Well Met in Austin

The list is way too long, but I met a lot of folks in Austin that I have been looking forward to meeting for a while. (If I left you off, no offense! I met a ton of folks, and my memory isn't what it used to be.)

Esme Vos (Muniwireless.com), Rich MacKinnon (Austin Wireless), Craig Newmark (Craig's List), Eric Meyer (CSS god), Joshua Benton (we've met before, but nice to see him close to his Dallas home), David Isenberg (we've met before, but good to see him again), Jon Lebkowsky (all kinds of cool political activities), Dewayne Hendricks (met once before briefly), Molly Holzschlag (just as good looking as her Web site indicates--I'm talking about her CSS, people!), Cam Barrett (commiserated over hackers who had exploited both our systems), Adina Levin (Savemuniwireless.com), Mitch Ratcliffe, Jock Gill.

Most of the people I met were tired as was I. Something about jet lag, too much work, too much fun, and a conference knocked people out.

On my way back to Seattle, I think I spot Mitch, who lives about 40 minutes south of me, walking on the plane at Denver. Sure enough, I'm one of the last people to board and I spot him toward the back. I keep walking back, look at my ticket, look at how close I'm getting to his row, and see that we're seated window and aisle. We score an empty middle seat, one of a small handful on the plane. We have a conversation that lasts until we land, and it was great. An empty middle seat is an airline's gift to gab.

Visiting the Depths of Despair (Inc.)

Despair, Inc.'s Austin headquarters
Click the photo to see larger sizes.

I was walking down the street in Austin, exploring downtown a little -- which feels strangely deserted no matter what time of I day I walk around it -- and spotted this colorful sign. Note the business name at the top.

Despair, Inc., is the home of beautiful posters and insidiously funny slogans, such as this one gracing the image of a sinking frigate, its bow in the air: "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others."

I passed it again today and figured I'd stop in and see if they might be willing to sell me a mug and sign it for my wife, a big Despair, Inc., fan.

I mounted the steps to their second-floor office, opened a door, and found myself face to face with a bunch of designers working on huge displays. I explained my mission to the two guys working right inside the door, and they looked really pleased to have a fan.

I tried to make my exit after I found that they couldn't sell me anything, but they invited me in, gave me a free 2005 calendar, express dismay that their boss wasn't in the office, and confirmed that only a couple of other fans had found them.

I'll be sending them a copy of Real World Scanning and Halftones, third edition, a book for which I edited this edition and wrote chunks of previous editions. I figure they might enjoy it.

Wired's anniversary

Wired's anniversary
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There was no structure for this panel, and despite Ana Marie Cox's presence on the panel--her keynote was relatively packed but a CSS session the day before had more people--not a lot of people. Because there wasn't anything prepared or an outline, the panel devolved into the audience critiquing Wired, including a vociferous fellow who hadn't read Wired in years but was still critical of it for some reason.

I asked a question: with the demise of newspaper technology sections, is all tech coverage moving into magazines, or even into just Wired? Would there be other places to find interesting tech stories? It seems like a trend that Wired's circulation has increased while newspapers, with all of their other problems, are dropping personal tech (while generally keeping or expanding business tech).

Instead of getting expert commentary from the two editors--one from Wired, one from Tech Review--I got suggestions to read blogs and check out the SJ Mercury News.

I didn't want to be an ego junky and say, I've written for Circuits for seven years, contributed to Wired in the past, and run a definitive technology blog.

But I guess I assumed the panel would understand the audience is as qualified as they are. I think that every SXSWi attendee I've met could as easily be on stage in a panel as in the audience. This should encourage conversation, not patronage.

Cox, however, answered my question much more directly by noting that the kind of coverage that had been relegated to special sections is now totally integrated into newspapers and magazines in sections that never would have breathed a word about technology before.

SXSW: Bram Cohen: "I don't care"

I'm at the South by Southwest interactive conference (SXSWi) and just went to my first session with Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent. Unfortunately, Bram appears to have very little joy in his life, as a colleague remarked to me after the session was over. He speaks in an affectless voice, offers terse and often somewhat offensive replies to many questions, and doesn't seem to have much interest in anything but certain aspects of network programming. (A colleague says I'm a jerk: Cohen has Asperger's Syndrome, which can result in this disconnect in social behavior.)

BitTorrent is a client-based peer-to-peer file sharing tool which splits up a file into many pieces and seeds it across all peers. Even as the first site offering a file is connected to from a remote BitTorrent client and starts transferring data, that second client has started to advertise the availability of the pieces it already has to others.

But he had some fairly hilarious things to say. He would prefer to program without a computer: that is, the irritations of particular hardware and software problems drive him nuts because he isn't interested in the interface or the experience of computing. He also wants to help facilitate a better cross-platform approach to opening and managing ports through firewalls and network address translation; fortunately, the guy who developed Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) was in the audience.

