MHAA in the local papers

We've managed to get 2 stories in the local papers about the Mid Hudson Astronomical Association in the last week.  The first came from the New Paltz Times:

Since 1985, a group of professional, amateur and the simply curious-to-learn astronomy buffs formed The Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club -- which now boasts 75-plus members, a monthly outdoor “star-gazing party” and a monthly indoor meeting where a wide range of astronomy experts provide the group with compelling lectures and timely cosmic matters.

The second came today in the Daily Freeman:

MILAN — Since the days of antiquity, man has been fascinated by the star-filled heavens.

Religions were built around the worship of the heavenly orbs and temples and pyramids have been built in their honor.

Ancient mariners used the stars to chart their courses in unknown territories and it was a star that is said to have led the three wise men to Bethlehem for the birth of Christ.

The fascination with the stars continues today to draw mankind’s eye’s upwards to the night sky.

Locally, a group of amateur astronomers follows in the footsteps of those who came before them — the ancient Greeks, who developed astronomy; Copernicus,  who proposed the theory that the planets revolved around the sun rather than the earth, and Galileo, who was among the first to use a telescope to inspect the night sky.

Nice to get this level of exposure for the club.

Weekend Drupaling

I had a quite productive weekend working on the Poughkeepsie Farm Project site, and learned a lot of useful things about Drupal in the process.

Content Profiles

I now understand why core profiles are going away in Drupal 7, because they really do suck. All the flexibility and features that you get used to with custom content types and views go away when you are working on profiles. This became an issue as we were trying to create a Board of Directors page that was built dynamically from user accounts, and actually wanted to expose a draggable view to let people order lists of users manual (alphabetic sort wasn't quite what we were looking for). I managed to convert over to content profiles, and life got a lot better. The results are here.

Epublish

This weekend we pushed out the first newsletter in the new format using the epublish module. I've been working with Susan (executive director) and Jane (newsletter editor) for the last month to get this right. There is a lot of initial investment here on all sides as I had to make a few code changes to get this to work well for us, and a lot of theming. It's especially tricky as we're trying to make an HTML email look basically just like the page people see, even though they go through entirely different templates and theme paths, and html support in email clients is far less intelligent than in browsers.

I also managed to collect and submit my patches upstream, so I feel like a good little open source citizen there.

Recipes

Recipes submission and indexing are now live on the site, using the really well put together recipe module. I had to build a slightly clever hack to list relevant recipes from the produce pages. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to get epublish and recipes to play nicely together, because right now they don't. They both do slightly funny hacking with the body field and what's in it, which is going to require patching one or both to get the display we want.

Events

The events infrastructure on the site is now using a local calendar instead of just loading from Google Calendar. This lets us have a google calendar compatible feed. As well as having our event links go to content in our site instead of loosing the user on a Google Calendar page. There are still a few kinks to work out here, but overall this is going pretty well.

All of these have been in the works for the bulk of January, and it's great to get this stuff coming to fruition. Looking forward to how these are received by the membership. Now I've just got to make a few front page changes and we've got to pull together the volunteer opportunity database, and the main backend work for the 2011 season will be accomplished.

Trains and complexity

When I went to Japan many years ago, I marveled at the complexity of the Tokyo JR system. There is separate pricing between every two stations, so when you get into the system you may need a different ticket amount to get out at any particular stop. At every station you see a map that looks something like this (fares listed in Yen):

At first glance, you get thrown by the complexity of it, and are really concerned you won't do it right. What if you bought a 210 yen ticket, but need 290? It turns out, the system is built to handle that, because if you happen to have too small a ticket to exit the system, the automated gates will tell you to go to the fare adjust machine (available at any station), which will read in your ticket, tell you how much more you need, and give you a new ticket to get out of the system. All of this is done with no user interaction, it's all machines and magstripes.

Once you realize this is the way it works, you change your strategy. Get the cheapest ticket that lets you into the system, and let the machine worry about the math when you want to get out. Simple as pie.

A couple years after I went to Japan I went to Germany for the first time, specifically Munich, and I got really confused about what tickets to buy to get around on their train system. In Munich there is no automated system for collecting tickets. There is rarely any checking tickets at all. As my friend Clemens once told me "But who would be on the wrong train with the wrong ticket?". With no machine as the middle man the system can be as arbitrarily complex as the mind can come up, and doesn't need to make any sense. There are tickets for 1 person for 1 day between certain zones. There are tickets for 1 person for 7 days between certain zones. There are bonus tickets for one trip beyond the zone your other ticket works for. There are tickets that support multiple people on one ticket. I met Clemens' uncle because the most sensible ticket to go to the alps was for "up to 5 people", and we only had 4 in our party.

