Monday, September 26, 2011

BarCamp Tampa Bay 2011

Creative Brainstorming Session
On Saturday I went to my first BarCamp Tampa Bay. I'd seen them pop up for a couple years but I hadn't made time to go to one. This year I finally made it.

One of the distinguishing features of BarCamps is that there is no set schedule or speaker list before the event. Potential speakers sort of offer up their talk topics and people shuffle the talks around on the wall until a schedule is worked out. I have mixed feelings about how well this works. I would have loved for attendees to have more input into what talks sounded more interesting and adjust the schedule accordingly, especially to avoid overlapping talks that might appeal to the same audience.

As a side note, I tweeted photos of the current talk schedule. It's a little frustrating that there was no other way to get to the schedule online, especially since talks were spread over two buildings with quite a hike between them. It's complicated by the fact that the schedule can change throughout the day. Maybe next year we can set up a quick webcam or something to make it easy to check the schedule online.

The mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn, came out to help kick off the event. It was great to see him there for what sounds like more than just a token demonstration of his support for technology startups in the area. He mentioned his daughters going off to college and said something along the lines of "My daughters won't come back to Tampa for jobs at a call center but for the jobs you guys create." He hung around for a while and got to meet a lot of attendees.

My first talk was by Marvin Scaff of Gazelle Lab, a fairly new incubator / mentoring company in Tampa. The talk started a little late so it was unfortunately cut a bit short, but it was still interesting. He introduced Gazelle Lab and ran through some tips for dealing with a mentor and making the most effective use of their time. Gazelle Lab follows the TechStars model and Marvin really recommended that people read their Do More Faster book. I've been following Paul Graham's YCombinator and techie-oriented Hacker News, so I'm really excited for Tampa Bay to have something like this started here locally. I've seen what a difference ATDC and other programs make for Atlanta and Georgia Tech even though they're Not The Valley.

My next talk was from Fritz Eichelberger from HotSpaces. It was theoretically a talk about "crowdsourcing" design of the new HotSpaces website, but it was pretty self-promoting. I'm not saying I'm opposed to that. I like Fritz and his Pure and Shameless Tech Socials and a lot of people in the room had apparently never heard of them. But I started to get frustrated that all people seemed to care about is the placement of design elements on his (admittedly rough looking) landing page. Fritz even said "I only update my site every three to four months." It was another reminder of what a struggle companies are having with finding tech talent in Tampa and what a seller's market it is for developers.

I tried to catch a talk about the relaunch of We Are Tampa Bay but the room was packed beyond standing room only. We definitely need to watch their relaunch this week.

Then I went over to a Creative Think Tank / Brainstorming session with Nathan Schwagler. I had vaguely known Nathan through TEDx Tampa Bay but I didn't realize what his day job is. Nathan's session served a dual purpose. He showed a creative brainstorming session while at the same time collecting a lot of ideas for how to promote the Tampa Bay area to convention attendees. Nathan mentioned IDEO which reminded me of this video that I've used with the kids on our FIRST Tech Challenge team. I got to talk to Jeff Baird from Kngroo for a while. I'm a little nervous for them that Gowalla essentially pivoted right into their space, but Kngroo is targeting more of the small/local business market than Gowalla. I hope them the best.

I caught a session by Giovanni DiFeterici on digital painting. It was pretty fun to watch. I dabble in graphic design, drawing, Photoshop, painting, etc. mostly for fun and to help friends and non-profits. I got to catch up with him at the after party and talk digital art and drawing geek stuff for a while, which was cool. If anyone feels like they can't draw, they really should check out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Even as someone that's had a few art classes, I still got a lot out of the book and Giovanni said he has all of his students use it. If you want to learn to draw digitally, you've got to start with a Wacom tablet, even if it's a smaller Bamboo.

I had to catch the session by Antony Francis on social media. It was encouraging to see that I already follow much of his advice on my handful of tiny side projects and non-profits, just not at the same scale that Head of Lettuce Media does. One thing I don't do is use interactive Twitter bots. I've seen plenty of Twitter accounts feeding RSS feeds to Twitter accounts - and admittedly do it myself - but I hadn't really considered going full-on interactive bot. I just thought it was too spammy and not that useful of a technique. But even an obvious bot on Twitter can still provide value to followers. That's an interesting idea that I'll have to consider.

Next was a talk on Node.js and by Jim Hoskins. It was a good talk and a great presenter but even thought I haven't done a project with it yet, I've already been through a few Node talks and played with it before so a 30 minute overview ultimately wasn't that interesting to me. I'll definitely have to check out Jim's content though. He did a great job.

