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(6) : Everybody's Doing It: Some Hackathon Tips: Hackathon 2011 Berlin - 2ter Tag - TS (44)I'm helping arrange some developers' events at work. They're meant for open source software developers, testers, documenters, and other contributors to get together, talk, and collaborate. We often call them hackathons. I'm directly planning, with a colleague, the October 14-16 hackathon in New Orleans. But I'm also advising volunteers and people at partner organizations who want to put on technical events -- for example, a British contributor is planning a hackathon in Brighton, 19-20 November. The Wikimedia Foundation itself can only put on a few events a year, but there's plenty of room and demand for smaller regional meetups, so I'm enthusiastically encouraging volunteers who want to throw a hacking party.

People keep acting as though I'll have useful advice for them in hackathon planning, so here goes! I do not want to reinvent the wheel here, so I'm liberally linking to others' existing guides and HOWTOs.


Wikimedia Hackathon Berlin 2011 group photoMy colleague Siebrand Mazeland wrote some goals for an upcoming hackathon and I like them as an example. Note that this is for an event where we're expecting that most participants will be new to MediaWiki and to open source development in general:

First I'll talk about the social/content side of hackathons, and then some outreach/process stuff, and then the technical/logistics side.

People & Activities

Here's what I wrote while helping plan an upcoming hackathon, one of the first in its region:

Hackathon P1030931

Since I predict that at least half of the participants will be new to MediaWiki-related development, we'll want to seed the crowd with some more experienced developers (if possible, from the region). And we'll want to provide some direction and some pre-planned activities, especially for the first day (if we're assuming a two-day hackathon).

One of these activities should be the "how to start modding MediaWiki" lecture/workshop that we first led at Wikimania. A colleague and I will be cleaning up those notes in September to create a curriculum that a local developer could use to teach.

Other preplanned activities would include just enough structure to help inform and guide the energy of new, uncertain participants. For example, organizers should ask several local developers, ahead of time, to prepare sets of tasks that small groups could work on, such as "fix these ten bugs in Kiwix" or "add language support for (this language) to (tool)." It would be best if these developers could also give extremely short talks about their areas of interest (3-5 minutes each, no slides necessary). In the afternoon of the first day, and at the beginning of the second day, there would be a twenty-minute period of these "lightning talks" and then participants could decide what group to join.

Hackathon 2011 Berlin - 2ter Tag - TS (65) I am generally in favor of allowing some room for spontaneity, by asking participants on the first day what they're interested in working on, encouraging them to give ad hoc lightning talks during the short talks sessions, and by encouraging participants to lead sprints on topics of their interest. Technologists feel more inspired and creative if there's lots of support (people who are willing to teach and mentor) but also freedom to discover and concentrate on new interests.

It's tempting for organizers to say "let's concentrate on this! and this! and this!" at a hackathon. But you can't concentrate on localisation, and mobile, and accessibility, and HTTPS, and mass uploaders, and usability, and the article feedback tool, and and and. :-) If you really want some topic focus at the hackathon, choose maybe 2 concentrations a day, and target your outreach and publicity, saying that you especially welcome participation in those areas.

Some Things You'll Need for a successful developer outreach event:

Technical stuff & logistics

Hackathon 2011 Berlin - 2ter Tag - TS (75) I find that the Stumptown Syndicate's Event Planning Handbook section on logistics ably summarizes the logistical side of what's needed at a technical event.

Basically, once you have a venue, the next priority is provision for robust wireless (and, if possible, wired) internet, and provision for heavy electrical power usage.

You'll want to have some kind of documentation of your hackathon, to make it easier for people to collaborate (face-to-face and remotely), and to have a record for future reference. As we decided for the Berlin WMDE hackathon this year (thanks to Daniel Kinzler for distilling this hierarchy):

  1. textual documentation: essential
  2. live textual documentation (IRC, Etherpad): important
  3. photo documentation: important
  4. audio recording: important
  5. video recording: would be good
  6. audio streaming: would be good
  7. video streaming: nice to have

It's great to have two dedicated notetakers/facilitators typing into Etherpad for collborative notetaking, finding and answering questions on IRC and blogging, and walking around talking to people and asking them what they're working on and helping them collaborate more effectively.

