Hard News by Russell Brown

Foo Report

Well, that's it. Been there, got the t-shirt - a number of t-shirts, in fact - and am now down to processing it all. Foo Camp was very cool, and quite unlike any conference I've been to before. I learned a lot and laughed quite a bit too.

Because it's invite-only, Foo Camp can be - and is - accused of being a clique. But it couldn't really operate any other way. There were some concerns that the unprecedentedly large crowd this time (250) might spoil things, but it seemed manageable. The thing to do is count yourself deeply lucky for scoring an invite and get on with it.

I was hugely impressed by the openness of everyone I met from the moment I arrived on the Friday afternoon. The first person I met was Leila Hasan, who does GIS visualisation stuff for Nasa and others. She was exotic, for a geek. Once I'd got registered, picked up my Foo Camp shirt and had my photo taken, I did a quick post to the PA mailing list - naturally, the whole area had bangin' wi-fi - spied danah boyd and gave her a hug. She in turn introduced me to Graeme Merrall, a Kiwi who works on web stuff for News Limited in Australia and a lovely chap who took some nice photos of the event.

It helped that I'd meet a certain crew by virtue of the Werewolf evening earlier in the week, but I think I could have just turned up and started saying hello to people and it wouldn't have been that different. I thought it was notable that people were happy not only to talk but to listen. After a couple of hours of randomly meeting people I decided I should actually meet someone on purpose, so I bowled up and offered my hand to Stephen Levy, who looks 20 years older than the picture on his home page. I really enjoyed his book about the Macintosh, Insanely Great, and I hung around like a groupie while he showed someone else the proof of his next book, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.

The tech journalists I've admired over the years - Levy, Kevin Kelly, Dan Gillmor - were half a generation older than me. On the other hand, Jay Adelson, CEO of Digg.com, is eight years younger than me, and already onto his second venture. He led a session on the future of news on the Saturday where he pointed out that doomy predictions that reader-driven news aggregators like Digg would simply promote "sensationalist" stories hadn't really come to pass. I pointed out that the peril wasn't so much sensation as novelty: "cool" stories inevitably prosper, but if our news consisted only of cool stories it wouldn't be doing its job. Adelson noted that Digg washes up serious stories in the morning and, to a lesser extent, the early evening, while the "surfing dog" stories rise up around 3pm, when then kids come home.

No one at the session - including Kelly, Gillmor and Tom Coates - believed in the idea that bloggers would somehow usurp professional journalists.

I hooked up again with Graeme at the next session, on public data, with Gillmor, Levy and Adrian Holovaty, a journalist-hacker from Chicago. His specialty is taking public data and making them useful to the public. For example, his Chicagocrime.org site lets citizens see what crimes were committed where in their city, their district and even on their street. I do think this is journalism, and very useful journalism. I wish I had those skills.

On the other hand, there are ethical issues. He got a parking ticket, entered the ticket number into the website where citizens can pay their fines, and discovered that if he entered one number up or down, he could see other people's ticket details. So he wrote a script to scrape all parking offences from the site. If he'd done that to a whois database he'd be a bad guy. I think America needs a privacy law.

Dan Gillmor made some good points about information trails in that session, arguing that a future US President will have written a blog as a teenager, and "that will be full of stuff that would be disqualifying now but won't be then … Unless we start cutting each other a hell of a lot more slack than we do today, we're going to be in a hell of a position."

Levy raised an interesting question: "If one of the big four search engines said 'we're not going to keep any search data' as competitive advantage, would you shift to them?"

The session also threw up yet another cool IBM project, this one from the Cambridge Research Centre. Many Eyes is a free web service that will visualise any public data on request. It will let you generate graphs based on the stats of your choice and then, if you want, permalink to them. It launches in October. The Australian government is apparently very interested. I think ours should be too.

I also went to a session on software radio run by Matt Ettus. It's something I didn't know anything about, but I came away with some understanding of what's going on there. It meshes with the hacker ethic that overlays everything here. The people doing it don't want to wait for the system to deliver them the technologies the system wants to deliver, they want to force the issue and build the devices they want. Ettus promotes the idea of "cognitive radio" - software-based wireless devices that will find channels that aren't being used locally, and use them.