The interviewer for the panel said that although last summer BitTorrent traffic was measured as 35 percent of the Internet's bandwidth usage, it's now up to 50 percent. I believe this because BitTorrent is used for enormous files and it's enormously successful. The larger files you want to distribute, the more likely you switch to BitTorrent, which means the more likely you

His repeated comment for the half of the session I sat in on was, "I don't care." This was in response to a large universe of questions about content, rights, and money. Some of the more interesting aspects of BitTorrent he ignored questions about or refused to answer. His interviewer asked him to talk about the business of BitTorrent and he quietly said to her, "I don't want to talk about that." Someone asked a good question about integrating BitTorrent into programs, and he decided he didn't understand the question.

I have to ask: if you're so diffident you can barely bring yourself to answer questions, why do you fly thousands of miles to Austin, Texas, and sit in front of an audience for an hour? To feed your ego?

I hate attending sessions in which the person acts as though it's a giant inconvenience that they're even there. Do the crime, do the time.

I had the same reaction to the Famous Celebrity who was onboard a Geek Cruise I was lecturing as part of. In the Q&A that he offered to give, he was incredibly desultory and insulting. This was partly because he was put out that about 90 percent of the people on the cruise (mostly spouses of either gender of the attendee at the conference) had no idea who he was.

Update: Hey, it turns out Cohen has Asperger's Syndrome--at least according to this Wired magazine article that someone who thinks I'm a jerk pointed me to--so this explains his behavior. So I'm apparently an insensitive clod because I should be tracking neurological impairments (which some people with Asperger's would argue is not an impairment) of well-known people and factoring that into all of my judgments.

I'm of two minds here: first, sure, he has a condition that is well known to produce the kind of behavior I discuss above; but, second, does that mean I can't say that he was rude and it was a bad session? Do I need to censor myself, or say, "warning: criticism of someone with a neurological condition follows." Or should his session have a label on the outside: "Note: please don't criticize the speaker's politeness or humor as he cannot vouch for either of those."

I don't see how you work out this situation and still allow fair comment.

SXSWi: Hi-Fi CSS, Gladwell, Gillmor

Flickr photos of these sessions

Img 3699The Hi-Fi CSS session was extremely nuts and bolts from four leading CSS practitioners. (Eric Meyer is here, too, in other CSS sessions.) Cascading Style Sheets lets you separate content from structure, meaning that you can avoid hard coding the appearance of a Web page. Rather, you tag elements of content and then use CSS style sheets to control their appearance.

Note that all five panelists were using Macs. But then correlate that with the fact that when Molly Holzschlag asked, the audience volunteered that most of them were coding Web pages in text editors, as were all of the panelists. (I use Movable Type for most of my Web sites now, so I use MT templates which aren't per se viewable in a Web design program. So I combine hand-coding of CSS with some visual previewing and templates.)

General notes: Make sure that the names you choose for CSS has a meaning, but note that function could change over time, thus naming something with a meaning related to appearance could make CSS less readable later. Terrible bugs in browsers means that CSS is ugly. Let's make CSS more like the beauty of nature over time. So occasionally we make CSS where it's not the perfect solution, but it's elegant. And, a nifty trick for doing double rollovers in which one rollover triggers another action elsewhere on the page using CSS (a:hover selector).

Malcolm Gladwell's keynote was very entertaining, drawn largely from his book, Blink, which I haven't read yet. It was a very interesting talk, though, and the main thrust is that people make very important decisions about life and death based on snap decisions that are provably inaccurate or wrong. But, at the same time, it's possibly to refine the information coming into a snap decision to improve the outcome of that decision. I'm a big fan of The Tipping Point, so will have to read Blink now. (Gladwell bon mot: I don't want my obit to read, "Malcom Gladwell, 87, author of The Tipping Point..." which is why he wrote a book he thinks has unrelated ideas in it.)

Dan Gillmor gave a talk that I've heard different renditions of from and about the ideas in We the Media. I like it as always, but don't have anything new to extract from it that Dan doesn't already say well on his own site and in the book.

How Much Have You Got?

Om Malik discovered that he has more than a terabyte (1024^3 or about a trillion bytes) of storage that he owns.

I countered in comments on his site that I own a terabyte just in backup drives! I have two sets (one with two drives and one with one drive) that are 500 GB each. I have 300 GB between my desktop and primary laptop and easily another two terabytes between three Linux rack-mounted servers, an Xserve, and two about-to-be-decommissioned Linux boxes. And a couple of PCs.

So I reckon I own over three terabytes of storage as a small businessman and consumer. How much do you all own?

SXSWi This Week

I'll be at the South by Southwest interactive (SXSWi) festival from Saturday (late night) to Wednesday morning. If you're there, ping me. I look just as beautiful as my home page photograph. The goal of this event for me: exposure to new ideas.