Planet Jeffro

Product Owner for Grockit (a Kaplan company).
Email me at jeffnovich [] gmail

Companies/Products I created:
Patient Communicator | half patient portal half CRM for doctors (was part of the Blueprint Health accelerator)
Poachbase | find talent at floundering startups
Fare/Share | iOS app for sharing taxis
VocabSushi | learn vocab from news
Cnvrge | meet people via SMS
Supermarket Classroom | teach your child while shopping
Poorsquare.us | foursquare for the 99%
IngeniousOwl.com | online SAT prep
Recent Tweets @jeffnovich
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Posts tagged "New York City"

Patient Communicator takes Audience Choice award at the last NJ Tech Meetup #sweet (via Three Impressive Healthcare Startups Pitch at April NJ Tech Meetup)

I gave a 5 minute version of the original demo day pitch. It was perhaps a little rushed and still went 30 sec over, but I got the message and vision across and it seemed to resonate.

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Using Cnvrge at an awesome Absolut house party!

Absolut Vodka

I got an email a few weeks ago from Dave, who works for a marketing company. They were planning a big party for Absolut and wanted to use Cnvrge for it.  Dave and I had met at the NY Creative Interns Meetup several months ago - where I was running Cnvrge at the meetup.

So I came in to their office last week and demo’d the “awesome game that introduces you to cool people” to an audience of 20 employees who all took part in a live run-through of Cnvrge.  They dug it and saw how awesome and easy it was to get SMS intros to new people at an event.

Wednesday night was the party - a 250+ invite list of VIPs and “see and be seen” folks who partied with Absolut in an insane 5 floor house (with a pool) in SoHo.

I came 2 hours early to scope out the locations and sort out some final details.

Dave and I ran it and mingled, handed out cards (with the phone number to text and check in) and told a bunch of people about it.

About 15 people checked in and while the technology worked flawlessly, I don’t think anyone actually showed up to their locations to meet the people.  But that’s OK because we learned a lot from the process:

  1. Tell everyone beforehand, through an email, on the website when they sign up, and then keep drilling it: when they check in at the door, via signage, and with people circulating wearing shirts and handing out cards.  Everyone needs to know what they’re getting in to otherwise you end up needing to *cold pitch* each person one at a time (which is what we did, and it just doesn’t work).
  2. Get a critical mass. With a drink in their hand and a ton of people surrounding them, the prospect of moving somewhere else isn’t so appealing unlesseveryone is doing it.  When you’re at an event and you sense that everyone is already involved in this cool game to meet new people, but you’re left out, then you’ll immediately take it seriously and want in.  If no one is involved then you know you’re not missing out.
  3. A big party with many floors isn’t the best place to run Cnvrge.  A big open space is easier for people to navigate to various areas.
  4. People need to have their phones close by otherwise they just ignore the texts.
  5. The best Cnvrge events are the ones where people naturally want to meet a ton of other people.  Participants need to arrive to a room full of strangers but leave a room full of familiar faces.

Though Cnvrge didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped, Maddy and I did have an awesome time…

Here are some better photos taken by the pros:

Also, we thought we spotted Kevin Bacon.  Nope, just MTV’s John Norris…
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Check out the Business Insider article about the hackathon.  Kim Bhasin captured a funny quote I said:

The guys we met before, Jeff Novich and Andrew Pinzler, scored too, winning the prize for best small biz hack with Poorsquare. “My original name was Freebie Crawl,” said Novich. “Then I was like, ‘Poorsquare’! This is f***ing brilliant!”

This article has a lot of great pictures that capture the overall vibe of the event. Check it out.

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Card Puncher, an Integral Part of the Tabulati...
Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

Updates since last time - I will post a few entries individually over the next few days discussing these in more detail:

  1. Bandsnearby.com is nearly completed for a beta launch.  Pinzler has done a huge amount of jquery/JS work on this. I’ve been doing a lot of watching music videos to test it. Expect to see a lot of shared music videos on my twitter/FB feed shortly.
  2. The Census Bureau - Got the narration audio done by a guy found on Craigslist, and will edit and publish this by EOW!
  3. Supermarket Classroom - An app for parents in the supermarket with their young children who want to give them something educational to do in the context of the aisles.  Finalizing the graphics, design and logo by EOW!
  4. VocabSushi - Adding a few ad networks into the app.  Some new schools on board.  Some new features released to Pro (including weekly points for students to see).
  5. Fare/Share - Working on some nifty new features in preparation for the January London launch.  Quick share, in-app texting, and future ride requests/matches.
  6. Patient Communicator - We’re underway with a 4-week project to build out v2.1 with a ton of enhancements to our doctor-patient communication system.  Speaking with interested doctors, potential license and integration partners, and investors.
  7. Cnvrge - I recently put together a “how to” document for event organizers who want to use Cnvrge at their next event.  I sent it to about 50 folks who are involved in organizing networking events and got a few people interested in using it.  I’m going to work on adapting it for dating as well so speed-dating events can use it as well. (Twilio may start doing UK SMS soon… so Cnvrge may go international!)
  8. IngeniousOwl - An online SAT course powered by Bespoke Education.  Finalizing a lot of loose ends this week and preparing to launch an invite-only beta to our students.
  9. Other stuff…
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Texting on a keyboard phone
Image via Wikipedia

Last night I was fortunate enough to run my “networking 2.0” app Cnvrge at the NY Hackers meetup at General Assembly.  More than 200 RSVP’d and probably 150 people came so this was a great opportunity to get a huge amount of feedback from real Cnvrge users.

Quick overview:

Cnvrge introduces you to people in a room via SMS.  Every 6 minutes it’ll text you with who to meet and where.  A typical text would say “Meet Bill (Java developer) near the tables next to the window.”  Each participant would get a text like this at regular intervals, thus creating a “speed-networking” event without the logistics, timer, or awkwardness.  This app is a side project but one I think could do quite well if I can get it to consistently work well.

