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Signals from OSCON 2014

From tiny satellites to young programmers to reasoned paranoia, here are key talks from OSCON 2014.

Experts and advocates from across the open source world assembled in Portland, Ore. this week for OSCON 2014. Below you’ll find a handful of keynotes and interviews from the event that we found particularly notable.

How tiny satellites and fresh imagery can help humanity

Will Marshall of Planet Labs outlines a vision for using small satellites to provide daily images of the Earth.

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Four short links: 24 July 2014

Neglected ML, Crowdfunded Recognition, Debating Watson, and Versioned p2p File System

  1. Neglected Machine Learning IdeasPerhaps my list is a “send me review articles and book suggestions” cry for help, but perhaps it is useful to others as an overview of neat things.
  2. First Crowdfunded Book on Booker Shortlist — Booker excludes self-published works, but “The Wake” was through Unbound, a Threadless-style “if we hit this limit, the book is printed and you have bought a copy” site.
  3. Watson Can Debate Its Opponents (io9) — Speaking in nearly perfect English, Watson/The Debater replied: “Scanned approximately 4 million Wikipedia articles, returning ten most relevant articles. Scanned all 3,000 sentences in top ten articles. Detected sentences which contain candidate claims. Identified borders of candidate claims. Assessed pro and con polarity of candidate claims. Constructed demo speech with top claim predictions. Ready to deliver.”
  4. ipfsa global, versioned, peer-to-peer file system. It combines good ideas from Git, BitTorrent, Kademlia, and SFS. You can think of it like a single BitTorrent swarm, exchanging Git objects, making up the web. IPFS provides an interface much simpler than HTTP, but has permanence built in.. (via Sourcegraph)
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OpenStack creates a structure for managing change without a benevolent dictator

Can education and peer review keep a huge open source project on track?

When does a software project grow to the point where one must explicitly think about governance? The term “governance” is stiff and gawky, but doing it well can carry a project through many a storm. Over the past couple years, the crucial OpenStack project has struggled with governance at least as much as with the technical and organizational issues of coordinating inputs from thousands of individuals and many companies.

A major milestone was the creation of the OpenStack Foundation, which I reported on in 2011. This event successfully started the participants’ engagement with the governance question, but it by no means resolved it. This past Monday, I attended some of the Open Cloud Day at O’Reilly’s Open Source convention, and talked to a lot of people working for or alongside the OpenStack Foundation about getting contributors to work together successfully in an open community. Read more…

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Online communities could benefit from the power of offline meetings

Face-to-face engagement can cement relationships and build depth in online communities.

As software vendors, open source projects, and companies in all fields rush to gather communities around themselves, I’m bothered that we haven’t spent much time studying the lessons face-to-face communities have forged over decades of intensive work by a dynamic community organizing movement. I have spoken twice at the Community Leadership Summit (CLS) about the tradition of community organizing as practiced by the classic social action group, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Because we all understand that a community is people — not software, not meeting places, not rules or norms — it’s worth looking at how face-to-face communities flourish.

Andy_CLS

Storytelling and urban organizing session at CLS

Last week’s CLS event had several talks and sessions about face-to-face organizing, which the attendees liked to call offline meetings because we assume so much interaction between groups takes place nowadays on the Internet. As one can find at CLS, a passionate confluence and sharing among dedicated “people people,” there’s a great deal of power in offline meetings. An evening at a bar — or an alternative location for those who are uncomfortable in bars — can cement relationships and provide depth to the formal parts of the day. Read more…

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Designing real vegan cheese

Synthetic biology surely can get weirder — but this is a great start.

real_vegan_cheese_screenshot

I don’t think I will ever get tired of quoting Drew Endy’s “keep synthetic biology weird.” One of my favorite articles in the new issue of Biocoder is on the Real Vegan Cheese project.

If you’ve ever tried any of the various vegan cheese substitutes, they are (to put it kindly) awful. The missing ingredient in these products is the milk proteins, or caseins. And of course you can’t use real milk proteins in a vegan product.

But proteins are just organic compounds that are produced, in abundance, by any living cell. And synthetic biology is about engineering cell DNA to produce whatever proteins we want. That’s the central idea behind the Real Vegan Cheese project: can we design yeast to produce the caseins we need for cheese, without involving any animals? There’s no reason we can’t. Once we have the milk proteins, we can use traditional processes to make the cheese. No cows (or sheep, or goats) involved, just genetically modified yeast. And you never eat the yeast; they stay behind at the brewery.

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Need parking? There’s no app for that…yet

Our parking problems need nuanced civic tech solutions.

Parking meter, circa 1940. Via Wikimedia Commons

Parking meter, circa 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“We will not abide businesses that hold hostage on-street public parking spots for their own private profit,” said the San Francisco city attorney last month, after declaring illegal Monkey ParkingParkModo, and Sweetch, new start-ups that provide mobile apps for buying and selling curb spaces.

Some might see this as a case of cities standing in the way of private-sector innovation, comparable to regulatory fights over Airbnb and Uber. However, those profiting by using Monkey Parking to “share” their on-street spots are effectively trying to sell something that doesn’t belong to them. Curb parking is a publicly owned “commons” — not the private possession of whomever occupies a space.

Even if their solutions are illegal, these start-ups are right: parking is broken in many American cities, and their solution is a business opportunity for both the public and private sectors. We need a thorough reassessment of parking management in American cities, and civically minded technologies are a big part of the solution. That’s the thinking of other departments of San Francisco’s government as well as one of urban planning’s most cited and least read theorists, Donald Shoup.  For the nascent field of civic technology, Shoup’s nuanced research demonstrates how new technologies and policy can together improve city life — and lead to true public good — at the same time as the city attorney’s enforcement actions highlight the potential pitfalls of “sharing” services designed only for private profit. Read more…

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