Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why National Engineers Week Matters

It's National Engineers Week. This year's Honorary Chair is William H. Swanson, Raytheon Chairman and CEO.  The Raytheon video for National Engineers Week honors engineering innovation and also highlights the MathMovesU project.  The Raytheon website has lots more info about what they're doing this week and about MathMovesU. Check it out here. The week also includes the national Future City Competition.

This week also kicks off the national Real World Design Challenge. The team from Newburyport, with support from my favorite historic airport, won the Massachusetts state title last year and went to Washington for the finals. These kids do real engineering, in teams, to solve real problems.

Encouraging kids, boys and girls alike, to look at engineer as a cool and rewarding career path is one of the best things we can do to spur innovation. The kids participating in the Future City Competition and the Real World Design Challenge today are innovators  who are going to be boosting the economy soon. We should pay more attention to them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

report from the field

I'm sitting in the coffee shop with my laptop attempting to write this afternoon. The Internet service at my house has been abysmally slow since Saturday's extreme winds. Besides that,  while I'm working at home, all my undone chores gang up on me and distract me from the wonderful world of session-based voice (and media) communication. So after a solid hour or so of writing, I look up from my laptop screen and see 4 people reading paper books (3 paperback, 1 hardcover) and one guy reading an iPad screen. No Kindles. No Nooks.  To further confound my impressions of the whole e-book revolution thing, the guy reading on his iPad looks to be in his mid-40s, definitely not a millennial. Of the paperback readers, 2 appear to be millennials and one appears closer to Gen X. The hardback reader looks to be about the same age as iPad guy.

It's possible that the rest of the millennials here are reading on their Android phones, but it looks more like they're texting.

What's going on here? Every time I go outside of my house and see what's going on in the real world, I see far fewer Kindles than I see when I'm hunkered down in my house reading the online media about media.  It's not that this patch of world is deficient in young digital natives, there are both a major university campus and a community college within walking distance. There are plenty of young people in the coffee shop, they just seem to use books as their content delivery mechanism.

Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it...

Edited to add: A millennial boy with a Kindle came in and started reading shortlly before I left the coffee shop but after I posted this entry. So the count now includes 1 Kindle. Still tied with iPad and behind  "book".

Monday, February 21, 2011

stay calm and keep writing

This video of Margaret Atwood's TOC conference talk is inspiring. I've watched it 3 times. Watch it first. Then check out the interview with her on O'Reilly Media's YouTube channel.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

further thought on creating emotional attachments to digital objects

I've already blogged that I've been thinking a lot about how the future will be without books.  A former co-worker tweeted a link to this article several days ago: The Art of Creating Emotional Attachments to Digital Objects. I've been thinking about it since. I wasn't sure, and I'm still not sure, how the topic of creating emotional attachments to digital objects relates to  the #techcomm business, but it does resonate with it. Today I noticed a link to the same article on STC's Notebook, so I guess it is a blog-worthy topic after all.

According to the writer, Dominic Basulto, summarizing the argument for or against e-books boils down to the "touch" issue:  "e-books can not be touched, bookmarked and lovingly annotated in the same way that real books can."  Digital signatures, digital "weathering", and some kind of way to display what you're reading to others do all factor into it, but his article as well as most of the discourse about books vs. e-books, leaves out one important point. Will I be able to pick up your e-book in 10 years, be able to read it, and understand what it meant to you?

There's more to the emotional attachment to books than weathering.

Let me illustrate with a family anecdote. A few years ago, my nieces (then ages 17 and 19) were searching Mom's attic for a missing tea kettle. The rest of us were sitting around the dining room table joking about how the last time I went up into the attic I found lots of old books, some of which had belonged to various of the Gills, our across the street neighbors on Warwick Rd.. They had titles like "The Boy Allies in the Balkans" and such.