Each event I run is an opportunity to take all the assumptions I’ve made in my home office where my typical user will behave rationally and in predictable ways, and throw those assumptions into real life where things work out very differently.  In other words, things never work out the way I anticipate, so I take notes, talk to everyone, and go back to coding the next wave of updates/tweaks.  Iteration is key, and being able to talk directly to users who are using the service in real time is pretty amazing.

I’m going to blog about future events and what I’ve learned.  First, a recap of the last three. Jump down to see notes from last night’s event:

EVENT #1: Columbia Venture Community - 20 people - Wix lounge

Assumption 1: Everyone would show up at the same time, so the event would be started at a particular time.

Reality: There was a 30 minute window between the 1st person showing up and the last.  During that time there was a lot of silent awkardness and texts should have already been going out.

Fix: Made it so texts could start going out with as few as 3 people checked in, and as new people roll in, they get added to the pool for the next round of texts.

Assumption 2: No one would leave early.

Reality: People left early.

Fix: Allowed users to text “out” to opt out of future meetings (ie, if they wanted to quit or if they met someone they liked and wanted to keep talking).  They could text “in” to jump back in and get a text for the next round.

Other fixes

  1. Error checking on text.
  2. Reset button
  3. Admin creates a list of location names (ie, near the pizza boxes)
  4. Ability to PAUSE and RESUME event 5. List of people currently “inactive”
  5. Many more…

EVENT #2: NY Creative Interns - 20 people - Food Parc

Assumption 1: People will text their email.

Reality: Some people are understandably hesitant about texting their email to a random number.

Fix: Made it optional and explained that it would only be used for the event.

Assumption 2: Nothing would get messed up with the meeting trigger.

Reality: Stuff got screwy (ie if the organizer closes her browser and re opens after the countdown hits 0 - which would normally trigger a next meeting call.  Then it just hangs).

Fix: Added a very practical “Go to Next Meeting” button that manually advances to the next meeting (rather than waiting for the timer).

Assumption 3: If there is an odd number of people, the “odd man out” will be happy getting a text saying “sorry, we didn’t find you a meeting this round. Get a drink, reload business cards and hang tight til the next round.”

Reality: No one wants to sit out.

Fix: The “odd person” gets a text saying “go join a group and say that Cnvrge sent you!”.

Other fixes

  1. Participants receive an email digest at the end listing all the people they met.
  2. Event organizer receives an email digest of all attendees and emails, etc.
  3. Fixed the location bug
  4. Include all participants even if they don’t answer the “bio” or “email” questions
  5. Many more…

EVENT #3: For|By|For - 22 people - Wix lounge

NOTE: This event was run entirely by Kate (while I was at home for a Rosh Hashana dinner), so it was a good test of whether things could be run successfully without my presence.  As part of this I wrote a detailed instruction manual on how to set up and run the event.

Assumption 1: Location names wouldn’t totally screw up and cut off the number of meetings.

Reality: Really big bug (but very easy fix) that limited the number of meetings happening per round, leaving 16 of 22 without a meeting!

Fix: Fixed a for loop.

Assumption 2: The odd man out is ok with a simple text.

Reality: They want to have a legit meeting with a new person, not just be told “go join a group”.

Fix: Now the odd person gets matched to a new person in an existing 2-person meeting - to complete the ‘trifecta’.  The person they are meeting is lucky and gets matched with TWO people on that round, and is texted that info.  All of this is tracked in the database so they’ll all get listed in the email digest at the end (saying who met who).  All is well.

Assumption 3: Folks would be able to follow simple instructions, such as “provide a 3-5 word bio”.

Reality: Several people texted mini novels that messed up the process.

Fix: Added error checking to confirm that a 3-5 word bio is actually only 3-5 words (or less than 100 chars), and that an email is actually an email.  Sheesh!

Other fixes

  1. Automatically include everyone in rounds even if they didn’t write a bio or email.
  2. More bug fixes and tweaks.

—————————

EVENT #4: NY Hacker - 44 people (checked in) - General Assembly

Assumption 1: People could be pitched with a 30 second explanation as they arrived about what Cnvrge is and how they can check in to the event.

Reality: Most participants had wildly differing views on what the purpose was and how it worked.  Many simply viewed the texts as “suggestions”, not realizing that the other person was actually waiting for them at the location, by themselves.

Fix: Need to always include a clear explanation about Cnvrge prior to any event so all attendees know that if they choose to participate, that they should be following the rules. (Rules should be made more intuitive, yes, but rules nonetheless.)

Assumption 2: Everyone would have a US phone number.

Reality: One guy had an international number.  Twilio doesn’t “do” international numbers.  He didn’t get any texts.

Fix: Check for int’l numbers and reject (sorry!).

Assumption 3: Participants would arrive with a cell phone… or with a phone that is charged.

Reality: Several people had phones die prior or during the event.

Fix: No fix for this! But workarounds noted below (since they would presumably not get their texts and be “no shows”).

Assumption 4: The goal of a “meetup”-type event is to build a community, which means having people meet as many new people as possible, thus to convert as many strangers into familiar faces as possible in as short a time as possible.  The next event, therefore, would be filled with a lot of familiar looking people and a warm and inviting group is forged.  If you only meet 1 person at each event, then every event ends up being a large group of strangers - that isn’t much of a community.

Reality: People come to these events for different reasons. Some people find more value in a high quality 45 minute conversation with one person than meeting 10 new people in the same 45 minute period (those 10 people could all be just as “quality” as the other).  This was part of the reason why many participants simply ignored the texts - they were already having a great conversation, why would you leave?  (The flipside of this is: it’s networking, not dating. It’s not like someone else will steal this girl/guy away from you if you leave them for the next hour. That person isn’t going to disappear and if it’s a good connection you’ll easily have quite a few more meetings in the future, so why squander the access you have to 100+ other people?)

