Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Category: Personal (Page 3 of 4)

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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Great video interview about lunch 2.0

The PodTech crew shot and edited a really nice video at our recent Lunch 2.0 at Netgear. It covers the event and features an interview with the lunch 2.0 founders, including your humble narrator, on the origins of Lunch 2.0.

I conducted the entire interview while lying on a bed in Netgear’s “lifestyle room” showcase, watching TV using their wireless media center product. And I’m wearing a commemorative Netgear apron from their BBQ lunch.

I love living in Silicon Valley. 🙂

Here’s the video (thanks, Jeremiah!):

See you at Internet Identity Workshop

IIW2007 Registration banner

I’ll be attending the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW2007a, to be precise) this Mon-Wed at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. I went to IIW2006b last year and was immediately excited to be a part of this community. The people involved are not only very smart, they’re pragmatic, hands-on, accessible, and motivated by all the right reasons.

The progress of OpenID has been stunning–developing the standard, building libraries, folding in related projects, and getting broad support–and I think we may well start to see its adoption hit the mainstream this year (we’re certainly playing with it at Plaxo these days).

Like other workshops and conferences that I go to, this will also be an opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends that I (for whatever reason) seem to only find time to see at events like these. So if you’re planning to attend, come say hi or give me a call (my latest contact info is linked to from my blog sidebar, thanks to Plaxo of course).

See you there, js

Has it really been five years already??

My Stanford class book pageI can’t believe it, but Stanford is already telling me to get ready for my five-year college reunion this fall. Five years–that’s as long as I was in college (including my Master’s degree) but this five years sure went by a lot faster than the previous five! Then again, I just passed my five-year anniversary at Plaxo (the math is a bit funny because I started working at Plaxo before I finished my MS, which btw is not advisable for one’s sanity).

Anyway as part of the reunion they asked everyone to make a page for a “class book” that they’ll be distributing. It’s a one-pager where you share some of you Stanford memories and give an update on your life since graduating. I think they expected most people to draw their class book page by hand and snail-mail it in or use their web-based pseudo-WYSIWIG editor, but I wanted a bit more control. So I downloaded the template PDF and opened it in Adobe Illustrator, which converted it to line-art (wow–product compatibility, who knew?!). Then I was able to add the type and graphics in Illustrator and save the final copy back out to a PDF.

For me, life since Stanford meant three things: doing NLP research (this is the reunion for my undergrad class), working at Plaxo, and getting married. As scary as it is to consider that five years have gone by already, when I actually stop to think of all the wonderful things that have happened since then, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I couldn’t be happier. In fact, I could really use another five years like this one!

One quick technical note: Since I embedded lots of photos in my class book page at their original resolution (I just scaled them down in Illustrator so they would still print at high quality), the file ended up being almost 200MB. When I first exported it as a PDF, I kept all the default options, including “preserve Illustrator editing capabilities” and the resulting PDF was 140MB. Clearly I could not e-mail this to Stanford nor post it on my web site. So I tried again, unchecked the Illustrator option, and also went into the compression settings and told it to use JPEG for the color images (which of course the originals were, but the default PDF option is to use 8-bit ZIP). This made a huge difference and the PDF was only 3MB but still high resolution. I also tried the compression option “Average downsampling at 300 dpi” for color images, but that essentially took out all the resolution in the images, so as soon as you magnified the document at all, they were very pixelated (looked more like 72 dpi to me). Apparently just telling it to use JPEG with the original images is plenty.

The origins of Lunch 2.0

In honor of the first officially-sanctioned Lunch 2.0 at Yahoo today, I thought I would finally write something on how and why we started this valley phenomenon:

Living in Silicon Valley is expensive, and the traffic on 101 sucks. So why not telecommute from, say, somewhere in the Midwest? What does living out here get you that working remotely doesn’t? Well, for one, all the other cool companies are out here. And, more importantly, the smart, innovative people behind those companies all live and work out here. But except for hiring employees, we rarely take advantage of that fact. We read about these companies in the blogs, and we use their products, and we’d probably all love to see how these companies and people live and work, but we don’t. Even though they’re like 5 minutes away from us, and they’re full of people just like us that would love to see how we live and work too!

