NetSquared Mashup Challenge: Hack Day for non-profits and NGOs

Over on the Yahoo! Developer Network blog, I wrote about something I’ve been helping out with and supporting in recent months, the NetSquared Mashup Challenge:

I wanted to draw your attention to an organization that I and Yahoo! have been supporting that you might want to support, too — NetSquared. The goal of NetSquared is simple: to help hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) successfully utilize the empowering capabilities of the Internet to increase their impact and achieve social change.

N2Y3 Mashup ChallengeFor the first time, NetSquared is running a really cool program called the Mashup Challenge in which they are matching up ideas from non-profits and NGOs involved in all sorts of social change to people like you (i.e. developers, product managers, and designers) who have the skills to implement them. I have been helping NetSquared promote the Mashup Challenge (see their recent YDN Theater video) because I think it’s a very practical roll-up-your-sleeves way of getting people to work together across many boundaries (company, international, etc) to produce something exciting and useful that benefits the world at large. It’s very much in the spirit of our own Yahoo! Hack Day.

To really boil it down, if you are a web builder/developer/designer, you can use these rare skills to make the world a better place. Read the rest if you would like to pitch in as a project leader! For more about NetSquared, check out the YDN Theater video below.

Must-see film for geeks and hackers: Moog

By total accident, I happened upon the documentary film Moog recently — what a pleasant surprise! I had missed its 2004 release entirely. Mog cover The subject of the film is Bob Moog, the inventor of the modern synthesizer. The way Moog and his compatriots talk about his work with music and synthesizers will seem very familiar to software developers or anyone who lives “close to the machine” (that phrase being the title of an excellent Ellen Ullman book). The description of the film on the Plexifilm site reads in part:

. . . a portrait of the legendary figure in music and technology and his ideas about creativity, design, interactivity, spirituality and his collaborations with musicians over the years.

In the film, Moog explained that he “can feel what’s going on in a piece of electronic equipment… it’s something between discovering and witnessing.” [I love this phrasing. – CD] And he was convinced that many musicians come to “feel” a circuit in a similar way. In fact, musicians make such strong emotional connections with the electronics inside a Moog synthesiser that the inventor himself reached cult hero status.

Permanently changing the face of music, the Moog synthesiser went from being the centerpiece of a late-60s craze — appearing on records with such titles as Spotlight on the Moog, Moog Power, Music to Moog By, Country Moog, Moog Indigo, Exotic Moog and countless others — to an indispendable instrument for progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes to predating the electronic dance music movement of today.

In the film (which is an eminently watchable 75 minutes), Moog and his colleagues and admirers speak to each other like the geeks that they are, talking shop about the various parts of the synthesizers, their modularity and tuneability, and the difficulty they had explaining the early models to musicians and others as they attempted to commercialize their work. While the filmmakers don’t position it this way at all, the discussion of Moog Music sounds very much like the tale of any technology startup, only the startup was founded in 1953, predating even the first known uses of the term “hacker.”

After I enjoyed the film so much, I checked Metacritic and saw that it got a surprisingly low score of 51. I dug deeper into the individual reviews and I think this Austin Chronicle review nails it:

Moog is a laudatory ovation to the man whose technical work has proved essential to numerous artists working today. As such, it provides only a smattering of social context for the electronic music explosion. Moog is an inventor’s movie all the way. . . There are things to be learned here, but it would take a real aficionado to geek out on all the knobs and circuit boards on display.

I’m not a hard-core music gear aficionado, but watching Moog was a sheer pleasure, even when I didn’t understand the specific technical aspects of the discussion. Set your Tivo for Moog, or buy it here. It’s a really, really delightful film for geeks (and Moog’s enthusiasm and joy of creation is enough for me to forgive his role in the rise of prog-rock — just had to say that!)

(Trailer below)

Party at Brickhouse tomorrow night!

I just posted over at the Next blog about the latest at Brickhouse (all good — Fire Eagle and Yahoo! Live are cranking!), plus details on our party tomorrow night during Web 2.0 Expo.

