FooCamp: What I Did On My Holidays


So, FooCamp. It’s a bit like being at a conference where only the speakers have turned up, with no formal schedule and more foyer space than seating for sessions. In other words, it’s just exactly what you want it to be: a chance for a damn good conversation. Or several.

And I did have several damn good conversations. Michael Sparks ran a session, which was far too sparsely attended in my opinion, on how to use scifi to do brainstorming. He explained the basic principle, which is that you name a bunch of authors, ask what thing they have invented in their fiction, and then assume that it’s actually real (so long as it doesn’t require breaking the laws of physics). You then ask how things would be different if you had this thing, and what aspects of it you could actually make within a year.

We ended up taking Terry Pratchett‘s Luggage (which has legs and follows its owner round), and working out how to make one… basically you take a Roomba, add a suitcase to it and include additional sensors to follow a beacon implanted in your shoes. You could also add GPS, and Google Maps so that it can find out where you are (you must also transmit your geolocation to it), and then figure out an optimal route to get to you. You could also add a webcam so you could see where your luggage was, and with a bit of AI you pretty much have the Soomba. Or is that a Luggoomba?

How does this change things? Well, in the context of TV programmes, (Michael works at the Beeb), you could have Holiday, shown from the luggage’s point of view. Or LOST, where the luggage lands on the other side of the island and has to fight its way through the jungle until it’s reunited with its owner. Or Airport, all about how the luggage coped with being routed via Minsk. The opportunities are endless!

And also very funny. In fact, we thought it was so funny that we got told off by the participants of the session next door who said we were being too loud. Oops.

Another set of great conversations were with the guys from Second Life, Cory Ondrejka and Philip Rosedale whom I spoke to a few times about what they were up to in their virtual world. I went to a couple of Second Life-related sessions, including the one Philip ran, and was really fascinated by the way SL is developing.

It seems to me that it’s going to be increasingly important for me as a social software consultant to be in SL, and to come to fully understand its ecosystem and the economics. Organisations and businesses are already using SL for mixed reality events, and other commercial purposes, and I have already have conversations with various clients regarding how they could interact with the people within SL. Of course, it being a community-owned world, any business wanted to enter into it has to do so carefully, and has to understand the community before it tries anything, lest it screw up.

Additionally, I can see SL becoming a really useful tool for running virtual meetings an a way richer and more real than IM or voice chat. Or, in fact, even videochat in some ways. It’s hard to stand up and pace about in videochat right now, and sometimes avatars are a more real representation of ourselves than a photo or video is. (But that’s a whole nother post.)

So I foresee a lot more work with SL in my immediate future, not to mention hopefully a lot of ongoing discussions with Philip and Cory.

I had a lot more fascinating conversations with fascinating people, but it’s impossible to record every one of them here. I also had a great time playing Werewolf (link doesn’t include the role Healer, which we were using, but it’s close enough that you’ll get the gist). I only got to play one round, and I did fairly well at not getting lynched (I was a villager), or eaten by the werewolves, but the Seer didn’t figure out I was a villager so that immediately threw suspicion onto me. However, it was a real laugh and I can see why everyone is addicted to it. Really am looking forward to another game some time.

Overall, I have to say that Foo was a fantastic experience. I know it’s not cool in some quarters to rave about how bloody great Foo is, because it’s invitation only and therefore there’s a risk of cliques, but as someone who doesn’t really feel that she’s all that well known or doing the sort of groundbreaking cool shit that a lot of people there were, I must say I felt very much accepted by everyone. There was a great gender balance too. In fact, Quinn tells me it was 17% female, which is far higher than your average tech conference, so props to the O’Reilly crew for that. And there was a lot of diversity in the type of people there: it wasn’t just cool dudes with robots (although there were some cool dudes with robots in attendance).
I did, of course, try to pitch a book idea, and fluffed it really badly. I’m no good at this pitching thing. Witness my attempt to pitch my talk via a single sentence on the schedule boards. Just one person, the very nice Nic Werner, turned up and I have to say that we had a great conversation about social software. One day I will actually write up the talk I was going to give, but maybe next year, if they invite me back, I’ll have something more Fooey to talk about.


FooCamp, for those of you who don’t know, is a small invitation-only camping ubergeek event at O’Reilly Media‘s campus at Sebastopol in California. The whole thing was set up purely so that the O’Reilly lot could then set up a free bar, called the FooBar. It’s a pun, you see, and one worth gathering a few hundred people together to realise.