My next session was one by Ryan Magin on affiliate marketing and SEO. We didn't get to see everything Ryan does, but I'm pretty sure that the basic idea behind what Ryan does is to target niche markets, throw up SEO-friendly Wordpress blogs to win a single search term, and funnel all that traffic to buying either an info product like an ebook or a product sold by a third party that pays affiliates for sending them sales. It wasn't a new concept to me, but clearly it was new to quite a few people in the audience.  He really hammered home the value when he mentioned that he made about $75k last year and was hoping to break six figures this year. Ryan credited Tim Ferriss's Four Hour Work Week for inspiration to get started. It was pretty fun to hear the questions from the audience. It was hard for them to understand that each individual blog has almost no value, but when you combine hundreds of blogs, that drives a lot of traffic. So that's why he only makes a few posts on a blog then moves on, doesn't care about the design, disables visitor comments, and doesn't even back up the blogs. During the talk, I tweeted a mention of Ed Dale's Challenge which is a decent, free introduction to internet marketing. The Challenge is a little more about testing niche markets before investing in developing and launching a full product but some of the same techniques apply.

Then I went over to see Joe Healy, Microsoft Developer Evangelist, show off the Kinect SDK. It was a two hour talk compressed into thirty minutes but he still covered an impressive amount of stuff. I don't think I've ever heard Joe talk that fast. He got me to "dance" for a Kinect demo, which partly made up for me telling him that I just ordered my first MacBook. I still need to keep it out of his sight though since it's not waterproof.

By then I was burned out and mostly caught up with a few people before heading out to the after party at The Roosevelt 2.0, a sort of flex space, art gallery, creative space, not sure what to call it, etc.

Overall, it was a pretty good event. I like some aspects of the chaos and free-formedness of the schedule but overall I think I'd rather have a schedule ahead of time to research speakers and plan my day. All the side conversations and people I met made me wish that I was in a spot that I was ready to act on my Moleskine full of startup ideas. Maybe next year?

KForce was awesome to host it and there are a lot of other people and companies that deserve thanks. I really should list them all here but they're all on the BarCamp Tampa Bay site.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Google Plus

I've been on Google+ for almost three weeks now. I've read a lot of people's reviews of it and haven't seen many people saying what I would say so I figured it's worth writing my own post about Google+ and what I think of it.

First I see a lot of people raving about Circles and how they change everything. I'm not sure I get it. Facebook has had user lists and a privacy setting on each status update for quite some time. I personally use a few lists on Facebook to share stuff with different sets of people. I have lists for people I know through Cub Scouts, people I know through church, people I went to high school with, people I work with, etc. Some of my Facebook friends are in multiple groups. So when I post something that would only interest one of those groups, I can filter my post so it's only visible to just that group. That's just like sharing to a circle on Google+. I can also share a post with everyone except a group of people, which is something Google+ lacks so far. Facebook does let you share a post with "friends of friends" and "everyone" so posts can be visible outside of your friends list, but there's no way for non-friends to see them unless they go to your particular Facebook profile. So Google+ clearly does a better job of sharing posts with the public (people outside of your network). Facebook's friend lists aren't that hard to manage, but the Google+ circles UI is a little nicer. It takes a little more work in Facebook to set the privacy / visibility of a status post than in Google+, but I think it's 6 clicks and typing the list name vs. 2 clicks and typing the  circle name so it's not a huge difference.

Twitter on the other hand has no outbound filtering at all. Except for making your entire Twitter stream private, you can't send a tweet to anyone except all of your followers (and anyone that finds it through searches). So for sending stuff to limited groups of people, Google+ clearly beats Twitter, but Twitter doesn't even try to handle that.

The inbound side is where Google+ really shows something different than Facebook. You can pick all of your circles at once or select individual circles to view posts from people in those circles. Unfortunately there's no way yet to pick more than one circle at a time or all circles except one or two. I swear Facebook used to have the ability to select friend lists to see updates from just friends on each list, but I can't find it in the current UI. So that's clearly a win for Google+.

