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Jun 112013

Northern Spark is an art festival-type event that incorporates art installations, interactive art, music, theater, and dance performances, art creation, and more.  It occurs from dusk to dawn and (at least over the past two years) takes over several blocks of a Twin Cities neighborhood, so the night features prominently in all the work presented.  This year, Northern Spark took place from sunset on June 8 until sunrise on June 9, 2013 in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul.  Most of the installations/performances/etc. were setup in and around the grounds of the Union Depot train station and the street immediately outside it.

I was and continue to be surprised at the technology used in many of the installations and performances. I realize that this focus on the medium and not the message is not a very "fine art" way to think, but many projects incorporated projected images and video, cameras, LED lights, and other custom electronics which I find simply fascinating.  Now, a lot of this may have to do with the fact that it is dark and therefore many projects had to have a built-in light source simply to be visible.  But it still gives a vastly different feel to the work than you get even in a very contemporary art museum.

An outdoor installation, Strange Attractor, used a camera to cause a giant LED light board to react to light patterns it detected.  I was never quite able to suss out what patterns caused it to respond, but it was cool seeing computer vision used in an art project!

Another interactive installation, can you listen to the same river twice?, on the shore of the Mississippi River utilized an underwater microphone wired up to headsets that were all attached to organically-shaped reclining benches lit up with LEDs.  The effect was very relaxing.

An installation piece on the train tracks, The World Is Rated X, utilized a camera on each end of an enormous, cage-like contraption, to project large images recorded by those cameras on opposite sides.

Yet another installation piece, Rooftop Routine, continuously projected a movie of women hula-hooping on a rooftop onto the side of a large building, high in the air.

The Siege Engines group had a trebuchet shaped like the Foshay tower (a "Foshaybuchet," natch) that launched throwlights at a target all night.  This one was neat because they enlisted the public to help build the throwlights. I'm not sure this went as planned since I saw most people just walking off with the throw lights and very few of them were actually thrown at girders and such.

A group with a large, space-themed group installation, the astronaut spirit academy, incorporated a giant projected image of the rotating Earth.

The local Bell Museum had an inflatable planetarium in which they ran shows about stars, galaxies, and the universe all night.

Some of the really creative uses of technology I saw came from performance based groups:

The Forever Young silent dance party was quite interesting in that a faux living room was set up with a DJ who played music for participants to come in and dance to.  But, outside observers could not hear the music as it was being broadcast only to headphone sets worn by those dancing.  It was akin to watching a live version of a music video with the sound turned off.

One cool performance piece at Northern Spark was Instant Cinema: Teleportation.  In this piece, a trio of musicians improvised all night to live video being projected on top of them from a pair of videographers wandering the entire event, broadcasting back their live video.

Finally, my favorite technology-enabled piece was the late-night Gossip Orchestra, in which 20 excellent musicians, all sporting different instruments, sat around in a circle.  Audience participants would then act as a conductor, turning musicians on and off by enabling or disabling LED spotlights that would light up a musician when they were to play.  They could adjust the color of the LED spotlights to affect the mood of the music.  The musicians were all exceptionally good, they really did change and flow with the different "directors," and the music created was phenomenal.

Many of the projects at Northern Spark demonstrate the types of cool art that are made possible by creative application of technology.  I am continuously surprised by this event, and encourage you to check it out next year!

Jun 042013

This past weekend (June 1 and 2, 2013) was the Hack for MN hackathon.  This hackathon was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking White House initiative. This particular event was hosted at DevJam in south Minneapolis.  The idea behind this hackathon was to develop software over two days to solve community problems.

I had a lot of fun at the hackathon.  If these events continue, I will definitely take part again. The people running the event were very organized and exceptionally nice.  The DevJam location was amazing.  And they got more than enough food for everyone throughout the weekend.  It was very, very enjoyable.

I had never done a hackathon before and was not too sure what to expect.  Before the event started, about 20 ideas had been submitted and posted on the event website.  After some opening remarks, everyone there spit off to form groups around one of those ideas.  The initial groups did not necessarily stick together, and I eventually ended up on a project we called DataPark.  The purpose of DataPark was to build a tool that could be used by neighbors and city planners to analyze the effect of road redesigns, new construction, or other development on parking within neighborhoods--a major source of contention in many city planning meetings!  We certainly didn't end up with a finished project by the end, but I got to work with some great guys and some decent progress was made.

There was clearly a lot of government and non-profit interest in this event.  Representatives from the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and state IT groups were there, as well as various other people who worked with local data.  At a couple points during the day, official-type people would give short talks about the data their group is making available.  It is pretty cool that there is government interest and support for sharing data that can be used for non-official software projects.