The girls were up there a long time. They returned without the tea kettle, but with a pile of books. The 17-year-old, who had just returned from a semester studying in Spain, held up a book and said "I wish I'd had this book before I went." It was "All About Going Abroad with Maps and a Handy Travel Diary" by Harry A. Franck. Written on the first page was the owner's name "Mary Winifred Gill, Regis College". There was an inscription on the flyleaf "With sincere good wishes for a happy and profitable year abroad. Sept. 19, 1936." We couldn't quite make out the signature but the last name was Hogan. That book must have migrated from Warwick Road when we moved in 1964!

I explained to my niece that the book's owner was my French teacher at Regis. She was impressed and enjoyed reading about exchange rates from the 1930s and stuff. The book became an instant treasure. However, the story doesn't end there.

I wrote to my former neighbor and French teacher, now in her 90s, with the story of the book. She responded with the answer to who had given her the book and the story of how she didn't go to study abroad in her Regis student days after all. At the time all foreign study for Americans was called off because of trouble under Franco in Spain. Of course, later WWII broke out etc.

My niece was thrilled to hear the story and feel the connection to a tiny part of history.

Could that story have happened with an e-book? If somebody picks up a 2011 Kindle in the attic in 2080 (won't be me unless I discover the secret of eternal life), will they know it's a reading device? Will they be able to recharge the battery or find some other way to power it on? Will they be able to transfer the content to whatever the current reading device is in 2080?

These days, with the 2011 state of e-readers, I can't transfer some of my e-books from one e-reading app to another. I have Stanza, Bluefire, iBooks, Google Books, and the Kindle app on my iPod Touch.  Some of the formats are incompatible. And of course, Google Books are in the cloud. Which of these formats will go the way of the 8-track tape or the Betamax video? Will version 7.0 (never buy a version numbered higher than 7) of the e-reader software you're using be able to read books that you downloaded with version 2.0? Will you be able to read your Kindle content on whatever has replaced the Kindle by then? Will there be a whole new industry of converting old e-book formats to new ones the way there is for audio? These are the problems we need to be solving.

The whole emotional attachment thing in my story comes from the story, not from how weathered the book looks or from showing off to others how often I read about studying abroad. The emotional "content" here came from the human connection across generations. Digital weathering isn't going to provide that. Instead of working on ways to be able to make our digital books seem more used and weathered, we need to be working on ways of assuring that they will still be readable. Instead of working on ways of displaying what our books say about us to the anonymous masses, we need to be working on how to connect people in real life using the power of objects and their content in the context of our emotions and affect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

thoughts on a boy reading a book

boy reading a book
Sitting in a coffee shop this afternoon, brooding on the future of technical communication and the future of books, which may or may not be related, I looked up and saw a boy studying using a paper book. His laptop was on the table next to him, half-closed, and his focus was clearly on the book. This was totally not what I expected to see, despite other experiences of seeing people reading books in this same coffee shop.

boy reading a book 2

I've seen whole families reading books in the coffee shop. One Saturday afternoon, I was hanging out with a friend and we saw more books than laptops.

reading at Brew'd Awakening

The entry I planned to write today about the doom and gloom going around the tech writing listserves I follow just won't come out from brain to fingertips right now.  I'm chasing away the vision of the bookless future and the techcomm-less future by appreciating the present moment, which seems to involve both books and tech writing work.

Now to go write some techie stuff.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mass Innovation Night #MIN23

Wow, it's Mass Innovation Night, it's not snowing, and the traffic on 128 is moving freely.  Perfect conditions for a great turnout at the IBM Innovation Center in Waltham. There's a great crowd with lots of enthusiasm, the demos and presentations are exciting, and there's pizza. What else could you possibly need for a good time?
check-in desk -- get your name tag here
The chosen presenters for this month were:
  • CloudJolt – Socially responsible web hosting
  • Buzub – Visual URLs
  • FiveSpark – SaaS mobile application builder
  • Personal Remedies – Personalized nutrition advisor
We also got to hear from MyPaperlessBills, who got snowed out last month.

