Expanding Horizons

Feb 16 2015

Looking back, I do seem to blog a lot about the software & open source technology!

I do have wider interests though, I read widely & ponder about space technology, graph theory & network science, open data, math, economics, history, politics, or anything really. I find that taking the time to learn about new and unrelated topics, just like taking the time to meet new people with different interests, tends to increase the chance of serendipitous opportunities, or provide “outside the square” insights into problems I am currently working on.

Everyone has Jargon

Along with last months foray into music & content, I have been studying the tech startup economy. I find it fascinating learning how to decode the jargon, and I guess I experienced a bit of what other people probably get when relating to IT / software developer people :-)  One thing I discovered is the extent to which the startup scene itself has spawned an industry built on servicing the startups and the venture capital firms that provide funding. Whether this is an indication of a maturing market since the days of the DotCom boom, time will tell.

The startup industry has a cross-over into open source. Many new businesses are founded using open source: nearly every web app that is not a pure Microsoft build would be using some combination of open source tools (and the Microsoft Azure service supports Linux); many provide premium services related to an open source product which helps spur further development in that product.  I think this is a good thing for open technology generally as it benefits the entire community, not just that business, as would be the case with a purely closed product.  By contributing to open source, the business can concentrate on value adding around its core “thing” whilst leveraging the community in a two-way effort to improve the overall software ecosystem.  Paraphrasing Bob Young from one of the Linux.conf.au keynotes, open source is a long term form of barter benefiting everyone.

Another cross-over is the Lean Startup methodology. A friend dragged me along to a workshop the other week, and it was really interesting to see some of the parallels with agile software development.

In Adelaide there is a growing niche / tech startup community which I think is refreshing and important to the future of this city, for so long  heavily reliant on either the vanishing manufacturing sector, the illusory and fading mining boom, or the defence sector so often cut at the whim of a government.  High technology must form a core of our economy into the future if we are to remain a vibrant state!  I have become more aware of this since participating in the hackathons, which although a fun activity for myself, often cross-over into the startup community.

Sharing the Load

One discovery I made is AngelList Syndicates, a way of letting small investors pool funds and invest small amounts (say, in the order of $1000-$5000) into high tech startups. This is probably not for the novice investor, but I would not be averse to investing a percentage of my superannuation into this area.  I will be doing quite a bit more research first however, to try and get a better handle on the investment risk, and the impact of Australian superannuation law! I found available information about the many small and non-listed technology companies, largely US based, but also in Australia,  opaque to say the least.

As part my research I am subscribed to a few startup sector  mailing lists, interestingly this has led me to discover quite a few new websites or technology services I would not otherwise have found  about.  I try out a lot of free web apps, but usually skip the paid services because I cant justify the cost at this point.  Sometimes there are trial offers for various services though, and I came across one interesting site, Mattermark, that claimed to track private and startup companies, many of the kind found on AngelList.  I asked some questions about whether it was relevant to my interests in Australia and along the way ended up having email conversation with one of the developers which was actually really pretty cool, so I figured I’d give it a go.

Trial Run

After I accessed the web app, obviously the first thing I did was find the Location menu and switch to Australia :-)
This produced a spreadsheet-like display with companies in rows, and various metrics across the columns. I was quite surprised to recognise several businesses I knew, such as CoinJar, muru-D and other companies I didn’t even realise were Australian, such as Canva. Oddly the NSW Greens were reported as a company despite being a political party.  It seems Mattermark uses in machine learning to aggregate data from multiple feeds, and there were not too many other oddities, so having only one or two out of place entries in such a large database is pretty good.

Companies are initially ranked by ‘Growth Score‘ a term I had to research, and it seems to be a metric combining funding and employee count with social media and downloads, all things I presume are important to measuring a business growth in a period where it might not be producing much revenue as yet.

Another search I tried was ‘Space Travel’, which was provided as one of many possible categories.  This was very interesting to me because I keep coming across new space commercialisation ventures on twitter, but seeing a whole pile of them listed in one place was rather exciting. (As in, the future is finally nearly here!)

