For Photographers, Instagram Square Photos are Worse than a TOS Update

Austin, Texas

I’m a photographer and I use both my iPhone 4S and my Digital SLR to take photos.

There’s a difference between taking pictures and taking photos, however, and the nuance is an important thing to understand. When you raise a camera and snap a photo, unless you’re paying attention to things like composition, lighting, depth of field, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you’re taking a picture. If you’re doing all of those things (or reasonably close to all those things), you are safely in the category of “doing photography”.

One is casual. The other is intentionally art (whether good art or not is a subjective matter that shouldn’t be handled in this post).

Art doesn’t have to be Pablo Picasso or Ansel Adams or John Lennon. It doesn’t have to have a philisophical meaning or intent. Art is the expression of the Artist on an outward medium. Or in the case of photography, it is more simply the interpretation of what the eyes sees into a likeness in film or in digital media. Photography as art cannot be done haphazardly. That’s how people get caught in the trap of buying a $2000 camera and wondering why their photos suck. Because there is no context of movement, sound, smell or touch, the essence of a point in time must be captured entirely visually. If it’s done right, it’s art because care, intent and a degree of skill are needed to translate the moment into a snapshot.

Photographers work hard to get this right. It takes a perceptive eye, a knowledge of the equipment, lighting and composition to make a great piece of art in the form of a photograph.

I thought this was about Instagram?

This is about Instagram. Instagram’s app used to allow the user to upload a photo that did not fit a strict “square” format and pinch and squeeze to resize and get an entire photo in. While this was not as aesthetically pleasing as it could have been, it gave the photographer the ability to use the entirety of a photo and the composition nuances in it.

The new app does not allow for this zoom and strictly enforces a square model. The Next Web covers some of the pushback and takes the opposite side as me – that it’s high time Instagram enforce a square photo.

Take this photo as an example. I love this photo of Downtown Austin from across the S. Lamar St Bridge. The composition here is extremely important. The reflection of the bridge in the water, the trees and of course the kayaker under the bridge make this photo what it is. Here is my post-production piece.

Austin, Texas

However, what happens with Instagram? I have to scroll to one side or the other or find a happy medium in the middle for this photo.

Austin, Tx - iPhone

I realize, of course, that many users hate to see black bars across the top of the Instagram photo, as it was the day I posted my photo to Instagram!

Austin, Tx - Old InstagramHowever, this is the balancing act that Instagram has to consider. While creating a photography app for the masses, the need to keep photographers on board is essential. The new app takes away the artistic prerogative and choice from the artist and puts discretion in the hands of the masses. Last time I checked, the masses don’t shoot my photos, edit my photos, make artistic choices about my photos or have the same skills or style that I possess as an artist.

choose what my photos look like. I use Instagram to publish because it has two things: an audience and a distribution vehicle. When I post to Instagram, I push my photos to both Twitter and Facebook. I chose this even with the artistic limitations that it offered before this app update (namely the “letterbox” that goes with the photos that don’t fit into a square format).

One can argue that Instagram had to make a business decision, perhaps inline with the desires of their Facebook overlords. I guess that argument can be made. But removing artistic license abilities of artists who are using the platform is a terrible idea. Imagine if Twitter had said, back in 2007, that they had this platform that could only be used with 140 characters because it was built for use over text message and, since that was their original idea, and the colonial approach to the short message service was the only appropriate way of consumption, then text messages would be the only method of use allowed.

That is, in fact, exactly what Instagram has said indirectly, and what the Next Web article (linked above) advocates. Hey, photography used to be limited to a square format because it was the cheapest way to do it. Yeah… and then we got 35mm film which opened up a 4:3 ratio. And then we got digital that opened photographers to new technologies to create different formats, styles and use different concepts to create art.

Imagine if all our music sounded exactly the same way as the Beatles did in the 60s. Would there be any evolution to music? Of course not, because every artist would sound exactly the same way, use exactly the same cadence, write lyrics that epiphanize the exact same mindset that existed in the 60s and generally would be boring today – and I’m a big Beatles fan!

Returning to a square format is not a bad thing. There are vintage schools of thought in every format of art, fashion, music and culture. But that doesn’t mean that every artist should be forced to adopt such styles. That makes photography boring and conformist. That’s not why we do photography!

Contest: 3 free copies of the WordPress Bible [UPDATE]

Today marked the drop of WordPress 3.5 and I want to celebrate.

Tomorrow, I’m going to give away three autographed copies of the WordPress Bible. You have to be on Twitter. I apologize to those who have chosen to abandon Twitter, or have chosen not to participate, but it is the defacto communications medium of the 21st century and how I operate.

The book is a mix of advanced and beginner content. Therefore, I will do trivia. Trivia will have a beginner round, an advanced round and an intermediate round. All WordPress oriented. The winner is in my sole discretion and you will be required to provide your mailing address if you are selected.

WordPress core contributors are not allowed to participate in the beginner or intermediate round. If your name is on “the list” of 3.5 contributors, you cannot win those rounds. You can, however, participate in the advanced round.

The beginner round will consist of questions surrounding theme and plugin management with possible questions around usability and interface.

The advanced round (the only round open to core contributors) will be based on WordPress APIs, hooks and advanced WordPress development.

The intermediate round will mix both but the developer-oriented questions will be more common and basic and user questions will be more difficult.

You must hashtag your answers with #wpbibletrivia. Failure to do so disqualifies you for an answer.

The first answer I see that is correct is a correct answer. My judgement solely.

There will be 10 questions per round so pay attention.