And though many silicon valley companies are ostensibly at least somewhat in competition with one another, I think in most aspects we’re all kindred spirits fighting the same fight””trying to transform the world through technology and build a successful, functioning organization in the process. We all face the same issues: prioritizing features, hiring, nurturing a happy and productive work environment, dealing with growth, dealing with meetings and process (how much is too much? How little is too little?) and so on. Yet we rarely talk about these things, mainly because we’re all so busy trying to figure them out on our own. While traditional conferences may fill this need to some degree, they’re usually too big, too expensive, too impersonal, and too infrequent to appeal to most working people in the valley. But lunch is a perfect venue to get together, “talk shop”, and see how each other are set up. Everyone has to eat, it’s an informal setting, and it tends to be a manageable size. And silicon valley is such a small, closely connected world, that we know people at all the companies we care about within a degree or two of separation.

So initially, we just started doing this ourselves, e.g. “hey, you know so-and-so at Yahoo, can we go meet him for lunch next week?” or “my friend has this new startup and they just got an office, let’s go see them”. We thought others would be interested to see what we had seen, so we took photos and posted them online (in the process, coining “lunch 2.0” since we needed a name for the site, and it felt like a web-2.0 approach to the problem of meeting people). We also blogged upcoming events, but mainly just as an alternative for managing a mailing list of our few friends that wanted to come to these events. As we told our friends what we were doing, more and more wanted to come too, so we just pointed them to the blog, not thinking much of it.

The “we” in this case was initially me, Mark Jen (yes, that Mark; he joined Plaxo right after leaving Google), and Terry Chay from Plaxo (now at Tagged), and Terry’s friend Dave at Yahoo. Mark and I started having more lunches out at friends’ companies and Terry said he and Dave had been trying to do the same, so we quickly joined forces. Terry now tells people he was the “VC of lunch 2.0” because he plunked down the 5-bucks or so for the lunch20.com domain name. 🙂

The first company to realize that officially hosting lunch 2.0 would be a good thing was SimplyHired in early March ’06. Previously, we all just went to lunch with friends at Yahoo!, Google, and so on, but no one from the company officially “hosted” it, and certainly no one paid for us to eat. But Kay Kuo at SimplyHired wanted to get the word out about her company, so they ordered a bunch of food, gave us a tour of their office, demoed their site, and even gave us some free t-shirts! The event was a huge success, both for SimplyHired and for the people that came. Soon after, other companies started offering to host their own lunch 2.0 events. Mainly this was because someone from that company had attended a previous lunch 2.0 event, gotten excited, and gone back to tell their company they should do the same. Early lunch 2.0 hosts were Meebo, Plaxo, AOL, JotSpot, and Zvents.

Another big milestone was in May 06, when some people from Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Center got permission to host a lunch 2.0 event at their campus. This was definitely the most prominent company to host lunch 2.0 so far, and they did an amazing job, including paying for our lunch at the MSFT cafeteria, providing a tour of their 6-bldg campus, and bringing a lot of their own engineers to the event. By this point, lunch 2.0 had picked up enough of its own momentum that our roles as stewards changed from mainly trying to find and convince new people to host events to just coordinating times and logistics for companies that came to us and wanted to host. That trend has continued thus far, and shows no signs of slowing yet.

Other important milestones in lunch 2.0 history:

  • When JotSpot hosted lunch 2.0, something like 45 people showed up. Previously the biggest event had around 20 people, so this was the first time we thought “whoa, this thing is really getting out there”.
  • Meebo hosted a lunch 2.0 early in the summer and invited all summer interns in the valley to come. They had about 6 employees at the time and were sub-leasing a small amount of office space from another startup. About 80 people showed up, completely filling the office and spilling out onto the street.
  • Zazzle hosted an outdoor BBQ at their office and attracted a record crowd of about 150 people. They also set up tables with umbrellas, a professional BBQ setup and buffet line, custom-printed posters and banners, and even custom-printed lunch 2.0 t-shirts for all attendees.
  • Jeremiah from Hitachi Data Systems organized a combination lunch 2.0 and “web expo” at their executive briefing center. There were about 300 attendees, and we picked 10 data-intensive startups to bring laptops and set up an informal web expo where they could demo their products and talk about how they dealt with large amounts of data.

Going forward, it’s great to see that some of these events have gotten so large, but we also want to make sure that smaller startups can host lunch 2.0 events without feeling like they have to handle a ton of people or spend a lot of money. There are still plenty of cool companies in the area that we’ve never been to yet, so we’re hoping to keep doing lunch 2.0 for the foreseeable future.

Returning to those initial observations about making the most of living in the valley, I think the best thing that’s come from lunch 2.0 is that we’ve met so many other great people in the area, seen how they work, and they’ve met us in return. I feel more connected to what we’re all doing here, and I feel that I’m taking better advantage of the time and space in which we’re all living.

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