I made the rounds of the Hall of Innovators and the conference rooms to check out as many innovators as possible before and after the presentations.

The concept of a visual URL intrigued me and I had a great conversation with Bill from Buzub about representing yourself with a unique string of icons. Since he was wearing his visual URL on his T-shirt, we quickly got into a discussion about hockey. This winter has brought back so many childhood memories of genuine "pond hockey" played on backyard rinks, ponds, and in my case, on the Charles River. Hmm, see what you can get from a visual URL? :-) 

CloudJolt's approach to web hosting impressed me with their comprehensive approach to support for entrepreneurs and social consciousness. They provide the total package, not only reasonably priced hosting packages and tools for creating your site, but also services like "Ask an Entrepreneur" that help overcome the hurdles of starting a business. These guys are the real deal.

Personal Remedies
"Personalized nutrition advisor" doesn't even begin to cover what the Personal Remedies application and knowledge base does for you. Name what ails you and this can tell you what foods are best to eat, and why. Mory crowd-sourced a hypothetical sick person for his presentation and his knowledgebase handled the odd collection of illnesses quite well.  Nice idea having the audience participate like that.

I loved Fivespark's approach to empowering businesses to develop their own mobile apps and deploy them to all the mobile devices their employees have. Point and click HTML5 mobile app development is one of my dream products.

Biba Rehydration Drink
I met Sean from Biba outside the Hall of Innovators and after determining that despite his resemblance to one of my cousins, we are not related I checked out Biba. I loved the drink and felt instantly rehydrated without that caffeine jolt. Over in the Experts Corner, I got Sean and first time MIN attendee, Jack,  to pose with a can of Biba. The Experts Corner was just starting to get busy.  The Experts were all looking very expert.

Experts Corner

Eric from Landmark Real Estate Advisers in the Experts Corner
My former co-worker Matt and his brother Kyle gave a great live demo of Blogcastr. It does just what it says – broadcasts your blog live. Their blog of #MIN23 is of course already up, while I'm sitting here writing and uploading pictures afterwards. They came in 5th in the voting, so didn't get to present, but still got a lot of buzz at their demo table.


Speaking of buzz, the buzz-free cable from Gig-FX is the real thing. No annoying buzz when you plug it into the guitar. He also demo'd his guitar effects pedals.  Talk about cool demos!

Christine from Carlton PR and Marketing in the Experts Corner
Folks from the Boston Globe, Your Town and “Forever 128″ column redefining coverage of local news

After the presentations I got to schmooze with some of the great folks who tweet about Mass Innovation Nights and match real people to their Twitter handles.  It was a great night with a great crowd of great people (have I said great enough?). Huge thanks to IBM for hosting.
the crowd listening

Monday in Tweets

11:22:33: Parking lot gates at Mass Eye & Ear are broken. Use valet parking if you have an appointment today.

17:25:27: And the poetic Doug Chickering. RT @TalkinBirds: Latest show: Mysterious Moorhen; & calcium for your birds?... Forum page at

18:36:37: Bobbi C @MassInno is talking "freestrapping" for startups. #gigbos

18:45:44: Max from codeforamerica calling for community involvement, collaboration, open government. #gigbos

18:54:51: Kidlauncher! I think we built something like that back on Warwick Rd. 100 years ago. Kids need to learn how to use tools. #gigbos

18:58:59: Parts & Crafts CSE teaching kids that you don't need a special space to do fun projects. Making stuff is fun. #gigbos

19:22:49: Dan Zarrella of HubSpot on Social Media Unicorns & Rainbows vs. really looking at the SM data. #gigbos

19:26:08: "I'm going to scientifically prove to you that Facebook is Jersey Shore." Dan Zarrella #gigbos

19:29:09: Context! We want context! Search engine needs to be able to handle context and concepts. How cool would it be if the engine knew me? #gigbos

19:40:51: Scored O'Reilly books on Docbook and REST at #gigbos. U should have seen the stampede for books at halftime. Real paper objects!

