Philly Give Camp 2013

This weekend I attended Philly Give Camp. At this weekend-long event, volunteers give their services to nonprofits who need them. The event took place at the Microsoft building in Malvern, PA. I also got a chance to try the Microsoft Surface. I worked hard, played hard, and helped a worthy cause.

My buddy Nick picked me up at 08:30 in the morning. It felt too early for me, but I pulled myself together. I couldn’t believe that I would actually go to a Microsoft building. I love my Apple products! We found it easily enough, a very impressive structure. They seem to use it for demos. We even saw a demo server, a large box with blinking lights and racks upon racks of processors and hard drives. Pretty cool.

We met a Microsoft employee named Dani. He said he read my article about Indy Hall. Nick asked him if I could try a Surface, their new tablet. He said sure, and got it ready while I had a blueberry muffin and Earl Grey.

The SUrface looks kind of like an iPad, but smaller. It has a solid feel, Dani said they made it from liquified magnesium. They really intend you to use it in landscape orientation as evidenced by the kickstand. This works well visually, though many product designers believe that vertical touch screens don’t work well over time. Still the integrated design feels solid but heavier. It has more weight than my iPad, even with its keyboard cover.

The Surface also has a keyboard cover. It actually has two: a touch keyboard and a tactile one. Dan swapped the one for the other. It felt good enough, a little thin, but definitely usable. I know that for me, having a nice tactile keyboard cover for my iPad has made all the difference. I use my tablet much more because of it..

We figured out how to turn on Narrator, though Dani admitted to not knowing about accessibility. It came up in the settings screen with a hint about how to see all the keystrokes. I figured out how to do basic navigation, and found my way through the list. At the end, the list of commands actually had a disclaimer which said that Narrator provides basic functionality for when people cannot use a more full featured screen reader. It also said that Narrator does not work with all applications. That pretty much said it all. Compare that with VoiceOver, which functions by design as a full featured screen reader, the real deal.

Despite this I started bumbling my way around Windows. I couldn’t get the swipe gestures to work for some reason, but remembered enough from using Windows XP years ago that I started doing some things. I tried the finance program, since that feature sold me on my iPhone. It started reading me the market indices, but would cut off when reading the percent. That made the experience feel less than perfect, and certainly less than what Apple offers.

I made my way to Internet Explorer, and started browsing my blog. I like the way I could easily change my view i.e. navigating by headings. Interestingly, it did not announce headings as such. I read some text, but didn’t have a chance to explore further. Honestly, even though I made some critical points here, I had a better experience than I had envisioned. Part of me felt ready to absolutely skewer this Microsoft iPad knockoff, but another part said to keep an open mind and just observe things from a neutral perspective. I feel glad I did, and honestly grateful to Dani for letting me try it. It works better than Narrator in previous versions of Windows, I’ll give it that. And I heard that NVDA will have a free screen reader for the Surface, which could make things exciting.

Some friends asked if I wanted to come brainstorm, so I decided to go. I walked into a big room with a few nonprofits meeting. Nick and I went around, Nick leading and asking if anyone needed help with accessibility testing, Unix administration, or general WordPress help. The last one seemed like the most in demand, lots of people needed help with WordPress. But nobody needed my help. We walked around a few rooms. It began to feel like a game. Then, one of the organizers told me that a new nonprofit just arrived, and maybe they needed help.

I came into another room and found two nice women named Judy and Marge. They run Tikvah Residence, a volunteer organization that provides housing to adults with mental health needs. Tikvah means Hope in Hebrew. They have run it for thirteen years, but didn’t have a web site yet. They came to Give Camp to get volunteers to build one for them. I settled in and began discussing what they wanted. We began to get a good idea of things, then took a break for lunch. They didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian options, but I got by. If we went to an Apple campus they would have.

After lunch we got down to business. Or at least we wanted to. They told us we had to move upstairs for some unknown reason. I also met a guy named Ben and a girl named Jess. We became the core team. Nick and another guy named Dan also chipped in when they could.

We found our dynamic. Ben and I know about Linux/Apache/MYSQL/PHP servers. Jess and I have WordPress experience, with Jess having the most. She likes using the Genesis framework, so they had a discussion about which theme looked the best. An organizer gave us a free hosting account with a WordPress install. The server went very slowly, but I said nothing, considering what I paid for it.

I got a basic installation going. Jess began installing the theme. Everything froze. The server crashed. We lost everything!

This really enraged me. Several hours of work had just evaporated. I swore and threatened to just start over on my server and let the chips fall where they may. Dani runs the server, so Jess and I went to seek him out. He apologized profusely. I said I understood, since I also run servers. Shit happens. He gave us a new account on a different server. So we had lost everything, but had a new server. We went back upstairs with the bad and the good news.

I felt kind of burned out, but redid what I had done. We all pitched in. Jess installed the theme right away and it worked. Before long we had gotten things back to the point before the tragedy. The time had come for dinner. I had pasta and salad, not bad. They ran out of water however, so I had to have Sprite Zero. It reminded me of the Bill Hicks routine about Orange Drink, especially given the setting. “You know, when I’m done ranting about an elite power that rules the planet under a totalitarian government, my throat gets parched. That’s why I drink Orange Drink!” They did have good brownies though.

After we dinner we finished what we had started. I even did what I wanted to do in the beginning, I made the site more accessible. Jess put in alt tags to the images. Ben came up with some great descriptions. If any screen reader users visit the site they will enjoy the images! It made me think about how many images go completely unnoticed. I’ll bet web sites have tons of them. Jess also felt thankful because she has a blind brother and sister-and-law.

