Reading Geek Night 18 Roundup

By: Tim


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The April 2011 edition of Reading Geek Night was again a busy affair. Month on month we're slowly taking over more and more of the downstairs of Copa, and it's great to see! Unfortunately Alec Muffet couldn't make it for his talk on Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging, but it's been promised for next month instead.

Thea Stallward: Not just slapping it on - art and technology

Thea has recently finish a residency at South Hill Park's Digital Media Centre, and she gave us a great talk on exactly what the residency allowed her to do as an artist: primarily the chance to investigate technology in art.

A lot of Thea's projects focussed on why people do things. At the beginning of her talk, she gave everyone a sheet of paper, and instructed us to make specific folds; soon after there were a large number of paper planes whizzing through the air. The point to this was for her to raise the question: "I know why I have made a paper aeroplane, but why did you?"

She carried this "obedience" theme through into some of her exhibitions, including one which was a modified audio tour of a museum, where people were instructed out of fire escapes, given a "tour" of something totally different, and in one case arrested walking along the South Bank! Why did people follow the instructions they were given, and how far can you push them? Personally, this reminded me of Stanley Milgram's experiment to find out just how far people would go when instructed to by an authority figure.

Thea also covered the range of workshops she was involved in at South Hill Park, covering a variety of topics such as Electronics for Artists, Build Your Own Theramin, and an Active Listening session which meant blindfolding all the participants!


Matt Carey: Melody - Branching an open source project from a commercial one

It's fairly common for a company to take an existing open source project and build a successful commercial product from it. What's not so common is for this to go the other way around; Melody is just such an exception. Matt Carey told the tale of how Melody was forked from the once-prevalent Movable Type by Six Apart.

The story of Movable Type (MT) is, as with most products and companies, one of highs and lows: the original version was release in 2001 and was the dominant self-hosted blogging software platform for several years. Due to its nature of static file creation, Moveable Type is still heavily used today by a large number of high-traffic sites, including Guardian Blogs, the BBC, John Gruber's Daring Fireball and The Huffington Post (who, apparently, have never actually paid for their MT licence...)

Versions 1 and 2 of MT were donation-ware, a concept which helped the product to its huge initial success. Version 3, however, introduced tiered licences based on the number of editors and blogs run on a single install; this was not taken to kindly by the users, who migrated in droves to the new (and still free) Wordpress. MT v3.2 once again introduced free licences for personal use, but by this point it was too late, and MT has never really recovered from the damage done by the initial introduction of tiered pricing.

Six Apart ended up with two separately licensed versions of MT: a paid-for Professional version, and an Open Source version, which was missing a few features and plugins from the Professional edition. Initially this was seen as a good move, but over time development of the Open Source version stagnated: bug reports were never acted upon, and those that were were only fixed in the Pro version. The main problem was that although it was open source, Six Apart still controlled that source. Eventually, a group of passionate MT users decided that enough was enough, forked MT to create Melody, and went about the huge task of years of bug fixes, additional features and refactoring 10 years of legacy code.

Just because a commercial product seems to be dead (or dying) doesn't mean that there's not a community somewhere that can do something with it. From a commercial product that had been all but abandoned, Melody has recently reached version 1 and is continuing to move forward in great leaps.

Paul Swaddle: A brief history of mobile - from horse drawn phones to the coolest apps

There couldn't have been many people at this month's #rdggeek without a mobile phone (or two) in their pocket. Paul Swaddle tracked the history of the mobile, from versions which you'd struggle to call "mobile" (those carried by horse or car,) through the bricks of the 70s, the advent of SMS in the 80s, mass-adoption in the 90s, up to the smart phone and touch eras of the last decade. To show how personal a space your mobile is, Paul got everyone to pass around their phones to the person to the right of them: you've never seen such unwilling participation!

Paul identified 7 "mass mediums" that have changed the way we communicate over time: the printing press, recordings, cinema, radio, TV, the internet and mobile. Interestingly, it seems the speed at which new mediums appear has increased, with internet and mobile communications only becoming mainstream in the past 20 years or so. With mobile, we're now in the "touch era" where everything about the web: rich interfaces, always-on communication systems that aren't just limited to voice and SMS. Mobile internet traffic currectly accounts for around 15% of all internet traffic (and 80% of that mobile traffic is to Facebook...) Mobile phones are also the only device with a built-in payment mechanism: premium rate SMS.

Paul finished his talk by answering a question he regularly gets asked: why should someone build a native app, rather than just a generic mobile HTML-based application? He answered that question by listing a number of apps that just wouldn't be possible as a non-native application:

  • iBeer is incredibly simple, but makes great use of a phone's accelerometer;
  • Angry Birds has a fantastic touch-based interface;
  • Google Sky Map uses both GPS location and compass to show you what's in the night sky;
  • Layer is an augmented reality app that uses the camera;
  • Shazaam just wouldn't be possible without using the device's microphone.

Next time

The next Reading Geek Night will be on Tuesday, 10th May, downstairs in Copa as usual. Further details are also available on the Reading Geek Night 19 Lanyrd page.

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