At the end of the work day Sunday, every group gave a presentation about their project and the progress they have made.  A lot of projects really did not get far out of planning stages, but there were some interesting projects in the mix.  The most impressive one (to me) was MSP Bus, which took the GPS data supplied by Metro Transit to build a working, fully functional web app that told you how far away each bus is from your nearest bus stops.  It actually works and it is awesome!  Check it out.

Overall, I think the Hack for MN hackathon was quite a success.  They laid the groundwork for community involvement and productive dialog between the developer community and government.  Some actual work got done.  But most important, and revealing to me, it demonstrated that there are ways that software can be used to help improve city life.

EDIT 6/8:  Mike Altmann, one of the guys I worked with on DataPark put together a great writeup of the DataPark project.

Apr 122013

On Saturday, April 6, I had the pleasure to go to Minnebar 8.  Minnebar is a free-to-attend, volunteer-run "unconference" put on by the Minne* organization.  It was very good, and I highly recommend attending the next Minnebar if you are in the area.  Minnebar focuses on the intersection of the high-tech, start-up, and social-outreach communities in the Twin Cities.  This was the eighth annual version of the Minnebar gathering and it was held at the Best Buy corporate headquarters in the south Minneapolis metro (Best Buy donated the space).  Over a thousand people were registered for the gathering, and from my view in the middle of the crowd, that seems like a reasonable estimate of how many actually attended.

There were sessions scheduled throughout the day much like for any conference you might go to.  There were probably 10 or so parallel tracks going, so there was always a selection of topics.  The sessions were 40 minutes long, and consisted of presentations about the topic at hand by one or two presenters.  The presenters tried to take a conversational tone with their crowd, making it more of a dialog.  Most sessions were very good.  Here is an outline of the sessions I attended:

  • Teaching Kids to Code.  This session discussed a new Coder Dojo starting up in the Twin Cities (link).  Coder Dojos are distributed volunteer organizations that are currently springing up across the world focused on getting K-12 kids interested in programming, especially kids from groups that do not typically pursue computing careers.  They do this by hosting learn-to-program type events with a bunch of volunteer professionals to take the scariness out of coding, and provide the kids with a great experience.  Outreach efforts are extremely important for the creativity and vitality of the profession, so I really hope it takes off.
  • Agile Financial Modeling.  This session was about putting together a quick and dirty financial model for a fledgeling company.  I went because I have a fledgeling company, and had never heard of financial modeling before (it is essentially a codified way to sketch out projected estimates of income and expenditures over a year or three).  I found the session informative, and the layout they gave for the models is more intuitive to build and use than the one I had rolled myself for my own operation.
  • Managing Your IT Career.  This was a great session by a local headhunter about the state of the high tech labor market in the Midwest.  In short, the market is good for pretty much any computing professional.  The Twin Cities is a good place to be.
  • Civic Hacking.  This was a session put on by Open Twin Cities, a local group devoted to ultimately getting structured, real-time access to government-collected data so that community members can use it to improve the local community.  This group seems to be focused on software development with local hackathons and the National Day of Civic Hacking.  I think this is an interesting idea, and I can't wait to see what comes of it.
  • Percolating Trep Net.  To be honest, I am still not quite sure what this session was about.  There was talk about the different social networks people have, both online and off.  There was some information about categorizing these networks and people in them, but I never did figure out what the end result was supposed to be.  I guess it was for people with a different educational background than I.
  • This Old Website.  This was a really great session about adding HTML5, CSS3, and Responsive Design to an existing website.  They covered all three topics very quickly, and very well given the time constraint.  Participating in this session was akin to drinking water from a fire hose.  As someone whose web design tends to be pretty ad hoc (just see Birdseye College Price Comparison for an example), a lot of what was presented is very applicable to me.  They even put their slides online here.
  • Technology Behind the Obama 2012 Campaign.  This was a great final session for the day.  It was put on by a developer who worked on the information infrastructure behind the Obama 2012 Campaign.  It is absolutely amazing what all they were able to build, deploy, support, and then tear down in under a year and a half.  Political campaigns these days need a massive amount of software providing a variety of different functions to different groups of people.  The Obama Campaign built their software on Amazon Web Services, which was a fantastic choice for this type of operation--they only need the massive data center for a relatively short,  fixed time period, cloud services can adjust to exponentially exploding usage as the end of the campaign nears, and cloud services can be readily replicated to deal with parts of the infrastructure going down.  Overall a fascinating look into what it takes to run a modern political campaign.

As can be seen from the list above, there was a very diverse range of topics covered at Minnebar 8, most of which were very exciting.  Food was also provided, and it was delicious.  We got Pizza Luce (a local gourmet pizza chain) for lunch.  Beer was also provided for a social meet-and-greet at the end of the day.  What more could you ask for?

Overall, Minnebar 8 was an excellent experience.  It is astounding and heartening to me that a conference of this quality and magnitude can be organized and delivered in a completely volunteer manner.  It was very cool and very impressive.  I will definitely try to attend next year.