Fix: Again, better preparation would have helped.  Cnvrge is particularly effective for meeting a lot of new people (people, mind you, who don’t disappear afterwards - you can easily resume a conversation with them over coffee, or later on).  If participants are focused on meeting new people, then Cnvrge is appropriate.  If you are looking for the “right person” to strike a deal with or talk shop with for a long time, then Cnvrge will just annoy you (and the person you’re talking to).

The most elegant fix I’ve come up with solves this and the problem of a “no show”.  So if Bill ignores the text (because he’s in a good conversation) but Jane (his meeting partner) actually follows the instructions and goes to meet him at a location, she is stood up and stuck waiting for a no show.  She’ll be able to text “no show” which will do 2 things: automatically opt out Bill on his behalf (he’ll be notified, but this is a passive way for him to continue ignoring until he wants to jump back in), and it’ll locate another participant who has been ‘stood up’, and connect them.  Someone called this the “no show corner” of the room.

I think this could include some kind of confirmation like “do you want to meet Bill”, but this quickly gets into a much more complex form of speed networking where the meetings themselves are on their own timers and it stops looking like speed networking and more like an app that introduces you to people.

Other fixes

  1. Ask the user for their email at the END of the event (speeds up check in)
  2. "OUT" text did not actually exclude people from rounds (need to fix this bug)

Other notes

  • A few people were asking about “intelligent matching”, which is really interesting.  I already worked on a Linkedin hack and am looking into the Hunch API, but what good is great matching if people aren’t even showing up to the meetings?  So first order of business is to get consistent meetings that “work” for the people involved. Then I can focus on better-than-random matching, which I’m not so convinced would be “better” anyway, but that’s a different blog post.
  • A lot of people said they absolutely loved this concept and loved using it.  I asked “cool, so how many people did you meet?”  “Oh, no one, but it was awesome!”  Turns out, one guy met someone by complaining that his ‘match’ was standing him up on that round - so in that sense, Cnvrge was a way to break the ice like “oh, this thing isn’t working!”
  • One guy said about 60% of his meetings showed up, which sounded like a big success. He was very happy with it.
  • Interestingly, I asked people “so, at an event like this, how many new people do you typically meet?”  For all the people I asked that to, this was their FIRST event ever (tech, meetup, etc - the very first event across the board!).  So they didn’t have expectations at that point.  But one girl had just moved here last week so she came to meet new people - Cnvrge was exactly what she wanted.  For others, who came to find “a developer”, Cnvrge was helpful but too random.

Closing thoughts:

I’ve gone to hundreds of events and what I’ve learned is you really can’t anticipate the value of a relationship by looking at someone’s resume.  In other words, I go to events like these with an open mind, happy to meet anyone precisely because I’m there to be a part of the community, and that means connecting with new people to turn strangers into familiar faces.  I fully understand the desire to have transactions with only the “right” people - ie I’m looking for a developer, so why would I waste my time with a micro-biologist or a lawyer?  That’s fair, but I’d argue that growing your network and becoming an integral part of the community will yield far greater value, much of it unanticipated, than just focusing on the short term.  Certainly many meetups/events are focused around “targeted networking” - conferences are pretty much entirely about that.  But events with a mission to build a “community” may offer more than a roster of potential hires or investors.

So I go to events and meet people just to hear what people are working on, what brought them to NYC, and this particular event, and how I can help them through introductions or guidance.  I love rapping about ideas and projects I’m working on (there are many) but I generally don’t have expectations from a first meeting.

All of this is to say: I built Cnvrge to power community-building.  If Meetup gets a group of like-minded people in a room, Cnvrge takes the baton and efficiently connects all of those people like the best party host you’d ever meet.  That’s the vision I’m trying to achieve.

If you are an event organizer (and have networking events with 20-100 attendees) and you’re interested in using Cnvrge, email me at info AT cnvrge DOT com.

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It has been exactly 10 years since the premiere screening of Jeff Makes A Movie in the Donovan Room at Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins.  The 76-minute comedy about a guy who had to make a film to graduate college played to an overflowing crowd of around 150+. It was standing room only that night.  Sadly I don’t have a single photo of it but believe me, it was awesome.

The film was written by Jesse Himmelstein, largely in a 4-day period over winter break in 2000/2001. 

Here are some of the original pages Jesse scribbled off Sophomore year when we were roommates.

We posted the audition sign (below) and auditioned dozens of actors.  Jesse and I shot, directed and managed the production during the Spring 2001 semester, (while, I’d like to note, I was taking Quantum Mechanics, arguably the most difficult class in A&S).  Amazingly, we finished it on time without missing entire chunks of scenes or losing any actors along the way.

I spent the summer editing the movie and clicking the mouse for 15 hours on end,  and consequently found myself with repetitive stress injury in both my arms (like carpal tunnel but without much treatment). 

Here are some of my editing notes:

But the movie was finished.

It was set to premiere the 2nd weekend of September, but then 9/11 happened (on a Tuesday), so we pushed it back a week later.

We plastered the campus, put flyers in every freshman dorm room and told everyone we knew.  I know some people who actually came, saw the room was filled to capacity, and left.

The event was written up in the JHU News-Letter and later in the JHU Gazette (the official JHU newspaper).  I was even included in a Hopkins brochure sent out to prospective students with a big picture of me with my video camera.

We had convinced Johns Hopkins to give us $2,500 through the Provost Undergraduate Research Award.  (For real!) Obviously this movie was on par with cancer research and psychological studies that other students were working on. 