The beginner round begins at 11am Central Time.

Share this on Facebook, Twitter or whatever your social media channel of choice is. The questions will be asked on my Twitter feed: @technosailor.

Good luck!


The winners of the trivia contest were David Peralty for the beginner round, Kim Parsell for the intermediate round and Kailey Lampert for the Advance round. Well done, everyone!

Prohibition in El Paso

Houston and Texas Central Railroad Map

Happy 21st Amendment Day (or the Repeal of Prohibition). 79 years ago today, Congress ratified the 21st amendment which repealed the 18th Amendment banning the manufacturing, sale or transport of alcohol in the United States.

Here’s a fun story.

In 1918, when the 18th Amendment was ratified, there was a healthy bar and saloon scene in the western railroad town of El Paso, Texas. On March 5, 1918 (when Prohibition was ratified), El Paso, along with the rest of the country, turned out the lights and closed their doors for, what seemed like, the final time ever.

The next morning, across the border in Juárez, Mexico, these bars and saloons re-opened a mere few miles away from their original location. This actually served to be a boost in the economy for both El Paso and Juárez, which was wracked with crime (still is, just cartel crime now!).

Houston and Texas Central Railroad Map
Houston and Texas Central Railroad Map. Source:
For El Paso, it suddenly meant that the railroad that went through town and stopped there as a breaking point would actually develop into a tourism line. More people making the journey from east to west, or vica versa, took the Union Pacific railroad that took a northerly route through Kansas and Colorado. The El Paso line was less-used… until Prohibition.

Tourists and travelers could take a night off on the El Paso train line and head over into Mexico to get their drink on and get back on the train to continue their journey the next day.

See? Told you it was a fun story. And a fun Texas story at that.

Working With HTML5 Forms


html5I’m going to start a series of tutorials over the next weeks and months about HTML5. A lot of web developers are not leveraging HTML5 for a variety of reasons. We have been so trained over the past decade to embrace XHTML 1.0 that we’ve avoided the new DOCTYPE as something new that needs to be learned.

The good news is, XHTML is still valid in HTML5. The better news is now you have much more fun toys to play with.

Admittedly, I was one of those people who delayed jumping on the HTML5 bandwagon. In the past few months, however, that has changed. This series of articles will hopefully help the web developer to rethink how they develop on the web. Much of the stuff I’m about to talk about does not require a lot of extra heavy lifting.

Use the Correct DOCTYPE

Just as a remedial exercise of laying out the premise, your HTML must have the correct DOCTYPE. In XHTML 1.0/1.1, the first line of the HTML page had to be something along these lines

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "">

That’s relatively confusing, huh? Makes you want to go drink spoiled milk with lumpy crud in it just because it’s tasty, right?

To declare a web page as HTML5, you do the same thing you did with the old 1990s era HTML4, before the web embarked on the XHTML idea of doing work. HTML5 is, essentially, a reset to HTML4 with all kinds of additional goodness. You simply start a web document with:

<!DOCTYPE html>

A lot easier, right? Heck, you can type that in your sleep once you’ve typed it enough (I know you already do that with your drivers license and credit card numbers).

Form Field Types

With all that remedial knowledge in play, let’s take a look at HTML5 forms. The importance of this might be lost if the only thing you think about, when building HTML pages, are computer browsers. But if you recognize we live in a mobile world, you own an Android or iPhone and have tried to do any kind of form filling on those devices, then you might start to realize the importance of field types.

In XHTML, you might have a form that looks like this:

<form action="" method="post">
    <label for="name">Full Name:
        <input type="text" name="name" id="name" />

    <label for="phone">Phone Number:
        <input type="text" name="phone" id="phone" />

    <label for="email">Email Address:
        <input type="text" name="email" id="email" />

    <label for="website">Web URL:
        <input type="text" name="website" id="website" />

In XHTML, we didn’t have a lot of field types. We had text (which everything above is), hidden, password (*’s entered in the input), checkboxes and radio buttons. You could add other types of inputs (That don’t use the <input> tag and include <select> and <textarea>.

This works in HTML5 too, but you’re limited by one default keyboard – which is fine, but fairly bland and not at all contextual.

What would happen if we changed that form to use different field types? HTML5 support a bunch. The four fields above can more sematically have the following types, in order: text, tel, email, url.

Watch what happens on the iPhone when the HTML looks like this (Android is similar):

<form action="" method="post">
    <label for="name">Full Name:
        <input type="text" name="name" id="name" />

    <label for="phone">Phone Number:
        <input type="tel" name="phone" id="phone" />

    <label for="email">Email Address:
        <input type="email" name="email" id="email" />

    <label for="website">Web URL:
        <input type="url" name="website" id="website" />

For a standard text field, your keyboard will look like this:

iOS "text" field
iOS “text” field
For a phone number, using the tel type:
iOS "tel" field
iOS “tel” field
For an email address, using the email type:
iOS "email" field
iOS “email” field
And for a URL field using the url type:
iOS "url" field
iOS “url” field

There are, of course, other field types that I’m not going to go into too much here. But to whet your appetite, there is a color type that attaches to a color picker. There’s a date type that binds to a date picker. There’s even a range type which binds to a slider picker.

Important: Not all browsers support all types. In the event that a browser does not support a specific type, it falls back to standard text type and you can bind other external Javascript to make the same functionality happen.

Reference: All HTML5 field types with browser support.

