin is required to run an international charity that coordinates volunteers from many nations into situations that are often not as attractively packaged as the Thai one was. However that discussion can't happen without making the information available, and so I would welcome it form that point of view.

Bill Gates (Video, Curing Malaria and Making Teachers Better)

I had seen this one before, but hung around to watch it on the big screen. Bill and Melinda Gates' foundation is really trying to focus money and attention onto big issues that the market and governments are ignoring.

The first issue he covered was curing malaria, which seems both an achievable aim and one that has been largely ignored now that wealthy nations are free of it. His idea here was that if we focus on eradicating it then a relatively modest effort will see it gone, whilst if we tackle it half-heartedly we only make things worse.

The second issue was about how do you make teachers great, and he gave a long analysis of why this mattered, which seemed obvious, but I guess the hard numbers he pulled out showed people that it was an issue worth focusing on. I think his idea here was that we should care about the quality of teaching - mainly because in the US at least, the quality of a teacher is not easily discovered or rewarded.


Overall the event had a good vibe, seemed interesting, and was a good way to share the watching of a TED video with people you knew. I think I missed too much of the schmoozing part of it to know whether that worked - but I was happy catching up with who I did see there.

There was a cheesy side to the event which was the blatant pushing of wares for the main sponsors, especially the silent auction of the Thought Leaders' services (with some fairly suspicious dollar figures on their market value). I understand that some of this is necessary to get the event paid for - but I do wonder if this could have been handled in a more subtle and positive way.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Top 5 classic programmer folly projects

Back in the day when the British Empire was still new, wealthy landowners who had heard about great places elsewhere (usually ones where it didn't rain all the time) started a trend of re-creating these great places on their own land - often right down to the current decrepit state of said places.

Sometimes they didn't have a specific place in mind, but wanted a "ruined Greek temple" or similar stereotypical "interesting" structure (sometimes they were just plain strange). The point seemed to be to prove that a) you were interesting, b) you could pay for a spurious building for the sake of it, and c) foreign travel was all so unnecessary. These were known, rather aptly, as follies (presumably because they represented the folly of spending your children's inheritance on an expensive monument when investing it might have proven more prudent).

From: Xerones 

Programmers it turns out are no less susceptible to follies, although they might not realise it, and they are not deliberate fakeries. There are several classic programmer follies which tend to get repeated by each generation, with ever-increasing zeal and lack of awareness of their futility.

Now, don't get me wrong, these are all fine examples of throwaway projects that you might play around with and practice on, but for some reason programmers can't seem to leave them stay as just throwaway projects - they always want to upgrade them to the status of "next big thing".

Without any further ado, here they are.

Top 5 classic programmer folly projects

1. Bug tracking

Every software program has bugs, and most programmers find they need a good system to track said bugs. Some companies, Atlassian and Fog Creek Software have made their living providing great, simple yet powerful solutions for exactly this problem.

However, there is always a temptation to take shortcuts, customise the bug tracking, or get a cheaper solution, and so inevitably every programmer gets tempted to build their own bug tracking application.

It's a folly because ...
This is actually a fairly complicated domain, especially once you add in the bug resolution workflow, web interface and email integration that even free, open-source applications have. Of course there is also the problem of what to do when your bugs are in your bug tracking software ... evil recursion in the real world!

2. To do list

I just want to track what I need to do ... and what I want is to improve this to do list. Remember the Milk has the best free implementation I've seen of this type of application, but BaseCamp, your mobile phone and even GMail are worth mentioning (not to mention trusty old pen and paper).

It's a folly because ...
You really don't need to waste brain cycles re-inventing something this simple, and when you look at the sophistication of Remember the Milk (web, offline Google Gears, Twitter, email and mobile integration) anything you do yourself looks kinda ... sad.

3. Website/blog engine

I want to use something I built myself, and it's a good chance to try my hand at content management ... except it isn't. If you are blogging then do your readers and yourself a favour and use an existing blogging application. You will have a more consistent user interface and will never find yourself not posting because the build is broken after that last refactor and you can't be bothered fixing it yet.

It's a folly because ...
The free alternatives are great, the cheap ones are even better and frankly it's not that great a domain for learning how to code, especially web stuff.

4. Hobby management

My hobby (roleplaying games, model robots, high performance cars, salsa dancing, etc) is out of control and I need a way of managing it. Actually no you don't, you probably just need to get out and live more.

It's a folly because ...

You don't really want to mix up your hobby and your work, it just makes one less fun and the other less professional. it is also an area where you will never really be satisfied with the result because it's your hobby. Finally, when you show it to other people they are likely to go "Ummm ... very nice. What is it?" Hugh MacLeod defines a geek as "Somebody who socializes via objects" and congratulations, that's exactly what you've just become!

5. Application Building Applications

This is the one where you build an application that uses meta-data to build an application. It seems this is the purvey of the very smart and the very dumb. The really smart guys believe they can be the ones to break through and nail this problem, the really dumb ones just don't realise how hard it is.

It's a folly because ...

It's possible to do this in theory, but in practice you only ever get around 80% of the way there, and it turns out the other 20% is the bit that an application really needs to live and breathe. Really, really smart guys manage to push that 80% up to the giddy heights of 81.63%, but hey, it still doesn't do what you really wanted it to.

Bonus! Installer software

OK, here is number six. What do you do when you want to distribute your application to clients? Use the MSI installer for Visual Studio? Heck, no! You go ahead and create your own installer software, complete with license number check, built-in unzipper and some cross-platform nastiness.

It's a folly because ...

You already know you shouldn't be doing this. Go use something someone else created and love the fact that you don't need to do it by hand!


OK, time for confession time, I've been guilty of each of these (at least through to the design stage). What about you, what were your follies?