In fact there are rather a lot of categories!

I have some screenshots but until I get around to posting them there is a video showing how it might be used by its primary customer base on Youtube.

I regularly canvass LinkedIn for interesting & local technology businesses, for networking opportunities and community event promotion, but that can be hit and miss. I think Mattermark could be a helpful complement to that, although the subscription is too pricey for me in my situation as a hobbyist / small investor.  This would likely be a useful tool for anyone working in the startup services industry or dealing with managing investments but if thats your thing you should probably do your own research and take the trial for a spin rather than relying on my opinion as an amateur.

Now, hopefully I’ll find something to blog about in space technology soon!


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Feb 06 2015

In the middle of last year I attended Unleashed/Govhack 2014, I blogged about it here.

Barely over a week ago by pure chance I stumbled across another hackathon, this time being hacksa. This was an Adelaide only event that was designed to tie in with Entrepreneurs Week here. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to practice for the next GovHack (and a chance to meet some new people) so I entered a team! Also, I discovered that one of the people running the event was a friend of mine from uni over from Sydney for the event, so it was a good chance to catch up.

Hacksa was also going to be a small event, being first time, held at short notice, in one city, and also more focused to a specific domain (music industry) compared to GovHack. So I figured that if I managed to put into practice some of what I think I learned at Unleashed in 2014 we might stand a chance of earning some conference tickets (one of the prizes is entry to a conference called NetWorkPlay) or maybe if lucky enough cash!

Having entered a team, I had to find some teammates. So I press-ganged Mr 13, and then convinced a friend from linux.conf.au who was in another team at Unleashed, and another friend of mine who knows a bit about business, to join in, and we set to work.

Spread Out in Time

Unlike GovHack, hacksa released the API (well, some of them) the Friday before the event. So we had the weekend to work on it. Actually we only had the weekend because the hacksa event proper was strangely held on a Wednesday, and we all had work or school.  But this was OK, we only had to show up in the evening to finalise things and do the video interview. This was another difference (and I think improvement), we didn’t have to shoot our own video.

Actually we really only had Sunday, because of life and stuff, so I put in a late one on the Saturday evening pulling together a VPS and web infrastructure for our entry, along with libraries (I decided to use twitter bootstrap to get moving in  hurry, along with Python web.py)  I’d had two ideas, one for a visualusation/infographic and the other a web app, and learning from Unleashed I intentionally stopped thinking too hard at that point and went with the web app, which was to be a mash up based initially on the V-channel chart APIs. Ultimately I think going for a web app will prove to be a good idea, we’ll see in due course.

On the Sunday we congregated at a local library and polished off the prototype. Mr 13 put together a snazzy landing page for us using weebly, and a request page using launch rock. Its pretty handy being able to divvy out tasks and keep in involved and motivated!


The hackathon event was held at a place called St Pauls Creative Center in the CBD.  It was actually a pretty nice venue for this event. We got there about 6pm which gave us a couple more hours to refine Sundays efforts and then do the video interview. Of course we got pizza which was good too because Mr 13 was pretty hungry by then :-)

Overall it felt good to actually pull something together that was essentially a working ‘minimal viable product’ (in the parlance), and we also had a good ‘story’ to tell, thanks to my friends.

I’ll probably blog more about the app itself and the API feeds a bit later.

Even if we don’t win anything, I think I’ll finish it off and we’ll go live as an experiment to see if anyone actually uses it and maybe make enough to pay for the VPS hosting for a few cups of coffee from google ads!


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Linux.conf.au 2015 : working backwards from the end… and things that go bang!

Feb 06 2015

Some of the most awesome things about LCA are events that are not part of the official programme.  These include the affectionately named BOFs, and also various things happening before and after the conference proper.