19:48:39: Compostable plates. Gives whole new meaning to the clean plate club.#gigbos

19:51:36: Successful Social Enterprises are sustainable, use profit to work toward the goal not as the goal, and produce good. #gigbos

19:52:51: "Capitalism kicks ass" -- Meaghan #gigbos

19:55:57: Wrapping up #gigbos with 5 things you didn't know about beer. So, did you know there are fishguts in your beer?

19:56:37: RT @BobbieC: #gigbos presentations today so far have ranged from giving birth to composting plates to search to unicorns to troll commen ...

21:19:18: Home from Ignite Boston. So, should I go downstairs and start a mad scientist lab in my basement or blog about #gigbos right now?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

studying entrepreneurship, startups, innovation, and Ken Olsen

Read a fascinating article this morning about UMass Lowell students studying entrepreneurship in Turkey: eNews: Management students in Turkey : News : UMass Lowell.

What makes an entrepreneur? And what influence does the cultural environment have on the birth of a company? We're not talking Boston vs. Silicon Valley here. (Although someone should study the real cultural differences involved there too.) We're talking a whole 'nother continent and culture. These guys are onto something. Take the students out of their own cultural context to see what's common to entrepreneurship and what's influenced by culture, location, and underlying assumptions. Get down to the bare bones of the anatomy of entrepreneurship. The professor and students blogged about the experience too. Very much worth reading.

As sometimes happens, things I read as a result of tweets from vastly different realms converge thematically. My friend Tim posted a link to this article by Steve Blank critiquing Startup America. The keywords “startup,” “entrepreneur,” and “innovation” are all over everywhere in political discourse about how to fix the US economy these days. But what are we really talking about? What makes a startup? Where does innovation fit in? It seems like we're a long way from having a national innovation strategy or even a local innovation strategy. Steve Blank's post nails it with his distinctions among the four types of entrepreneurship: small business, scalable startup, large companies, and social entrepreneurship. A one woman tech writing shop is not scalable, not a technological innovation, and not solving a social problem, but I'm sure as heck an entrepreneur. So, maybe that's not the best anecdote to illustrate the differences, but you get the idea. Read the article. It's very well-thought-out and raises the questions that need to be raised. Maybe Steve Blank should be the Startup America czar.

Do we really know what it takes to build a successful, scalable, innovative startup? What can we learn from the legacy of Ken Olsen, founder of what was arguably one of the most important computer startups ever? As I've watched the tweet stream, the news feeds, and all the media since Ken's death, I've wondered about that. There's much more to the Ken Olsen legacy and the Digital Equipment Corporation legacy than people think.  I so wanted to ask for a moment of silence in memory of Ken Olsen at Monday's Ignite Boston, but realized that the word had not reached the press yet. I'd gotten the news through DEC alumni channels. I also realized that although the whole techie environment we were in that night was a result of Ken Olsen's legacy, many (most? I hope not) of the attendees would have no idea who he was or why he mattered even though they are techies. If they've heard of him at all, it's only because of a quote from long ago taken out of context. You know the one I mean. Let's study not just the rise and fall of DEC, but the ripples that are still flowing outward from that mill in Maynard.

So, Massachusetts entrepreneurs and innovators, let's remember Ken and do his legacy proud by making Massachusetts once again the innovation center of the world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ignite Boston 8

the hashtag for tonight's event is #gigbos
Busy day today with the semi-annual trek to Boston for an eye checkup at Mass Eye and Ear and then across the river to Microsoft NERD for Ignite Boston 8, the kickoff event for Global Ignite Week. Ignite is sort of like a Pecha Kucha night for geeks.

Topics were all over the map: pregnancy, wheatstalks, troll comments, augmented humanity, startups, social enterprise, beer ... Yup, a pretty eclectic program with themes sort of emerging as we went along.

