Hard News by Russell Brown


Foo, what a scorcher!

Well, that was Kiwi Foo Camp. And it was great. The first O'Reilly-inspired "unconference" to be held outside the US or Europe took place over the weekend at Mahurangi College in Warkworth. About 120 geeks, artists, scientists and business and policy people attended, and, happily, seemed to need no encouragement to go into Foo mode.

The first formal part of the event was a powhiri, which was followed by an orientation meeting where, in the Foo tradition, every delegate was required to introduce themselves and employ three words to sum up their particular thing.

After the meeting, it was time for people to hit the whiteboards (in this case, actually large white sheets of paper) and schedule their sessions; something they needed little prompting to do. The first session, after dinner, was a meeting on broadband and regulatory policy with Communications and IT minister David Cunliffe.

People tend to forget that sometimes policy-makers are on top of their portfolios, and Cunliffe considerably raised his stocks by demonstrating that he knew the issues, but more so by clearly listening to what people said. "It is clear to me from what I've heard tonight that peering is my next primary issue," he concluded at the end of the session. The room burst into applause. Afterwards, I spoke to an employee of a state entity, from whom Cunliffe had requested a copy of a technical paper on the issue. It was the first time he'd ever been able to communicate directly with a minister, and he was feeling highly encouraged.

There was another round that evening, but I was more inclined towards social networking over drinks, meeting people and making introductions. Discussions continued back over the road at the motor lodge, where it somehow got to 2.30am.

Being of robust constitution, I got back over promptly in the morning, but skipped the first session to work the presentation ('Stories are the new data') that David Slack, Mark Cubey and I gave that afternoon. People seemed to enjoy it.

I attended a session with Ben Goodger (with assistance from Asa Dotzler) on open source and consumer software, which provided an interesting insight into the philosophy behind Firefox. I was familiar with the messy early history of the Mozilla project, but the consumer stuff was new to me.

"There was always a clear focus about what the intent was," Ben explained. "We wanted to make a browser for ordinary folk. We're here to make the web usable."

The catch is that when you're orienting decisions explicitly around the consumers, you may do things that content producers don't like. Implementing a pop-up blocker in the core browser, but making the actual ad-blocker an extension that consumers can choose to install is an example of the balancing act that implies.

On Saturday afternoon, Mike Hodgson (of Pitch Black) and Bruce Ferguson held a session explaining the multimedia installation work they do for Louis Vuitton, the US NBC network and other large clients. To say it's an unsung story is puttingit mildly. They're working in a field where money is almost no object, and the rooms they create are simply stunning. Matt 'Starlords' Gibbons was also on hand to show off progress on his new mash-up, which is based around the oeuvre of Temuera Morrison.

Later in the day, I made a mental coin toss and plumped for a lecture on functional body modification by Wired News reporter Quinn Norton , which turned out to be a enjoyable and provocative way to end the day. Several years ago, Quinn had a small, spherical magnet implanted in the nerve-rich area at the end of one of her fingers.

This meant she could pick up other magnets with her fingertip, but it also gave her the functional equivalent of an extra sense. The human brain's neuroplasticity means it can respond to and model data it has never known before, which is what hers did. After two months, she could detect electromagnetic fields, and gauge their strength, from the way the tiny magnet in her finger vibrated.

Another, bolder body-modder, with more and bigger magnets, developed the ability to sense the frequency of EM fields, and could even tell when his computer was about to slow down by sensing EM radiation from the motor in his hard drive as swap-file activity picked up.

But here's the catch: the magnets almost always fail in a quite unpleasant way: they shatter from the inside out, and breach their inert coating. In Quinn's case, the first thing her body did was absorb the iron in the rare earth magnet, leaving the other minerals in splinters throughout her finger. Her doctor was unable to remove them, but - being magnetically attracted - the splinters eventually reunited. She doesn't have her superpowers any more, because the reconstituted magnet is encased in scar tissue and can't vibrate.

From there, the discussion ventured into what's possible in terms of human enhancement, and what society will tolerate. For example, a glucometer attached to an RFID chip that can deliver real-time blood sugar readings to a website; which sounds kind of fun until you consider the idea of remote "blood surveillance" being non-voluntary.

