Taking a one-day “startup crawl” of the NYC tech scene (“Silicon Alley”)

On Tuesday, fellow slashRootian James Farrington and I went to New York City to casually tour “Silicon Alley,” the foremost East Coast corridor of tech activists and startups. I very much wanted to introduce James to many of my friends in the New York tech scene.

We started at Wix Lounge on 23rd Street.

There we met our first smiling face of that day: that of Galo Delgado, a NYC photographer and Wix Lounge host.

Galo showed us the amazing co-working space at Wix Lounge, and then suggested that I introduce myself to two gentlemen standing near the espresso machine.

These two turned out to be Sandy Selinger and Atma.

Sandy took some time to show us the budding Wix App ecosystem. After a half-hour tour, we took some time to appreciate the strange and amazing masking tape art of Kayt Hester, which was on prominent display on the windows surrounding the conference room.

We said farewell to Galo and then headed to stop #2: Alley, a co-working space in the fashion district.

Unfortunately, because we did not sign up for a tour in advance, we were turned away from Alley – but not before we waited for 25 minutes for a tour guide who never showed. Sadly, we were not permitted to have a look around on our own. It’s understandable, I suppose – the need to keep solicitors to a minimum is apparent to anyone who has worked in such an environment.

I guess, ideally I wish they’d have some way to verify our identities, take a quick look on google and github, and verify that we’re reputable developers and not recruiters or salesmen. In any case, the Alley staff were certainly nice to us. The atmosphere seemed jovial; I was envious of the playground that lay down the hall, just out of our sight. In my mind, there’s juggling and unicycles and chocolate – and we missed it!

Anyway, we moved on from Alley down to the East Village and TechStars, which is probably my favorite space in the scene. Having just finished a 6-month contract with Reelio, which has a large presence at TechStars, I am already pretty friendly with most of the companies there.

Reelio is probably the most exciting startup that I encountered in 2013. Keep them on your radar; their vision is groundbreaking and their progress and pace are very, very impressive. They intend to be the “dating clone” for content creators – ie, instead of finding a date, you can find collaborative partners and brands for media creation. They provide a “flirtation” process to help attract creators and brands to one another.

It was really great to see the Reelio team again. When I left in December, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to the CEO, Pete Borum, so seeing him was especially nice. Little-known fact for the hippie-touchy-peaceniks among us: Pete gives the best hugs of any CEO in the alley.

I also got to finally make the introduction between James and Ben Williams, Reelio CTO. Both are great guys who remind me of one another. Well-read, classy sense of humor, soft spoken except when not, and large of skeletal frame. Ben and James, I really hope you two hit it off and stay in touch.

I also got to introduce James to Anthony Almarza, a developer that he had been working with on the hendrix project (a Twiste deployment suite for Django).

Quick hellos and updates with Mark Borum, Bill Johnston, Michael Solway, and Colin O’Rourke were also in order.

After Reelio, we snuck up on Ryan Shea and Muneeb Ali, TechStars’ resident crypto-blockchain enthusiasts. You might know them as the duo behind CoinVibes, the multi-coin trans-exchange cryptocurrency API.

Ryan and Muneeb, as well as the entire Reelio team, are going to come up to New Paltz for a hike soon, or so they both say.

Before we knew it, it was time for us to head to our next destination: WNYC and New York Public Radio. We grabbed a quick sushi lunch and then stopped for a quick cappuccino at Le Colombe on Broadway and La Fayette.

My favorite East Village barista, Dory Franco, was on the scene, although it was her day off. I had the best cappuccino of my life. James doesn’t do stimulants.

We weaved down the avenues and across Houston, approaching the New York Public Radio offices on Varick.

Now, I realize that WNYC / NYPR might not be on your typical NYC tech tour itinerary, but it’s a pretty serious operation. It’s one of the largest and most important Django (and for that matter Python) operations in NYC. It hosts an incredible encoding rig and studio space. And, for goodness sake, it produces Radiolab!

(Note: Prior to my contract at Reelio, I had a similar stint at WNYC).

When we arrived, WNYC Digital Ops director (and fellow Django codebase muckraker) Schuyler Duveen had added us to the authorized list. 5 minutes later, we were through security and on our way up to the developer bullpen on the 7th floor.

There we were greeted by Sky, as well as my former colleagues Mike Hearn, Glenn Mohre, Elizabeth Zagroba, and Marine Boudeau. What an amazing bunch of people.

We reminisced, talked about the current (questionable! ;-)) state of the WNYC android app, and talked about their new mobile-friendly embedded web player.

If you aren’t already a regular WNYC listener, I suggest you give them a shot. Their website is great and their audio content absolutely first-class. If you are skeptical of NPR generally, know that WNYC is substantially independent and has a far more poignant, artistic, and radical bent than the mean for an NPR affiliate.

After leaving the dev bullpen, we proceeded to the eigth floor to see the new home of the data news team. I peeked my head in and was greeted with a flatteringly enthusiastic smile and hug from Louise Ma, an astonishingly talented data-scientist-cum-designer and a mind that I’ve enjoyed having occasion to pick apart.

