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Sean McMains
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Going Mobile

On January 2, I”ll be going to work for Mutual Mobile, an Austin-based company that specializes in application development for iOS, Android and Blackberry devices.

“But Sean!” I hear you, Rhetorically Convenient Reader, cry. “You just started working for Magnolia back in March! Why are you moving on again so soon?” That’s a good question. It doesn’t have anything to do with Magnolia: it’s a terrific company, filled with great people that I am glad to call coworkers and friends. That fact made this decision especially hard, as I knew I’d be seeing less of these people I quite like (and would, honestly, be making their lives tougher in the short term with my departure).

But as much as I like Magnolia, the nature of their business means that my work there revolved around two things: Java and Sales. Java is an industry standard for creating software of various stripes, but it’s a very buttoned-down, staid environment to work in. It lacks the creative energy and — is it silly to say this? — joy that I see in the communities that exist around some of the more dynamic, less-widely used languages like Ruby and Python and Lisp (for you AI wonks out there). I can get work done in it just fine, but the number of times a spontaneous “Awesome!” escapes my lips while doing so is vanishingly small.

The other focus of my last 9 months has been selling Magnolia to various companies. I think the software is a phenomenal piece of work, and really well-suited to a whole variety of Web Content Management scenarios. But while I can do an effective job helping to demonstrate and sell it, there’s no frisson associated with doing so for me.

I like technology for what it can do for people. I like creating it because doing so is much like fashioning a beautiful, intricate bit of clockwork, or a complex bit of musical counterpoint. There is immense satisfaction in creating something that works elegantly and beautifully. Unfortunately, telling people about how terrific other people’s work is provides very little of the satisfaction that actually doing that creative work oneself. If I’m going to be in the technology world, I want to make cool stuff for normal people, not to sell cool technology to corporations.

So, Mutual Mobile. I’ll be starting there as an iOS Manager, which means that not only will I be getting to work directly on creating some great stuff for their impressive list of clients, but I’ll also be getting to help figure out the best way to help the other developers there do their best work as well. I’ll be hanging around a bunch of really smart folks, and will doubtless be learning tons about iPhone development and other mobile disciplines. The company seems like a marvelous place to hang one’s professional hat — a vibrant company culture, entirely self-funded with no investor money involved, just named by Forbes as one of America’s most promising companies, and has its company meetings at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite places in Austin. And the downside of facing a commute again is largely ameliorated by the fact that Texas State University runs a shuttle bus from San Marcos with wireless Internet to a park 4 blocks away from the office. Sweet!

I’m excited about this next adventure, and will be posting more about it once I’ve got my feet under me. Wish me luck!


Today I want to brag on my wife a bit.

Kathy is great at trying to meet the needs of people she meets. One group which has always tugged at her heartstrings is the homeless. Austin has a large homeless population, and we’re up that way often enough that we encounter them regularly. On our anniversary weekend, we spent Sunday morning at the Church Under the Bridge, a worship service cosponsored by a group of local churches for the benefit of the street people of that city.

The most common encounter we have with these folks is at traffic lights, where one will often be holding up a cardboard sign, ranging from the plaintive (“On the road, my dog needs food”) to the tongue-in-cheek (“Why lie? I need a beer.”). Of course, we have all of the usual concerns about handing out cash to people we don’t know. We have done so at times, but it’s always been with a measure of unease, not knowing whether that money will help or ultimately fuel some destructive downward spiral.

It was with these concerns in mind that Kathy hit on a brilliant idea: why not have the essentials for life packed up and ready to go whenever someone asks? She brainstormed, planned, visited the dollar store, talked with others, and soon had her first batch of large plastic bags filled with water bottles, nonperishable foods, shampoo, washcloths, hand sanitizer, soap, and often a small New Testament. We stashed these in the van, ready for our next stoplight encounter.

Now, when we come to a halt and spot someone in need, there’s a mad scramble to find a bag and to hand it over before the light turns green. The recipients have been almost universally excited to receive the bundles, and it’s been great fun to actually be able to help in such a tangible, immediate way.

As time has gone on, she’s started making larger batches of these bags, not only for us to carry around, but also for other interested people to have available. She’s distributed them to others in our church, to family members, and to a variety of friends. She’s had a couple of bag-making parties at the house, where the attendees will work together to assemble 100 bags in a couple hours. And she’s assembled and organized donations from a variety of sources, as well as found the cheapest and best places to get all of these essentials.

And now she has discovered Bags of Grace, an organization up in Austin with a similar mission, run by a dynamic woman named Rita with whom she shared a lunch and great conversation recently. I expect they’ll be meeting up more in the future to share strategies and combine efforts.

So if you’re interested in supporting some of “the least of these” in our society and want to help assemble or distribute these bags, give Kathy a call. She’ll be glad you did, and so will some people you’ve only ever met at a stoplight.

I like to add "Try the margaritas!" as a tip everywhere I check in with Foursquare. Best at hospitals, churches, schools, court, etc.