Form Field Placeholder

Another useful feature is the placeholder. In XHTML, we might have a form that looks like this:

<form action="" method="post">
    <input type="search" name="search" id="search" value="Search for your term" />

This would create a simple field that would be pre-populated with “Search for your term”. From a usability standpoint, when a user brings that field into focus, the text is supposed to disappear and allow the typing of a search term. If nothing is typed and the focus is switched to a different element, then that phrase should re-appear.

XHTML Placeholder Text
XHTML Placeholder Text

You can’t do this without a little Javascript help (I like jQuery for this) – which is outside the scope of this article. But in HTML5, you only have to add placeholder="Search for your term". Different browsers handle this slightly different, but they all insert some dummy text that can be replaced by the user’s own input.

<form action="" method="post">
    <input type="text" name="search" id="search" placeholder="Search for your term" />
HTML5 Placeholder Attribute
On iOS, the Placeholder attribute plays light grey text in the field that is replaced as the user types.

Form Field Validation

Validation is such a tedious thing for developers. You can do all kinds of ugly things to make sure fields that are required actually have a value or that a field meets a certain criteria (for instance, a zip code field having 5 numeric characters to match the U.S. format).

In terms of requiring a field, it’s as simple as adding required to the input tag. In HTML5, you don’t have to have an explicit value for an attribute as you do in XHTML. You can if you want, type <input type="text" name="zip" required="required" /> but this is a habit that does not need muscle exercise. Just use:

<form action="" method="post">
    <input type="text" name="zip" required />
    <input type="submit" />
Firefox "Required" Error Bubble
Firefox “Required” Error Bubble
Chrome "Required" Error Bubble
Chrome “Required” Error Bubble
Browsers handle this differently but they all pop up a notice if the field isn’t populated on submission. On the right, you’ll see how Chrome and Firefox handle this respectively.

Let’s validate that zip code field, though, because this is where HTML5 really shines.

Using the pattern attribute, you can designate a regular expression to match formatting needs. If we want to limit the zip field to 5 numbers (most simplistic example – it could also have a potential extra dash and 4 numbers too), you might use this HTML:

<form action="" method="post">
    <input type="text" name="zip" required pattern="\d{5}" />
    <input type="submit" />

You can find a list of helpful regexes at


There’s a lot more we could get into here, but the point of this exercise is to prove that it doesn’t take much to start using HTML5 in development. Doing so will also push the boundaries of what has been more commonly possible and the barrier to entry is so low that I struggle to find a reason why HTML5 should not be used more commonly.

I’ll have more of these in the days and weeks to come so stay tuned, subscribe to the RSS feed and, as always, if you’re interested in hiring me for a full time gig or contract basis, please reach out to me. I am actively looking.

10 Things You Need to Know About WordPress 3.5

For 7 years, I’ve been publishing these articles every time a new version of WordPress comes out. Since version 2.0. It’s been a long run. It began as a need to fill people in about new features in WordPress (and there were a lot in 2.0). There wasn’t anybody doing these at the time, and certainly WordPress wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now (22% of the internet is powered by WordPress).

But many more people have stepped up in recent releases and have started updating readers with new features and expectations. My job here is done. I’m passing the baton but really the baton has already been passed and I’m happy about that. This will be my final 10 things article. Thank you for sticking around and following along all these years.

On Wednesday (likely), December 5th, WordPress 3.5 will drop with all it’s gooey goodness. A BIG shoutout needs to go out to Andrew Nacin, the lead developer on 3.5, for project managing this release while also planning his wedding, and to his best man, core developer Daryl Koopersmith for leading the media efforts. And of course, all the other core contributors to this release (I, sadly, am not one this cycle).

So without further adieu, let’s get into the guts of 3.5.

Media Manager

One of the most anticipated revamps in WordPress history has finally arrived. Since the days of implementing the media upload integration, core developers, users and everyone in between has cried for a new way of managing media. It’s finally here and it is one of the biggest undertakings in WordPress core development history.

The new media manager in WordPress 3.5 simplifies the process of uploading various media formats (usually, but not limited to, images). Everything is right up front and easy to understand. Instead of having cryptic icons over top of the edit area on a post editing screen, you now have an obvious “Add Media” button.

Clicking Add Media brings up a dialog that has a very large, and obvious “drop zone” where you can drag and drop files into. This aspect has actually been around for a few versions, but now it’s a much smoother experience. Of course, you can also click the prominent “Select Files” button in the drop zone to pull up a more traditional dialog for selecting those media files and uploading.

You can also get a much more intuitive view of your already uploaded media attachment, select any number of photos and insert them into a post or create a gallery. This was all supported before, but the logical workflow makes the process a million times easier.

Also, gone are the days of uploading an image, having to close the media dialog to then re-open it to create a gallery or futz around with details for each image. This was always kludgey before. You could assign an image as a featured image without having to close the dialog, but then inevitably you’d end up in a situation where the dialog had to be closed to get into another image mode.

I’m really curious what the reaction to this feature will be.

Twenty Twelve

WordPress Twenty Twelve default theme
The front page layout of the new WordPress 3.5 default theme “Twenty Twelve”
Twenty Twelve is the new theme that is coming with 3.5 A few cycles ago, the core team decided to retire the old default “Kubrick” theme and release a new standard theme once a year. Twenty Ten came in 2010. Twenty Eleven came in 2011 and, well, obviously, Twenty Twelve is dropping in at the tail end of 2012.

Twenty Twelve is a fun theme. It’s fully responsive, so it conforms to different viewport sizes – monitors, iPads, smart phones, etc. In WordPress 3.4, the Admin got responsive love, and now the default theme gets it as well.

You can actually download and install it now, as it is also compatible with WordPress 3.4 and is on the theme repository.