I used that cash to submit the film to about 50 festivals. The painful search and submission process later led me to build FilmDevil.com, a worldwide film festival directory that let you filter on many fields.

It was officially selected by 3 and I immediately bought tickets to Madison, Wisconsin and Muskogee, Oklahoma to attend the festivals that April.

Not surprisingly, the cast has gone on to do pretty amazing things and I’m still in touch with most of them (many are right here in NYC).  Sadly, few of them stuck with acting.  This was one of the best experiences I had and helped make college so much more memorable for me.

My family has a yearly tradition when we stay in Cape Cod for a week: we always watch Jeff Makes A Movie, and everyone quotes the lines.

If you haven’t seen the movie, please do, below.  You’ll appreciate it.

Other movies have been filmed on the Hopkins campus, but they’re just copycats.

Here is the film:

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Image representing LinkedIn as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

The Problem:

I go to a lot of Meetups and other events (tech, networking, etc) so I always check the RSVP list beforehand to get a sense of who’s going.  In fact, I often will decide whether or not to go based on who I know.  For example, if I see a few tech folks who I haven’t keep up with or emailed recently, I love using these events as a way to quickly catch up with a group of people.

Regardless, I desperately want to know who I am 2nd degree friends with on LinkedIn so I can shoot an email or tweet and plan on connecting at the event.  I consider these kinds of events to be sort of like coffee meetings on steroids - a chance to have meaningful face-to-faces with a bunch of people without all the annoying planning that tends to go along with setting up simple Skype calls or a coffee meeting.  The trick is to know who’s going.

Also, events cost money, like this Tech Cocktail Mixer at GA for $15, which does sound awesome but would be more awesome if I had a few connections before showing up.

The Solution:

There are awesome companies trying to solve this and show you who you’re connected to and through which people.  My favorite is Sonar.me, and not just because I know Brett, the founder.  It’s my go to app when I’m out and about and curious who’s around me.  But there are some big limitations:

  1. People at the event need to be checked in (on 4square, Sonar, whatever).  Face it, you know only 5% of people at any event are checked in on 4square.  Even at General Assembly at the start of Startup Weekend, there were only 40 people checked in (which is a whopping number) out of the 150-200(?) attendees - and that’s the most tech-centric crowd in the most tech-savvy space during a tech event.  So I’m interested in capturing that other 90+% of people who have check-in fatigue or forget or don’t care and, frankly, have “pre-checked-in” via a simple RSVP.
  2. Facebook and Twitter aren’t networks I use for networking.  Linked In is. Brett says Linked In integration is on its way (which will really make Sonar shine for me), but in the meantime…

My Hack:

So I spent yesterday hacking together my most useful script(s) ever.  I’ll walk through two situations.

Eventbrite connections:

Start with a normal eventbrite page. It lists a name, company and maybe URL.  Great, but mostly worthless since, at the very least, it’s a lot of work to scroll through names and judge if I know anyone.  Worse to impossible to look people up in Linkedin and see who they are.

This is exactly what my script does.  It runs off of a simple text file (just cut and paste the eventbrite RSVP list, mainly because EB uses javascript that makes it hard to easily “get” the HTML) that looks like this:

Eli Greif, Landmark Ventures
Website: www.landmarkventures.com
Michael Levine, Ad Tech Startup
Website: google.com
Preetham Hegde, City of New York
Website: http://nyc.gov
Simone Grant, Morgan Museum
Website: themorgan.org

It goes through each name + company (and here’s the cool part) exploits Google to figure out the LinkedIn direct URL.  It’s a combination of syntax:

"$fname $lname $co $city linkedin"

Bill Johnson Microsoft new york linkedin

This is surprisingly accurate, but sometimes has people who aren’t quite right.  So it looks at the LI profile and builds a confidence score based on criteria such as:

+1 if any of the company words are present

+1 if the person’s first name is in the profile/URL

+2 if the person’s last name is in the profile/URL

+5 if the person’s full name/full company name is in the profile

It turns out this isn’t all that necessary, but it’s pretty accurate. (I used this to track down LI urls for the leaked SXSW participant list of 25,000 people that just had names and companies as well.)

Next, it logs into LinkedIn (with my username/password) using Perl’s Mechanize library and looks at the profile page.  Now it displays if you are 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree and who you have in common.

2nd degree is the most interesting, and it pulls a list of the people between you and the random person.  I won’t publish my list for the Tech Cocktail Mixer, but here are some interesting stats:

  • I found 16 people out of 59 RSVPs with whom I share connections
  • (I do have ~800+ connections on LI, so keep that in mind)
  • The most connections I share with one person is 45 / The least is, of course, 1
  • Median is 2 / Mean is 7
  • There are a lot of “usual suspects” as my shared connections, but there are a bunch of shared connections who show up less frequently.  I think those people may be more interesting to get intros through, just because they are uncommon in the NY tech circles.

The Meetup Hack:

I love meetup.  It’s how I got into the NY tech community and how I met most of the techies I know.  But the RSVP list could use some improvements. Upon first glance, it’s just a long, long list of names and pictures.  That’s cool, but as soon as I want more info I have to start mousing over and clicking on each person - a big pain.

My script takes a meetup event URL, like the one for the upcoming Lean Startup talk (100 ppl going with 100+ on the waiting list!):

http://www.meetup.com/lean-startup/events/31681192/

It then loops through each person’s name, looks at their profile to see if they have a LI url already entered (most don’t), and if not, uses the Google search algorithm.

These stats are more interesting:

  • Out of 102 attendees:
  • I have 1st connections / 43 2nd degree connections (!)
  • Median = 3 / Mean = 5.5
  • There are 7 people with > 10 connections in common. I should probably connect with them first.
  • Out of my 242 shared connections (with those 43 attendees), there are 107 unique people in my network who are the connectors (it would be interesting to tally and slice that data in different ways)

Issues:

Unfortunately, this script is in Perl and requires a username and password for LinkedIn, so it’s not exactly production ready.  But I think I could package and export it as an executable that would be run from the command line with arguments like “linked.exe blah@blah.com password meetup.com/url” though I’m not sure that’s a great idea.