Ettus also looks after the Gnu Radio project, which has done some work on an open-source HDTV implementation - one without the obnoxious rights management being built into official HDTV standards. But his main thing is Universal Software Radio Peripheral, or USRP (pronounced "usurp"). Also there was Brit Toby Morgan, whose technology lets GSM phones to be tracked (anonymously) in a way that lets him analyse pedestrian flows for retailers.

I didn't meet any of really big names, but that was okay: this guy had a lot more to say to Ray Ozzie than I would have. And Rich Kilmer of RubyForge had opportunities to discuss with Jeff Bezos (principally, taking advantage of Amazon's recent announcement of a service allowing third parties to hire chunks of time on its huge processor farm) that I didn't.

With as many as 14 sessions on consecutively - the schedule was created in a rush to the whiteboards after Friday night's orientation meeting - it was impossible to get to every interesting one, and I feel like I missed some I should have gone to (Tom Coates' 'Dirty Semantics' session on building big websites that make sense was apparently great), but it seems that everyone thinks that.

It was interesting hearing, in conversation, about the BBC from people who've been inside and are pretty soured by the experience. The basic problem is that nothing ever ships, particularly if it comes out of the research division. To have people do such fine work on creating an online catalogue of nearly a million BBC programmes going back 75 years, and then indefinitely take it down for "review" is idiocy. The bloody thing worked. Apparently France Telecom is worse: more PhDs than Google, research all over the place, and it never ships anything.

Foo Camp is conceived as a party (the idea originally emerged from a whimsical wish for a "Foo Bar" at a conference), and people really show a great degree of social stamina. I think I left at 1.30am on the Friday night and 2am the next and there were still plenty of party people both nights. I spent a little time wandering end to end of the campus on Saturday night; one end being the "makers room" as presented by the nice people from O'Reilly's Make magazine. The people there seemed to be having more fun than anyone else; making stuff. A couple of guys had a laser-etcher and were etching Powerbooks and iPods for free. When they got tired, they just taught the next guy how to run the machine.

It occurred to me that for all that it tilts toward the future, there is at the heart of this microculture a yearning for classic values. Make's founder, Dale Dougherty, told me that what he had in mind was Popular Mechanics in its fifties heyday. At other times during the weekend, there was a clown, a carny game and Mr Jalopy's gumball machine full of useful bits and pieces. Make is about to sprout a sister publication, Craft, which offers patterns for knitting your own robot and instructions on printing fabric with an inkjet printer.

On the Saturday night, electric guitars and a banjo appeared and a group of campers played venerable blues and bluegrass for hours (while outside Leila Hasan played trip-hop through her iPod speakers). Even Werewolf, for which games rolled on until 5am both nights, has the feel of an old parlour game; albeit one which lends itself to a degree of drunkenness.

And of course the Foo "product launch", the Chumby, is consciously un-modern. It's soft and lumpy and encased in suede (although hacking that is encouraged: one of the highlights in the makers' room on Saturday night was the hacking of a Chumby into a Tellytubby: "We're now about to eviscerate Tinky-Winky …"); modern but quite the opposite of every other new electronic device you see. The Chumby Industries people refer to it as "the anti-Pod", and the CEO, Steve Tomlin, was delighted when the first report posted on it puzzled at its ugliness. He explains more of the thinking in his "first personal blog post".

Christine Herrono has a good write-up on the Chumby in her blog. I got one too - it'll be the Public Address Chumby - although it didn't recognise the WiFi network I created in my hotel room last night, so it'll have to wait until I get back to get properly born.

I have interviews in the bag with the Chumby guys, Dale Dougherty and Tim O'Reilly himself, although I haven't had time to do anything with them. Something else that'll have to wait.

Right now I'm in a hotel room in San Francisco, near Union Square in the zone where whitebread tourists, crazy people and crack dealers all rub shoulders. The town hasn't changed, then. I have some shopping and stuff to do before flying out tomorrow, and I bought myself a ticket to see Cat Power play tonight. Nice.

It's been a very, very good experience, getting out of my usual zone and seeing new things and new people. I've made a couple of contacts that should result in certain people turning up in New Zealand for our events. Maybe I'll get invited back next year, maybe I won't. I'm just glad I got to go to Foo Camp once.