This default theme has better typography, a home page template, various options for columns and widgeted areas and would serve well as a handy theme framework for child themes as well.

In addition, if you haven’t started leveraging post formats (available since WordPress 3.1), you can do that now with Twenty Twelve. The theme has built in styling defaults the match the sort of thing you’d expect from Post Formats (to me, still one of the most neglected things in WordPress)

HiDPI “Retina” Admin

For those of you on the retina display bandwagon, both Twenty Twelve and the entire administrative interface are all retina ready. No pixelation on those high-end Macs!

In WordPress 3.4, the first steps were made by providing quite a few retina (or hi-def, if you will – it will make more sense in a minute why I offer that clarification) icons in the admin. Now, the CSS (specifically for print) also supports this hi-def rendering. If you must print a tree, the print stylesheets will be printing in hi definition.

This also opens up opportunity as browsers and CSS3 continue to advance and provide developers with new tools.

Retina not only gives print versions additional clarity, and those high end Macs more beauty, but it also renders things better for you iPhone 5, iPad 3, Kindle HD and various new Android device users. Rejoice! (but I have an iPhone 4S, so meh!)

Removing the Links Manager

Links Manager Removed
So long, Links Manager, and thanks for all the fish!
Oh my God. We finally got rid of this antiquated thing!

Remember back in the day when people actually kept blogrolls? And WordPress had this feature in the menu called “Blogroll”. And then people started realizing, as possibly one of the earliest turns toward WordPress not being only a blogging tool but also a full-blown Content Management System, that Blogroll just didn’t seem appropriate (or whatever the thinking was), so it was renamed to Links.

It’s now coming out entirely. Existing WordPress install retain the Links manager but new WordPress 3.5 installs no longer have this functionality.

If you still need it, you can install the Links Manager as a plugin.

Favorite Plugins

As a developer, I am constantly setting up WordPress installs, setting up new WordPress installs, resetting WordPress installs, etc. so perhaps my favorite new feature in WordPress 3.5 is the “Favorite Plugins” doohickey. I always have a subset of plugins I use for development and functionality I consider a “must have” for a client project, etc.

Favorite Plugins can be installed from right in your plugin manager.
Favorite Plugins can be installed from right in your plugin manager.
If you go to the WordPress plugin repo (and are logged in with your username), you will see a new “Favorite” button on every plugin page.

This becomes incredibly useful in WordPress 3.5 where you can now pull down your favorite plugins with one-click install. When you visit the Plugins > Add New admin page, you will see a new “Quick Link” along side the “Upload”, “Popular” and other links that have been there all along. Now you just have a new menu.

This brings up a page where you can enter your username and get a list of all the plugins you’ve favorited on the plugin repo and install as you need.

Protip: Now you can stop emailing me and asking me what plugins I recommend. Enter MY username – technosailor – and find out which plugins I prefer.

Tumblr Importer Support

One of the most popular blog types and platforms in the past few years is Tumblr. Up until now, there hasn’t been a way to get Tumblr content imported into WordPress. That’s no longer the case.

On the Settings > Import page, you can now activate Tumblr import support. Warning: The process of importing Tumblr is a little kludgey and that is due to Tumblr’s own systems. You will need to register an app with Tumblr, enter certain key information about your WordPress install into the Tumblr app registration page, and copy certain key information into WordPress.

The instructions are all on the Import admin screen. I suggest opening up the Tumblr app registration page in a separate tab as you’ll have to go back and forth between Tumblr and WordPress.

Once you do this, you can connect WordPress to your Tumblr blog and slurp in all the data you’ve had over there. I know y’all love Tumblr, but this is your opportunity to get off of it and onto a more widely used and customizable platform. Plus, you have Press This in WordPress to allow you to continue your Tumblings.

Simplified Dashboard

Simplified Dashboard
Simplified Dashboard
The Dashboard has always been a bit of a sore spot for new users unfamiliar with WordPress. What is all this information? Unfortunately, that’s not going away quite yet. However, WordPress now makes it easier for users to get up to speed with common things like writing an about page, setting up a theme, etc.

In addition to Dashboard fixes, there have been a number of smaller UI changes in the admin, including the Privacy page being removed and merged into the Reading Settings pages. Lots of effort was put into a simpler user experience.

It’s the little things that help users get up to speed and using WordPress quickly and effectively and reduces the learning curve.

Multisite: switch_to_blog() performance problems fixed

There are a couple of Multisite improvements for developers. For the longest time, well before the merge of WPMU into WordPress, the way developers could switch “context” from one site to another would be through switch_to_blog(). Even after the merge, that function still remained the way to do it. But it has always come at the price of performance and caching. It was an extremely expensive function to use, filled with unnecessary database queries and other fudge.

It left developers looking for ways to accomplish the same task in a different way – which is really not the WordPress way. We encourage developers to use the tools WordPress provides and not to try to get around them. This mentality is almost universal and prevents problems with backwards compatibility in the case of database schema changes, etc. However, this beast had never been tamed for this specific functionality.

As of WordPress 3.5, this function has now been refactored and performs significantly better than what it did, including massive caching changes. Developers should feel far more comfortable using it. Hooray!

Multisite: Sub Directory

Another Multisite improvement is the ability to install WordPress Multisite in a folder. Up until now, WordPress Multisite could not be installed in a subdirectory. It had to be installed in the document root which was… silly.
In WordPress 3.5, a lot of work was put into making it possible to do just that. Specifically, this came out of Hack Day at WordCamp San Francisco in August. Nice work Mark Jaquith and company.