I’d love to make this into a regular website that lets you OAuth your LI account and plug in a URL of eventbrite or meetup and it emails you a nice html email with links and lists of connections, etc.  Anyone want to help?

I do know this *probably* violates some annoying policies but it’s just for educational purposes.  I’m not sure how one would get around the problem of having one IP hit the LI servers 100+ times without getting booted.  I’ve factored in a lot of “sleep” commands to slow things down and hope they don’t notice. (It’s exceptionally easy to get noticed by Google when you let requests run in real-time.)

Next steps:

I can immediately think of some awesome next features to add:

  • So now I have a filtered list of event attendees I’m connected to and a list of those shared connections.  I can add a 1-click intro+LI connection that says via LI (if you have an email, which is a big if) or via twitter:

"Hi Bill, Looks like you’re going to event XYZ on Tuesday. We have x shared LI connections including Jane, Sally and Bob. Looking forward to connecting"

  • I am a member of 40 Meetup groups. Of the umpteen going on this week, I’d love to know the ONE I absolutely must attend because it has the most 2nd degree people.
  • One feature I’ve asked of Sonar.me is the ability to “turn off” certain connections.  So a tech VC I might have met a few times might have 2,000 connections and literally be the super-super-duper-steroid connector.  I’d like to ignore his connections though because unless I am personally connected to him strongly, that connection probably isn’t very helpful.  (I’m not going to ask 1 person for 13 introductions!)  I call this the Charlie Sheen effect on Sonar - Sheen single-handedly connects me to someone every time I open Sonar. Amusing, but not helpful ;-)

Thoughts?

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Trying out standing with geekdesk
Image by lhl via Flickr

We are *almost* done moving to our awesome new apartment 2 blocks away from our old apartment.  The proximity has been helpful but also has given us a bit too much flexibility.  We’ve made a whole bunch of trips by car and most of our stuff is in the new place.

Our new crib has big windows that overlook Central Park (from the NW corner, facing south).  I now have a true home office with enough room for my interns to come over and work!

And we finally (finally!) have room to host some parties.

I’m excited for a few things:

  • We just had our blue couch professionally cleaned, so all of Sagan’s drool and hair and other nasties have been sucked out and we’ve trained the little guy to not jump up anymore.  Unless he learns how to stop drooling.
  • I’m getting my GeekDesk on Monday.  This is a ‘height adjustable’ desk - a switch and a motor lets you move the desk vertically so you can stand and work which is much better for your back and health.  Interestingly, UPS charges an additional $45 to ship into NYC.  And then, if they use their hydraulic lift on the semi flatbed, they charge $75!  So I’m going up to Westchester to get curbside delivery and I personally have to unhook and unload the desk off the truck!  Awesome.
  • Internet is becoming an event because the previous renter didn’t cancel their subscription to Time Warner.  So I had to FAX our lease to TWC to prove we’re here.
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Oh Bama!

The Finals Round of the New York City Science and Engineering Fair was held today, March 29, at the Museum of Natural History in the Blue Whale room… and we had a surprise visitor!

A bit of background.  This is the third year I’ve been a judge for the fair.  (I highly recommend doing it if you want to meet some really talented kids.)  Basically you volunteer and request a category - mine was computer science - and get to speak with a few highly motivated, super smart high school students who explain the research they’re doing, how they did it, and why it’s important.  There are no baking soda and vinegar volcanoes.  I wish their projects were listed online because they are truly remarkable and deserve a lot more attention than just the 2 hour “public viewing” that happened this morning - attended by mostly parents - and then an exclusive “judges viewing” in the afternoon.  The first session is held at City College up in Washington Heights in early March, and the top students go on to this round at the museum.

When I arrived at the museum, I didn’t really think much of the metal detectors though they did seem odd since the group, consisting of students and judges (who were mostly teachers or professors) didn’t seem like the type who’d be packing heat.  Meanwhile, I don’t watch TV or read regular news (I do read quite a few blogs though!) so I didn’t know that Obama was in town.

We did our thing and spent time with the students we were assigned, asking questions to try to figure out how much of their research was original (they thought up) and how much was basically by their mentors. In general, students work under professors - sometimes in their lab, sometimes remotely - from all the universities in the area and it is often hard to tell if they are basically interns (still an impressive piece of research experience!) or if they truly came up with an original idea.

I had noticed all of the security and personnel and thought maybe Bloomberg was wandering around.  But after a quick look - one would expect he’d be surrounded by cameras - I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.  I took a quick call with my mom who said maybe there were important people who I just wouldn’t recognize - like ambassadors or CEO types. Who knows.

Things were winding down and all the judges were up on the 2nd floor discussing which students had the best projects and should advance to the national competition when secret service and other scary looking enforcement types (who had not been so secret because there were dozens of them buzzing around) requested that we clear the floor and go down to the main area.

That’s when we realized something big was about to happen.  We waited 20-30 min. Apparently, this was happening while we waited!

A swarm of camera people came down the steps. False alarm.  Then the big O marched out, along with Bloomberg, though Mike was tough to get in frame. He’s a bit too short and posters a bit too tall.  See video. Also notice the poster “Platinum nanoparticles on carbon nanotubes…”

Obama then walked around and listened to a few students’ presentations, then walked back down and shook people’s hands in each of the aisles. You can hear the kids going wild the whole time!

I wasn’t the only one shooting video, though surprisingly I’m probably one of the few with decent quality - I saw a lot of blackberries and old iPhones.  I’m sure lots more will be on Youtube shortly.