On the Saturday just after the conference, I was lucky enough that I had sufficient time before my flight home to be able to tag along to a hobbyist rocket launch meet, and watch the friendly locals, as well as the well known to the open source community rocket enthusiasts Bdale Garbee and Keith Packard, send a variety of projectiles high up into the sky! I jumped at the chance to go because my son who is 13 did a launch of a small rocket through scouts, so I thought I’d better get some pictures and video for him :-)

The next shot gives an idea of the scale of an assembled rocket:

The rockets launch from the middle of a paddock.

The rocketry club is really into safety, for obvious reasons. They have to get licenses to be allowed to launch, and there is a ritual each time a rocket is launched – yelling out “Sky Is Clear”, “Range Is Clear” before a launch can proceed.

This video I shot is of a small rocket launching.

One of the other linux.conf.au’ers Augur posted some other vides to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcFwcKbYU3Q66PIUck_Haew

Watching things go bang is always fun, but these guys take it to a whole new level. If you listen carefully to the video a few minutes after the launch, notice the Android phone and the laptop actually speak the telemetry data…

This works roughly as follows: there is a computer built on Altus Metrum components in the rocket, this sends position and other data back to a receiver connected to an antenna that the flyer (is that the right word?) is holding and pointing in the general direction of the rocket… the data is then relayed via bluetooth to the phone or laptop and reported via speech synthesis. “Range one thousand two hundred seventy metres. Bearing thirty degrees south west elevation forty two degrees.”

I believe one of the rockets made it over eight kilometers high (I didn’t manage to record the exact amount!)

Eventually they run out of puff and start falling back. A parachute then deploys bringing it to ground, and a couple of km hike ensues.

I believe the following rocket is known as the Pink Freak. My daughter loved the shoes when I showed her the pics…

Alongside everything else, there was a quadcopter. When I first arrived, this was keeping a couple of the younger kids amused. But once the meet started moving, I realised it had a HD camera, and was used to monitor the rocket launches – and the pilot (this must be the right word!) had a VR headset, not an Occulus, but a new one I had not heard of, a SkyZone(?), to fly the thing way up and record the launch! It sounds like a mosquito in the videos.

I had a lot of other photos and video but many had people and I haven’t managed to make contact with the club to check if it is OK to post them, so for now I haven’t.

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Linux.conf.au 2015 catchup #1

Jan 26 2015

At the conference in Auckland I had two presentations.

For the first time I managed to get a main conference talk accepted, actually it was a tutorial which goes for 90 minutes! It was a bit daunting beforehand, but after I finished, I realised I prefer the tutorial format over having to deliver a talk. I enjoy the interaction with the audience and the sharing of knowledge, and also not being the sole focus (and not having to remember exactly what to say so much!)

My tutorial was on Reverse Engineering with Radare2; the video (Youtube) and slides are linked from the conference presentation, and have the slides up on my personal landing page as well. Thanks to James for helping with a final practice run, its always good to have a typical candidate audience perspective beforehand.

I also did a shorter talk at the Open Hardware mini-conference, on hardening embedded Linux, using OpenWRT on devices like the carambola2 as an example. The video of the mini-conferences is a bit less polished due to resourcing, here I am on about 2/3 the way through. I was somewhat more flustered in my delivery due to late changes to some slides (see earlier blog article) and a problem with my laptop deciding to have thermal issues an hour before the talk. I managed to resolve these (thanks AndyK for your help!) but it put me off my mojo a bit unfortunately. The live demo I was quite happy with, it worked without issue, so perhaps the demo gods were appeased by my earlier mishaps… The final slides are here.

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Linux.conf.au – so much all the things!

Jan 21 2015

Well, I’ve said it before and not followed through, but I am intending to blog about various stuff from last weeks LCA over the next month or two.

One things about LCA of course is how much you learn. Especially when you stand up in front of a room to share something and discover errors in your own understanding! In my own case, I had a talk at the Open Hardware miniconf about some security things related to embedded devices. Literally an hour before I had a ping on twitter alterting me to a factual error in my blog, which was also loudly proclaimed in the talk I was about to deliver. Luckily it was only one slide, and the misunderstanding did not impact the rest of the talk (or for that matter, most of the offending blog article.) So I have updated the original blog article with a correction.

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