Journal tags: americanaugust



August in America, day six

Jessica and I spent today in full-on tourist mode in Philadelphia, walking its streets and exploring its rich heritage.

Philadelphia, home to the Liberty Bell and the American constitution; the city where the founding fathers toiled at their work, forging a revolution and a country; home to the country’s first library and its first bank; in many ways, the birthplace of the modern world.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. Here’s the important part: today I had my first ever Philly cheesesteak.

Every Philadelphian has a very strong opinion about where the best cheesesteak in the city is to be had, and we went with a highly-recommended, very popular spot: Jim’s. There was a line out the door. This is a daily occurrence.

Jessica at Jim's

When you eventually get to the point of ordering, you are strongly encouraged to quickly and clearly state your cheese choice and onion preference (a Boolean value). Then you pay. Then you find a seat, if you’re lucky. Then you eat.

State your cheese Cheese steak

On the recommendation of the internet, I went with the cheese wiz option. Technically, I’m not even sure if it’s actually a cheese. But boy, it sure works a treat in combination with the delicious beef and onions. The cheese wiz acted as a mayonnaise-like lubricant as well as a flavour ingredient. All in all, it was absolutely superb. If all cheesesteaks are this good, I can understand this city’s pride in—and obsession with—its contribution to the sandwich world.

After that we wandered around and took in the sights until it was time to meet up with Jenn and Sutter for a beer at sunset while watching an infinite supply of joggers run up the Rocky steps and raise their arms in the air at the summit.

August in America, day five

This morning, Jessica and I left Alexandria, but not by plane. No, we travelled by a more elegant transport from a more civilised age. We took the train. In just a few short, fairly comfortable wifi-assisted hours, we arrived in Philadelphia.

Ah, Philadelphia! It’s my first time in the city of brotherly love, though of course I’ve seen it depicted in many films. Why, the very train station we arrived at was the scene of the opening murder in Witness. Then there’s Rocky, Mannequin, National Treasure, everything ever made by M. Knight Shyamalan, and of course, Philadelphia.

Jenn showed us around her neighbourhood, and we grabbed a coffee at a suitably hipsterish café where the music was either from the 80s or completely new but heavily inspired by the 80s.

The plan for the evening was to go to a baseball game. When in Rome. But alas, the weather was too treacherous to trust so we went to a bar and participated in a pub quiz instead, ably assisted by the internet’s Kevin Cornell.

During the course of the quizzical proceedings, we all partook in a round of picklebacks. Jenn had previously familiarised me with the concept. A pickleback consists of a shot of Irish whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. The theory is that the pickle juice completely erases any trace of the whiskey you’ve just knocked back. I, however, was very sceptical of the whole idea. It just sounded disgusting to me. I mean, Irish whiskey? Really? Ugh!

The pickle juice, on the other hand, was delicious.

August in America, day four

Today was day two of An Event Apart DC and I opened up the show. I was very nervous because this was a brand new talk. I wasn’t sure whether I would come in way under time, or way over time, or whether anybody would be interested in the subject matter.

As it turned out, the timing was okay. I got through a lot of stuff faster than I was expecting, so that left me time for a good ol’ rant towards the end of the talk. I ranted about progressive enhancement. I ranted about digital preservation. I ranted about “the cloud”. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people think I’m an angry person (I’m really not; honest).

It seemed like people really enjoyed the talk. There were lots of positive tweets and lots of people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the “big picture” nature of my talk. But I’m not going to be complacent about it: a few years ago at An Event Apart in Boston I gave a less technical talk than usual and it seemed like people really liked it (positive tweets, kind words, etc.) …but then when the feedback surveys were totted up, I ended up getting the lowest rank I had ever received. So time will tell what the audience really thought of my talk today.

In any case, I enjoyed it. As usual, I just got up on stage and geeked out for an hour to a captive audience about stuff that really excites me. How cool is that?

I was glad to have the talk done. Afterwards I could relax and enjoy all the other talks, and have a bit of a chat with some of the smart and friendly attendees.

Now that the conference is over, it’s time for me to depart Alexandria. Next stop: Philadelphia.

August in America, day three

It was a beautiful day today but I spent most of it indoors. Today was the first day of An Event Apart DC here in Alexandria. As usual, the standard of talks was ludicrously high.

An Event Apart often feels like getting a snapshot of the current state of web technologies and best practices. I really like it when themes emerge from multiple talks—those emergent themes are usually the hot topics of modern web design and development. Today I felt like there were two prominent themes:

  1. process and
  2. devices.

Both Samantha and Jason talked about process and workflow from different perspectives. I had seen Jason’s talk at New Adventures in Nottingham but he’s such a joy to listen to, I gladly soaked it up again. Listening to Samantha reinforced my opinion that she’s one of the smartest designers working today. I found myself nodding my head enthusiastically during both talks.

Luke and Grigs both showed us what an amazingly diverse set of devices we have to deal with these days. I know that some people find this situation depressing, but I find it quite energising. Let’s face it, the web was getting pretty boring there for a while a few years back. You certainly can’t say that about the current browser/device landscape.