The NY Observer, The Hill, AP via AJC reported.

Here’s a bit of controversy…&nb sp; Bloomberg didn’t say a single word at the event (at least that I could hear).  But later he tweeted:

The President and I talked about the importance of science and math education to our country’s future http://bit.ly/hHIzig

Hmmm. I think the video tells a different story.  Though if anyone knows science and technology it would be Bloomberg.  In addition to having more money than God, he also happens to have a BS in electrical engineering from, oh yeah, Johns Hopkins.  (All of my physics classes were held in the building known simply as “Bloomberg”.)

Update: I uploaded a scan of the official program listing all the projects. At least it gives a sense of what was there (a complex-sounding title doesn’t necessarily mean the project itself was complex, and vice versa).

Nycef - Booklet of Projects

Update 2:


That hand holding the iphone at the bottom - yeah that’s my hand! From the NYT.

I’m filling out the forms required for VocabSushi to become an official vendor for NYC public schools.  It’s not *that* painful a process, but is definitely annoying that teachers can’t just buy stuff they think is worth buying (like most schools I’ve dealt with).
Amusingly, this is the photo on the front page of the “Vendor Portal” and I’m still not sure a) why this creepy guy has anything to do with schools b) what this guy is doing.  Is that a walkie talkie, a lav mic, a cell phone?  Anyone?

I’m filling out the forms required for VocabSushi to become an official vendor for NYC public schools.  It’s not *that* painful a process, but is definitely annoying that teachers can’t just buy stuff they think is worth buying (like most schools I’ve dealt with).

Amusingly, this is the photo on the front page of the “Vendor Portal” and I’m still not sure a) why this creepy guy has anything to do with schools b) what this guy is doing.  Is that a walkie talkie, a lav mic, a cell phone?  Anyone?

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Here’s a status update of the things I’m working on:

VocabSushi: Over the next 2 weeks, I’m going to start promoting the iPhone App (get it, it’s free!) with the help of my trusty virtual assistant Catina to dozens of blogs and outlets.  Tonight I got to demo VocabSushi (site and app) and VocabBomb.com at Web2NY, a well-known tech meetup group.

FareShare: We’re nearing the final stages of our redevelopment of the app.  There have been a few snags with our developer and our graphic designer, but things are moving along and hopefully by the end of this week we’ll have a more polished app.  Today I received an invitation to be part of a “taxi app” panel, moderated by TLC commissioner David Yassky, along with Weeels, CabCorner, TaxiMagic, and Uber, at the upcoming Transit Un-Conference on March 5-6.  This will be an awesome opportunity to showcase the new concepts we’ve been working on.

Cnvrge.com: This is a site I’m coding myself that I think could be a pretty cool service for people to meet each other at events.  I’ll be applying this week to DreamIt, a startup incubator that invests $10k and runs over the summer in NYC.  Early deadline is Feb 28. I’ve completed about 80% of the coding for the site so my plan is to get a few more features done this week.

PatientCommunicator.com: Look out for an upcoming magazine profile of my dad’s super high tech doctor’s office.  We are actively looking for doctors to demo the site to. This week I hope to lock down a video shoot date for a promo video / patient testimonials, start building up some leads, and contact a marketing person to start working on collateral.

IngeniousOwl.com: Yesterday was the official deadline for our developers to get the site done.  There are still some loose ends but we hope to hammer them all out this week and start beta testing this superior SAT prep course to students.

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My team and I (and a couple hundred hackers) just finished up the craziness that was NYC Music Hack Day, an intense 24 hour hackathon that started with ~200 coders and ended with ~70(!!) 2 min demos of apps and cool stuff.

I had a lot of firsts at this event.  First time I spent this long coding on a craptastic netbook.  First time I was given the role of “designer” (srsly??).  First hack event.  First time I pushed and pulled on github, and first time I chatted on IRC (yeah, I know).  Also, the first time I put BBQ sauce and pesto on a slice of pizza.  (It was homemade by Brothers Green.)  And the first time I collaborated with other programmers and brainstormed on a white board (well, all of the walls were ‘white boards’ so it was hard not to).  Oh, and the first time that oddly entertaining but essentially useless app MeetGatsby worked - I checked in on 4sq, and Rameet, also at GeneralAssemb.ly, came over to the room we were working in.

What an awesome experience! It’s amazing to see just how much can get accomplished in such a short amount of time.  It’s almost like a class where you have to learn, quickly.  Everything you do or figure out or collaborate on is done for a very specific purpose so it makes it all not only worthwhile but exhilarating.  John Britton, the long-haired energetic Twilio-evangelist organizer of many of these events, described a hack weekend as a chance to learn a lot in a short amount of time, and in a way that is far more effective (if not infinitely more effective) than going to a lecture, or seminar or conference.  I totally agree.  At the beginning of the event, you’ve got THE guys/gals who built the APIs giving the presentations about them and help you get started on stuff (or even code things themselves, like in our case).

I learned a lot about programming and design. I put fonts into the webpage, wrote a function that grabbed full mp3s hosted across the web and checked to see that the artist/track matched what we were looking for, and even fired up a streaming player inside the webpage (those little play buttons aren’t so hard to make after all).

Lessons learned for the next event: Get a MVP working really early and then add little pieces.  Our group was 7 or 8, which is huge.  A lot of other groups were 1-3, so they were more flexible I think.  The endgame is a 2min demo that is awe-inspiring.  That’s hard to do, but it does mean a lot of the backend stuff gets scrapped or doesn’t get seen at all.  I think it probably makes sense to make the app as visually interesting as possible, where each feature is geared towards wow factor.  The guy who won played a violin without the violin.  That’s pretty awesome.  Other apps that might have been incredibly powerful and hard to build may not have been as sexy.

