The UMMA reopened this Tuesday, celebrating the addition of an extension building by inviting all of the university’s students to a huge party with food and live music. The opening was a grand success in my view; I’ve never seen these many people in a museum before.
I really liked the museum’s interior, which does a very good job of combining the gallery spaces of the new and old buildings. The exterior, however, looks unfortunate. I don’t understand this trend of juxtaposing classic architecture with brash, boxy shapes for the sake of modernism.
The most entertaining collection on display was the rather meta “Museums in the 21st Century” exhibit, showcasing drawings, posters and scale models of new and newly renovated museums from around the world. Since I’m a big fan of architecture, this was a nice treat. One of the pieces I was impressed by was the MAXXI National Centre of Contemporary Arts by Zaha Hadid, which integrates modern, urban lines into a conventional setting. It reminded me a lot of the Tokyo subway maps for some reason.
Yesterday Dan, Pradeep and I presented “y!Vmail: voicemail for your Yahoo! Mail” at the Yahoo! University Hack Day Contest, winning the award for the 2nd best Hack! (jump to the demo video )
Our team with judges Paul Tarjan and Rasmus Lerdorf
The adventure started when I heard about Yahoo!‘s Hack U event:
Join Yahoo! web experts including Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of PHP, for a week of learning, hacking and fun! You’ll hear interesting tech talks, hacking tips and lessons, and get hands-on coding workshops where you’ll work with cutting-edge technology. The week’s events will culminate with our University Hack Day competition—a day-long festival of coding, camaraderie, demos, awards, food, music and jollity (it’s a real word, look it up).
Years ago when I was in my teens, I was an avid participant on the school / college tech fest circuit. Almost every major institution in and around Delhi would organize annual technical festivals, hosting programming contests and software demo competitions. This was where I got a chance to showcase my creations and meet other hackers. Winning these events became a good way for me to pay off those telephone bills — web development in the dial-up age was an expensive hobby!
I decided to enter the Hack Day contest just for fun; it had been a while since I participated in one of these. It wasn’t about winning this time; I just wanted to do the whole “idea to execution to demo” thing with a group of friends, and spend hours screaming at each other over STUPID hard-to-find bugs that are actually staring at you in the face, high-fiving every hour as a feature milestone was scratched off the todo-list. The reward: to be able to stand in front of a group of people and say “Hey guys, look what I made!.” (If it’s hard to appreciate what this feels like, this video might help.)
Yahoo! gave away a bunch of t-shirts, this was on one of them
3 days before the Hack Day, I had an idea about building a phone-based interface for email. The idea was simple enough to build in a day, but fun enough to make an enjoyable demo. The only problem: I was already in the midst of a “hack” daymonth of my own; VLDB was due 3 hours before the start of the Hack Day, and I was already sacrificing sleep for LaTeX and Python for more than a week. There was no way I was going to be able to do this alone. Enter fellow grad students Dan and Pradeep. I told them about the contest and my idea. While they are both expert hackers, I totally forgot about the fact that people in Operating Systems research don’t really do a lot of Web Programming: “PHP….? I’ve never…” said Dan. I pointed them to the Yahoo Developer Network site and returned to my research paper writing madness. Hopefully by Friday evening, I would have a web-savvy hack team.
On Friday, I took a quick nap after my paper deadline, and walked over to the Hack Fest area to meet my team (who had become PHP and telephony wizards by now) and load up on caffeine and sugar that the Yahoo! folks had set up for us.
We split the work into two parts; Dan would build the phone interface while Pradeep and I would figure out the email and contacts API to write an email client backend. 7 hours later, we had the first version of our product up and running. We could call in and read emails. Happy with our progress, we decided that it would be wiser to go home and show up early next day. We ended up wasting a few hours the next morning worrying about the presentation: the lecture hall had spotty cellphone coverage, a deal-killer for a phone demo! Pradeep made a breakthrough here, discovering that an obscure panel on the wall was actually a secret speakerphone. Having resolved demo issues, we resumed coding and plugged in the remaining features: navigating through emails, email summarization, and email prioritization. The friendly timestamps feature (“4 minutes ago”) was stolen from my blog’s code (i.e. the Status header of this blog).