Twitter though has a lot of flexibility on the inbound side. Even with the base Twitter web UI, you can set up many lists of Twitter users to organize different streams. You don't even have to follow the people that are on your lists. You also get the choice of making each list public or keeping it private. I have both. For example I have a public list of Tampa media people and media outlets. It's too much for me to follow regularly, but when something newsworthy is happening in the area, it's a great resource. I also keep a "catchup" private list of the Twitter accounts that I really want to keep up with. So whenever I don't have time to read my entire Twitter feed, I scan just my "catchup" list instead. (Lately that's all I usually get time for and I almost need to create an even shorter list for when I'm really short on time.) I also have some other special interest lists I can look at depending on my context. For example I have one for a bunch of work-related Twitter accounts and another for one with a bunch of scouting-related Twitter accounts. So in my mind Twitter gets a slight win over Google+ on the inbound side, mostly because you can publish lists publicly for others to use.

Second, I've seen people raving about how Google+ handles conversations a lot better than Twitter. I'm not sure. It is true that I get to see everyone's response to a post in Google+ but that's not always a good thing. With my friends and posts that get a few responses, it's great. When Scoble or Gina Trapani posts something and gets 200 responses, it's not so useful. There's sort of a up-voting because people can +1 a comment but there's no way yet to hide comments that haven't been up-voted. But on Twitter you don't automatically see responses to posts other people make. With most clients, you won't even see @responses from the person you're following unless you follow both people in the conversation. So I guess I'd say it handles conversations differently and lets you see more of them, but I'm not sure that it's a good thing. It seems almost identical to Facebook's conversations though. I guess the only big difference I can see compared to Facebook is that on Facebook, you can usually post on another person's (or page's) wall and start a new conversation. It sounds useful, but for highly followed people and pages, it's just a lot more noise.

Third, people are really liking the "hangout" video chat in Google+. I have to agree it looks pretty good and quite useful. We use video chat for work through Skype and WebEx so it's not very ground-breaking to me, but I certainly see the value. It does have all the problems with every other video chat, the biggest of which is that a lot of times people just aren't ready or willing to go on camera.

I really haven't been able to try Huddles which is a group messaging piece available from the mobile apps. That was a key prospective use for Twitter early on - text messaging among groups of friends rather than one-on-one. Twitter users moved on pretty quickly from that and today I doubt that very many tweets are delivered over SMS.

I've tried Sparks on Google+ but I don't really get them. It's a bit like a weak RSS reader or news alerts. Some of the topics I tried are filled with useless and irrelevant results but some of the big topics do OK. But I don't think they'll catch on at all in their current form.

I've seen more than a few people say that they're done with Facebook now that Google+ is here. I don't really see that happening for me. I currently have quite a split between people I know on Facebook vs. people I know on Twitter. On Twitter I follow a lot of people I don't even know, but out of the people I do know, they're mostly more technical than my average Facebook friend. So if I want to share some geeky link, it has to go on Twitter. I might stick it on Facebook but I can expect that 70% of my Facebook friends won't care. So far almost every person I interact with on Google+ is also fairly active on Twitter. So I don't see it really making much of a dent in Facebook. It could take some people away from Twitter though. I have noticed that essentially the same post on both Facebook and Google+ is currently getting more comments on Google+ but that's likely just the novelty factor. 

There are clearly some issues to resolve in Google+ and a lot of possibilities. Google is quite good at iterating quickly and isn't afraid to roll changes into a product, so this will be interesting to see Google+ change rapidly.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

New Backup System

I've been struggling for a while with having a working backup system for our family. I mostly need to back up digital photos and video but also some things like MP3s, images of laptops, other documents, etc. I use Dropbox for backing up smaller things like documents, but photos and video are too big to be economical there. For quite a while, I used my Flickr account to back up photos, but it was becoming unmanageable. I looked at Mozy and Carbonite but there are a few downsides (other than price). It can take a long time to upload, especially for an initial backup. Then if you do ever need to recover 100 gigs of data, it can take an incredibly long time to download unless you just pay to have DVDs of your data sent to you. I figured I could do better on my own.

When I got my new camera, I moved to using a single Western Digital Elements 2 TB external drive for backups. I kept it off-site but needed to either bring it home to update or use another drive to bring any updates to it. It wasn't good to have such a disconnected backup.

For my new system, I wanted to rotate drives. One drive will always be offsite and the other will always be at home, ready to receive files. Every few weeks I'll swap the drives, which means that they'll both be offsite for a while, but since my original files I'm backing up are at home on the original drive, that's pretty low-risk.

I started with a Diablotek EN3525D Hard Drive Dock and a pair of 2 terabyte drives. I went with two different manufacturers - Seagate and Hitachi - to avoid the possibility of getting two drives from a single bad production run.