I was really surprised to get an invitation this year, and really very chuffed, so I’m really excited to be here. There are a lot of people here – most of whom I don’t know, but lots of whom I do. It’s a nice mix of catching up with old friends such as David Weinberger and making new ones like Philip Rosedale from Second Life.

Only got here yesterday afternoon, which was spent putting up the tent, helping David put his up, and generally chatting with people. During the evening, there was a general introduction session where we all (all 326** of us) had to stand up and say who we are, our affiliation and three words to describe ourselves. Mine was ‘Suw Charman, social software consultant. Scaring businesses. Kittens.’ You have to nominate yourself for a talk, so I’ve done that. ‘Social Software: Happy Stories from the Real World’, which will be about how people are really using social software in business… or it will be if anyone actually turns up.

Meantime, Google Earth are sending a plane over to photograph the campus to a resolution of two inches, so up the road people are building a crashed Cylon raider, and Tom Coates, Cal Henderson, Simon Willison, Michael Sparks and I have built a giant space invaders game on some land just behind O’Reilly. Should be fun to see how it comes out in a few weeks when they’ve uploaded the images.

The only hiccup is that I really didn’t do enough research as to the weather here. I was expecting it to be warm, and during the day yesterday, in the sunshine, it was. But by evening, it was freezing cold, and I froze my ass off in my tent overnight despite a nice down sleeping bag. Today, I shall be demonstrating how to wear all the clothes at once.

Having built the space invaders, it’s now time for the first of the sessions that I’m here to see. No notes, because this is more about listening and taking part than it is about taking notes, although I may summarise later if I don’t get caught up in a long, late-night game of Werewolf.


So the plane came over at just about the same time that the sun came out and the wind picked up. There was much running about and picking up of white cardboard pixels that had blown about, putting them back in the right place and weighing them down with windfall apples and stones. We can only hope that the Google plane managed to get a shot of the space invaders when they were looking their best.

Also went to my first session, which was about a cool brainstorming technique using scifi as it’s starting point that Michael Sparks gave. Was hysterically funny, to the point where we got told off by one of the other sessions for being too noisy. Oops. Sorry. Currently in a session about Second Life which I came late to because I was having a great conversation with Rael Dornfest, whom I last met via a web cam carried about by Kevin Marks at Etech (I was on the webcam, Rael and Kevin were having lunch).

I have to say, though, that FooCamp is possibly one of a very small number of places where one could find oneself staring up at a flock of birds saying ‘Are they birds… or something Philip Torrone built?’.

* For a very flexible definition of ‘ubergeek’, I think.
** Roughly

Desk diary update

Back in June, I started using a new tactic to combat procrastination – using a desk diary to note down what I was doing and when. My aim was to help me understand how I was using my time and I have to say it has worked pretty well. I’ve tweaked my method in recent weeks though – my A5 week-to-view diary didn’t give me enough room to note everything down clearly. So I’ve bought an A4 day-to-view diary instead and, whilst it’s big enough to be a viable weapon should I ever need to defend myself from burglars, it’s now much easier to note down how my day is split up. And instead of just noting how long I spend on work-related stuff, I’m also noting down how long I spend in the shower, how long I spend doing reading blogs, how long I spend faffing about doing nothing.

It’s an enlightening look at my day. It seems that no matter what time I wake up, it takes me about two to three hours to be ready and able to work. I also have a tendency to work quite late, mainly because Kevin often does a 12 – 8 shift, so I figure I may as well do a 12 – 8 shift myself. It just seems easier that way.

Interestingly, my assumption about how much time I waste each day is totally over-exaggerated. When I actually add up how much time I spend actually working, it is indeed equivalent to (or more than) a normal working week. I admit, I do faff a bit during the day, spending half an hour here or there putting laundry on or washing up or whatever. Yet because I have no commute, it means that the total length of my day is about the same as someone who works in an office, but the ‘commute’ time is spread out through my day and used for chores, rather than reading books and magazines or listening to music, as I used to when I had an office.

The other adaptation that having a bigger sized desk diary has allowed is that I am now more disciplined about my to-do list. I have another book for my master list – which now runs to 10 solid pages of A4 – and instead of using post-it notes or a small notebook to distil off the most important bits, I’m using my diary. Each day I write a short list of the most urgent items for the day, and I find that it gives me a much better sense of continuity through my week because at a glance I can see what I completed yesterday or the day before, and how much stuff I have still to do.

