Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Category: Personal (page 2 of 3)

Bravo for No Such Thing–Go see it!

My good friend Chris’s wife Annamarie MacLeod is an actor, and she’s starring in a new play called No Such Thing that opens tonight in San Francisco. Michelle and I went to see the final dress rehearsal last night, and we were both very impressed.

The play is essentially a haunting, impressionistic sketch of a man gradually succumbing to the stresses of work, life, and romantic rivalry. It’s a minimalist production–nearly bare set, very little dialog–and so much of the story is told through the expressions on the actors’ faces and their movements. It also uses projected video and sound, as well as creative lighting, to intensify the mood and add to the narrative.

The way I saw the play described sounded very high-concept. But it never felt hoaky to me, or arty-for-the-sake-of-being-arty. Quite to the contrary: I found the basic story it told to be very effective and compelling, and the minimalism draws you in and gets you to relate more personally, because your mind is filling in the pieces from your own experiences. I liken it to one of those pencil sketches of a female form by Matisse–it’s impressive because it speaks to you, and it’s even more impressive because it does so with only a few strokes.

The play is a 70-minute one-act with a cast of 5 or 6 in a small and intimate theater (which is why the actors can convey so much with subtle expressions and movements), produced by naked masks. It’s playing on Friday and Saturday for the next three weekends (except the Friday after Thanksgiving). I think you’ll find it’s time well spent.

My Ajax talk is now on YUI theater

When I gave my talk on High-Performance JavaScript at OSCON in July, I found out that I was speaking right before “Chief Performance Yahoo!” Steve Souders. To be honest, I was a bit nervous–we read everything Steve writes at Plaxo, and he runs a whole group at Yahoo that does nothing but focus on web performance. But our talks turned out to be quite complementary, and we really hit it off as fellow evangelists to developers that “you CAN do something to save your users from slow web sites”.

When we got back to Silicon Valley, Steve said “let’s do lunch at Yahoo! some time”. So I went over on Monday and had lunch with him and JavaScript guru Doug Crockford (also at Yahoo!). Doug is actively working on how to enable secure cross-site mashups, something near to my heart, so we had a great discussion. When we were coordinating lunch plans, Steve had said “hey Joseph, as long as you’re coming over, why not give your talk at Yahoo!, and I’ll give mine again, and we can put them both up on YUI Theater“. And that’s just what we did!

It turns out that Yahoo! has a set of classrooms in one of its buildings where employees regularly come to hear various talks (both from fellow Yahoos and outsiders), so they had a great setup there, and the room was filled with several dozen fellow web hackers. Eric Miraglia, the engineering manager for YUI (which we use in Plaxo Online 3.0), personally videoed both talks, and we had a great discussion afterwards. He told me it would take “about a week” to get the video online, so imagine my delight when I saw it already posted this morning! (He must have heard about that whole “under-promise and over-deliver” strategy, heh).

I was honored to be invited to speak in front of a company like Yahoo! and to a group of people like Steve, Doug, and Eric who are absolutely at the forefront of web technology and are also true believers in sharing their knowledge with the web community. I’ve learned a lot from them all, and I think Yahoo’s recent work with YDN, JSON, and YUI is the best example of open and pragmatic involvement with developers I’ve seen at any big company in recent memory. After the talk, I asked Doug Crockford if I’d done right by him, and he said “that was really great–I only disagreed with one thing you said.” Wow–that’s good enough for me! :)

Robert Scoble interviews me on video

Alpha blogger and avant-garde digital media journalist Robert Scoble came over to Plaxo yesterday to talk with me and John McCrea about the Online Identity Consolidator I wrote that Plaxo launched today and open-sourced. He posted a 30-minute video of the interview with his analysis on Scobleizer, and I’ve included the video below as well.