WP_Query Enhancement

One final developer tool that was added in WordPress 3.5 is a modification to the post__in argument that can be passed to WP_Query to affect what posts are pulled in a custom query/Loop. While post__in has been around awhile, and takes a comma separated list of post IDs to be retrieved, now, if the orderby parameter is set to post__in, the order of the IDs matter. Specifically, the order of the IDs in post__in is the order they are retrieved in the resulting dataset. Before they were simply ordered in numerical order (or whichever custom order parameter was supplied – post_name, post_title, etc) .

This is pretty effective for CMS-style usage of WordPress where a developer may want to have granular control of how specific content pages are listed, displayed, etc.


So that’s it! Nice big release. A lot of under the hood stuff for developers, but really this release is less of a developer’s release and more of a user experience release. When WordPress 3.5 drops on Wednesday (assuming that happens as expected), I’d love to hear feedback.

Thanks for reading all these years. I’m not disappearing. I’m just retiring from this column. Of course, I’m always looking for full-time or consulting work. Please feel free to contact me if you think we might be able to work together.

Until then…

So long and thanks for all the fish
Original Photo by Starrarte Used under Creative Commons.

HOLIDAY WORDPRESS DEAL: 30 Minute WordPress Consultation

As the holidays kick into full gear, and people start looking at a short sprint to gift times with family, I am offering a 30 minute phone consultation related to WordPress for $100. This is a great thing for someone who needs to figure out how to do something that may be unfamiliar for them or if they are just getting setup with WordPress and need plugin recommendations, or the like.

To setup your 30 minute appointment or to inquire about gifting that appointment, fill out this form. For the description, just reference this deal.

For longer term commitments or consulting engagements, including custom plugin development, I am booking clients for Dec and Jan, so feel free to ask about those opportunities as well.

This offer is only good today, Friday Nov 23, 2012 until midnight Central Time.

This offer is good through Midnight, Monday, November 26, 2012 – Cyber Monday.

What Makes a Community?

I normally write articles that carry a bit of authority. I usually write what I know about and have a high degree of confidence writing. I don’t write often because I want what I do write to carry authority and be hard-hitting.

This is not really one of those articles.

I haven’t done what people like Alex Hillman has done in creating collaborative working environments for independent entrepreneurs at Independent’s Hall in Philadelphia.

I haven’t been an organizer and champion of city-wide entrepreneurship like Josh Baer has in Austin.

I haven’t fostered a product community like they have over at StudioPress with the Genesis Framework.

What I have done is work within the context of a thriving WordPress community of developers, users, consultants and advocates.

I have lived in a city that has made it’s name on entrepreneurship and arts in Austin.

I have helped and supported entrepreneurs in their quest to build products in DC and find ways of succeeding both with and without investment money.

Moving Back to Baltimore

For some weeks now, I’ve made it clear that I’ve decided to move back from Austin to Baltimore. In 2008, I left Baltimore because I saw awesome things developing in technology in DC. At the time, there were guys like Peter Corbett who was just beginning to do technology advocacy work in the Nation’s Capital. By 2009, iStrategyLabs would launch the first Apps for Democracy contest that challenged contestants to create web and mobile applications with civic intent. That would morph into similar contest like Apps for America, etc.

You would also see some organizations that would flare out dramatically because of business model, ideas, weak leadership, lack of community involvement, etc.

I would then move to Austin where I would see a city immersed in technology. Lots of money flowing. Lots of incubator action, such as the products and entrepreneurs who would be graduated from the Capital Factory incubator. I would see ATX Startup Crawl occur several times a year as guests would have the opportunity to move around town and visit some of the great startups like TabbedOut, InfoChimps, uShip and more. Thousands of people would come through these offices and see the great technologies and ideas being built, all while enjoying local Texas beers and eats.

I would see awesome projects like We Are Austin Tech highlight influencers in that community (including myself) come up.

And I watched Baltimore grow as a technology community to the point where DC entrepreneurs started paying attention to their up and coming little brother 45 mins up I-95. I watched from afar as Dave Troy would put his heart and soul into building Baltimore as a center of entrepreneurship and tech. I’d watch as Greg Cangialosi would build his Blue Sky Factory marketing firm out and have a successful acquisition, all while continuing to personally invest more in the Baltimore scene.

I even watched great tragedies like the systematic destruction of by Aol.

I watched this all over the last 4 years and realized Baltimore was coming into it’s own. It had successes. It had failures. It had investors. It had bootstrap. It’s still not entirely cohesive, but from my seat, it looks promising.

So I’ve decided to move back to my home and put my money where my mouth is and see if I can take what I’ve gleaned from DC and Austin and apply it here in Baltimore. I may be one of those failures. Or I may not be, but I’ve got to try.

What Makes a Successful Community?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Baltimore business owners and entrepreneurs, and I’m finding a common question and point of discussion: What makes a successful community? The answers and opinions are intriguing. Again, I can’t say my opinion carries any authority. What I can say, however, is I’ve been in a bunch of communities and witnessed elements of success.

Some folks think a successful business community requires investors who are willing to commit their time and money. Anyone who has gone through the fundraising process knows that hands on investors are the best kind. If a VC or Angel investor can help a portfolio company supplement resources (human capital or otherwise) through their network, they bring quite a bit of upside to a startup. Investors who wire money and never pay attention to their portfolio companies, expecting the founders to execute according to plan, are in my opinion bad investors.

So in this light, some entrepreneurs here in Baltimore find the lack of investment money or engaged investors as detrimental to the community.

