Returning to Austin after a break of a year, I was reminded that I quite like the place, with its functional downtown and a citizenry whom many of us would recognize as people rather than as stereotypical Americans. (My mental image of any American city always starts out with a climate of fear, a total dependence on driving, nothing for me to eat, a potential for gaybashing, and a certain echt-mainstream cultural taste. Only some parts of Austin are like that. And I’ve never seen so many buses running late at night on a weekend.) As a bonus, Austin features hundreds of neon signs, and not a single such sign that I saw was tacky.
I attended South by Southwest Interactive Festival and appeared on two panels, Does Design Matter? and the Accessibility Shootout. I brilliantly scheduled the takeoff of my return flight during the Shootout, which I of course had to fix.
When in Austin, guests of the Festival stay at esteemed colleague James Craig’s house and at the Hilton, a giant hotel that adopts boutique-hotel design features.
To my great surprise, I was the only person – the only person – doing any significant liveblogging of the conference. What the hell else were those guys (and very few women) doing with their laptops open all the time?
Whenever I used the term and half the time when actually putting it into practice, I thought of my old friend back home, who works in computers but uses the Web solely as a medium for posting nudie photos of himself on “dating” sites. To him, blogging – admittedly not the most euphonious word – is worthy of nothing but a sneer. I pressed on regardless, intent on creating Weblogging, if not television, without pity.
Break Bread with Brad
Almost as fun as in ’03, but modified this time for an atmosphere of a pub’s back garden rather than a restaurant. The eventual drop in temperature should have warned us what we’d be up against in the days to follow; I never thought I’d need four layers (only one of them long-sleeved) just to walk from hotel to conference centre. I found it surprisingly tiring to stand for six hours at the party.
At any rate, I yentaed as many seemingly-irreconcilable factions of Web design as I could, introducing, for example, the standardistas, Zeldman (for he is sui generis), the accessibilitistas, the British, and the Australians to each other. (As J the Z would mention in his keynote address, at that party he met “people in the accessibility/design community,” which hitherto would have been considered a matter–antimatter combination.)
Brad drew for door prizes, which I struck out on yet again, but the nation’s best theatre publicist came through with shining colours another day when he bestowed upon me the gift of a key fob declaring the truism A DRY CRACK IS A HAPPY CRACK.
It was amusing to note the reactions of the four Yahooligans as I asked them when, if ever, any Yahoo page would deliver valid code. They all sucked air immediately and murmured something about that whole discussion’s being rather controversial in-house. It seems they are embarrassed at their inability to get the monolith to do things properly. They’re trying, though, and I met the fellow who’s writing the company style guide.
An uncannily warm reception
At no time ever have I had so many people walk right up to me, or simply nod at me, or specifically turn around at a gathering to talk to me. And all of them were pleasant, most of them charming. (Eris Free badge-cruised me and exclaimed “ ‘Joe Clark’?! I love Joe Clark!” and hugged me on the street a few days later. “I’m not used to getting hugs in public,” I told her sheepishly. “Especially from girls.”)
I was not aware that I was so recognizable, respected, or popular. I find the whole thing quite touching, actually. It is another reason to travel to Austin: Once a year, I know I will be surrounded by friends.
- John Halcyon Styn’s surname is pronounced “Stin” and not “Stein.” I stopped him to ask and he immediately knew who I was.
- Shaun Inman is surprisingly wee but well-proportioned. Ask him about popping the question sometime.
- I spotted Will Pate (also wee) at the back of the room before Zeldman’s keynote and shook his hand as a fellow Islander. He’s insanely together and articulate for somebody who’s 23 years old. He has business acumen, which is something I admire in others as I would certain other traits I do not and never will have, like excellent skating ability or hairlessness. (Speaking of which, his hair and brows are jet-black and set off his dark-brown eyes. People say I look intense.)
- And actually, one’s esteemed colleague Matt Müllenweg (not the real pronunciation) was hauled up onstage by Zeldman to explain his history with SXSW. Matt had heard about the SXSW festival, forced himself to come here at some cost and privation three years back, and was inspired from there to co-write WordPress, Ping-o-Matic, and XFN. What Matt did, in effect, is recap the last three years of his life – the ages of 18 to 21. It’s quite shocking, you know. (And you’ve never heard an accent like his. You just haven’t.)