Here, we also ran into Theodora Kuslan, a fellow night-owl who often absorbed my late-night rants about the WNYC unit test suite.

We moved one more flight upward, to the 9th floor production space of Studio 360, the Takeaway, and Radiolab. Andy Mills, a Radiolab producer and grower of a truly regal beard, was on the scene to greet us. Andy told us about the episode of Radiolab he was working on and his thoughts about some of the challenges that always go into creating and naming such an inspired show. His ability to delve right into the hard stuff has always amazed me.

Eventually, we wandered on. We quickly stepped into WeWork Soho, but had already been run ragged enough that our visit was a short one.

Our train trip toward Port Authority brought us into random but very welcome contact with two final silicon alley personalities: Stefan Bankier and Jordan Gutman of Public House wine, known for introducing high-brow boxed wine (which is most definitely now a thing) to some of tech scene’s best parties.

A quick ride up the R, and we were back on our bus. 90 minutes later, we were back in the mountains, the green, and the New Paltz air.

We had an awesome time. What a perfect one day reminder of how incredible a scene this has become. One thing that really stuck out at me: How ever did New York gain a reputation for mean people? Our day was full of incredible smiles and warm hospitality. I’m already excited for the next one.

Moderation and rhythm – thoughts on using a drum as a discussion tool (and reactions to it)

That's right - moderating with a drum

With Liberty Forum 2014 behind us, I’m left with a large list of moments to which to reflect – nearly every moment was in some way remarkable.

First, though, I want to thank everybody who came to the open technology track, which I hosted on behalf of slashRoot. It was a wonderful time. We had three powerful, informative, and influential speakers in Chris Case, Daniel Krawisz, and Cody Wilson.

At the conclusion of the long day of talks, I hosted a short panel with all three of these speakers. After conferring with the three panelists, I decided to play an instrument (in this case a djembe drum) while guiding the talk – something which I have done in other moderation contexts throughout my career.

Immediately following the talk, I was swarmed by people remarking about how different and exciting the engagement was. I was relieved and overcome with joy, as I had some uncertainty (as I’m sure you can imagine) about how the Liberty Forum audience might react to what is, after all, a fairly unorthodox tactic for a conference.

However, after this, I noticed that the opinions on the twitters and youtubes were a little more divided. Some were raving and looking forward to the video, while others expressed appreciation for the previously unexplored topics of conversation. There were 3 or 4, however, who took issue with my choice of tactics.

I very much want to engage with folks on this matter because I think there’s room to create very compelling content of this nature at events like Liberty Forum and I want it to be accessible and formative for everyone, not just the naked-fire-dancing-drumming-treehugging among us.

I think that I understand the concerns – basically that the musical approach was more distracting than it was worth (or perhaps that it added nothing at all). Also, that my interjections diminished access to the three panelists, instead putting a focus on me. If this is an unfair or incomplete characterization, please feel free to respond here or on twitter with clarifications.

Please understand – we at slashRoot worked very hard to make this panel a success. We studied each of these three speakers and their histories (including their previous interactions with one another) in order to try to find ways of showing the differences in their approaches and thinking. This was not something that I took lightly or that I embarked upon on my own.

These panelists appeared throughout Liberty Forum 2014 in a number of different contexts which were moderated with different approaches.

I moderated the entire open technology track (the whole day, not just the panel). Each of the three speakers engaged in an individual talk on a topic of their choice. During this individual talk, I gave each speaker wide latitude to engage with the audience in a traditional approach. I also gave the audience ample time to interact with each speaker at the end of each talk.

The panel, which closed the track, was designed to appeal to people who had already sat through a whole day of otherwise rather dry (but nonetheless compelling) material from these three awesome minds.

The theme of the panel, “leading by example,” was to identify elements of liberty culture within the world of technology development. In order to do that, we tried to really drill into the thinking that underlay each panelist’s activism and how it translated to liberty tactics being used to underwrite their successes.

Naturally, I engaged forcefully with the panelists in order to achieve this difficult end. I was not asked (and never intended) to play a role as passive host, but rather to moderate and lead a complex, difficult, expert-level discussion.

To this end, I decided to add a rhythmic component in an effort to evoke a talking-piece dynamic. I labored over this decision and talked about it with Cody in the hours before the panel. I also asked the other two panelists their opinion, and both were in favor.

I have seen some comments to the effect that the drumming was “over” the speakers or likening it to bringing a radio to a movie. I just watched a short video of a portion of the panel on YouTube and I have to say: I think that the drum added precisely the effect we hoped it was going to.

During the vocalizations of each panelist, the punctuation of their speech matches the measure of the drum. They and I play off each other in exactly the way I wanted. Mr. Wilson in particular seems to have a pleasing rhythmic timbre to his approach and I think it listens quite well.

Even the friendly heckler heard in the video (François-René Rideau, an accomplished developer in his own right) sounds on beat. (François later tweeted a flattering endorsement – thanks man :-)).