On the flip side of the coin, some entrepreneurs seem to be thinking that the mark of a good startup community is going to be in the number of entrepreneurs who are able to successfully bootstrap. There is some validity to this claim as well. The more you can do on your own, the less of your company you’re giving away (as I noted in the “Valleyboys” segment of this article a few weeks ago).

However, there is also value in bootstrapping and taking money, if the situation is right.

Other folks I’ve talked to feels the value is in the number of people attend professional meetups compounded by the sheer number of meetups. In Austin, we have a vibrant meetup community. From the Austin WordPress meetup to Austin on Rails to Austin Lean Startup to Refresh Austin and the list goes on.

My opinion is that a city startup community is built on all these things. It’s not money, really. Money will follow success. Perhaps Baltimore needs to have an IPO or high profile acquisition that allows the company to continue to operate and hire in Baltimore to put them on the map and in the conversation. I don’t really think it’s that, per se, but that certainly helps.

It would help if the State of Maryland was more business-friendly to small businesses, as Texas is. People come to Texas, and more specifically Austin, from California and New York because the environment is notably friendly to small business. More business would be created in Maryland with better business policy. It might even attract out of state growth.

Beyond that though, meetups are important but meetups don’t create value if the conversations end at the meetup. The idea of building something – a prototype – as you might get out of a Startup Weekend is good… if it continues afterwards from prototype to business product.

But I think the biggest thing that makes community grow is collaboration and the willing to share ideas without being defensive, sharing resources without being possessive, sharing physical space without being prohibitive. It takes more that an entrepreneurs flying solo behind his Macbook Pro in a coffee shop, but it takes less than structured office space with prohibitive managerial org charts.

It doesn’t take sacrificing lifestyle on the altar of work, but it does take entrepreneurs willing to gut out ideas by working with other entrepreneurs and customers and transparently sharing war stories of success and failure while helping to mentor others new to the space.

It does takes the karmaic “pay it forward” approach without fiefdoms and regional rivalries to ensure that a rising tide raises all ships. What you put in to other companies you have no direct stake in, but can help with informal advice (when solicited) makes for a circle of life that encourages a community to exceed expectations and move from one level to the next. Mentorship is not an ROI term, but it is critical to the ecosystem.

Am I off-base in my thinking here?

A Visual Tour of My Life

Google is really scary. On the other hand, Google brings the world closer together. And it’s with that idea that I’m going to take my readers on a little tour of my life.

I’ve move around a lot in life. Such is the life of a minister’s kid. Spent years in central Africa. Lived all over Maryland… twice (getting ready for a third time). Lived in snowy New York. Lived all over. Usually if I were to give someone a tour, I’d have them in a car and drive around through old neighborhoods, passing by old houses, telling stories.

I’m going to do that now because I’m in a reminiscing mood.

It started in Tonawanda, NY – a city-suburb of Buffalo. The very first home I lived in on Roswell Ave. Sadly, I don’t know anything about that place because I was too young to even remember it.

Lovejoy, Buffalo, New York

My first memories of life happened on Longnecker St in East Buffalo. I actually have a surprisingly good recollection of this place. I remember that it was in this place, my dad who was a line man for the power company, would come in with ice in his beard. I remember when he put in a wood burning stove into the house and built the chimney. Never have I felt a hotter heat than that.

I remember the milk machine on the corner of Lovejoy and Longnecker. Yes, we had milk machines back in the 70s.

I lived in the Lovejoy neighborhood, which was always a sketchy place to live but has become a terribly drug-ridden neighborhood today even since my earliest memories in the early 80s.

Kinshasa, D.R.C. (Zaïre)

In 1984, my parents moved us out to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaîre) where they were missionaries. I remember these days very well. How many American kids can really say they spent time growing up in third world Africa? Not many.

Sadly, Google Street View has not gotten to Kinshasa (and probably won’t for awhile), so I rely on what photos are available of the area nearby where I lived. Here is a photo of the Rte de Matadi, a “highway” that runs between the capital city of Kinshasa and one of the provincial capitals, Matadi. It, to this day, is one of the few usable inter-city roads in the country.

Bukavu, D.R.C.

Bukavu was an interesting 6 months of my life. We moved from Kinshasa to the eastern side of the country to a provincial capital surrounded by rain forest. It was quite isolated. We lived in an old hotel that was turned into a sprawling palatial duplex with another American family living in the other side.

This estate sat on top of the highest point in the city and overlooked Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes that is torturously poisoned by methane gas from the volcanic activity in the region, and unsafe for humans, to the north and across the border into Rwanda to the northeast.

For the recent history buffs, during the genocide that continues to happen but began in Rwanda (Think Hotel Rwanda), Bukavu became a refugee camp for people streaming across the border. In fact, CNN reported on this development in the early 1990s from my front lawn. I did not live there anymore, but nonetheless… that happened.

Photo by Nick Hobgood
Photo by Nick Hobgood

Back in Buffalo

The time in Bukavu was short-lived as the entire family contracted a form of airborne Hepatitis. No, we were not all promiscuous, what with me being the oldest of 3 at 11 years old. It’s just life in a third world country and is the reason that, to this day, I cannot give blood – and never will be able to.

My dad was evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya for emergency medical attention and we all flew home to Buffalo for observation and testing shortly after that and lived there a year before we were cleared medically to return. During 1987, we lived in a little house in the Buffalo suburb of Depew. This is where I lived (I believe :P).