Rounded out with Jeffrey and Karen’s content-focused calls-to-arms—one at the start of the day and the other at the end—it was a great day one.

I’m speaking first thing tomorrow. That’s right; I’ve got the hangover slot.

This is a brand new untested talk. I had planned to give a run-through to the guys at Clearleft but somehow that never happened, so tomorrow will literally be the very first time I’m giving this talk. That gives it a certain frisson and adds an air of excitement and tension. It also means I’m very, very nervous.

I think it’s a good talk …but I’m not sure how it’s going to go down with this crowd. While it will have some practical tips scattered throughout, it’s mostly going to be a fairly personal talk about a personal project that I’m using as a lens to look at long-term web design and development. That might put some people off, who would rightly argue that it isn’t directly applicable to their day-to-day work, but I’m just going to have to accept that. It’s going to be interesting to see what people make of it.

I’m excited and nervous. I probably won’t get much sleep tonight.

August in America, day two

Once I knew I was going to be speaking at An Event Apart DC, I got in touch with my dear friends Dan and Sue in Baltimore to see if we could figure out a way to meet up while I was relatively nearby. I went to art college with Dan over two decades ago. I haven’t kept in touch with many (any?) people from back then, but Dan and I have remained firm friends, sadly separated by an ocean.

Dan told me his plan for today was for him and Sue to take the kids down to his Dad and stepmother’s place in Calvert county, and he asked if Jessica and I wanted to join them. “Absolutely!”, I said, without knowing anything about Calvert county or what a trip there might involve.

As it turns out, this particular place in Maryland was a little piece of paradise: a beautiful pastoral setting where the green landscape and blue sky is interrupted only by the flitting by of the occasional gorgeous-looking butterfly. Also, it has a pool.


This setting was already perfect, but we made it the quintessential Maryland experience by feasting on crabs for lunch. Sure, you’ve got to work to get at the flesh, but oh, what tasty flesh it is, redolent with Old Bay seasoning.


It was a perfect afternoon: eating crabs, swimming in the pool, and most of all, catching up with old friends.

I was still basking in the glow of it all when we got back to Alexandria in time for the traditional pre-conference speaker’s dinner for An Event Apart. I never even had the chance to freshen up before heading out for the meal: as soon as we got back to the hotel, we spotted Ethan, Kristina, and Karen in the hotel bar and that was it. We joined them, then Jason joined us, then one-by-one everyone else showed up. The whole thing coalesced into the gang of speakers and off we went for a meal in old town. Once again, it was all about the company.

August in America, day one

It’s Pride weekend in Brighton but alas, I wasn’t able to stick around for the festivities. I made my way to Heathrow for the flight to Washington to kick off my American trip.

The flight from Heathrow to Dulles takes just about eight hours. The average in-flight film is just under two hours, so you might think that this would be a four-film flight. But when you factor in the take-off and landing phases, it’s actually more like three films with a little bit of TV to top it off.

I have some ideas about what makes a good airplane movie. You don’t want to watch anything that’s too good; you’ll just be annoyed that you saw it on a little screen on an airplane seat instead of on a big screen in a cinema. But you don’t want to watch anything that’s too crap because, well, it’s crap. So what you want is a down-the-middle three-star pleasingly mediocre movie.

I watched Oblivion, Iron Man Three, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Pretty good airplane films, all around. Actually, I ended up enjoying Oblivion far more than I was expecting (probably because my expectations had been quite low).

With the flight time whiled away nicely, Jessica and I arrived into Dulles at six in the evening, and what a nice warm evening it was too.

The lovely people running An Event Apart really know how to take care of their speakers and that includes a car service to pick us up at the airport and take us to the hotel. That makes such a big difference after a long transatlantic flight.

In this case, the ride from the airport to the hotel was a fairly lengthy one: Dulles is a good forty minutes away from Alexandria. So we settled in and enjoyed the scenery …what there was of it. The route was mostly filled with “nothing to see here” buildings. I’m guessing that Virginia has more than its fair share of windowless bunker-like buildings—this is, after all, the Lothlorien of the internet in America, where the backbone meets the server farms. Looking for “The Cloud”? It’s probably somewhere in Virginia.

As we’re being driven to our destination, I turn to Jessica and I say:

Chicken wings.

You have to understand, I have this weird travel-triggered craving. Whenever I fly to the United States of America, I get the urge to have my first meal on American soil be …yes, you guessed it, chicken wings. I have no idea why this is or when it started. And it’s not like I usually crave chicken wings all that often (not that I’d be able to get proper Buffalo style wings in the UK anyway).

Once we’re settled into our hotel room, we do a little bit of research and start walking the streets of Old Town Alexandria in search of the Hard Times Cafe. We find it. We get a table. We get some beers. I get my wings. They taste good. They taste really, really good.

I should have just left it at chicken wings, but they specialise in chili. I couldn’t resist.

So now I’m back at the hotel, and I’m stuffed full of beer, chicken wings, and chili. This strikes me as an eminently suitable way to begin my American sojourn.