Hackathon P1030929 And below I'll reproduce a note that Jon Davis, formerly of Wikimedia internal IT, wrote about audio recording and streaming (when planning for the Berlin WMDE developers' days):

The biggest problem is getting reasonably quality audio to a computer. The single biggest complaint I've had... was that it was hard to hear people. [You'll] need some reasonably quality microphones to capture with. If it is presentations, I recommend some sort of shotgun style mic. If it is a group talk, something omnidirectional. The trouble is twofold.

#1 - I couldn't find any USB compatible shotgun mics off hand. You can, in effect make one with the right parts [1], [2], but it's definitely not cheap.

#2 - The USB omni-directional that I found [3] isn't cheap, and I've no idea what the quality is.

So [you'd] need at least one mic setup (and probably computer) per area [you] are trying to record. It's not... "great", but it sure beats running a ton of cable, doing mixing and all sorts of much more pro level work. I have no idea what the budget is for that sort of thing, so it might not be a big deal...

There is probably far better advice out there regarding recording/streaming video and audio. I welcome links and experiences.

You'll also want to consider bathrooms, garbage needs, whiteboards and markers, and maybe childcare, and so on -- the sorts of things conference organizers need to consider, in general. A few guides with tips on what to consider:

And of course there is a lot of "how to run a conference" reference material available for your perusal, including ConRunner, which focuses on science fiction convention organizers but which has more generally applicable advice. And hey, they're running MediaWiki!

Questions, links, comments welcome in the comments.

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(5) : Cooking: Leonard and I are making dinner: pasta with mushrooms and kale. I was frying the mushrooms in the cast-iron skillet.

Sumana: Do you ever make up stories about the mushrooms as you move them around?
Leonard: No. Do you?
Sumana: .... no.
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: You Can't Miss The Point When There's No Point To Be Missed: I went to San Francisco last week to work with my colleagues at the Wikimedia Foundation. Some highlights from the past week: looking at the Red Umbrellas art gallery displayed in Union Square while tango music played, and talking with artists about their processes and histories; watching my competitor Tim Lee do nerdy standup; performing standup for my colleagues at the Friday afternoon drinks; talking with my boss about what we're looking for in a testing lead. And I got to see Gus, Susan, Riana, Jed, Joe, and Elizabeth.

But I also fell ill, and my laptop's hard drive died irrecoverably. (At least I was at headquarters, so office IT could set me up with this new ThinkPad.) And when one works remotely, from one's comfortable couch and with plenty of time to concentrate on text and screen, it can be disorienting and distracting to be in cubicles under fluorescent light, facing an overwhelming abundance of face time. It's like a conference, in some ways; Fear Of Missing Out, the urge to have just one more drink with a colleague, to hear just one more entertaining and educational story, to forget self-care. And in substituting face-to-face time for face-to-screen time, I feel the panic of the rising inbox tide.

It was such a tiring week that both yesterday & today I found myself taking four-hour naps. Dear Lord, hacking the self is tricky; I so dearly wish for checkboxes and preferences and system settings I could tweak. And of course that brings me back to Neal Stephenson, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and the decade since I read it, the decade that's brought me here today, to sitting next to my hacker husband, deciding whether to go to an EFF event tonight, thinking about geographic locations and books and learning and children and banks and calendars and the dripping faucet and mail, deciding how to pursue my career and my life, knowing that I am the one who will make these decisions and live in their consequences, feeling liberty less and existential nausea more.

I will feel better tomorrow. Or, if not then, the day after.

: A Little Better: Went to the event, saw someone I knew, got ridiculously bespoke teetotaller drinks with cucumber and ginger and red pepper flakes and egg white, listened to Mountain Goats and Dar Williams and Everclear on the train. Now: Muppets.

: Sustain: Gratitude isn't just validating because it rewards narcissism or vanity. Genuine gratitude sustains because it is empirical proof that we were of use, that we made a dent in the universe.

(4) : You: Seven years ago, I received a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We in the mail. I don't know who sent it to me. Two days ago, the same thing happened to my friend Will. Is this a coincidence? We don't know what to make of it. More about the mystery. If this has ever happened to you, we want to know.

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: Usually Five Things Make a Post, But Four Will Have To Suffice: Randall Munroe got married and I wish him all the best.