I had been using Microsoft SyncToy to run backups but had some struggles with it. You need a sync definition for each drive pair and you can't run two in parallel or sequence. I switched to using a Windows command-line tool robocopy. That lets me build my own scripts and decide whether I want to run a quick update of just some files or sync everything.

One concern I have is that if any files on my original disks get corrupted I will end up replicating those corrupted files to both backup drives. Similarly, if a file is deleted from my original disk, I'll replicate that delete. I'm considering adding a third backup drive that I only ever add files to (contribute) instead of mirroring deletes. Or maybe it's time to look at a Blu-Ray burner?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

QR Codes

I've been seeing QR codes more and more. I might even stick some on the banners for our Cub Scout pack as we get ready for the Lutz 4th of July Parade. We definitely need some built out of LEGOs for our First LEGO League / Tech Challenge team.

I captured two of the more interesting uses of QR codes I've seen. One was at the Florida State Fair, in the Fish and Wildlife Commission exhibit (right). On each of their aquariums and displays, they posted a QR code to learn more about the display and topic it illustrated. I could see this working well in museums, providing audio/video about a piece or even different language translations of the notes.

The other was at Office Depot. Each of the cameras on the sales display had a QR code that linked to a YouTube video demonstration of the camera. Maybe someday we'll see displays like that have a QR code that will launch a video chat session with someone (working remotely) that can actually answer questions about the product. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I Have a Blog?

So I touched my blog for what appears to be the first time in 18 months. I had a few draft posts sitting around that I pushed out, including one from December of 2009 apologizing for not blogging lately. (It's only three posts below this one.) The same reasons still apply and then some. My short thoughts and interesting links show up on Twitter and/or Facebook or sometimes my Google Reader feed. Anything much longer tends to just get filed away for later, never to be seen again.

We've been busy.

Work keeps kicking into higher gears - but in a good way. Among a lot of other things, in the past year we've hosted two technical conferences here in Tampa with many of our developers and other technical staff from around the world. We were also acquired earlier this year.

Our First LEGO League team TechnoForce had a very successful run over two seasons. We made it to the second round (regionals) in our second year, but didn't make it to the state level. I really need to write up a couple of posts about all the lessons we've learned along the way. Unfortunately, TechnoForce has now dissolved as a team and we'll be focusing our efforts on other things. We may be returning to First LEGO League though, especially as our son gets old enough for it.

We joined Cub Scouts - Lutz Pack 86 - and had a very active first year. Lots of group camping, Pinewood Derby, and other activities. I have a couple blog posts in mind about what we've learned as parents new to the Cub Scouts.

For Van Dyke Church's annual Sports Camp last summer (2010), I coached chess. Despite considering coaching soccer or football a couple times, I've always wound up doing non-sports activities for kids that just don't want to (or can't) do a sport. I've done robotics and science olympiad before, but chess was the most like a sport so far. I got to teach almost all of the kids something and they still wanted to play even at the end of the camp. I wrote a few related posts over on Gifted Homeschooling about teaching chess. This summer I'll be coaching a LEGO engineering activity.

We helped host TEDxYouth@TampaBay. I mostly handled video. It was a little rough but I learned a lot in a hurry about producing live and recorded video. You can see all of our speakers on this YouTube list.

We continue to homeschool. This is our first year using Florida Virtual School which has been a different sort of challenge - less burden on us to teach but a whole lot of supervising a student that doesn't want to follow someone else's schedule. We continue to be active in our homeschool co-op, THINK Day.

I also finally picked up a more serious camera - a Canon T2i. I'm still learning a lot about making it work right - shooting a lot with the 50mm 1.4 lens - which absolutely blows me away with it's ability to gobble up available light and turn out a reasonable photograph. I'm now always quite behind in processing photos from different events with the kids (I often shoot over a thousand photos a weekend), but someday I'll get back to updating my Flickr account with some good shots.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Secure Browsing

For most of the past year, my primary web browser has been Google Chrome with all plugins disabled. I selectively enable plugins for a few sites I trust, or I can enable it on the fly for a single session on a site. I haven't had a single virus / trojan hit since switching over. It's also eliminated a lot of my frustration with Flash ads and auto-playing Quicktime audio.

Google Chrome isn't necessarily immune to any security threats, but it's survived three straight years of pwn2own without falling - a pretty good track record. But if you browse with all those common plugins enabled, you're asking for trouble. On any given week, there seems to be a new severe zero-day Adobe attack.

Anyone that feels like they're more secure because they browse with Flashblock should try this (or any number of websites that show how Flashblock doesn't prevent Flash plugin hacks):