Valentun.es - Use it for Valentine’s Day!

It starts with a missed Valentine card and ends with a not-so-lovely apology. We wanted to make it insanely easy to craft a playlist that will make your Valentine swoon.

Valentun.es lets you enter your Valentine’s name and his or her specific interests. It then searches lyrics to discover music that uses those words, filters those songs by danceability and other taste factors and then serves up streaming tracks so you can listen and hand-pick the final playlist. Valentun.es then delivers the playlist to their cellphone.

What better way to say “Be my Valentine!” than through a tinny cellphone speaker via AT&T. If your special someone can listen all the way through 5 songs without dropping, you know s/he’s a keeper!

The iPhone app lets you be even more forgetful, so you can quickly create a Valentune on-the-go (presumably while shopping for flowers 5 minutes before making dinner reservations). Just like the web front end, the app lets you enter your Valentine’s info, view and listen to possible tracks, and select the ones you want to package as a playlist.

More info here: http://wiki.musichackday.org/index.php?title=ValenTun.es

We also won the MusiXmatch award for best demo to use their lyrics API - a trip to Italy. We drew straws. Alex, who traveled all the way from Ireland just for this hack event, got the ticket.

Now I think it’s time to sleep.

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Last week I was contacted by Russia Today TV (rt.com) to talk about citizen journalism.  Turns out, a few friends weren’t the only people who read my long-ish blog post criticizing the overblown claims of citizen journalism.  So did a producer with the RT 30-minute debate program “Crosstalk”, which host Peter Lavelle begins by saying: “Crosstalk rules in effect, that means you can jump in any time you like.”  I love that that’s a rule!

Jump to my parts: 3:47 / 6:54 / 17:25 / 21:44 (where I mess up)

It was a “remote video” shoot in a really nice location.  Basically, I was in a small room by myself staring at the lens of a camera with an earpiece.  This was my first time in this situation though I know ‘remotes’ pretty well.  Here I am:

And this is what I was looking at:

Having a conversation in this sort of environment is jarring and pretty awkward, so I wasn’t as focused as I should have been.  The most difficult thing for me was juggling the staring at the camera while listening to 3 people talk and not be able to look away.  I come across as sort of angry because of it (though the shadows around my eyes didn’t help).  Speaking without a reference point (like a face, or monitor) made it tricky to listen carefully and articulate something meaningful the way I would if I were face to face with someone.  I feel like they should have Skype running alongside so you could see the person’s face.

It was a really interesting experience for me.  I’m all about trying new things and if someone wants me to talk about something, I’m more than happy to oblige.  I just wished the conversation was a bit more about stuff I can sink my teeth into (ie the stuff I wrote about) rather than talking about the influence that blogs might have had on the war in Iraq or an election, or whether mainstream media reprints extremist opinion without fully vetting it.  That stuff is sort of interesting to me but I just don’t pay attention to it because a) I don’t read blogs that are nonsensical and extreme in nature (left or right), and b) I don’t think the print media, if they do their job, pay much attention either.  Of course TV is different, since most TV news is junk food anyway.

Lastly, this was my emailed response to the original set of questions:

Journalism = phone calls, trust, talking to people, context.

Citizen journalism often doesn’t involve any of this, and is simply a “public status update”, like the Hudson plane crash.  Nice for us to see, but not particularly meaningful.

If “everyone is a journalist” then we have lots of noise.  So we still need editors and the tenets of traditional journalism to filter things and present context.

It would appear the more we know and have access to information the less we understand about the world?

Information is freely accessible.  So the age of disbelief is the reason why I don’t have cable or own a TV.  I stopped watching TV news about the time I started journalism school 7 years ago.  All information is accessible… and tv news is hyperbolic and overly simplified, and often wrong.

Most young people get news from a wide variety of sources now, so I don’t think we understand less about the world at all.  I don’t trust any one source for everything.  I fact check my news because I know that journalists are often underpaid and overworked, on deadline, and could only fit what they could fit into the story.  I think of news as a starting point with footnotes for further reading, and I google names, places, facts, figures of anything I think is curious or more nuanced.

Anyone can do this!  But most people don’t, which is I think the biggest problem.

Is this because of information overload?

Information overload is not a problem when you have blinders on. 

Also, Information is great, but info without context is largely useless.  It’s just data points but with no guide we have no idea about what is important or shocking or just average.

There are hundreds of blogs that specialize in topics and have a far deeper knowledge of, say, the NYC school system, than any traditional media outlet or beat reporter possibly could have.

These blogs have added a lot of new content, true, but that’s a really good thing because their content is nuanced, provides context, and is authoritative.

Is this because of technology?

Tech has enabled a proliferation of information and accessibility, BUT you still need to report things!  You still have to get accurate information into a website.  Google and twitter don’t make that stuff for you.  The quality is only as good as the people reporting it and synthesizing it.

Is this because of “citizen journalism?”

CJ is a broad term.  Twitter, I don’t believe, is citizen journalism.  It is a public status update.  Let’s be clear on that.  It’s useful to know what signs people are holding in the rally to restore sanity, but it’s not good for much else by itself.  Also, blogs that purport to be “CJ” often don’t do any original reporting.  That’s a really important point.  You can find, say, 40 blog posts that are all commenting about a single story produced by the AP.  This is great to distribute a story, but these countless opinions don’t add a whole lot of value that, say, another reporter on the beat or investigating the documents would add.

Is our time fundamentally different from other times (like the birth of mass newspaper publics in the 19th and 20th centuries)?

I don’t feel old, but I lived through cassette tapes, floppy drives, and dialup modems.  I went through college without Facebook.  Google launched my sophomore year.  The rate of change in the last 10  years is mind boggling.

