Sunday, May 27, 2007

Me and Web 2.0

My Web 2.0 credentials are really shooting through the roof as of late.

As of yesterday, I uploaded my first video to YouTube. The video shows my daughter (6 y/o) dancing nicely, with my son (18 months) "accompanying" her. As you can see, my son has already attained my level of dancing ability (my daughter passed me a long time ago).

I decided to try out Google MyMaps for fun. I created a map of my life and travels (and had fun doing so). Take a look -- (with the subtle implied hint that I'm happy to be invited to places not yet marked on the map).

Finally, together with Sihem Amer-Yahia from Yahoo!, I'm organizing a panel at VLDB 2007 (Vienna, September) on "Web 2.0 and data management". We have an exciting lineup of panelists that includes Anant Jhingran from IBM (who also blogs furiously), Gerhard Weikum (Max Planck Institute in Germany), Donald Kossmann (ETH Zurich) and AnHai Doan (U. of Wisconsin, Madison). I'm sure I'll be saying more about this panel on this blog, so stay tuned.

Circle of Blue - Eloquent Version

Keith Schneider wrote a much more eloquent post about the Circle of Blue Powwow I went to a couple of weeks ago.

This is a (perhaps very rare) opportunity to directly compare the writing skills of a guy who regularly writes for the New York Times with those of a guy whose readership includes mostly database professionals.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Circle of Blue

I spent Friday with an amazing collection of people mostly from the journalism and photography world. Among others, this collection included a previous photography director for Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, a creator of events such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, authors and writers for various newspapers, picture editor for the Washington Post, the person responsible for managing the US government water policy, a previous director of multi-media for MSNBC, founder and director of the Pacific Institute, and a NASA astronaut. Some of the people attending had spent significant amounts of time in third-world countries working on sanitation projects.

We were all hosted on the Pine Hollow estate, which is an amazing 30+ room mansion on the shores of Lake Michigan, a bit north of Traverse City. The home was built by Leslie Lee, and includes every amenity imaginable to man combined with excellent taste in design.

So what we were we all doing there? This was basically a Circle of Blue powwow. Circle of Blue is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to raising the awareness of the public and policy makers to the diminishing supplies of clean and affordable fresh water. CoB tries to raise awareness through a combination of journalism, photography, film and data collection. Carl Ganter, the founder, is quite an amazing guy and among his other major accomplishments (e.g,. being a photographer for National Geographic) tells a great story of how, through a great work of photography and journalism, he (and others) were able to exonerate a wrongfully convicted father and reveal the real murderer in a case in Illinois. He and his wife Eileen conceived and planned Circle of Blue.

There is no way I can do justice to the entire discussion in a short blog post, nor can I fully convey the tenacity and passion of the people gathered. I will also skip the many details on the major water issues facing our planet (but I will point out that water is one of the few main foci of, the Google Foundation). Instead, I'll just highlight a few points I found interesting from my perspective.

Our discussion focused on how exactly to leverage tools and technology to raise awareness on water issues. The ideas discussed were all over the map. They ranged from creating blue rings that everyone would put on their faucets (following Lance Armstrong's yellow rings for cancer fighting), to using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, Google My Maps, Flickr, etc. to help people all around the world to create databases of water-related issues, and to mobilizing the religious right to take up their issue in their congregrations.

In a sense, we were trying to figure out how to recreate the success of the green movement, but in blue. While there is much in common between the two global warming issues and water issues, there are also a few key differences between the two. First, in the case of green, there are some simple things everyone can do to help a global problem (e.g., buy a hybrid, go solar). In the case of water, aside from taking shorter showers and watering your garden more effectively, many of the major issues are of local nature and the problems and solutions vary quite a bit. Second, the people suffering from water shortages at this point are typically far away and that makes it hard for the issue to be on people's minds constantly. New Orleans is much closer to home.

The other interesting point about the discussions was how to combine traditional media like journalism, film and photography with newer technology to create viral awareness of the water issues. While it's great to have the high-quality polished artifacts created by these media, we also need the bottom-up YouTube-type videos and blogs created by a much broader and geographically distributed set of people, but with much less skill (myself included...) to really reach people's attention. We need to collect good data, but mostly, make sure the data is used in effective ways for highlighting the issues and garnering world-wide attention.

This was a highly inspiring meeting for me. If you have any ideas, don't hesitate to post a comment, send me email, or contact Carl Ganter directly. I'm sure this topic will reappear on this blog.

The Slash Effect

I just finished reading "One Person/Multiple Careers", by Marci Alboher, Author/Speaker/Coach. Like with other books described in this blog, my reading agenda is highly influenced by authors visiting Google (which happens often enough to keep any reader quite busy).

The main contribution of this book is to get you thinking. Slashers are people who have multiple parallel careers. Through numerous examples, the book claims that this is a growing phenomenon in today's culture, and describes the challenges, opportunities and benefits having to do with slash careers. The point that I found most interesting about all of the above is that slashing essentially gives you multiple identities in society. Think of what you answer at a party when people ask you what you are or do. Being a slasher means you can give multiple answers, or choose one you think best suits the situation. But more than that, slashing means you gain some internal balance in life, rather than being tied to one professional identity.

Marci gives examples of lawyers turned writers & coaches (including herself), a teacher with a modeling career, a computer programmer who also directs a theater, a lawyer who's also a Baptist minister, Sanjay Gupta, the CNN health correspondent who also does surgery a few times a month, and the list goes on and on. She discusses how people manage multiple careers, some of the cross-over benefits and life-style benefits they obtain, and she offers practical advice on how to become a slasher. The book essentially revolves around all these examples, and every chapter ends with the highlights of its main points (great for future reference).

Being a somewhat formal guy on occasion (perhaps one of my slashes?) I found myself looking for a definition of a slash. Marci seems to focus on aspects of life that are part of your career (it doesn't actually matter whether you derive much income from it, otherwise most of the poets and actors would not have made it into the book). But, for example, does a hobby count as a slash? Does it depend on how much time one spends on the hobby? In fact, many jobs are composed of multiple slashes (e.g., professors spend half of their time teaching, half their time doing research, and the other halves raising research funding and sitting on committees).

Clearly, parenting is the most common form of parallel activity adults engage in. The book contains a chapter on parenting and how parenting and slashing share many challenges. The book even claims that a slash life can prepare you better for parenting (though clearly, some of the slashes may take a back seat for a while).

However, my search for a formal definition of slashing is missing the point. As I stated at the outset, the point of this book is to make you think about all the aspects of your life whether they count as slashes or not. Personally, the most common slash combination I've encountered (and personally experienced) is the professor/entrepreneur combo, and I can speak at length about the benefits and challenges there.

Finally, one point that was not addressed in the book is multiple careers that happen in sequence, rather than in parallel. Perhaps I'll take the opportunity to coin a new term: the double backslash, (for those of you who haven't had the pleasure of using the Latex word processor, I should explain that a double backslash creates a new line in the text). I would think that slashing and double backslashing share many of the challenges and benefits.

In summary, this book is a rather quick read (you can skip parts, but pay attention to the boldfaced sentences). I found myself reflecting on my slash/double blackslash riddled career and wondering what other slashes may come into my life at some point.