One of my graduate school advisers, poet Richard Kenney, describes poetry as "the mongrel art -- speech on song," an art he likens to lichen: that organism which is actually not an organism at all but a cooperation between fungi and algae so common that the cooperation itself seemed a species. When, in 1867, the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener first proposed the idea that lichen was in fact two organisms, Europe's leading lichenologists ridiculed him -- including Finnish botanist William Nylander, who had taken making allusions to "stultitia Schwendeneriana," fake botanist-Latin for "Schwendener the simpleton." Of course, Schwendener happened to be completely right. The lichen is an odd "species" to feel kinship with, but there's something fitting about it.

What appeals to me about this notion -- the mongrel art, the lichen, the monkey and robot holding hands -- is that it seems to describe the human condition too. Our very essence is a kind of mongrelism. It strikes me that some of the best and most human emotions come from this lichen state of computer/creature interface, the admixture, the estuary of desire and reason in a system aware enough to apprehend its own limits, and to push at them: curiosity, intrigue, enlightenment, wonder, awe.

- Brian Christian, The Most Human Human, p72

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Got a yen for an 8-bit me. Hooray, GIMP!

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This October, anyone can take an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class, taught by professors at Stanford, for free. (

This is great. But it gets better. In order to expand the scope of the class from the 200 people they've been teaching in person, the instructors will be using AI software to grade homework, aggregate discussion questions, and generally mediate interactions with students. Why bother? Because, to date, over 100,000 people have signed up for this course, and the enrollment is showing no signs of slowing.

The use of the software to scale allows students to get feedback on their individual homework assignments and quizzes, to interact with the instructors, and to get a ranking in the course compared to both other online attendees and the students enrolled at Stanford -- feedback that would be utterly impossible to provide to that number of people if the instructors didn't have the help of AI. It will be fascinating to see how the concepts taught in the class are used to administer it.

I've been intrigued by AI ever since reading Gödel, Escher, Bach way back when I was a teenager (and before I was really equipped to follow all of it). More recently, I've been increasingly interested in robotics and the applications thereof, which rely pretty heavily on some of the AI concepts that are in the syllabus for this class. And, of course, I have an enduring interest in games, which are probably where AI is used most often in modern computing.

So am I signing up? You betcha. And I hope some of my nerd friends will too, so that we can compare notes along the way.

This is one of the reasons I love living in the future: we have access to information and learning that is unparalleled in human history, opportunities to sit at the feet of experts that we could only have dreamed of even a decade or two ago. And wonderfully, access to an amazing education is increasingly being divorced from access to money, creating remarkable opportunities for people who are ready to work at their own learning, regardless of their backgrounds. I fully expect to be bested in the course rankings by smart 14 year olds in India and China, and will be excited to see it happen.

I'll post some updates and reflections along the way, and possibly homework assignments too if they turn out to be interesting. This should be a fun ride.

(Thanks to Singularity Hub for the tip-off. (

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Added photos from my Central Park ramble
NYC (30 photos)
30 Photos - View album

Earlier this week, I made a quick trip to New York City to do a work presentation for a potential client there — my first visit in 11 years. After my professional responsibilities were taken care of, I was able to slip away to roam about for an evening and a morning and reacquaint myself with the city that has insomnia.

Tuesday evening, I dropped by the TKTS booth in Times Square to see what I could get admission to at a reasonable rate. I decided upon the play Jerusalem after speaking with the knowledgable and helpful staff member stationed by the signs, who claimed that it “changed [his] life”. The play was wonderful: terrifically funny through the first two acts, concluding with some great human drama in act 3 — an ideal balance. The show was well worth seeing, though probably not one for the younger set, due to an avalanche of blue language. (Though at least it’s English-style cursing, so it might go over the heads of young Yanks.) As a bonus, on the way back to the apartment where I was staying, I got to watch the police clear Times Square due to a “suspicious package” that had been found there. It turned out to be benign. They let everyone back in 10 minutes after I left, though I was wryly amused to notice that they left the people in the Abercrombie store, which appeared to be within the presumed blast radius, right where they were.

Wednesday, I decided to explore Central Park before I had to leave to catch my flight. This turned out to be an excellent decision. In spite of the fact that I spent my four college years only about 30 miles up the road, I’d never really ventured much into the park, aside from the 1990 Paul Simon concert, for which I camped out the night before — a sleepover that, on this trip, I learned was illegal. Oops.

Starting at the southwest corner of the park, I zigzagged my way to the northeast corner, with many a detour along the way (some intentional, others due to my execrable sense of direction). Central Park is fabulous, and within 20 minutes, I was in love with it. Numerous terrific playgrounds, beautiful lakes, boats and bikes for hire, wonderful rambles through the woods, elm trees (which are fairly unusual after Dutch Elm Disease demolished the American population of these lovely behemoths), museums, pine forests, a carousel, castles, running trails, cafes, and theaters all vied for my attention as I passed, munching on an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox, just to get the full New York experience. It made for a delightful morning, though a bit exhausting, as I was lugging all of my traveling supplies on my back with me. (Fortunately, I travel ruthlessly light.)

It was great to get to spend a bit of time in this marvelous city. Crime rates have dropped precipitously over the past 10 years, and, most surprising of all to me, New Yorkers seem to have actually gotten quite friendly since I last visited. I don’t know if 9/11 had a tenderizing effect on gotham’s soul, or if there has been some other seismic cultural shift, but nearly everyone I spoke with was delightful.

So thanks, New York City, for a great time. Let’s not put off our next rendezvous another 11 years.
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