In the last 5 years we’ve lost half of journalists working at news magazines and network newscasts, and we’ve lost 1/3 of journalists working at daily newspapers.  So on the one hand, we have a proliferation of blogs and information, but on the other hand, they’re all sourcing an ever shrinking group of articles that are doing the much needed “accountability journalism” that no one else can do.

And to top it all off, how has WikiLeaks changed the global media environment?

Not sure how wikileaks is relevant here.  Trouble with publishing lots of documents or video is that you still need people familiar with the information to synthesize it and add context.  I’m not sure it has “changed” a lot of anything.  Reporters still have sources, some go on background some are anonymous.  Good investigative reporters have contacts who would be whistleblowers.  This isn’t a new thing, except that now the distribution channel is the internet, so a single leak can go global instantaneously.  That’ noise, and not necessarily helpful as a totally unfiltered data stream.

Solutions include:

Spot.us – a very cool site (that dan is an advisor to) that lets freelance journalists pitch important stories and where consumers who find those stories valuable can pitch in a small amount to help fund it.  This is an incredible model that circumvents the “race to the bottom” we find with lots of media outlets that are sustained on eyeballs (which can only be attracted with stories about Britney spears).

Citizen SOURCES – a WNYC initiative where regular people in Detroit (the pilot) could text the station when they saw something wrong, like a truck in a non-truck neighborhood.  Then a reporter could collate that information into a full story that could benefit that community.

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Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t usually write about minutiae of what I do on a daily basis, but yesterday’s events are just too amusing to pass up.  At the end of the day I realized “wow, this is why I love NYC.  This stuff could only happen here.”

12:45pm: Met up with Aaron at Veselka, a famous Greek diner in the E village.

1:15pm: Went to nine different bars in the area to distribute stacks of promo cards for Fare/Share.  (Where else can you walk to that many bars in about an hour?)  At the final bar, I explained to the bartender that this was an iPhone app that… and she cut me off and said “well I have a BlackBerry,” while cutting up limes.  I said well, most people on BBs don’t use apps like this and anyway there’s a web app for everyone else.  “Everyone else!?” she said.  It was an amusing exchange until it went from awkward to a little belligerent.  “I’ll just leave a stack here for you,” I said and left.  She was a feisty one.

Walking between bars we passed Alan Cummings.  I said, “Aaron, that was the guy from ‘Mary and Jane’s 40th Anniversary’”.

"You mean Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion?”  Yes!  The guy in the helicopter.

3:05pm: I walk up towards 21st street to a meeting.  On the way I overhear two guys talking on the corner of Union Square Park, one is showing the other an iPhone and says “…I took the SIM card out and it works perfectly…”  An obvious Craigslist exchange if I’ve ever seen one!

3:30pm: Meet up with the head of Stoked.org, a non-profit after school program described thusly:

Stoked’s mission is to develop Successful Teens with Opportunity, Knowledge, Experience, and Determination through action sports and mentoring.

The founder loves VocabSushi and wants to use it with the students in the program so they can read more and keep their 100% graduation rate.  I’m excited to work with him and his program.  (I might even go on their snowboarding adventure trip!)

4:30pm: Meet up with Ed at the world-famous Shake Shack.  He emailed Fare/Share two days ago and said he was interested in what we were doing.  He’s working at outside.in, an interesting hyperlocal news startup, but he’s also enrolled in the Founder Institute program, (I was accepted but did not enroll).  Ed was coming up with ideas for the FI (you have to start a company or you don’t graduate) and he thought of “TaxiTwist" "TaxiTwits.com", but the head of the program Ed’s cousin (who he’s in the program with, who started Wattzy) referred him to Fare/Share, and a connection was made.

Ed is The NYC Nomad.  He is living each week in a different neighborhood (mostly on the floors of friends of friends).  In order to get to know the areas really well, he takes his hosts out to dinners and other events.  And he blogs extensively about his experiences.

5:45pm: I hop on a 6 to 86th street, and stop for a bite at the Corner Bagel Market.  There was one table with 3 girls who were obviously in high school, maybe even junior high.  An older guy who apparently is a “regular” at this place and was sitting in the corner had walked over and started up a conversation with them - something about how he wrote a book and that they should buy it, and that they were lovely girls (“You all look like you’re in college, do you go to college around here?”), and that if they stuck around he would be happy to write them all poems.  He was a pretty creepy old guy, but harmless (and the shop’s staff seemed to know him).  It was a bizarre interaction but not uncommon at all in this city.  In another city, the old guy might be a darker character, but here he’s just an old neighborhood guy who is a little clueless.

6:30pm: Tutored a student whose lives on the same floor as Katie Couric.

7:45pm: Walked home through Central Park.

Gotta love NYC!

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I went on a run around Central Park this evening and passed a very cool hotdog cart called “Good To Go” selling all organic food.  Not much more to report except that this is their homepage, this is their Facebook page, and I “liked” them.  I wish I could have stopped to try it out.

If I may opine a moment… What a welcome change to the typical fare you find in street cars.  I’m not saying this is healthy or not “fast food” just because it’s organic.  But it is different, and I love new things and change.  I always wonder why every food cart looks the same and has the exact same shitty food and prices, why every bodega has the exact same shit and the exact same layout even.  It’s certainly not regulated that tightly, there is most definitely more than one company running the show, and you can’t just shrug and say “well, it works so why change it.”  I don’t know why these staples of NYC have to look the same and do the same thing.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks that, as this newcomer shows.  I’m now excited to buy a hotdog on the street, if for nothing else, to just try out a new experience and give a bit of business to the new guy who is bucking the trend and trying something new.  (Plus I support organic food, so eat it!)

Almost forgot to tell you where it is:  It’s on the Central Park loop right across from the carousel, which is sort of the south-east corner.  It’s the strip of the loop that smells like manure since all of the horse and carriages come through that way.

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