Kinshasa Again

In 1988, we moved back to Kinshasa. Political forces that were the ominous clouds of what would ultimately come were brewing and after a year, we, along with several other American families, were ejected from the country. While some returned, we never would. In 1991, revolution would overcome the country as tribal hatred spread from Rwanda into Eastern Zaïre and would continue until dictator “President” Mobutu Sese Seko would overthrown and exiled by rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila. The civil war continues in parts of the Congo today.

This is a satellite view (again, no street view, but the satellite imagery is far better than when I looked at it last – nice work, Google) of a mostly American neighborhood named Joli Park. On our street, almost all residents were American and Canadian missionary and embassy workers.

The Move to Maryland

After returning from Zaïre, we moved to Maryland. Of all my U.S. experience at the ripe old age of almost 13, I’d never lived outside of Buffalo. I was not prepared for the intense summer humidity and change of lifestye. I learned how to catch crabs with just a piece of twine and chicken bait tied to the piers here at Hunter’s Harbor on the Magothy River in Pasadena, MD.

While in that neighborhood, I lived in this house for a year and made friends with my next-door neighbor, Tim, who introduced me to the finer things in life like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mega Man. It was also at this house that I encountered my first, and thankfully only “Warrior Turtle” – a three-legged alligator snapping turtle that looked like he had personally won World War II for the Allies and was looking to make sure someone paid for it.

Severna Park Troubles

A year later, we moved about 10 miles away to Severna Park where we famously lived in the sub-development next to Pat Sajak’s. It was also the pinnacle of my teenage rebellion where I suppose I may have had the brilliance to try running away from home. Literally, running away from home. With my dad on my heels running after me down the middle of the street. Did I think I could get far? Clearly I did. Do I laugh at myself now? Sure… and I know I could run faster than my dad now. :)

As a bonus, I played my one and only play in high school football at Severn School where, as a member of the JV squad (and mostly practice at that), I was sent in to play a route as a WR… I wasn’t going to get the ball. I was just going to run a route. As a defensive back by position, I was so nervous I lined up 7 yards off the line of scrimmage instead of on the line, as a receiver should, and the play was whistled dead for illegal formation, thus ending my illustrious high school football career.

Back to Pasadena

In the next two years, I lived in two more houses. I began my working life at first, beginning a job at Wendy’s 2 blocks from my house. To this day, I have a few people I keep up with. I hope that tomorrow, when Maryland approves Question 6 allowing marriage equality in the state, I will be able to attend my old boss’s, and current friend’s, wedding to his long-time partner.

In the second of homes in that time, I wasn’t actually home much. I got my first vehicle when I turned 18 and I liked to spend my time working or out with friends getting into trouble. I would finally leave home (and this home) to head to upstate New York in 1995. (It’s that house behind the tree)

Bible School

Which leads me to Lima, NY and Elim Bible Institute. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a preacher. So I started doing what I was supposed to to become one. That meant enrolling in Elim, and moving north to the great one-stoplight town 17 miles south of Rochester – Lima, NY.

I never was good with academics, though, so this really only lasted a year. Also, my family moved up there too which put more pressure on me as a young adult trying to find my own way in the world. I’d leave after only a year on “The Hill”. At least Google got this photo on the one day there wasn’t piles of drifting snow.


I took my talents, in October of 1996, to Astoria, Queens where I would live for two years and fall in love with the City. I still love New York to this day. Living on a small stipend plus room, board and meals for free, I volunteered my time with an organization that worked largely with the homeless population in the city, the New York School of Urban Ministry (or NYSUM).

I owe the two years I spent in New York for my personal bias toward New York-style pizza, public transportation, and dangerously safe driving.

I also owe my time in New York to where my mind began to open up to more progressive, and non-traditional philosophical ideas, much to the dismay of the religious leadership around me.

Back to Maryland

In Oct of 1998, I left NYC and went back to Lima for a short time. It was a few months after that, that I moved back to Maryland in an old Chevy S-10 pickup truck my dad gave me since I was broke and couldn’t afford a car and he needed a new one anyway. In all rights, that truck shouldn’t have made it past the Village line, but in fact it got me to Baltimore and gave me wheels for a month or two before it finally choked.

I holed up in a Glen Burnie apartment where I worked multiple jobs and would eventually meet a girl who would become the mother of my son a few years later. Although we didn’t last, this period is somewhat memorable for me.

I would get married 22 months later and we would find the cheapest place we could afford, even if it meant living out in the country. That led us to a single bedroom apartment adjoined to a house on acres of land in the middle of nowhere, Carroll County, MD (for which I have no visual evidence).

When we moved again, to be closer to work, we’d hole up in a basement apartment in a private home. It was terrible.

In 2003, we bought a house on the Baltimore City/County line and lived there for 18 months, selling before the housing market imploded. It was in this house that we had our son, Devin, who is now 9. I was working as a contractor for the Navy in DC and had decided at the age of 27 to enlist. A long story why that didn’t happen would follow, but sufficed it to say, that never transpired. The house is bigger than what it looks like and wasn’t bad for a first home.

In 2004, we moved into a smaller apartment that was supposed to be temporary until I shipped for basic training and got my orders. Like I said, that never happened so what was meant to be a temporary solution ended up being home for several year. Essentially until our divorce.

I moved to Alexandria, VA to live with a friend for about six months in late 2008-09. I won’t post his home because he still lives there but then, it was back to Maryland. I was feeling the DC thing after Baltimore. I had begun to develop friendships with DC folks and as a newly single man, I like the opportunity for some level of anonymity while I explored my new world in a new city. It was really quite awkward, looking back, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I would live in Bethesda, MD from 2009-2010, almost 1.5y.