Around 3:30pm on Saturday, we updated our hackday entry:
by Arnab Nandi, Daniel Peek, Pradeep Padala
“Not everyone has a computer, but everyone has a phone.”
This hack allows people to access their Yahoo! mail through a 1-800 number, using ANY touch-tone phone.
Press 0 to open, * and # to navigate, 7 to delete. We figure out which emails are important, and read them first. We summarize long emails so that you dont have to listen to all of it. If you want to talk to the person, just press 5 — we’ll connect you.
APIs used: BBAuth, OpenMail, Contacts API, Term Extraction API
Hack presentations started at 4:00pm on Saturday. I started with a 20-second powerpoint pitch, followed by a rather entertaining demo. Using the lecture hall’s speakerphone we had the lecture hall call our service. Entering the correct PIN logged me in, which resulted in an entire roomful of people were now hearing the words “Welcome to y!Vmail. You have 5 new emails…”
Me pushing numbers on the phone
Here’s a short video walk through of our app:
More details at http://yvmail.info
A few minutes after the presentation ended, the prizes were announced. We ranked second. The winning hack was Brandon Kwaselow’s “Points of WOE”; a native iPhone app that allowed browsing and creation of placemarks on Yahoo! Maps. Congratulations, Brandon!
Overall, this was a very exciting and enjoyable event; I had a rocking good time hanging out with the Yahoo! folks and getting a cool project out the door with around 15 hours of work. I end with some lessons, acquired over years of doing demo contests:
Be creative, but avoid feature creep.
Split up into sub-teams, but make sure you’re pair programming most of the time.
Get Version 0 done Super Super Early. Then polish, polish, polish.
Facebook Research Scientist Cameron Marlow has some interesting thoughts about Maintained Relationships, people who often stalk each other’s feeds, but don’t necessarily talk that much:
In the diagram, the red line shows the number of reciprocal relationships, the green line shows the one-way relationships, and the blue line shows the passive relationships as a function of your network size. This graph shows the same data as the first graph, only combined for both genders. What it shows is that, as a function of the people a Facebook user actively communicate with, you are passively engaging with between 2 and 2.5 times more people in their network. I’m sure many people have had this feeling, but these data make this effect more transparent.
I’m really jealous of the Facebook Data Team. They get to play with all that data!
Indy racer Danica Patrick had a memorable quote in this nice Honda promo :
If you’re driving your car and you feel frightened a little bit, we bump up against that feeling as much as we can to try and push that limit further, and get comfortable there and then push it again, so you’re constantly on the brink of crashing, because that’s the fastest.
update: This blog post is meant for older versions of django-authopenid. The latest version available at pypi has implemented a fix similar to this one, and hence works out of the box, you wont need this fix. Thanks to Mike Huynh for pointing this out!
I've been playing with Django over the past few days, and it's been an interesting ride. For a person who really likes PHP's shared- nothing, file-based system model (I'm mostly a drupal guy), Django comes across as overengineered at first, but I'm beginning to see why it's done that way.
My intention was to use the OpenID extension to get the user's email address during the sign on process. However, it doesn't seem to work with Google's OpenID implementation, because Google uses the an Attribute Exchange (ax) extension instead of the Simple Registration (sreg) OpenID extension that is implemented in the library. A quick hack to django-authopenid's views.py makes it work:
For those who care, I will be working at Yahoo! Research in New York this summer. The offer letter just arrived in well designed (and very purple) packaging, with seventeen thousand million documents to sign. Nonetheless, I’m excited about working there!
I’m having trouble getting used to the new Gmail button. Here’s the explanation, in a simple animated GIF. My my motor memory remembers the position of the “Delete” button, and finds the “Move” button in its place.
Also, “Move to”? WTF? It looks like the fruit of a religious compromise between the “Folders are evil, Labels are googly” and “Folders are how the world works, you hippies” camps. Hey design-by-committee… Look, it’s your new friend, Gmail!