- I met a Gawker intern and Gawker’s former Web designer. And David Galbraith again, a former confrère of Denton. We spent quite a lot of time getting a fake Trixie knockoff font to install on David’s PowerBook, but it worked out later, as his presentation on cusswords at the “20 × 2” soirée was a keeper. (He favours “bollocks” over other, perhaps more quaint terms.)
- Mike Rundle, it turns out, is built like a brick shithouse and responded to my query “What’s it like being stocky?” factually and without irony. (“I prefer ‘thick.’ ” Who wouldn’t?)
- Mike Davidson of ESPN fame (though he actually works for Disney in Seattle, a combination few know about) looks about my age but is actually 30. More importantly, he is the first true and actual playa I’ve ever met. He is so good at talking on his Treo and talking to you simultaneously that you don’t realize until it’s all over that he spent about a quarter of his time telling whatever homeboy was on the blower with him to meet him
at Sixth and Brazos. Naw. Naw, get down here. Sixth and Brazos. Naw. Come down here. No, we’re here. Having drinks. Rightand then hanging up while smiling your way all the while.
- I believe Mike is the co-inventor of the meme of bumping Treos, in which you dangle your Treo by its aerial and whack it against the Treo of your new friend. I thought the machines exchanged each other’s numbers or something when you did that, but no – it’s just a kind of high-five action, a sort of booyah like Marines do when they knock fists.
- The foregoing events, I should note, took place in an actual singles’ bar. That was a first. Wheelchair ramps left and right (as they indeed pervasively are everywhere in this town).
- Anil Dash said hello to me once and nodded one other time. I think you’re fine, Anil. I just want better software from your company.
- Jay Allen of Movable Type was chatted up about accessibility. It’s now on their roadmap, but that division of Six Apart apparently has rather less money than some other divisions. I then spent the next three days trying to put him and MC May Techno Dance Remix together. (Wendy Chisholm later bumped into Jay. Perhaps something shall come of it.)
- International megastar Jason Kottke was observed in two typical states: Seated on the floor all by himself as if forlornly, even in a room replete with empty seats, or on the floor surrounded by a vast retinue of geeks.
- Before Zeldman’s panel, I couldn’t find a working outlet, so I marched smartly to the back of the hall, plunked down my computer, and loudly said “Jason Kottke! You can mind my PowerBook.” He looked up, then glanced down. “Oh, hi, Joe.” (Later, I gave up and retrieved the machine. “Fuck it. I’m going commando,” I said.)
- In another incident, I told him “Jason, there’s no need to be lonely. You’re among friends.”
- (Does he mean me, by the way? I rather doubt it, as I was surrounded by friends at all times and never sat on the floor with great manifest disconsolation even once.)
- I taught Jason Schüpp how to replace the U.S. flag in his menubar with an Australian one. (If you never use foreign input methods, you don’t need anything in your menubar, actually.)
- Ian Lloyd (op. cit.) bunked with me at the Hilton. After Brad’s party, as I was dragged interminably through downtown streets in search of pizza for the flashmob I unaccountably found myself in, I. Lloyd was heard to ask me three times “So you’re saying you’ve never ever been drunk?” Nope. I’ve never, ever drunk, Ian.
- Could there possibly be more redheads in the same building? And not just “Ahna” Marie Cox, either.
- Bowman was a tad snippy for the first time ever.
It’s a good system, though. And it could certainly work at SXSW. Over and over again I stopped myself from typing q+ into my liveblog notes when I wanted to interject. Consider it a suggestion for next year.
I barely had a minute to myself. On two occasions I exercised my freedom to choose a quiet night of channel-surfing onto, and usually right on past, Fox News. My esteemed colleagues chose to get shitfaced each and every night, on one occasion leaving a Hilton hospitality suite only at 0600 hours.
The so-called Web Awards
Have you ever been witness to an abomination? Well, at the so-called Web Awards, we were.
The most curious component was the fact that I recognized at most six of the Web sites up for honours. Does that mean my Web-browsing is limited? (Impossible, frankly.) Or that the Web is now so huge that entire microcosms can be born and mature outside of one’s view?