Scoble’s interview style is always a great mix of technical deep dives interspersed with questions that ask to “explain this in terms that anyone could understand”. He’s both passionate and skeptical of new technology, and it’s an effective way of teasing apart the hype and substance surrounding the announcements he covers. He also immerses himself in the technology he discusses, and thus develops deeper and more personal opinions about it (e.g. he’s an active Plaxo Pulse user), which in this age of sound bytes and talking points is something we sorely need more of.

Anyway, enjoy the video, and I hope it helps get you as passionate about the open social web as I am!

My quiet twitter friends are getting lost

My Twitter friendsI like twitter, and I use it a lot (I even a twitter widget on my web site). A lot of my friends use it too, some more regularly than others. I use Bloglines to keep up with the stream of status updates from my twitter friends so I can check in periodically and pick up where I left off.

But increasingly I’m feeling like it’s too easy to miss updates from my friends that don’t post constantly. They just get drowned out in the surging river of tweets from the “power users” I follow. It’s a shame, especially because the infrequent users are often my closer friends, whose messages I really don’t want to miss, whereas the chattier users have (almost by definition) a lower signal-to-noise ratio generally.

I’ve been heads-down at Plaxo this week working on some great open-social-web tools, so when I checked my twitter feed this morning I had 200 unread items (perhaps more, but Bloglines annoyingly caps you at 200 unread items per feed). I scrolled through the long list of updates knowing that probably I wouldn’t notice the messages I cared most about. Technology is not helping me here. But there must be a way to fix it.

Since I’m a self-confessed data-glutton, my first step was to quantify and visualize the problem. So I downloaded the HTML of my 200 unread tweets from Bloglines and pulled out the status messages with a quick grep '<h3' twitter.html | cut -d\> -f3 | cut -d\< -f1 | sort | cut -c1-131 and then counted the number of updates from each user by piping that through cut -d: -f1 | sort | uniq -c (the unix pipe is a text-hacker’s best friend!). Here are the results:

      1 adam
      2 BarCamp
      1 BarCampBlock
      2 Blaine Cook
      4 Brian Suda
      1 Cal Henderson
      3 Dave McClure
     22 Dave Winer
      7 David Weinberger
      1 Frederik Hermann
      1 Garret Heaton
      1 Jajah
      3 Jeff Clavier
     52 Jeremiah
     12 Kevin Marks
     10 Lunch 2.0
     28 Mr Messina
      8 Scott Beale
      2 Silona
      5 Tantek Celik
     20 Tara
     10 Tariq KRIM
      4 Xeni Jardin

As expected, there were a bunch of users in there with only 1 or 2 status updates that I’d completely missed. And a few users generated the majority of the 200 tweets. I threw the data into excel and spit out a pie chart, which illustrated my subjective experience perfectly:

Twitter status pie chart

The illegible crowd of names at the top is a wonderfully apt visual representation of the problem. They’re getting trampled in the stampede. And over half of the messages are coming from Jeremiah Owyang, Chris Messina, and Dave Winer (who I suspect will consider this a sign of accomplishment, heh). Now don’t get me wrong, I really want to know what Jeremiah, Chris, and Dave are doing and thinking about, I just don’t want it to be at the expense of that squished group of names at the top, who aren’t quite so loquacious.

But just by doing this experiment, an obvious solution is suggested. Allow a view that groups updates by username and only shows say 1-3 messages per user, with the option to expand and see the rest. This would ensure that you could get a quick view of “who’s said something since I last checked twitter” and it would put everyone on equal footing, regardless of how chatty they are. I could still drill down for the full content, but I wouldn’t feel like I have to wade through my prolific friends to find the muffled chirps of the light twitter users. While there’s clearly value in seeing a chronologically accurate timeline of all status updates, in general I use twitter as another way of keeping in touch with people I care about, so e.g. I think I’d rather know that Garret said something since I last checked in than exactly when he said it.

