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July 19, 2004

A Geek, A Blog, and A Trip to Boston

A number of us will be writing our thoughts here during our week in Boston. I figured I'd start now since the crazy days prior to leaving are as much a part of the experience as being there.

The birth of this site so close to the convention is somewhat coincidental. Kicking off with the convention as our first big focal point, though, is a great way to get started. The role of this blog, however, goes beyond Boston, the crucial coming months of the national campaign and even the November election.

I'm going to dedicate this first personal entry to providing some backstory on Documenting Democracy.

I'm 30 years old and have voted as a Democrat in the three national elections for which I've been old enough to participate. That means I was on the Clinton bandwagon the year I graduated high school. I've always said I was a Democrat when conversations turned to politics, but I didn't become a "card carrying member", per se, until this year. Three years of the Bush admin will do that to a person.

To make a very long story short, I've found the party to be an incredibly inviting and collaborative organization. Photos I took on my own at the state convention (where I attended as a delegate) led to an invitation by the state party to be the official photographer for the delegation in Boston at the DNC. This turn of events came as a tremendous and pleasant surprise, especially since I do not do this professionally. My role is voluntary, unpaid and gives me tremendous pleasure knowing I can possibly make a positive contribution of my time and effort as we head into November (and beyond).

My actual profession is that of programmer, network engineer and all around geek. Technology is at the very center of most everything I've pursued in life. I was co-founder of the first ISP in central Virginia in the mid 90's when I was 21 and eventually ended up at Sweet Briar College where I have been for eight years. SBC is a fantastic place and the academic environment suits me well in many ways, both socially and professionally.

I'm a major advocate of open-source software and spend most of my time knee-deep in Linux, various programming languages, and the Internet. The line between work and play is fairly blurry since the ingredients are often the same and only the task or the audience tends to change. Whether it is digital photography, building retro-arcade games, or maintaining the digital infrastructure of a small liberal arts college... the technical building blocks remain much the same.

This blog is another one of those creative outlets and the solution to a problem I was encountering: where to put all the photography. That's how it started anyway. As I was thinking up a name for it, I started to think in terms of the larger picture of bringing together the voices of people I was meeting. There have always been lots of e-mails circulating sharing links and essays. Numerous websites exist announcing the events or achievements of one local committee or another. It all felt a little disjointed. Why not tie it all together and provide a common resource for all of these pursuits? How about inviting others to comment, debate and discuss events?

The name, Documenting Democracy, seemed to fit equally well whether it became a personal site to host photographs or grew into a community sharing the work of many like-minded people. With the personal goal of housing photos in mind and a larger desire for others to join in and expand its scope, I set about piecing it all together. Besides, every geek loves an excuse to play with his toys.

The system is based entirely on open-source software. I wouldn't have it any other way. At its heart is Linux. The web server is Apache and the blogging engine is MovableType. Both the blog and some custom applications I wrote in Python rely heavily on MySQL as a database backend. E-mail accounts associated with the site can be reached through a web interface called IMP and mailing list services are provided by the powerful application, Mailman. Each and every one of these applications was created in an open, collaborative, and democratic manner within the global Internet community. Combined, they are the engine behind a website with the primary goal of documenting the democratic process in Virginia. The participants in this endeavor are not paid staff of an organization, but rather a community of citizen volunteers with a common set of goals.

After getting the skeleton up and going, I started sharing it with friends to get input. I was thrilled when Laura Bland of the Democratic Party of Virginia enthusiastically embraced the concept. Since that time, I've mostly been consumed with monkeying around with the innards of the site, attending other events, preparing to leave, etc. It's only now that the more personal side of the blog is starting to get its voice and that is going to do nothing but grow in the coming days as more participants get involved.

While I'm in Boston, my primary focus will be taking pictures. Those pictures are useless, though, without an audience and a means of sharing them. I will be sorting, editing, and posting those photos here while my colleagues around me will be captioning, writing articles and sharing their experiences in online diaries through this site. We hope our friends and colleagues back home in Virginia will also provide their thoughts, comments and essays in the same manner.

I'll do my best to blog on here as well as share my experiences as a first time convention attendee. Naturally, I'll also be writing a lot about the technical side of digital photography, the workflow and maintaining a blog in what is likely to be a circus-like atmosphere. Hopefully these thoughts and insights will have some appeal outside of the political arena as well. Who knows, the experience might become a working model for how not to blog a convention. I suppose we'll all find out together. :) That, though, is the fun of it all. I've got faith we'll achieve something positive.

My apologies if this is overly long, but I felt it necessary to tell some of the backstory so I can focus on where we're headed in the coming days. My wife and I fly out Thursday evening and there is a lot to do before we leave. I'll take time to write, though, in between the numerous preparations I've got ahead of me these next three days. If my narrative bores you, you're always welcome to check out the well established blogs in the left column... they update every half hour.

- Aaron

Posted by amahler at July 19, 2004 08:22 PM


Aaron, great to "meet" you -- we can't have enough geeks in the party.

One of my pet projects is actually to get more geeks, especially Linux fans and Open Source advocates, involved with the Democrats. Any thoughts?

I look forward to watching Documenting Democracy develop, and to your posts from the convention--especially the technical ones.

Posted by: Shaula Evans at July 20, 2004 03:16 PM

Aaron, something that I've been wanting to create is a pingable Virginia politics blog aggregator, such that people that maintain blogs about Virginia politics can just send a trackback to the central site, creating a central point to read people's writings about state political matters. Any interest in making that a subset of Documenting Democracy?

Failing that, a listing of Virginia politics blogs (or, in the case of folks like me, links directly to politics categories of more general blogs) would certainly be useful. I've found a scarce few blogs written by Virginians with an interest in politics, but I'd love to read some more.

Posted by: Waldo Jaquith at July 21, 2004 01:12 AM

Hey Aaron,
Great Job putting this together. Have a Great Time at the Convention. Get me a nice shot of the Kerry Girls!(just kidding--no I'm not!)
Seriously,this blog is a great idea.Virginians need to know that there are a lot of Dems in the woodwork and maybe this'll help bring them out to meet each other for the sake of DEMOCRACY.
Looking forward to meeting up with you to talk "shop"sometime!

Posted by: Rayzor Bachand at July 21, 2004 04:00 PM

Waldo, there are a number of good Virginia poltical blogs floating around out there.

My all-time favorite is Bob Griendling's Commonwealth Commonsense, for Virginia-specific political content and outstanding analysis.

There are also (in no particular order):

http://tsuredzuregusa.blogspot.com (my blog)

Plus, I am working with the alumni of Campaign 101 to set up a collaborative blog to explore youth perspectives on politics and policy in Virginia. We're just getting it off the ground, but you can see the barebones at http://c101.blogspot.com .

If you know of any other Virginia political blogs, please let me know. And I'll be keeping an eye on yours, too.

Posted by: Shaula Evans at July 22, 2004 12:11 AM

Thanks for the list, Shaula -- I've added all of them to my blogroll and, where possible, to my feed reader. Now if we could just get them all aggregated... :)

Posted by: Waldo Jaquith at July 22, 2004 02:26 PM


The site is great. Thanks for taking the time to set it up. It will provide Virginia Democrats with a unique way to experience the convention. It will also help strengthen the party by providing a source of information and discussion in the future. Great job! Have a great time at the convention and tell Ruth Anne, Laura and crew that I said hello.

Posted by: Rodney Taylor at July 22, 2004 02:42 PM