I have learnt, though, not to have too many things on the list at once, otherwise it all feels a bit too daunting. I can always add things later on, if I get through it quicker than expected (although how often does that happen? Usually it’s the other way round…).

In fact, the only thing that didn’t work from my last post about anti-procrastination techniques was the idea of giving myself an hour a day to do stuff for me. My intention was to spend time working on or getting to grips with Second Life or other R&D things. But the trouble with giving myself an hour a day is that it’s very easy to put it off, and then you get to 8pm and think ‘Ok, time to quit’ and find you haven’t actually taken your hour.

After a long chat with Lloyd Davis last week, I decided to do what he does and mess about on Friday afternoons instead. I mean, who wants to work on a Friday afternoon? Really? I only started this week, and I must admit that after an hour, I did get distracted by something totally non-R&D-y, but whilst I can’t say what it was, if you knew you’d know it was inevitable that it would take over my brain for a while.

Of course, over the next month and a half, I have an insane amounts of travel and the nice rhythm that I had started to slip into this week will be totally disrupted, so I guess we’ll see just how robust my working habits really are!

Under new ownership…

Guardian UnlimitedThis is probably the worst kept secret, which is why I’m a journalist and not a member of the intelligence services, but I can finally announce that I’m under new ownership. After almost eight years with the BBC, I’m joining the Guardian as their Head of Blogging and Interaction.

During my eight years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great people on some great projects. The correspondents, videographers, radio producers and business managers at the Washington bureau, which I called home for six years, are the best in the business. I can’t thank them enough for their support. And Andrew Roy and Martin Turner, the two bureau chiefs I worked for, were instrumental in the success of the BBC News website’s Washington operations. John Angeli, Nic Newman, Cathy Grieve and Steve Herrmann at the News website gave me the support and the freedom to innovate.

Nic’s idea for our first US Election road trip put our audience in the driver’s seat. The US Election Challenge in 2000 pushed the edges of technology and the limits of endurance as Tom Carver and I raced across the US. More than 6,500 miles in six days.

Before Strange Attractor, I used to joke that “I’m not a blogger, but I play one on TV”. It was an accident of professional prodding really, but I was excited when Steve suggested that I blog during the political conventions in 2004. But it was such a success that Richard Greene and I reprised the 2000 road trip and I blogged across America. As I will be the first to admit, technically, it wasn’t much of a blog. No RSS. No trackbacks. The comments were put on the bottom of one of our standard web pages. But I tried to behave like a blogger.

I’ve been an online journalist for 10 years now. The reason why I am an online journalist is because every morning I get to wake up, go to work and create a new medium. And there is a lot more work to do. Here’s just a taster of what my new job is about:

[To act as] a role model for the new, participative form of journalism emerging from the best blogs. The role won’t just be about encouraging more journalists and commentators to blog. It should also be about experimenting with different forms of community interaction, spotting opportunities to launch new blogs and develop existing ones, and helping us form a strategy.

Watch this space. Now it gets interesting.

Lebanese-Israeli conflict via mobile phones

Suw and I have been meaning to do a podcast, maybe a podcast over crepes in the morning. The Strange Attractor Crepe-cast. At any rate, fresh off our two-week European road trip, I decided to take the podcast plunge and have a chat with Eric Sundelof, who is just finishing a fellowship with the Reuters Digital Vision programme.

As he says on his site:

Cell phones today transmit audio, video, photographs and text. When combined with the proper web application, cell phones enable any citizen in any country of any background to publish information and share it with the world.

I talked to him about how he put this idea into practice to hear voices in Lebanon and Israel.

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Download podcast here

Technical Notes: As Kevin Marks noted before, I originally didn’t enclose the audio download in the RSS feed. It was easily solved by linking to the file on Odeo and using Kevin’s rel=enclosure microformat. The directions are here.

For those of you who are interested, I used a very versatile Skype add-on called Pamela to record the interview with Erik. Pamela is like a Swiss Army knife add-on for Skype, allowing you to record both audio and video, upload it to remote servers and even generate RSS feeds from the uploads. I’m not using half of the functionality, but I have found it well worth the cost and use it often for work.

One note with Odeo’s upload service. I originally had saved my file as 64kbps at 22Khz. Odeo didn’t like that, nor did it seem terribly happy using. But when I resaved the file at 44Khz and uploaded it using Internet Explorer, it worked.