I am aware that the drum was comparatively louder for the audience than the hand-held microphone. For this imbalance, I absolutely apologize. In the future, I will either secure a monitor or work to more properly sound-check the environment. For us up on the stage, the mix sounded great, which I realize comes as little consolation. It is my hope the mix we heard is the one that will be audible on the video production of the event.

In any case, I don’t think there’s any dispute that the vast majority of the audience responded positively to our approach. The room started at about 50% full. People who peeked their head in and heard the sounds we were making came in and sat down, almost without exception. By the end, nearly every seat was full other than the front row. The walls were also lined with curious onlookers. At our conclusion, the audience reacted with uproarious esteem.

In short, if you didn’t like my moderation, I hope that you took the time to engage with these panelists in their other appearances. I think that my approach was very successful and am proud of it. I intend to continue to try a variety of methods of mould-breaking in future moderation tasks, which I anticipate being given after the success of this panel.

If anybody has any more specific critiques to make, by all means know that they will be received and considered. Thanks again for attending and see you at Porcupine Fest!

What is the monolithic (or network-indivisible) nature of crypto-blockchains called?

Recently, I sat down with a friend and former colleague, Schuyler Duveen to catch up on the NY Tech scene.

We found ourselves talking about the pros and cons of the current state of crypto-blockchain protocols, which have certainly acquired buzz status in “the alley” at the moment.

“Bitcoin is not truly decentralized,” Schuyler said. “There are still canonical bitcoin servers – the network can’t function without them.”

“No, that’s not true.” At first I thought he misunderstood the protocol. “If you remove any single node, no matter how important, the network will continue to function.”

“Yeah, but it still relies on centralization of its servers,” he maintained. He paused, clearly struggling for a word. Then he picked up a pencil and drew a circle on a piece of paper. He then drew a line across the middle, saying, “If there’s nobody talking between these two sides, then the same coins can be spent on both sides.”

Of course he’s right. Bitcoin – and every crypto-blockchain of which I’m aware – assumes a monolithic nature for its blockchain. In this sense, Bitcoin is not truly decentralized: there’s no way for two parties to meet alone on an island somewhere and make a canonical transaction without checking with the rest of the network.

Do CounterParty, Mastercoin, Nxt, Etherium, or any other programmatic coins address this issue yet?

A “true” decentralization model might require a retreat from the truth-judged-by-proof-of-work/stake model. I think that the fluidBarter model, developed at slashRoot in 2012, is a plausible way forward. For the moment, it’s just database models – there’s no business logic yet. Of course, speculation will be impossible with this model because there’s no currency on which to speculate.

In any case, my real question is: What is this property – this monolithic nature – called? How can Schuyler immediately identify what he’s talking about? Has anybody coined a phrase describing it?

The Internet can exist because we all dream the same

Inspired by the brain of my friend Emma: the Internet works because (and is evidence that) we all dream the same thing – or, put another way, that our dreams take place in the same dream world.

A contrasting narrative: The Internet is a Thing.  The properties and uses of this Thing are defined not by you, but by the Experts.  By the people who Make Things.

This industrial narrative of the internet is neither new nor unfamiliar to those of us born at a time so as to qualify for dual-citizenship in the industrial and information ages.  It has thus far defined the basis for rational, mainstream, scientific discussion of the growth of network technology in general and the current components of the internet (think www, irc, e-mail, etc) in particular.

However, I have often gotten the sense that the underlying mathematics that make the internet special – that make it a thing wholly different in kind from the industry that appeared to proceed it – are the stuff of everyone’s dreams.  A birthright of sorts.

I have been tussling for the past few days over the phrase “sacred mathematics.”  Most of us have come across the phrase “sacred geometry,” and it’s typically meant to refer in some sense to the psyhedelic: the iterating, the aesthetically remarkable, the difficult-the-explain-without-getting-excited.

In a sense, I suppose that I want to suggest that hashing functions and public-key cryptography share the same sacred status as mandlebrot and julia sets.

For some of us, these are the dreams and the scenes of fantasy.

The odd part – or at least the under-reported part – is that these dreams have such a common and accessible basis.

For example, it’s plain to see that chatting with a next door neighbor via facebook or google chat is wasteful and burdensome.  Instead of having packets leave your house and transit through the air into your neighbor’s window (as with the cup-and-string phone, which Emma and her housemates made this past summer), they instead proceed all the way across the USA (at least) and then all the way back.

Similarly, even those who most fervently identify as “non-techy” among us can see the byzantine nature of media distribution when facing the prospect of downloading a local band’s album via a website (and protocol, and payment method, and file format) of a complete stranger.

Will the internet follow the shape and character of our dreams? 

Particularly in lucid dreams, the industrial world seems trivial. Things can be smashed or made to disappear completely. Distances collapse alternately into miniscule or infinite. Flight of the body – in fact the flaunting of adherence of the body to waking physics at all – is commonplace.

Latency, routing, name resolution, and an overhaul of the transport layer all important metaphorical meaning to the dream space.

In this sense, our dreams are filled already with the fixes forthcoming in IPv6, in Bitcoin, and in mesh networking.  As our species wakes up to these realities, may we be ever more attune to them in our dreams.

peace and persistence.