As great doors were thrown open at the Hilton, we assembled into factions. Our round tables were perhaps an outdated design feature of a room whose name itself speaks of an outdated celebration, the ballroom. We endured significant mangling of Web-site names (rehearse, people) and a nervous and unpolished delivery by a third-tier American television hostess whose only redeeming feature is the unintended joke value of her surname: Swisher. She exhibited thorough and unremitting lack of confidence, dysfluency, and nervous overcompensation. She relied excessively on cheap cracks that were so easily countered that Jeremy Keith at our table told me to behave after I countered them a bit too tartly.
Justice was, however, served when The Meatrix won in whatever category it was entered in. A human-sized cutout of Moopheus accepted the award, and his request for a moment of silence to honour imprisoned animals elicited not silence but hisses. Klassy.
I do not proselytize veganism and do not even like to talk about it much, but here’s something meaty for you to chew on: Almost nothing I do causes animals to suffer. How’s your after-dinner karma?
In a further faux pas, the organizers omitted the show’s final award, in which mistress of ceremonies Swisher was unanimously judged not the winner.
Reasons to bring along two colours of pen
I had my first book signing, if one excludes the book launch. J the Z, Kelly Goto (same vowel in both syllables; it’s Japanese, not a BASIC command), and I sat inside a pen in the SXSW trade show. (Ooh, help me, Dr. Moopheus!) Some other author – who, consistent with the typical percentage in a crowd that size, disliked me on sight – sat next to me.
I signed books for two people.
I love my international bestseller.
I maintained good spirits during that epochal book-signing even though I had just visited the Knowbility booth, where a woman staffing it gave me peeved, taunting, fight-picking, and minimal answers to bland, on-topic questions. When she and her colleague both jokingly referred to me as “notorious,” I walked away immediately. I wouldn’t try that again, people, and yes, I am writing about it here.
But was I done with Knowbility? Not hardly. At the AIR Awards, I peered at the chow table and was asked by a woman if I had a food ticket. She held two of those tickets – really tokens – between her fingers. “No,” I said. “How would I get one?” “This is a private party. You either have one or you don’t.” “Well, I could leave,” I said, noticing MC May Techno Dance Remix right nearby. I sat down on the bad kids’ Ikea couches at the back of the room – also situated inside the trade show – and simply watched. A certain degree of fast-typed instant-messaging was carried out in the ensuing moments.
I nonetheless had no trouble appearing for the Knowbility’s Accessibility Shootout the next day. (In fact, James and I were the only ones to visit the green room and prepare beforehand.) The premise is simple and easily reused at other conferences: You show up, enter your URL in a random draw, and, if selected, we examine your site and evaluate you on grammar and poise (and standards compliance and accessibility).
We had a near-equal mix of contestants who clearly knew what they were doing and people who clearly did not. James and I worked on CSS and basic HTML and semantics; I checked in Mac browsers (and Lynx), while James used various Windows tricks, including Fangs and a few other simulators. Only one of the sites we surveyed would actually need to be rebuilt from scratch; the rest are fixable in minutes to hours.
(We started working on one site before we figured out that the developer wasn’t in the audience. [“You must be present to play.”] It refused to load, telling me it required Internet Explorer 4.0. “Your site won’t load in my browser. You flunk,” I said, apparently to no one in particular. Feel free to use that as a guiding principle.)
Apart from that, I strove to be resolutely positive and, I think, succeeded – plus I signed a few more books. In a delightful added twist, the bad kids congregated at the back of the room (Davidson and Inman, this means you) and muttered amongst themselves.
- I lunched and breakfasted at a famous Mexican joint where the only items I could eat – the only ones – were a salty and almost buttery white rice that I quite enjoyed and a side order of tomatoes and lettuce. I know parakeets who eat better than that.
- At any rate, I had a good time and felt well-positioned, urbane, and full of morning promise as I chatted with Kelly, Jason Santa Maria (“Jason fucking Andrew fucking Andrew Santa Monica”), and J the Z, all the while ignoring Lyle Lovett’s walking in and out. (You can’t treat celebrities special.)
- The Sunday-morning AIR/Knowbility breakfast was also all right, featuring about 18 people, half of whom I didn’t know and never got introduced to. Bob Regan manfully tolerated riding in James’s car with me en route, and I met the Dreamweaver product manageress, neither of whom wore a seatbelt. And I saw John Slatin again, who recruited me for a WCAG task, put me in my place about his status as a working English professor, and gave me useful advice on another topic.