Quinn was also appearing with the benefit of ProVigil, a drug developed to treat narcolepsy. It relieves the subject of the requirement to sleep, without any apparent ill-effects or addictive risk. She has a friendly doctor. Not present in anyone's bloodstream: melanotan, a synthetic hormone that helps prevent melanoma. It will also make you more tanned and thinner and increase your sex drive. Wired had a story late last year on what it dubbed The Barbie Drug.

The outer boundaries of modification are easy enough to trace ("If I decide to modify myself by contracting airborne ebola, society's not not going to let me," Quinn observed) but there's a lot of territory between those boundaries and where we're at now.

Quinn was also here as a "spy" for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to report back on our current debate about copyright law amendment. Judith Tizard fronted a session on the Copyright Amendment Bill, which didn't get quite as lively as people expected, and talked to people about it at length afterwards. In fact, she turned up on all three days and talked with people more or less constantly (a heightened facility for conversation may indeed be Judith Tizard's superpower). At one point on Saturday night she strode past me declaring "I'm going to play Werewolf with Google." Yes, she became almost certainly the first member of a national government executive to play Werewolf.

The games of bluffing, logic and face-reading continued until 4am on Saturday night, even after game leader Chris DiBona had departed for bed with his Werewolf cards. I didn't participate, preferring to devote my bandwidth to socialising. I met a lot of people I've been copied in to emails with for years, but had never spoken to. I enjoyed hearing John Houlker and Mike Hodgson in enthusiastic conversation. ("Is there any reason in principle," one asked of the other, "that your band couldn't be as big as, say, Pink Floyd?")

On Sunday morning, I enjoyed a more low-key session with Canterbury University linguist Jen Hay, who demonstrated the nice open-source software they use to merge and manage historical voice recordings and transcripts. Then I went to a session on internet traffic measurement that didn't really hit the mark for me.

Things I missed that other people rated: Rod Drury's packed-out preview for his "Accounting 2.0" product Xero, Auckland city councillor Richard Simpson's presentation on ideas for Auckland's future, Chris DiBona from Google's show-and-tell on the "one laptop for every child" project, the Firefox 3 session, Artur Bergman from Six Apart's "Fucking Big Websites" primer and David Haywood's alternative energy session. I also missed Graeme Merrall's briefing on News Limited's online strategy in Australia, but got him to give me the short version on Saturday night: they're driving a big and growing quantity of comments traffic by having around 100 journalists blogging. (The part I found slightly worrying was that the most extreme partisan blogging was driving the most traffic. It's nice that Rupert gets his page impressions, but sad if that comes at the expense of civil discourse.)

Nat Torkington rather flattered me by describing me as an organiser of Kiwi Foo: in reality most of the heavy lifting was done by Nat and his wife Jenine Abarbanel, a woman of formidable capacity. What I did was help invite people and bring the coffee. Karajoz let me take up a Domobar and various other kit and product, which was an even bigger hit than Glen Barnes' Wii. We will so be doing that again.

We subverted hierarchies and got ourselves a really good mix of campers, but of course there wasn't room for everyone we liked, and I realised over the weekend that there were people (Rod Oram!) who simply should have been there. There's always next year.

A personal good moment on Saturday night was a conversation with a young man on the autistic spectrum, about my kids and about what he summed up as a matter of recognising your own difference and deficits, and getting on top of them intellectually. I felt affirmed.

A number of people remarked to me that the timing was good; that people feel that there's something happening. And I suspect that's right. Rod Drury (a Kiwi Foo sponsor) is providing the kind of entrepreneurial leadership too long missing from our business community, the former Trade Me shareholders' money is at work, and, of course that keynote of geek politics, copyright law, is in play.

There was a lot to take in, not a hell of a lot of sleeping, and plenty of talking. By the time I got home yesterday, I was having trouble processing language - in or out - my brain was so tired. I found it sort of amusing.

But there's a bloody busy week ahead. Both our Wellington and Auckland Great Blend events will up inside a day. I've added TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis to the online media panel for Auckland, and David Hume of the State Services Commission to the digital democracy discussion in Wellington. Also, the museum's New Zealand Decorative Art gallery will be open for viewing as people arrive at the Auckland event, and there will also be … a surprise.


Anyway, some other reactions. Juha blogged Day One, Two and Three.

Australians Laura Thompson and Greg Luck had commentary.

Rod Drury summed up day one, and the "game-changing" Firefox 3 session.

Mauricio has lots of photos. Mark Derricutt has blog entries and yet more pictures. And there are even more pictures.

If anyone else has more links, please post them in the comments.

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