Google doesn’t take it’s car back there. I can only imagine that when they passed by, it was the 2010 #Snowpocalypse and they couldn’t get in.

Now I’m in Austin. I won’t show you these photos either, for privacy, and I’m moving back to Baltimore, God willing, in January. So the saga continues.

I really wanted to just share this stuff though. It makes me nostalgic and technology is both terrifying and amazing.

The Science of Radio, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Pivots

Let’s talk science.

We all occasionally listen to the radio. Maybe not as much as we once did, but we still do. Most of us listen to FM radio because the sound quality is better and, as a result, music is more often the stuff broadcast over FM stations. Probably fewer of us listen to AM radio, short of talk news and sports talk stuff.

The difference between AM and FM is radical. FM radio waves, if you could visualize them are your typical sine wave. It modulates between a high and a low frequency and travels through the air like the waves of a sea. FM radio has better sound because this modulation can carry more aural information.

AM radio is far different. It’s much more a straight line wave that can’t carry as much aural data, so the sound quality is reduced. The tradeoff, however, is that AM radio can travel much farther. In fact, for AM radio, range is determined by amplitude, or strength, of the power generating the waves.

The side effect of this is that AM radio waves travel into the atmosphere and interacts with the ionosphere, the atmospheric layer that protects us from the most harmful radiation from the sun. During the daytime, the AM waves hit the ionosphere and largely fizzle out due to the layer’s interaction with the sun, but at night… the sun isn’t sending all it’s fiery goodness at that part of the earth and so a bounce effect happens. AM radio waves hit the ionosphere and bounces back toward the earth allowing radio stations to be heard hundreds of miles away from their source – often times well over the horizon.

As a result, the FCC has had a decades-old regulation that requires AM radio stations to reduce their signal or alter their night operations so as not to interfere with stations in other markets. Stations typically will do this by redirecting their antennas so that even if the signal is heard hundreds of miles away, it is heard in such a way to not interfere with other stations broadcasting on the same frequency.

Still with me? Whew. Good.

Back in 1995, I was sitting in a dorm room of a religious college I was attending at the time. There were pretty rigid rules for freshman. In my case, we were required to do a nightly “study time” in our dorms. The idea was to train students to focus academically. In later classes, the rules were relaxed and study time was not mandatory.

Still, you know how I am with rules. I sullenly sat in my room night after night and probably didn’t do the best job academically. I digress.

September 6, 1995 was kind of a historic day. Besides being my 19th birthday, it was also a big baseball day. It would be this day that Cal Ripken, Jr. would break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak setting a new record of 2,131 games played in a row and becoming the new Ironman. Back in those days, before the 1997 debacle, I was an Orioles fan before changing allegiances to a much better team (sans this past year). I’m looking at you, Kate.

I grew up with the Orioles and I was understandably upset that I had to be in my room instead of watching the game on TV. I discovered, however, that I could hear WBAL 1090 AM in my dorm 17 miles south of Rochester, NY and some 300 miles away from Television Hill in Baltimore, where the station broadcast from. As a result, I was able to listen to that historic game on the radio thanks to science.

What’s the point of this already long-winded story, you may ask.

I’m glad you asked, since I actually do have a point.

I’ve talked about business a lot here. Startups, projects, whatever. I’ve been involved in a few in my career. I’ve advised several. I’ve been a Co-founder in one. I’ve been staff for others. There’s a concept in startups called the “pivot”. Pivots are when you change your business model or approach due to market demands or user feedback.

In some cases, pivots are major. Seesmic pivoted a ton from a video chat service to a video blog comment service to a social mass posting service. Every pivot was essentially a new company.

Other pivots are more minor. A move to focus more on user content aggregation from a company content aggregation. Or a move to a subscription model from an advertising model.

I’m a fan of the second form of pivot which basically suggests the premise of a company is sound, but based on the ability to listen to user demand and appropriately respond in the marketplace, a company can adjust and tweak and run with the concept that made them strong as a company to begin with. If I were to start investing myself, I’d want to be on board with a company that can stay true to itself, while demonstrating the ability to adjust.

Some people, like Jason, advocate doing market research to decide your premise. Ask questions. Conduct interviews. Find out, before putting time in, that the idea is something that someone will pay for. Others, like Eric Ries, also endorse The Lean Startup approach of building, collecting feedback, iterating and repeating to allow a company to evolve organically. These are all good ideas that help set the framework and paradigm for how your company operates and your product evolves.

Which brings us full circle to radio. I was able to listen to Cal’s historic day in 1995 because the company (or radio station in this case) was able to perform a pivot (literally) to redirect their signal without changing who they were. They knew FCC regulations when they decided to broadcast on AM. They knew the framework of science they had to live in. They built a radio station for reach and strength and adapted as they were required to and allowed to.

You may never start a company. You may never hire employees. But the universal concept is: Know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, don’t change who you are or the strategic philosophy under which you operate, but be willing to make the tactical choices needed to succeed.

Presidential Debate Word Clouds: Romney vs Obama

Here is a data visualization word cloud of the presidential debates last night. I took all of the things said from both candidates, no matter how mundane, from the transcript.

Then I removed common English words like ‘the’ and ‘and’ and I manually corrected for uncommon edge cases like ‘governor’, in the case of Obama. Governor dominated his cloud but was almost universally used to address Romney (i.e. “Governor Romney says…”).

Here you are. I make no political analysis of the content. I merely present the findings.

Governor Mitt Romney

President Barack Obama