The tickets just sit in your wallet and are never shown unless the random ticket inspector finds you. This never happened to me in Munich, but it did in Berlin years later. It is assumed you are in compliance, and it's handle by exception if you aren't. But it's all handled by people interpreting German law. As complex as the Tokyo system is, the Munich system is so much more so, because there is no computer enforcement.

There are so many interesting ideas that come out of that juxtaposition, some pro for either side. Could you even make an automated system to handle the German law, or is there a realm of complexity beyond which automation is no longer feasible (lesson: some times doing it by hand is cheaper)? What would you need to change about the German system to make it validatable (lesson: some times you can't test your software as it is written, and you need to change it to be a testable system)? Which is more efficient? In the German system there is no need for ticket checking machines, at the cost of much more time needing to be spent by people figuring out the right tickets they need at any given time (lesson: every system has a cost, if the implementer isn't paying it, who is?). How much raw efficiency is gained by Trust being an explicit part of the equation?

Probably most importantly, both systems actually work, and have been for a long time. In the real world, there is never only one solution.

Open as a feature

I've been thinking about getting a new wireless router that I could install dd-wrt on, an open Linux replacement firmware, which gives you all kinds of nice features. I started this journey on the dd-wrt website to try to figure out what good options are right now. It was a confusing support matrix that I couldn't really compare very well.

Then something occurred to me, perhaps there were some comments on newegg reviews for equipment about people doing this. Newegg is a pretty technically competent community, so this wasn't that much of a stretch. I popped "ddwrt" into the search engine, and was surprised by the results, which looked something like this:

Linksys WRT54GL 802.11b/g Wireless Broadband Router up to 54Mbps/ Compatible with Open Source DD-WRT (not pre-load)

There are currently 11 routers on newegg that list DD-WRT in their title. Being open is now a selling feature of these products. How cool is that.

Reinvention

Some of the conversation that happened last night at the Hudson Valley Programmers gathering made me think about reinvention. There was a fundamental search engine problem that a few people were working with, which seemed like a solved problem, with good open source tools around it. When I asked the question, there was a lot of dismissal on those existing solutions as too slow. That could be true. It could also be that the existing solutions solve a lot of problems that they don't realize they've got to solve yet. Honestly, I don't know.

It raise and interesting general question, when is it appropriate to reinvent a solution to a solved problem? The answer isn't never, that leads to staleness in progress, as the solutions of old sometimes aren't appropriate any more. But the answer isn't always either, because that's just navel gazing with no forward progress. My experiences with Drupal have made me lean a little more towards less reinvention, if only because my time is precious, and if I'm going to do anything interesting in my hobby time I've got to build on top of the shoulders of giants. After building a dozen password reset systems over the years, I don't really find that that interesting.

NYTimes on Bard's Citizen Science

The 480 students have studied under two dozen scientists recruited from across the country for the program. Using lab equipment, computer modeling and classroom discussions, they have explored all aspects of disease, including detecting germs and managing pandemics.

“There are mixed opinions, from total apathy — ‘Why am I here? This isn’t why I came to Bard’ — to total enthusiasm,” Ms. Batkin said of her classmates. “I decided to take it 100 percent seriously; otherwise I knew I wouldn’t get anything out of it. I definitely find myself becoming more critical of the science articles I read.”

It seemed to have a pretty good kickoff, though I'm sure there will be detractors. Looking forward to how this program evolves over time.

How to keep a group vibrant

Over beers after Drupal Camp, 4 of us from the Poughkeepsie area were discussing how impressed we were with the organizers pulling of a 300 person event so successfully. As someone that organizes things, I understand how much work that was.

I was sitting next to Jeff, who is the president of the Mid-Hudson Computer Users Group. At some point the topic turned to running local groups. Of all the local technical groups in the area, the LUG has the lowest average age of attendees, by a pretty good margin. We have our share of retirees, but we also have a lot of middle aged professions, young professionals, and even the occasional college or high school student.

So I got asked the question "how do you guys do it?" This isn't the first time I've been asked that by leadership of other local groups, at times I've had chats with ACM members as well. The answer?

Honestly, I have no idea.

I can bloviate and speculate, which I will. Maybe there will be some truth or usefulness in it. But I in no way claim that I have any real answers, or that any of these statements below answer anything. They just are what they are.

Linux is hip and exciting... at least it was when we got started back in 2003. If you look at our early talks they were very very Linux focussed, basic how to kinds of things. Linux was in the press all the time, so we benefited quite a lot from that. Our first meeting was 53 people, which blew my mind. Granted, at least 20 people at that first meeting were people I directly worked with at the LTC, who were coming out to support my kickoff effort, but success breeds success, and having that many folks out of the gate was important to keep us at a high critical mass while we got discovered in the community.

And that point of discovery can't be made enough. How do people find out about things?