The day had gotten on and we all felt frazzled. I figured I wouldn’t come back the next day, but Ben said they had a carpooling document in their directory of Google Docs. As any blind person knows, Google Docs suck with a screen reader. And yes, I did see the instructions: Screen readers hit Alt-backtick for keyboard shortcuts. I use a Mac, I don’t have an alt key, and I couldn’t figure out what they meant by a backtick. I tried Command-backslash but to no avail. The irony of reading Google Docs on a Mac in a Microsoft campus did not escape me either. Eventually it didn’t matter, because a girl named Andrea overheard my plight and agreed to give me a ride the next day. I thought I wouldn’t come back but realized that now I would. I thought the article would end here, but now realized that it wouldn’t.

Nick and I wanted to go out for beers. A girl named Gabrielle came with us, who worked with Nick on another project. We found ourselves at the incredible Dock Street Brewery and pub. This local brewery not only makes and serves their own beer, but they use the same yeast to make incredible pizza. I had their Man Full of Trouble Porter and we split a Sicilian pizza. It had tomato sauce, garlic, olives, capers, walnuts, and fresh herbs. Amazing! We all followed that up with a Prince oatmeal stout. The incredible pizza and beer had washed away our woes. We stepped outside feeling amazing.

A homeless guy came up to us. He said he just had some Oodles of Noodles, and wanted to buy some chicken wings, and asked if we had any change. We said no even though we obviously did. Then Nick called him back over and gave him the last two slices of pizza. I wouldn’t have minded it for the next day, but then I thought: well we did just go to Give Camp after all, and if that pizza blew my mind imagine how it will make him feel. He thanked us and we went on our way.

While eating dinner, Gabby’s friend Tom joined us. We discovered that they would go near where I live, so they offered to bring me with them. I said good night to Nick and went on my way. I had to choose whether I should just go home, or join them at their friend’s for a few minutes to have fancy cocktails. As we talked, we realized that we had some interesting things in common, including Discordianism and supporting Ron Paul. That felt like a sign so despite having to get up in a few hours I went with them to have fancy drinks at a complete stranger’s house.

We walked in and the smell of cigarette smoke immediately hit me. I think I started getting a contact high off the nicotine. I figured when in Rome smoke like the romans, so pulled out a tobacco pipe, much to their amusement. We all introduced ourselves and they gave me a drink with whiskey and spices. And on the television I saw they had on Reservoir Dogs. And of course I walked in right at the good part. We all relaxed but Gabby and I had to get up the next morning, so we said our farewells and I got home.

Somehow I got up the next day. I recalled Gabby’s words from the previous night. “It’s only one weekend…” “We work hard, we play hard…” “It’s ok, it doesn’t happen very often…” “You’ve just gotta soldier through it…” “We only have to make it to two o’clock…” Andrea met up with me and we returned to the Microsoft campus.

We found each other and continued working. Judy had to get a domain, and since nobody else had arrived she just decided to go with stupid Godaddy, which I won’t even link to. No matter, she got a good deal and they had their domain. Ben really wanted them to use another hosting provider and I sort of did too, but this seemed like the path of least resistance, plus it limited my liability. Lunch came and this time they had a selection of sandwiches from Subway. I had an good vegetarian wrap, though ate it with some trepidation, since pretty much all of my family has gotten food poisoning from there.

We would have the final wrap-up a little after 01:00 so that limited our time. Still we worked as hard as we could, and somehow or the other came into existence. Judy said it felt like giving birth to a child, a good analogy, considering both can have their share of troubles. I thought of how the process of going from nothing to something invokes the process of creation, even on a small scale like building a web site.

We made it to the wrap-up and everyone presented their projects. Since I want to speak at the upcoming RubyMotion conference in Belgium, my fellow teammates nominated me to give our speech. I talked and Ben handled the visuals. Everyone laughed at something I said and applauded so I think it worked out well.

I now have to take a quick aside to tell you about a kid named Jesse. Nick first saw him the previous day and recounted to me a very funny scene. Jesse and his Mom stood at one of the original Surfaces, one of the large prototypes big enough to fill a table, playing chess. Behind them, a huge bank of servers blinked and beeped behind a pane of glass. Nick said it looked like how people in the 1950’s thought the future would look – a huge computer powering a huge screen on a table with a kid and his mom playing a game.

Jesse also attended the wrap-up and spoke for his group about doing WordPress work. Then something very funny happened. A group couldn’t make it, so made a Youtube video to play instead. Dani started streaming it and the video buffered. “Now, see, that’s Google doing that.” he quipped. He had taken a lot of friendly banter, working for Microsoft and all, and he would soon take more. Without missing a beat, Jesse replied: “Yeah, but it’s on an internet connection over a Microsoft network.” The entire crowd clapped and howled with laughter. Zing! Jesse should get an award for his comment, and Dani should get an award for handling it with aplomb.

After the presentations Andrea said she could take me home, and we all agreed that we could do any remaining work remotely. I suddenly realized that I would leave all these people. It felt exactly like going home from summer camp. You make friends and do things together, then suddenly you have to leave. You feel the connections torn away. Maybe you’ll see some of them next year, maybe you’ll see some of them even sooner, maybe you’ll never see some of them again. The full weight of the event hit me and I realized its value.

We exist to bring our highest potential good (heaven) into physical reality (earth). By the end of the day, a bunch of new friends came together and actually built a web site. When I saw it at the end it really brought it home. Everyone benefited. We had a very long weekend, but really enjoyed Give Camp. It feels good to give to people who need your services. I forget that not everyone owns their own server and can just throw up a new WordPress installation in five minutes. The founders of Tikvah Residence didn’t know anything about how to manage a web site, and now have something that should serve them for years, or at least until the next Give Camp. See you then!