What do you think? Would this be a useful feature? If so, do we need to wait for Twitter or Bloglines to build it, or would it be easy to do as a mashup? The only hard part I can see is keeping track of the read/unread status, but maybe just keeping a last-read timestamp in a cookie/db and then pulling down all statuses since then and grouping them would be sufficient and quick enough? Now if only I had time for side projects… :)

BarCampBlock exemplifies Silicon Valley

I love living here in Silicon Valley. I’m surrounded by smart, passionate people who don’t feel they need permission to make a difference.

BarCampBlockCase in point was BarCampBlock this weekend–a spontaneous un-conference-style gathering of 900+ hackers and other valleyites sprawled across the streets of Palo Alto, as well as inside the offices of several host startups. The basic idea is that when we go to conferences and events, the major benefit is the chance to meet and talk with other like-minded people, so why do we need the conference at all? Just organize an open event where people will show up and figure out how to spend their time together.

BarCampBlock organizersIt was organized by a few people (mainly Chris Messina, Tara Hunt, and Tantek Çelik) in a short amount of time, and with essentially no budget. It was promoted purely by word of mouth and blogging, and yet not only was there an amazing turnout, nearly 100 companies stepped up to help show their support and sponsor the event. Even Plaxo kicked in a sponsorship, which was a no-brainer since they cleverly set the max contribution at $300 to prevent the possibility of an arms race. And then, like magic, people showed up, organized, and we had a productive and fun weekend figuring out the future.

I just have to stop and reflect on how unusual and awesome it is that events like this can and do take place here with relative ease here. It’s only possible because of the combination of (a) ambitious would-be organizers, (b) a community of people who care enough about what they’re doing to spend a perfectly good weekend networking and nerding with their cohort, and (c) a plethora of companies that care enough about being a part of the community to pool their resources and make events like this possible.

Social network portability sessionIt also requires the flat, meritocratic, egalitarian cultural norms of the area. The important people show up and hang out like everyone else; they’re not hard to find. In my own sphere of opening up the social web, the big deal recently was Brad Fitzpatrick’s (founder of LiveJournal, creator of OpenID, now at Google) new manifesto on how to do an end-run around uncooperative companies and get the ball rolling now. It had already spurred a hot conversation, and yet the next morning there he was (down from SF, mind you), talking to whomever was interested.

John McCrea engages in 'grass-roots marketing'We ended up hosting a session together on social network portability, and it was packed. It must have gone well, because the rest of the evening people kept coming up to me to express their shared passion for what we’re doing. In fact, enough people gave me their free drink tickets out of tribute that I couldn’t finish them all! Now that’s what I call “work hard, play hard”. :)

In a funny way, BarCamp shares the same spirit (and initial impetus) as Lunch 2.0–we’re all living here to be a part of this community, so let’s get together. The cost is small and readily obtainable, and the results of meeting up are never predictable but always valuable.

Anyway, congratz to the organizers, you did an amazing job! And congratz to us all for taking advantage of opportunities like this and not waiting to be told what to work on. As usual, there are plenty of photos from me and others.

Smashing Pumpkins blew me away again

As a longtime Smashing Pumpkins fan, I was thrilled to get to see them play live again last night at The Fillmore. If you’ve never seen a show there, the Fillmore is a tiny, intimate venue in SF–I was about 6 feet from the stage in the center, and the view and sound were amazing. It was this wonderfully raw feeling of just seeing some “normal guys on stage” playing music–who happened to be extremely talented. :)

And get this–they played for over 3 hours. I didn’t get out of the show until after 1am! They played for 2 1/2 hours straight without taking a break, and then did two encores (finishing with a 10+ min improvised version of silverfuck). And this is the 11th show in a row they’ve played here (the last show in the series is tomorrow). How do they have the stamina to do this every night?! Amazing. I wish I could have gotten tickets for more of their shows, but they sold out in literally about 90 seconds, so I was lucky to even get the pair of tickets I got.

Of the 3+ hours they played, I’d say >1 hour was new unreleased material they’d recently written, including a number of beautiful acoustic pieces. They also performed a 30-minute song called Gossamer that was originally supposed to be on Zeitgeist. I had the good fortune to be standing next to a serious pumpkin-head who had been to 10 of the shows and new all the new stuff by heart already. I asked him how he knew the names of these unreleased songs and he said the sound board in the back displays the name of each song and fans post the info online. Crowd-sourcing at work!

