Foo Camp 2006

This year, I was one of the lucky few who received an invitation to O’Reilly’s Foo Camp. Like many people, I had heard just how cool this exclusive get-together is, but I was nowhere near prepared for how mind-blowingly awesome the Foo Camp experience can be.

I arrived in Sebastopol on Friday afternoon and began to unpack my tent. The tent I bought ended up being bigger than I expected I think I grabbed the wrong one, but it worked out fine given that I was sharing it with Alex Graveley. Alex wasn’t there yet, though, so I started to unpack it myself, which ended up being a bit difficult… But then a very kind and helpful Mark Shuttleworth walked by and offered a hand. Before long, the tent was set up and I was ready for the fun.

There were only a handful of people there at this point, so I decided to walk around and see the place. One of the rooms had this interesting table with a map on it. A projector was mounted above, and people were around the table, turning and tilting. It was quite cool. Turn the table and it zooms in and out. Tilt it and the map moves. It was the most natural way of viewing maps that I’ve ever used. Quite addicting in a way.

Outside was this kind of round spinnable art thing. It was like the table, but had this colored fluid sand-like substance inside. It was held up at an angle, and when you spun it, the sand-like stuff made some cool patterns. That was also fun to play with. 🙂

Before long, most of the Foo Camp guys were there, and we gathered under a tent to introduce ourselves and learn what was in store for us. It was amazing to see the people who were there. The creators of Digg, del.icio.us, LiveJournal, Second Life, 43things, Amazon, Meebo, Django, Chumby, people from Google, Microsoft, Intel, Yahoo… The list goes on and on.

I went to several sessions. There was one on the future of IM, another on robots, one on Dr. Who vs. Snakes on a Plane, another on Chumby hacking. I think I went to another one or two, but I can’t remember right now. They were all pretty interesting, and there were many more I didn’t have time to go to.

As mentioned above, one of the session talks was about Chumby. Chumby is a cute, soft, squishy Linux computer that is designed to sit next to your couch or your bed or whatever and stream flash content to you. The software and hardware are all open source, and there’s people modifying the casing of the Chumby and sticking it in teddy bears, Teletubbies, Hello Kitties, etc. It’s currently very pre-alpha (both the hardware and the software), but we all knew that. The Foo campers received free Chumbies. The public release will be in like 6 months or so, and should by then have more features and be a bit more stable. Still, it’s an interesting concept, and I hope they come up with a killer app for it. With an intended price tag of $150, it could be a good purchase with the right target audience and apps.

At nights, we would play Werewolf. This is pretty much a Foo Camp tradition, and is played well into the night. I was a werewolf only once, but we kicked ass that one time 🙂

Let’s see, what else was there… A Google plane flew overhead and took pictures, which will go on Google Maps at a 2 inch resolution. There were flame-throwing robots, a clown, lots of good food, new friends, a reverse scavenger hunt… Probably more things than I can list. It is the best event I have ever gone to, and I hope to be invited back next year. To whoever it was that put me on the invite list, thank you. This was an opportunity I will never forget.

(More pictures available in my gallery and tagged on Flickr.)

Gmail

Being an active user of Blogger.com when Google purchased it, my brother was offered a gmail.com account roughly a week ago. As part of this, after several days of use, he was given the ability to invite two people. One of the people he chose was me.

So far, I’m quite impressed with what Google has done here, though not surprised. When Google sets their mind to something, they seem to usually do it right. The interface is very clean, and nearly everything you see is something you will regularly use. That is quite different from the webmail interfaces I’ve used previously.

I use mutt for all my e-mail, as I can simply SSH in from school and send mail or check discussions. Another reason for using mutt is the keyboard shortcuts. I can get around pretty quickly without using the mouse. Those two reasons are why I currently do not use Evolution for all my e-mail, and the keyboard issue is why I’ve never used webmail systems.

Gmail solves the issue of using my e-mail remotely, which isn’t surprising. It is, after all, a webmail system. What did surprise me was the fact that it has keyboard shortcut support, and let me tell you, it works well. I can quickly jump to my inbox (g, i), read a message (enter) and all its threads (or in gmail terms, “conversations” — more on this in a second). If I hit r, it lets me reply to an e-mail. Hit c, and I can compose a new e-mail. There’s far more than that, and I would link to the list of shortcuts, but it appears you must be a gmail.com subscriber first.

E-mails are represented in an interesting fashion. Instead of threads, you have “conversations.” These look like stacked cards. You can see them below:

gmail.com conversation stacks

The first unread e-mail in a conversation is presented first. Each e-mail shows the name and e-mail address of the sender and the date/time sent, or how long ago it was sent. If the e-mail is partially covered, it will show a snippet of text from the e-mail. Multiple e-mails can be shown at once, or you can hide all but one, if you choose. It’s flexible, and it works. If you’d rather see the quoted text from the previous e-mail, click the little “Show quoted text” link and it’ll just unfold. No reloading or anything silly.

Conversations take up a single entry in the Inbox. You can see a list of the contributors in the conversation, how many unread messages it contains, and then the label (more on that in a sec), the subject, a snippet of text, and the date/time info. When a conversation has a new, unread e-mail, it will appear at the top of the Inbox. Clicking it will bring you back to the conversation view with the unread e-mails unfolded.

Gmail has a hidden frame or something that it reloads regularly. When it does this, it checks for new mail. If it finds new mail, it will update the interface. No more periodic reloading of the entire page, or manual reloading.

Labels are one of gmail’s ways of organizing e-mails. A label is like a folder, except that multiple labels can be assigned to an e-mail. You can quickly set labels on a per-e-mail/conversation basis, or through filters. Clicking the label in the Labels box on the left of gmail’s interface will display all e-mails with that label. For quick reference, each e-mail will have its attached labels prepended to the subject.

Stars are another method of organization. If there’s a particular thread you wish to follow, click the star next to it. It will automatically appear in your Starred mailbox (keyboard shortcut g-s).

The search features work wonderfully, and should be included in every e-mail client. You can put in a simple search for anything and get immediate results, or click “Show search options” to be more specific.

The overall interface for gmail is lightweight, and very responsive. I never find myself waiting for anything, and I can get around to any e-mail effortlessly. It doesn’t behave like a webpage, rather it’s more like an actual application.

Like other e-mail applications, gmail has a handy Check Spelling option when composing conversations. It doesn’t check on the fly, but rather when you wish to check, you click the little link. It’ll replace the textbox with some custom javascript control of some kind, and highlight all misspelled words. The traditional pop-up menu with suggested replacements and an option for editting the dictionary is available for all misspelled words. When finished, click “Resume editting” and you’re back in business.

gmail.com conversation stacks

For those who keep address book entries (Gmail automatically helps with this a bit), Gmail also provides auto-complete in the To: box.

gmail.com conversation stacks

Finally, I’d like to comment on the ads that struck so much controversy. For those who don’t know, when you read an e-mail, “Sponsored Links” appear on the right of the e-mail box. These are often related to the e-mail in some way. For example, a conversation on gaim-devel talking about various IM and networking protocols produces ads for “Tcp/ip Protocols” and “Network Protocol Poster.” I haven’t found them to be annoying, and at least right now, Google doesn’t put any ads in the e-mails you write.

Underneath the Sponsored Links is a list of Related Pages. Sometimes. These don’t always show up, but when they do, they’re usually relevant in some way. However, I think that they may need some work.

Overall, I’m very impressed with Gmail. I will be using it for some time, though it probably won’t be my primary e-mail interface. I figure I’ll subscribe some of my listservs to it and use its powerful search capabilities. And you’ve got to love that “You are currently using 0MB (0%) of your 1000MB.”