Connascence, the Internet of Things and Space: The Road to Distill

With Distill just over a month away, we wanted to get you better acquainted with some of our impressive speakers. To do so, we sent each speaker a customized set of questions to answer, providing some insight into these leaders' unique backgrounds and perspectives on technology. Check out what Eli White, Matteo Collina, and Jim Weirich had to say about their experiences below.

Eli White, Co-Founder of

1. You used to run, and cite that experience as inspiration for your talk about anti-spam. Can you tell us about what that was like? Was that your first experience with this problem?

Well my first experiences with website spam were probably from even before my days at Digg, when running my own personal blog. That however was minor when compared to Digg. It became a huge problem at Digg, and it wasn't always your typical "Buy Viagra Now!" type spam, but just people who were trying to use the popularity of Digg to drive traffic to their websites. In its heyday, getting on the front page of Digg (or even in the upcoming section) could drive a significant amount of traffic to your website. So website owners did everything they could to try to inflate that. Having automated postings of thousands of identical (or close to identical) posts a day (or even an hour). Not to mention, yes, the multi-thousands of posts a day that were against our Terms of Service, because they were for illegal things, or, yes, porn listings. sigh

2. What did you do for the Hubble Space Telescope program? Did you see anything crazy through that thing or what?

I was the Lead Developer for the Office of Public Outreach. Basically, we were the team that took all the pretty pictures taken from Hubble, and got them online with press releases and out to the public. It was a really interesting experience, not just because of all the pretty pictures, or getting to see behind the scenes of how things work, but also because of getting to know the 'one guy' whom every single Hubble image that you have ever seen, has gone through his desk, and his computer for processing. He's the artist behind Hubble. While it's been published heavily, most people still don't realize that the pictures that come from Hubble don't actually just appear 'like that' from the camera. It's not your typical digital camera. Hubble takes all of it's pictures in black & white, but with different color filters applied to it. These color filters can be your typical Red/Blue/Green that we see, and often were when taking pictures of the planets. But when doing deep space pictures, they are often various wavelengths of infrared or ultraviolet, things that we ourselves can't see. This allows the scientists to see much more detail. But then the question remains, how to present this is a good visual way to us? What it means is that this one scientific artist needs to take all of these black & white images, and assign colors to them, in layers, just like a digital camera would. So it's as much an art form at choosing good colors to make it look pleasing, as it is choosing colors that express the scientific aspects of it for the scientists themselves.

Oh, and as for crazy stuff. No, never saw anything crazy through the Hubble. But I did learn about PHP performance and scalability though. Specifically the night that Hubble released pictures of Mars during its closest approach ever to the Earth ... the servers melted. I was up for something like 54 straight hours trying to keep the servers going, modifying code for better performance on the fly, disabling sections of the website that weren't needed, etc.

3. What is the future of the web/technology?

Oh sure, ask an easy one ;) The future is a bit unknown right now, but there are lots of exciting things to come. Technology is always moving at such a fast pace. There is definitely a strong trend that's been going for quite a while in sites being built more in JavaScript really than in any back-end technology. Not that the server-side code isn't needed, it's just become the 'easy part', because so much interactivity is decided in the browser now. Of course I think that the real change is coming in the mobile realm. We've already went from the early days of 'mobile internet', to having browsers & apps on our phones, to having separate mobile websites, to now doing responsive design. So much of internet access now is done on mobile devices and tablets, that you have to design for them when creating on the web. This will continue to evolve as the devices evolve, Google Glass, while rather experimental at the moment, is a great example of this. Over time I foresee less 'full web site' browsing happening, and a much greater move towards services that provide you with just the data you need, just when you need it.

4. What is technology doing to make the world awesome?

What isn't it doing? Honestly, I mean that. Technology has become extremely pervasive now in the world, to the point that people can almost not live without it. It's changed how we interact with people, how how knowledge we expect to have at our fingertips, and how we even live our lives. People are going to ballgames now, and using their phone to pull up extra stats on the players. There are no more arguments about: "Didn't that actor appear in that other movie?" because we just pull out our phone and look it up. Plus every second, of every day, is being photographed or recorded by someone. Heck, think about just that last piece of information. I know that of my grandparents, I have maybe a dozen photographs, of my parents childhood, a couple dozen, of my own childhood still probably only a hundred. But of my son? Thousands upon thousands of photos and videos, and he's only eight. By the time he is my age, he will be able to truly look back at his entire life, and see everything.