Highlights for me included a hard-rocking electric rendition of Tonight, Tonight, the performance of To Sheila, in which the full band kicked in half way through, and a completely deconstructed new version of Heavy Metal Machine. Luckily someone’s already posted the set list from last night, and there are tons of photos and videos already online as well. Gotta love the internets!

Congrats to David Recordon!

David Record receives an Open Source Award at OSCONYesterday morning, I watched David Recordon lead an “OpenID Bootcamp” for OSCON attendees (including a handout for everyone of the implementation guide I wrote, wow!). Then last night he received a Google – O’Reilly Open Source Award for his contributions to the development and spread of OpenID. What a day!

David has been a great friend and mentor to me throughout my involvement with OpenID. Even when he was traveling all around the world (which he does a lot for his job), he always made time to help answer questions and debug issues (including once over Google Talk from an international airport while his flight was being boarded!)

I’m sure I’m not the only one he’s been so helpful to, and his passion and positive attitude was clearly not lost on Google and O’Reilly. Congrats David, your recognition is much deserved. And viva OpenID!!

More on my new role at Plaxo

I just posted some thoughts on my new role at Plaxo as their Chief Platform Architect. Like my previous roles at Plaxo, this is both a formalization of something I was already doing and a decision to focus more intensely on it. In this case, it’s because Plaxo has ended up in a potentially pivotal position to help keep track of who you know and what they’re doing across all the various sites and services you and your contacts use.

So many services these days are driven by sharing content with your friends/contacts/etc. and yet the problem of wiring up who you know on each of these services and keeping that up-to-date is as unsolved as ever. At best you get a one-time auto-import from webmail providers, but if we’ve learned anything at Plaxo, it’s that persistent sync with your existing address book(s) is the real ticket, and everything else falls short of what users really want–that any time I meet someone new or they join a new service, I can automatically find out about it and stay in touch with them without leaving my existing tools. It’s a hard problem, and one that’s not core to most companies, but it’s Plaxo’s bread-and-butter so we’re eager to dive in.

Actually, It’s kind of funny in retrospect that Plaxo launched in 2002–before Friendster, before flickr, before LinkedIn, before MySpace, before Facebook, etc. Even way back then (heh), we thought the problem of staying connected to the people you know was hard enough to warrant starting a company. The initial pitch pointed out that the “explosion of communication tools” (meaning, at the time, email, IM, and cell phones) was actually making it harder to stay in touch, because there were so many channels to keep track of now, and they all tended to be incomplete and out-of-date. Boy is that ever more true today than it was five years ago! Just like before, all these new tools ostensibly aim to help you stay more connected, but they can only truly deliver in conjunction with a service like Plaxo to help you manage it all.

The good news is that these days we’re in the best position yet to make a difference in this new social web. We have 15+ Million people already using Plaxo, we have 2-way sync with most of the major address books and calendars out there, and most importantly we have built our service on open standards like SyncML, vCard, iCal, etc. that will enable others to pick up where we’ve left off.
This last point is really the starting place for my new role as Chief Platform Architect. We are fortunate to be part of a community of developers and evangelists that cares deeply about keeping the social web open–and thus interoperable. I’ve spent the last few years participating in events like the FOAF Workshop, MashupCamp, Internet Identity Workshop, OSCON, and others, trying to figure out how the community envisions building a user-centric social web and how I and Plaxo can best help. It’s exciting to see the fruits of these events start to ripen–things like OpenID, microformats, cross-site mashups, standards-based identity agents–and even more exciting to get to spend my days figuring out how Plaxo can continue to embrace them, help them continue to develop and flourish, and use our technology and resources to help get them deployed at web-scale.

