Networks of book makers in late Medieval England – Alex Gillespie's talk on medieval manuscripts was eye-opening in a lot of ways. I never realized that you could get cheap books before printing arrived, on demand from local scribes. The impact of the technology wasn't so much due to the price, as the fact that mass production made books far more plentiful than ever before, with a much more centralized distribution model.
I also loved discovering Girdle Books, bound with their own little raincoats so they could hang from the owner's belt. There was a lot of discussion about what the move to ebooks could learn from these sort of historical examples, with Alex riffing on the idea of texts as souls that inhabit physical bodies, and how creepy that makes electronic readers, as the virtual books flitting in and out of them seem like body snatchers.
I was struggling to make a point about how Girdle Books were an ostentatious way of using the written word to connect socially, and how that was a real loss with ebooks, but it came off sounding like I just missed showing off to girls on the bus. In fact I just want to show off to people on the internet, or to be less flippant I think we'll really miss that process of discovery if we no longer see books in people's hands, on coffee tables, or in their bookcases.
Google Consumer Surveys – This was a really unusual Foo talk, it was almost a pure product pitch, but I was really glad I attended because it's an incredibly useful product I'd never heard of. You design a survey, Google charges you 10 cents for each person who answers, and they handle getting a statistically representative group of 1,000+ users over the course of a day or two. For startups, this is a fast and cheap way of testing ideas, like the old hack of creating a Google Ad with your value proposition and seeing who clicks, but on steroids.
What I also liked is that they're providing a new revenue source to the newspaper industry. The questions appear on local news sites as an alternative to registering to read a full story, and pull in a lot more money for the publishers than regular ads.
Boxie the story-gathering robot – Taking a lesson from little sisters everywhere, the team at MIT set out to use raw cuteness to get other people to assist Boxie in its mission. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords if they're all so adorable. The talk (with terrible audio unfortunately) is here.
Inside Etsy's gambit to hire more female programmers – I've been a long-time fan of Marc Hedlund, but I hadn't run across his initiative at Etsy to hire more engineers who were women. The results show how effective publicity can be, with over 600 female applicants for 40 slots on the Hacker School program, and demonstrate that there are effective ways to recruit from a wider pool. I'm going to take inspiration for my own hiring process (email me!).
Legal Entity Identifiers – Dan Goroff described how the financial world is trying to illuminate financial risks by assigning LEI's to all corporations. My deep fear is that this is the wrong approach, it would make the analysis easier if the data was perfect but the true problem is robustly identifying entities in the first place. I'd rather have fuzzy, redundant identifiers like company names, addresses, account numbers, etc, and use them to build a relationship graph. Instead I worry all the time will go into building the id scheme, and we'll never get the financial relationship data that is the real gold-dust. I'm not doing the topic justice here, I need to do a longer post, but it was a great presentation on a crucial debate I wasn't even aware of.