Word of mouth is powerful, and remains the best way to get the word out. Word of mouth is what gets butts in seats, because people trust friends and acquaintances to point them at good stuff. Word of mouth breaks down after a certain point because that can only travel among people you know. There is a whole other point here about visibility horizons and seeding other groups, that's probably a post on it's own at some point.

Beyond word of mouth there is serendipitous discovery. If you are in your mid 30s or up this includes event listings in the local papers, maybe a flier that you find at a library or some other space. If you are younger than your mid 40s this means Google. While there is an overlap it's important to understand that the only way anyone under the age of 35 is going to find your group is via the internet. You must have a website, and it must be a focus. It has to be easy to find information, it has to look good, and it can't be out of date. I did the overhaul of the mhvlug site last year based on Drupal to get us there, and I feel pretty good about the results.

Networking is also really important, which is funny, because I'm not actually that good at it. But as a group leader people are very willing to come up to you afterwards to ask a question or say a thing or two. It's important to do your best to cultivate those interactions, because out of them can come some amazing things. I actively try to keep up on what our members are doing and working on in the public. As I'm now organizing our March show and tell (the last meeting I'm in charge of organizing), I'm just running through every cool project I've heard people mention in the last 6 months, and sending out email to them to get them on the schedule. I'm actually giddy about it, because it's going to be a really cool meeting based on responses I've already gotten back.

And that brings us to another point, how to get meeting content. If, like us, your group real life event is primarily a lecture series, having a good set of talks is important. Because of the Dunning Kruger Effect, people that are qualified to speak on a subject won't volunteer, and people that do volunteer may very often not be qualified. This means you pretty much have to specifically ask someone to give a lecture. Creating diversity here again means knowing enough people working on enough things, and reaching out to them to give a talk. It's always best if it's something that's their baby, passion for a subject makes people very tolerant of the speaker, even if they aren't very polished at presenting.

One other thing that's worked for us is ensuring there are social events as well. The meeting is business, has a talk, and we try to keep it on topic (more or less), but we've got dinner after, and lunch once a month, which just lets people know each other more. Ask people what they are working on, or what excites them during these events. It lets you get to know some new people, which help a lot on the networking front.

So, our current good fortune may have something to do with these wanderings, there may be other things as well, or I may be complete off base. Again, Dunning Kruger probably means I'm the worst person possible to figure out what's working or not. Every time I think I've figured out this whole running a group thing, I find something else that I need to change to make things better. It is definitely not a destination but a journey.

Comments on this are especially welcomed, as I'm very very interested in other people's experiences and suggestions. I'm always interested in learning how to do this better.

Drupal Camp Western Mass

When your alarm goes off at 5:30am to go to a conference, part of you wants to skip and go back to bed. When it also means you've got to drive 2 1/2 hours in below zero conditions, there is even more inertia to just bail. I'm really happy I fought those primal urges and made it to Drupal Camp Western Mass yesterday, because it was pretty awesome.

Over the course of the day, given the 5 tracks that were being run, I could always find a really good talk. At one point it meant walking out of a bad talk, but I landed somewhere good eventually. I learned quite a bit more about some of the core of drupal, and hit up some of the more design oriented talks, which has given me a new reading list. There were 300 attendees there yesterday, which is a heck of showing for such grass roots organized conference far from a big city. It was also nice to be at a tech conference that wasn't just a bunch of male geeks. At least a third of the audience was female.

I've got about 8 pages of notes, and a new bag of tricks to approach some of the more complex things we'd like to do for the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. I hope they run it again next year, as it's definitely worth the drive and the time.

Place Holders in Science

Ars Technica has a very good article on the role of placeholders in science:

The comments appear like clockwork every time there's a discussion of the Universe's dark side, for both dark matter and dark energy. At least some readers seem positively incensed by the idea that scientists can happily accept the existence of a particle (or particles) that have never been observed and a mysterious repulsive force. "They're just there to make the equations work!" goes a typical complaint.

It's a somewhat odd complaint. Physics has a long history of particles that were predicted based on the math and not detected for years, sometimes decades. But it's not simply physics. Other areas of science have produced evidence that suggests something must be present, but haven't hinted as to what that something must be. These situations, where scientists insert a placeholder for a something they don't understand yet, have sometimes led scientists down the wrong path—phlogiston and aether spring to mind.

But these erroneous placeholders carry the seeds of their own destruction, since they make predictions that the natural world can't fulfill. And, possibly more often, the placeholders turn out to be right, and an understanding of the phenomena behind them revolutionizes our knowledge of the natural world. In this feature, we'll take a look at some of the most successful placeholders in the history of science, and then consider how even a placeholder that has gone wrong can help advance a field anyway.

Worth a read to understand that the use of placeholders is how we make progress in science.