- I would say John is broadly acceptable. Actually, John got to re-enact the textbook scenario of the guide-dog owner – walking through a restaurant kitchen (from the front of the house to the back patio).
How not to treat celebrities special
- I ran back to the sterile and arid landscape of the convention centre in, I hoped, enough time to snag a seat next to a power outlet. I attended the Ana (that is, “Ahna”) Marie Cox keynote interview. I headed for the hidden elevator (proven faster and in a better location than the endless escalators) and walked right up to a red-haired woman in a grey shawl chatting on a shoephone. I interrupted her: “Is this like taking the elevator with Madonna?” I asked, flashing back on an old Musto column. “No, it’s like taking an elevator with me,” replied Ana Marie Cox. I introduced myself and mentioned the various Gawkerists I knew and/or had tussled with, and snapped a superexclusive picture. Historical completists will be interested to learn that this photograph is a reshoot. Ms Cox had spontaneously waved her hands in this fetching and girlish manner, but I muffed the shot. She gamely re-created the immediate past for photographic posterity.
- The worst sushi bar on the planet is surely Saké on Sixth, where the waitress is a homely blond girl, the barman is a skinny white frat boy in a baseball cap (as are two-thirds of the customers), Mexicans make the food (with – and this is a first – papery, desiccated rice), and the décor looks suspiciously like an old tavern dressed up with a few yards of muslin meant to represent boatsails. If this is all you find open in Austin, I suggest going to bed hungry.
- At the closing dinner, the British, a few Americans, Dave “Tough Room” Shea, and I all laughed uproariously. I ate the worst food presented by any restaurant whose server had promised me I’d be taken care of. (I ordered straight off the menu with one condiment substituted. What I got was a hamburger bun loosely packed with half a portobello mushroom burnt to a crisp, two tomato slices, and half a plate of potato chips.) The shaven-headed, white-soul-patched, Fu Manchu–mustachioed waiter gave a bravura delivery of the beer options on the menu that would easily eclipse nine out of ten Oscar acceptance speeches, lacking only the spectacle of his getting bent over and kissed by Adrien Brody.
- At the table, I used Mark Trammell’s Treo to browse my Web site (it interprets stylesheets quite well) and, in an almost-insane cascade of input method upon communication protocol atop platform, telnetted wirelessly into Matt’s Linux box in Houston to check my mail in Pine.
Bruce has left the building, as has the magic
We were the first SXSW attendees to enjoy a Bruce Sterling closing party not held at his place. In other words, the first Sterling closing party at which Sterling was just as much of a guest as everyone else. The first one, it could be said, that bordered on pointlessness. The shark has jumped, Bruce, even if I did spend the week dining out on your phrase “people were showing up and they were showing up in buddy lists.”
I wandered around with Mark Trammell’s spare phone (yes) and, unaccustomed to such devices, had to get used to its vibrate mode. I enjoyed standing on the lawn talking to my esteemed colleague back home and saying hi to one person I knew after another.
Upstairs at the building-blocks table, I worked for some twenty minutes to fashion an asymmetrical structure, eventually giving in to hegemonic symmetry. A woman took advantage of a lull in the conversation to lob a bomb. Joe Clark! she said. I used to work at Chronicle Books and we got an E-mail from you. Anyway, we didn’t send a response. No, I remember getting something, I said. I could check my E-mail; it came from a woman. We don’t give out editor names, she said. Oh, editor names are easy to find, I replied. They’re easy to find, she said, but it was your attitude of “I’m too good for the slush pile.” Well, frankly, I am too good for the slush pile, I told her. Anyway, the book I’m working on isn’t suitable for Chronicle. We don’t publish your kind of books, she said. I interrupted to tell her she didn’t know what kind of book I was writing. We only publish pop culture, architecture— And graphic design, I interrupted again, which I go back 25 years in.
At that point, self-aware heterosexualist pretty boy Jaxon told us to knock it off. This was after refusing to answer a simple question about what he does. Troll for girls at austics’ tables at closing parties, I guess – and do a bang-up job at conferences.
Any luck with that chick there, Jaxon? You can have her.
And speaking of books
Nouveaux Riders editors were spoken to.