I’m extremely proud of the team and the work they’ve done over the past couple of months with these products. I’m looking forward to celebrating! Hope to see some of you there and at all the various events over the next few days.

Laura Cantrell: finally saw her live (you should, too)

Laura CantrellWhenever I come to NY, I step off the plane, grab a copy of TimeOut New York, and flip through the pages on the cab ride to my hotel to see if there are any good shows while I’m in town. More often than not, I’m handsomely rewarded (this is NY, right?) Every time I’ve thumbed through TimeOut in the past seven years, I’ve been looking for one name that has consistently eluded me: Laura Cantrell. Finally, after years of this ritual, I discovered when I landed last night that Laura Cantrell was playing TONIGHT at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village. I bought tickets and could barely sleep last night.

I first became aware of Laura Cantrell via her appearance on John Peel’s Peel Sessions in January 2001. If you’re not familiar with John Peel and the Peel Sessions, Peel (who died in 2004) was a legendary DJ and man of taste. His Peel Sessions ran from the 60s until his death and have included Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Joy Division, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Pavement, White Stripes, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley. . . so it means a lot when someone like John Peel says this about an artist (referring to her first record, When the Roses Bloom Again):

My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life is an LP by a New York woman born in Nashville called Laura Cantrell. It’s country, and I don’t know why I like it, but it has the same sort of effect on me as Roy Orbison had in the ’60s.

Her Peel Sessions appearance again in April 2001 made the top 125 all-time list of Peel Sessions, right there between Joy Division and Led Zeppelin (yeah, the list is in alphabetical order, but JOY DIVISION and LED ZEPPELIN!)

Like John Peel, I have a hard time explaining the effect that Laura Cantrell’s music has on me. Her voice is beautifully smooth and classic (note: just avoided temptation to use whiskey metaphor), with hints of Kitty Wells. In fact, Elvis Costello said of her: “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul, it would sound like Laura Cantrell.” The lyrics drip with authenticity but without a trace of the cloying self-consciousness that you often find in country music made by city-dwellers who are long-disconnected from the places and scenes they sing about. Her music is very real and very simple and utterly remarkable if you like real country music (if you don’t, please move along. . . nothing to see here).

album coverHer new digital-only album Trains and Boats and Planes (available on Amazon, iTunes, and eMusic) is described on her site as “travel-themed, based on the Burt Bacharach-Hal David title track, along with thoughtfully-chosen songs by Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, John Hartford, Gordon Lightfoot, New Order, and three previously-released tracks.” Tonight, the standouts from the new album for me were Roger Miller’s “Train of Life” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” but the whole show was wonderful. I embedded a couple of snippets below from my Flip camera using Flickr Video:

There are lots of Laura Cantrell songs from this album and past albums available online, many as mp3 downloads:

I don’t know when or where Laura Cantrell is playing again (the show I saw tonight is the only one listed on her gigs page), but be sure to keep an eye out. I waited seven years, but it was worth it!

(If you can’t catch her live, be sure to catch her radio show on WFMU, Radio Thrift Shop, where she plays other people’s good country music.)

The last time I saw the Olympic torch. . . .

. . . . I was living in Atlanta before the 1996 Olympics (and during, too). This is one of my all-time favorite photos of myself because it is ridiculous on so many levels. The Harley shirt was sort of the trucker hat of the mid-90s (at least for me).

Me, Atlanta 1996, during the Olympics

The torch is going by near the office today, but I guess I won’t have time to grab a big Bud and lean on the hood of a police car this time. I have to work. Ah, youth.

Facebook and platform complementors: history repeats?

The longer I am in this business, the more amazed I am at the new things being invented daily. In an attempt to stay on top of things, I try to train my critical eye for common themes and patterns that transcend the breathless Techmeme zeitgeist because they usually provide the deepest and most long-lasting insights. And so it is with all the discussions over the past several months about platforms. Some of the pathways we’re currently seeing around developer platforms like Facebook have been well-worn in the past by pre-web companies like Microsoft and Intel. As always, though, things are just different enough now to make me think that there are entirely new lessons to be learned. As the old Santayana quote goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but in Silicon Valley, those who rely on their command of history too much often find themselves getting crushed by a 23-year-old who skipped history class in favor of a CS degree.