So my question back to everyone ... is where isn't technology changing the world? (And if you can find a place, you've probably found a new business-nitch)

Matteo Collina, PhD Student

1. The internet of things has long been talked about as the future, how close do you think we are to finally getting there?

I am not a futurologist, but I will try. We still need to solve three problems: the connectivity, the developers, and our privacy. If we want to interconnect everything, from my garden to the the dog that inhabits it, we need almost free connectivity.

Moreover every form of always-on connectivity requires a continuous power source, as every smartphone owner has learned the hard way.

After we get the connectivity for everything--and a lot of companies are trying to solve this problem--we still need the developers (hint: you) to build the apps for our real world. As of today, it is still quite hard, and it is my goal to solve it. In the end, the privacy concern remains. Imagine a world where the authorities could monitor when my dog defecates, so they can bill me for the quantity of output he produces (ok, I have SaaSified my dog). This is my goal too.

2. What's the one thing you're most excited getting connected? Why?

If you try hard enough, you might already connect anything to the Internet. Give us (the IoT developers) the real stuff, and we will do it. We can connect cars, parking slots, houses, even cheap toy-copters, which will crash dramatically.

However, all these things are not interconnected. Your Nest, the environment-friendly intelligent thermostat, cannot talk to your Roomba, the autonomous vacuum cleaner. We are very far from that, and this is something I am trying to address with Open Source Software.

The thing that will surely help my life will be the disappearance of keys, I want my bike and my car to open my Garage for me. I am very bad at not bringing the keys with me.

3. What Sci-Fi do you think best represents the realistic near(ish) future of how we will interact with technology?

LeapMotion is releasing their own Minority Report device, so that is already taken. The future is threefold: voice, sight and sound.

As Glass-driven interfaces, such as smartphones and tablets, have made the keyboard-and-mouse combo feel antiquate, Disappearing devices, such as Google Glass or the Italian GlassUp ( are leading the way. And soon their usage will be forbidden while driving :).

4. What is technology doing to make the world awesome?

The world is getting smaller. I am working every day with people all around the world, from Australia to the U.S.. I made friends at conferences, like Distill, that brings bright people from all around the world. Using a Jawbone Up, my Mum can know everything about my lifestyle, and that's why I do not own one.

We live in wonderful times, where you can work on cutting-edge technology and change the world from a small town in Italy, or India, or China. Any one of us can be great!

Jim Weirich, Chief Scientist, Neo

1. In brief, and without giving too much away, describe what connascence means.

Connascence literally means "Born Together". When used in reference to software, we referring to software that changes together. For example, if I change something in module A that requires a change in module B, then module A and B are connected via some kind of connascence. Another term for connascence is "coupling", but the developers have a very vague notion of coupling. Rather than being vague, connascence has a very specific meaning, and this allows us to talk about different types of connascence (e.g. Connascence of Name, Connascence of Position).

2. Why is connascence something all programmers, regardless of language or platform, should be aware of? Connascence is just a specific definition of coupling, and coupling is what makes changing and maintaining programs hard. By understanding the different ways we can couple our software helps us understand how avoid that coupling, all in all leading to more easily maintained code.

3. What is the future of the web/technology?

What? Predict the future? Oh, I'm horrible at that.

That reminds me of a story: When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone there were two types of responses. (1) We don't need telephones, we have messenger boys, and (2) Yes, the telephone is the greatest invention ever! Why, I can imagine a day when every town will have one.

I think that in our wildest enthusiasm for whatever new technology is coming down the pike, our predictions are as wide of the mark as response #2 was with the telephone.

4. What is technology doing to make the world awesome?

Just this evening I watched an inspiring presentation by a Siddhant Chothe, a blind Ruby programmer. The talk was about making web sites easier for vision-impaired users. I think any technology that is helping developers like Siddhant have easier access to the resources that we all take for granted is just plain awesome.

5. It's a poorly kept secret that many programmers, such as yourself, are also musicians. Will the ukelele be coming to Distill? There is a better than even chance a Ukulele will be joining me at Distill. I'm hoping others will be bringing some instruments along as well. (hint, hint)

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