Ignite SF – A Report

On Tuesday, October 16, I had the opportunity to attend Ignite SF, an inspirational night of presentations put on by O’Reilly Media.

The premise was that each speaker would get 5 minutes, and get to speak in front of a presentation, whose 20 slides would be automatically swapped out every 15 seconds. 

The event was held at the DNA Lounge, which is THE place to be a cyberpunk in SF.  Anyway, it was a fun bar full of geeks ready to get excited about the work we’re all doing.

The speakers were pretty good, for the most part.   Nobody gave any answers to key questions, but there was a lot of stuff to think about and research further.

Here’s a synopsis:

Annalee Newitz – Spaceships (and a few dragons)

Annalee had a very polished, articulate speech about space ships in various SF shows, and the cultural milieu in which they existed.  She talked about how Star Wars features ships that are used by plucky rebels to overthrow a totatilarian government (at least in the original series), how Star Trek was all about a utopia that influenced the children of the 80’s, and so forth.    She was a great opener, full of energy.

Bryan O’SullivanFunctional programming: from buzz to products

Bryan works at LindenLab building virtual worlds. He talked about the wonders of the programming language Haskell.  His presentation crapped out on him, so he had to wing it for a few minutes, which he did really well.

Haskell is a functional programming language that imposes certain constraints of its users, constraints that force a more elegant solution, according to Bryan.

Ian KallenUnderstand The Web Spam Ecosystem In 5 Minutes

Ian Kallen leads the Core Services engineering group at Technorati, which is a search engine that follows blogs in real time.  His talk was about link farms and Google click fraud, which I found very interesting as it provided some concrete examples of the problem, and a solution.   There is apparently a whole industry, consisting of stay-at-home-moms in Florida, Russian sweatshops and lots of other people trying to make a buck, who create “fake blogs” that contain keywords and links to ads. 

Apparently, if you find such a blog, you can click on the “Ads by Gooogle” words, and report them, thus helping to keep the web safe for humanity.

Toby SegaranSocial Data Mining

Toby performed a Social Data Mining experiment by analyzing Craig’s List personals postings in various cities, and came up with some funny and startling findings.  He also analyzed Hot or Not, and showed that one can apply decision trees to determine that Hot or Not finds more attractive men on the East Coast, but that more attractive women are found on the West.  Or something like this.  In any case, his book sounds like it could be at least as fun as Freakonomics.

Brooke BlumensteinWeb 2.0 Outside the Tech Scene

Brooke was the most “corporate” of the speakers, but her subject was interesting to me, as someone who has tried to impress new technologies in a corporate culture in order to manage “knowledge”.   Her findings included the fact that people don’g like to tag documents (duh!), but that a usable and useful knowledge base can be established when you give people very simple tools that evolve to meet their needs.  One interesting fact: 90% of the content entered into their systm was entered by only 20% of people.   Which just goes to show – most people like to do their job more than they like to help the next person do that job – but those 20% who DO like to document provide most of the findable knowledge in an organization.

Tara huntForget Venture Capital, Raise Social Capital!

Her talk was the most topical for what I’m working on right now – specifically it’s about how building a good social network around your company (which she calls “social capital”) can lead to having more fun, a more successful product, and, eventually, VC money.   Her talk can be summarized as “get your friends to be customers, and build products that they like.  Then the VC’s will come to you”.

I’ll have to read more about her to see how successful she is with this idea (her web site is really interesting, and rings very true), but I was inspired by her presentation.

dan farmer – faster than the bear

This security expert used about 4.5 minutes to give out as many metaphors as possible for “your organization changes constantly, and it’s really hard to identify the human users on the network.”  His conclusion?  I paraphrase as: “Corporate security will not be able to find 100% of the problems because things are always changing inside the firewall.  Get that money from your boss and buy a few beers for your team, at least that way they’ll be slightly happier when there’s a breach.”

Violet Blue – Porn or Not?

She talked about different social mores around porn, and the fact that smut is relative – one man’s foot photos are another’s masturbation aide.    As more and more people’s tastes and perversions collide with each other on the internet, especially on sites such as Flickr, we are more and more inclined to start to see every photo in its smuttiest context, thus losing some of the innocent enjoyment one can get out of seeing photos of children’s swim meets and women’s feet.

She was funny and engaging, and even incorporated LOLcats in her presentation.  She didn’t offer any answers to this quandry, except to implore those of us building sites and putting content on the web to keep in mind that everything is NOT porn.

Chicken JohnArt and Innovation

Chicken John gave a funny yet somewhat disjointed speech about why we should vote for Chicken for 2nd place in the upcoming SF Mayoral Election.   He represents the surreal wing of SF politics, and wants to attract attention to the Instant Run-Off Voting system now in place in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, he is far more able to shock and amuse than educate, at least in person.  Fortunately, he actually wants to make things better.

If I lived in SF,  I would totally vote for him for second place.

David Recordon – ScubaBots

David gave us a status update of the state of P>ing information on the internet, and then followed up with a pitch to get someone to build robots that can be stationed at P>e sites and report in real-time about ocean conditions.

Seems like that might be useful in the tsunami-warning and observation field as well. 

Jonathan Foote – SWARM: Spherical Kinetic Robots

These guys actually BUILT robots, though they were mostly for fun and not science.  Jonathan had some awesome slides, including one full of equations, to show how “kick-ass” the SWARM team was.  Thoroughly fun, and I look forward to seeing these robots rolling around the Bay Area someday.

Patti Roll – Timbuk2 + CrowdSourcing = Awesomeness

This was another useful presentation.  Patti is a Marketing Manager at Timbuk2, and she talked about how the company has been getting good results from providing a human face and interacting directly with T2’s very passionate customers. Timbuk2 actually converses with customers on their site, as well as on sites such as Flickr, where Timbuk2 is one of the most tagged brands.  People love the bags, and are willing to tell the world, in exchange for free bags.

Rick Wesson – Why we are fucked: eCrime and the Internet

Another security speech, this one focusing on the number of attacks and compromised machines thtat exist in the world.   He showed some really interesting graphs of insecure machines over the entire scope of IP addresses and allocations, and was fairly engaging and fun while describing them. 

Unfortunately, his conclusion didn’t boil down to much, other than “Buy a Mac for your parents because there are fewer viruses for them right now.”

Jason Tester – Futurism 2.0: human-future-interaction

Jason works with the Institute for the Future (what a great job!) and gave some compelling examples of things that technologists should start to consider.  His piece was mostly about imagining consequences of our technologies.

Mitch Altman – Hacktivism & Inventing: TV-B-Gone & The Brain Machine

Mitch Altman summed up the night by describing his rise from lonely geek obscurity to instant celebrity after his invention of TV-B-Gone.  He encouraged us to pursue our passions (even if we can’t stick to them) and to work on what excites and compels us.  In his case, the TV-B-Gone came about because he recognized that TV was stealing time away from him by providing an escape outlet, instead of a create outlet.

All in all, it was an interesting night, and I hope that O’Reilly keeps doing them.  The DNA Lounge is a great space for this type of talk, though it would be nicer if they had planned an after-party.  I found myself bolting right after the speeches.