My mind starting churning about the evolution of technology platforms when I came across “Facebook Walks Fine Line with App Developers” in Charlie Wood‘s bookmarks. It begins:

Imagine spending a couple months building a Facebook application only to wake up one day and see it launched as part of Facebook’s core feature set. That’s what happened to Amin Ariana who built the Friendmates application. Amin launched a friend suggestion and soon enough it was launched on Facebook. While I think this service is an obvious feature that would eventually launch, Amin did not sound to happy in his email to

The story quotes the developer, Amin Ariana:

“I believe the outcome of this and similar moves without appropriate repercussions in giving credit to developers who are coming up with innovative ideas will ultimately result in the discouragement of such developers and a diminish(ed) effect on innovative thinking,” Ariana continued. “I know change cannot be stopped, but along the way giving credit to the little people underneath will be a key to success against competition.”

This scenario most certainly feels like a new sort of affront to committed developers like Ariana, but it’s nothing new. For a thoughtful take on the same dynamic, replace “Facebook” with “Apple” and check out Nat Torkington’s post at O’Reilly Radar from nearly two years ago: “Where does the Apple stop and the worm begin?“. The dance between platform providers and independent third-party developers is tricky to say the least. It has been for many years and will be for many more.

This dynamic was discussed at length in 2002 (before Facebook!) in Platform Leadership by Michael A. Cusumano and Annabelle Gawer, except it was framed as “platform leader” vs. “complementor” (i.e. third-party developer). If you don’t have time for the entire book (and who has time for books when you could be writing a Facebook app *right now*?!), you can get the gist of it by reading “The Elements of Platform Leadership,” a distillation of key points in the book from the Spring 2002 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review (available for purchase for $6.50).

While the authors focused mainly on Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco, the discussion applies to Facebook and other platforms that didn’t exist way back in 2002. On page 54 (the 4th page of the article), a sidebar entitled “Advice for complementors” addresses the plight of the third-party developer directly, comparing the interaction to dancing with an elephant:

Is it possible to dance with the elephant — that is, to avoid getting crushed when a powerful platform leader decides to compete? If complementors commit resources to innovations, they should focus on products that the platform producer is unlikely to offer. They need to work at continuous communication because changes occur rapidly. Complementors need to keep alert to a platform leader’s product plans and try to get early information on a move onto their turf. They need to react quickly to demands; slow response may give a platform leader an excuse to compete with the complementor later.

Although platform leaders need complementors as a group, usually the balance of power between a platform leader and one lone complementor is tilted toward the platform leader. The trick to being a successful complementor is always to have peanuts to offer the elephant — to create products that continuously enhance the value of the core product even as the core changes.

Of course, the advice that the authors give in the article might fall just a little into the self-evident camp (“focus on products that the platform producer is unlikely to offer” “React quickly to demands”) and the devil is in the details. Generally, though, developers like Ariana shouldn’t see their role vis-a-vis Facebook as essentially different to developers on any other platform historically. That being said, while I would still argue that the rules of the platform game are roughly the same, the overall velocity and number of participants in the new platforms makes the game today inherently different. Engaging with platforms (i.e. writing code) has become drastically simpler and I can become a “complementor” to a platform in a focused evening. The pace of development on a platform can often be measured in hours and days (certainly not the months and years of yore), making it difficult at times for everyone just to keep up with the baseline activity around a platform — even the seemingly all-powerful platform provider itself.

Velocity changes everything. As the developers dance faster in this new environment, so too does the platform elephant. The faster the elephant dances, the more likely “the little people underneath” (as Ariana calls platform developers in the story) could get unwittingly trampled in the process.

Update: Charlie Wood offers his perspective and summarizes: “Clearly, the trick to keeping any platform ecosystem healthy is to selectively incorporate such third-party developments into the platform itself instead of running roughshod over them. Mastering this process is critically important for any burgeoning platform provider.” I agree!

(Credit: Flickr photo by Kevin Hamm, Creative Commons license)