The company is firmly behind this effort and everyone here gets why open is the way to go. In fact, it’s really the only way to go for us–if you believe (as we do) that people will continue to use multiple tools and services and that no single site will own everything (i.e. if you believe that “the web will continue to be the web”) then you can’t wire everything up in a top-down fashion. You have to agree on standards, keep users in control, and empower them to let their data follow them around wherever they go and share it with whomever they want. There’s still a hard problem to solve in the implementation and operation of such a system, and that’s where Plaxo (and others) will be able to run a thriving business. But believe me, we’ve already written one-too-many custom authentication and sync conduits and we long for the day when a new service can just point their standard sync endpoint at us and the rest is done automagically. The day where I can join a new service and instantly find out everyone I know there–including people that I meet or that join later on. That’s the goal, that’s what I’m working on. Let me know what you think!

Best marketing campaign ever!

The 7-Eleven in Mountain View (near the old Plaxo office) has been transformed into a Kwik-E-Mart in support up the upcoming Simpsons movie. There are lot of hardcore Simpsons fans at Plaxo (myself included), so we had to check this out for ourselves.

When we got there, there was a line out the door. So the promotion is definitely working. And I have to say I was really impressed at the thoroughness and level of detail put into the promotion. In addition to changing the entire facade of the store and the giant 7-Eleven signs to look like the Kwik-E-Mart, there were a lot of little references to past episodes inside the store.

Some of my favorites were Jasper inside the freezer section (“Moon pie–what a time to be alive!“) and a warning sign next to the sprinkled donuts: “A Mounds bar is not a sprinkle. A Twizzler is not a sprinkle. A Jolly Rancher is not a sprinkle.” And I had to buy the homer hat that said “This is everyone’s fault but mine”, though the actual quote is “This is everybody’s fault but mine“, heh.

(Quick rant: As a fan, I found it frustrating (though expected) that alongside these classic quotes were a bunch of additional made-up phrases like “buy 3 for the price of 3” and “they’re not called don’t-nuts” that were so clearly sub-par. The hubris to think you can just make up lines that are as good as the best-written show in TV history. Would you ever see promoters of a Shakespeare festival make up some extra Shakespeare-sounding quotes to toss in as if they were original lines?!?! And yes, I do find the comparison broadly apt. :))

Here’s a picture of me drinking a Squishee next to the Kwik-E-Mart.

We took some more photos from our visit and here’s a larger collection we found. AP also has an interesting write-up of the story–apparently 7-Eleven paid for the entire thing. It’s amazing how these deals get structured (after all, this is ostensibly marketing for a movie).

All in all, I’m very impressed with this bold and clever marketing move, and while it may be sad that corporate marketing budgets are the last haven for public art installations in America, at least in some cases they put in the extra effort to make it really special. As I remarked to a fellow Simpsons fan in line there, “well, I guess now if the movie sucks I’ll be slightly less disappointed”.

P.S. on the Simpsons movie web site, they have this tool where you can create your own Simpsons avatar by customizing the hair, eyes, mouth, clothes, etc. using primarily well-known features from Simpsons characters. While the choices are sometimes limiting (many pages of hair choices but no choice in pants or shoes?!), you can still create characters that bear a humorously close resemblance to real people. Here’s my attempt at representing myself, as well as Plaxo’s founders Todd & Cam. :)

Celebrating our 2nd anniversary

It’s hard to believe, but Michelle and I have now been happily married for two years! To celebrate, I took her on a little getaway in SF. We had an amazing dinner at Michael Mina and we stayed in a tower suite at the Westin St. Francis that looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower. (Michael Mina is inside the St. Francis, so “getting home safely” after dinner just meant finding the right elevator, heh).

Here are some photos we took.

We both had a wonderful time. It really felt like a little vacation, even though we were only gone for about 24 hours total. Just getting a change of scenery, a break from your normal routine, and a chance to really focus on one another and enjoy life can have a major impact. We both left feeling so refreshed and in love. In fact. celebrating our anniversary was so nice that I think we’ll try it again next year! :)

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