For the record, here's the lineup:
  • Conception, Pregnancy, Labor, Delivery, and Infants (for Geeks), Jacob Buckley-Fortin
  • How Freestrapping Is Killing Our Start-Ups, Bobbie Carlton
  • Code for America: Education and Technology in Boston, Max Ogden
  • How to Start a Summer Camp, Katie Gradowski and Will Macfarlane
  • The Real "MobileMe" How Smartphones Are Enabling a World of "Augmented Humanity," Joseph Flaherty
  • Halftime Break
  • Social Media Science, Dan Zarrella
  • The Future of Search Is Context, Mark Watkins
  • Trolling for Data, Courtney Stanton
  • Compost Your Dishes: Better than Washing, Heather Gilmore 
  • Social Enterprise: What Works, What Doesn't, Why It Matters, and Why You Should Hate Oprah, Meaghan Cassidy 
  • Pure Imagination: How Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory Is Really An Anti-Drug Parable, TC Cheever
  • 5 Things You Didn't Know About Beer, Sarah Hastings

 It was a full house with a fun crowd. It was great to see former co-worker JD Doyle, Mass Innovation Nights' Bobbie Carlton, and some of the folks I follow on Twitter, as well as to meet new people. (OK, so no cousins were in evidence, but this ain't Maynard. :-)) It was a fun crowd. The pizza provided by O'Reilly Media was delicious and the plates were compostable.

quite a crowd

James Craig Burley (@burleyarch) captured the mood with his halftime tweet: 

"Halftime. This is like New England weather: if you don't care for a presentation, wait a few minutes! But they've all been good."

I agree they were all good. Several reached the level of "awesome". 
The talk that got me most ignited was Katie Gradowski on parts and crafts, projects for kids. I love the CSE idea -- a monthly box of craft, technology, and engineering projects for kids to make and do. At halftime I chatted with people about building things, taking things apart, and doing projects with my dad and brothers in ancient times and how so many of the great pioneers of computing got their start doing just that. It's bugged me for a long time that kids don't have the same opportunity to learn how to use tools and make stuff. It's inspiring to see kids making stuff.
Other talks I really enjoyed were:
Meaghan Cassidy on why social enterprise matters. The successful social enterprise is sustainable, profitable, and does the greatest good for the greatest number. Video of her talk is up on YouTube.
Max Ogden of CodeforAmerica on having augmented reality type outreach for public libraries. really cool concepts to make libraries more social and connected. Max Ogden's slides are up on Slideshare and video of his talk is on Vimeo.
TC Cheever on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) as an anti-drug parable. Absolutely hilarious. Best laughs of the night.
Dan Zarrella's  proof that Facebook is The Jersey Shore.
Courtney Stanton's analysis of troll comments on her blog. Her slides were beautifully designed and her hair matched the color scheme.
crowd filling in plus nerds descending a staircase
A recurring theme in this blog has been the unexpected persistence of paper books. I didn't expect to touch on that theme at Ignite, but here it is. At the halftime break people mobbed the stack of free books from O'Reilly Media. 
free tech books from O'Reilly Media

I came away with DocBook 5: The Definitive Guide and REST in Practice.  By the end of the night there were a couple of books about Visual Basic left. Someone remarked how lonely they looked. I had to say "But VB is soooo 20th century."
that mob in the back by the window is the stampede for free books

And as part of my ongoing series of photos of people reading books (homage to Andre Kertesz), I got a nice shot of JD reading his free book takeaway.   Entrepreneurs read. That's how they become corporate rock stars. :-)
JD reading an O'Reilly book
ready to become the next corporate rock star

I love the view of Boston from NERD and am always looking for new ways to photograph it. So I'll close with my favorite photo of the night -- the view from NERD including reflections of nerds.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Ignite Boston 8 -- Global Ignite Week - Eventbrite

Attending Ignite Boston 8 -- Global Ignite Week - Eventbrite tonight. Had a great time last year. Looking forward to entertaining and thought-provoking presentations and lots of alpha geeks to schmooze with.

Stay tuned for a full account in the blog.