The bell sound I use to alert me when someone mentions or messages me in IRC is bell-octave2.wav, which came in a bundle of freely licensed musical sounds I downloaded years ago and can't find anymore. Danni said that it sounds like the classic "the captain has turned on the 'fasten seatbelts' sign" airplane sound. So if you might enjoy that, have at.

If you liked "Jump Space" from Thoughtcrime Experiments, consider supporting author Mary Anne Mohanraj's Demimonde fundraiser. Both money and link-spreading publicity would help.

Leonard and I are watching Breaking Bad via DVD, and are on season two. I don't know much about cancer, parenting, producing and distributing meth, drug policing, or Albuquerque, but I can say that the depiction of marriage feels a lot more realistic than the depiction of high school chemistry classes. A fairly addictive show, but fortunately less addictive than methamphetamines. And it's sciency fiction, as Leonard pointed out, which we love.

: 24 Fames Per Second: Some recent videos of me:

My talk at Wikimania, "How to get what you want from MediaWiki's developers" (first 22 minutes of video); talk, notes.

An interview with me at OSCON about "the role of leaders within free software and free culture communities...the work of the [Wikimedia F]oundation, the relationship between developers and content providers, and a number of other topics." Part One, Part Two; each is about eight minutes.

What do you want the web to be? I show up briefly at 1:12 in this cute little Mozilla music video from Open Source Bridge, and briefly at 1:58 in the "we had a great time!" Wikimania wrapup video.

: UN Convention On the Rights of the Mild: For professional development reasons, I'm starting a four-week course that'll teach me JavaScript/jQuery/CSS/JSON stuff in the context of the Etsy API. This meant that today I read the Etsy terms of use, and had to email the Etsy legal department about multiple errors in it (which, to their credit, they fixed the same day). Some fun facts from that document, and from their other documents incorporated by reference:

Speaking of business/arbitrage/game theory musings, today I picked up and started REAMDE, the Neal Stephenson thousand-pager that came out today. I'm on page 283. Themes/references that carry over from Cryptonomicon include: Hakka, Manila, Shekondar, discovering facts that make a job hard but your isolated boss thinks it should be easy, being compelled to do a task under duress, gold, military and hacker habits, silly/revealing business meetings. Carried over from Anathem (and less from Snow Crash/Diamond Age): ikonographies/narratives and the importance of story.

I think the last book I picked up on the day of release was Book 7 of Harry Potter. I was working on a farm in northwest New Jersey and we had to cross the state line into Pennsylvania to get to the closest bookstore that was selling it at midnight. If there were midnight Stephenson release parties where people dress up, I'd expect to have heard about them already, but then again I don't read Boing Boing much anymore.

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(2) : Pretty Spoiler-Free, In My Opinion: I'm now 812 pages into REAMDE. It reads as though Cory Doctorow, in preparing to write For The Win, had drawn upon his eleventh grade lit teacher Thomas Pynchon, who had taught him what "puissant" meant and given him Alan Furst novels to read, but also upon the paperbacks that he'd found in the bookcases lining the wall of his social studies classroom, which included Tom Clancy and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Back to it.

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(3) : Sigh: Just finished REAMDE, walked into the study, thudded it onto Leonard's desk, and said with wonder, "I cannot recommend that you read this."

I cannot recall the last Stephenson I read that had fewer ideas, and I include his short fiction in this. And you know those lovely little similes and metaphors and fanciful explanations of technical topics and arias, soliloquies on the nature of things, the Stephenson signatures? Nearly absent. Imagine a Michael Crichton novel that stretches to over a thousand pages. I'm disappointed and a little disgusted. REAMDE is essentially a serviceable technothriller, and that's all. An unworthy followup to Anathem.

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(3) : Community Of Practice: I have found Danny O'Brien's new blog: the Noisebridge mailing list. noisebridge-discuss entrances me because it's techno-anarchism in action, a lot like the Wikimedia movement, except it's way smaller, a higher proportion of the members are my friends, and it's comfortably distant so I can watch and eat popcorn. Example!

: Gentleman Scientist: My spouse is trying to figure out what makes Kickstarter fundraising projects most likely to hit their goals. Economists, have at!

(3) : What Women Discuss: If you are writing a piece of fiction, and you want to pass the Bechdel test but you don't know what women talk when we talk with other women, you might need some ideas. Here are a few topics I've discussed with other women over the past week. Not an exhaustive list.

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