Tags: brooklynbeta

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Stupid brain

I went to the States to speak at the Artifact conference in Providence (which was great). I extended the trip so that I caould make it to Science Hack Day in San Francisco (which was also great). Then I made my way back with a stopover in New York for the fifth and final Brooklyn Beta (which was, you guessed it, great).

The last day of Brooklyn Beta was a big friendly affair with close to a thousand people descending on a hangar-like building in Brooklyn’s naval yard. But it was the preceding two days in the much cosier environs of The Invisible Dog that really captured the spirit of the event.

The talks were great—John Maeda! David Lowery!—but the real reason for going all the way to Brooklyn for this event was to hang out with the people. Old friends, new friends; just nice people all ‘round.

But it felt strange this year, and not just because it was the last time.

At the end of the second day, people were encouraged to spontaneously get up on stage, introduce themselves, and then introduce someone that they think is a great person, working on something interesting (that twist was Sam’s idea).

I didn’t get up on stage. The person I would’ve introduced wasn’t there. I wish she had been. Mind you, she would’ve absolutely hated being called out like that.

Chloe wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. How could she be there?

But there was this stupid, stupid part of my brain that kept expecting to see her walk into the room. That stupid, stupid part of my brain that still expected that I’d spend Brooklyn Beta sitting next to Chloe because, after all, we always ended up sitting together.

(I think it must be the same stupid part of my brain that still expects to see her name pop up in my chat client every morning.)

By the time the third day rolled around in the bigger venue, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad, what with it not being in the same location. But that stupid, stupid part of my brain just wouldn’t give up. Every time I looked around the room and caught a glimpse of someone in the distance who had the same length hair as Chloe, or dressed like her, or just had a bag slung over hip just so …that stupid, stupid part of my brain would trigger a jolt of recognition, and then I’d have that horrible sinking feeling (literally, like something inside of me was sinking down) when the rational part of my brain corrected the stupid, stupid part.

I think that deep down, there’s a part of me—a stupid, stupid part of me—that still doesn’t quite believe that she’s gone.

America

I’ve just come back from a multi-hop trip to the States, spanning three cities in just over two weeks.

It started with an all-too-brief trip to San Francisco for Science Hack Day, which—as I’ve already described—was excellent. It was a shame that it was such a flying visit and I didn’t get to see many people. But then again, I’ll be back in December for An Event Apart San Francisco.

It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.

Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.

For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.

To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.

We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.

I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.

I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.

This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.

Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.

Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.

But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.

And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:

A treat grows in Brooklyn

So then Ted Nelson says to Baratunde Thurston “What whiskey are we drinking?”

Sounds like the punchline to a joke, doesn’t it? But it’s a perfectly typical occurrence at Brooklyn Beta, the event I attended two weeks ago (my second time being there).

I hesitate to call it a conference. I guess it is a conference, but it’s a very different kind of conference. Yes, there are talks but the schedule is geared around getting people together to talk and hang out: the breaks are as long as the sessions. This year, there was also live music every day, including a performance from Ted Leo.

So it’s not really about the talks. But that said, there were some great talks.

Icon designer extraordinaire Aaron Draplin kicked things off with a rollercoaster ride of laughter and tears. Cory Booker, superhero mayor of Newark, made an appearance, as did Seth Godin. Rob—or should I say Windhammer—introduced us to the world of air guitar championships and snuck in some life lessons while he was at it. And, yes, Baratunde Thurston organised a Whiskey Friday for his hilarious presentation. The event closed with a theme song by Jonathan Mann and we all sang along.

Of course I was a complete fanboy with Ted Nelson. I could hardly believe it when I saw he was there; I made sure to shake his hand. But I was equally fanboyish with Kyle Kneath; I’ve admired his writing—particularly on URL design—for quite a while.

But I think the highlight for me was getting to hear Maciej Cegłowski give his talk. Idle Words is probably my favourite single collection of writings on the internet, and Maciej was equally brilliant in real life. Even though his talk (all about how Pinboard came to be) was in some ways the most cynical of all, I found it to be very inspiring; a refreshing antitode to the excesses of the cult of startup.

There was a thread running between Rob’s talk, Maciej’s story, and Chris’s lessons. That thread was about taking time. “Fail slowly,” said Maciej, in contrast to every other startup story you’ve ever heard. Rob made reference to the slow web by Jack Cheng (who was also there). And Chris told us, “It’s okay to miss out.”

I like that.

So if you missed out on this year’s Brooklyn Beta, don’t worry. It’s okay to miss out …but I’m glad I was able to make it.

Thanks, Chris and Cameron. I had a blast.

Brookland

I’m on a bit of a sojourn in the United States right now, and I’m having a rather lovely time.

It all started with Brooklyn Beta which was a jolly gathering in New York. It reminded me a bit of the Reboot events of old: grassroots gatherings that may be rough around the edges but are put together with much love and affection. There were plenty of inspiring talks and repeated entreaties to go out there and change the world. As with Reboot, I think Brooklyn Beta is an excellent part of a balanced conference diet: other conferences will give you more detail on how exactly you can go out there and change the world.

In fact, my trip is perfectly balanced by two complementary events at either end. I’m in Alexandria right now for An Event Apart DC—the perfect hands-on, practical counterweight to Brooklyn Beta’s dose of inspiration.

In between those two events I’ve been spending time with Jessica getting to know Brooklyn. We rented an AirBnB place in Park Slope which turned out to be the perfect base of operations.

Every time I’ve been to New York before now I’ve only ever been in Manhattan. I always said “I love New York but I could never imagine living there.” Now that I’ve spent time in the leafy streets of Brooklyn, I have revised that assessment—I could certainly imagine living there.

Jessica in Brooklyn In Brooklyn