Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.
Jessica and I were taking turns at the microscope when we were told that.
Let me back up a bit and explain how we found ourselves in this this situation…
It all started with The Session, the traditional Irish music community site that I run. There’s a big focus on getting together and playing music—something that’s taken a big hit during this global pandemic. Three sections of the website are devoted to face-to-face gatherings: events (like concerts and festivals), sessions, and the most recent addition, trips.
The idea with trips is that you input somewhere you’re going to be travelling to, along with the dates you’ll be there. It’s like a hyper-focused version of Dopplr. The site then shows you if any events are happening, if there are any sessions on, and also if there are any members of the site in that locality (if those members have added their location to their profiles).
The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.
In the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, Aaron had samples of them. He put them under the microscope for us. As we took turns looking at them wriggling their flagella, Aaron said:
Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.
One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.
Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.
At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.
Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.
Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.
Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.
Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”
I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”
Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.
On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.
Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:
A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.
We took the surprisingly busy train from Brighton to Southampton, with our plentiful luggage in tow. As well as the clothes we’d need for three weeks of hot summer locations in the United States, Jessica and I were also carrying our glad rags for the shipboard frou-frou evenings.
Once the train arrived in Southampton, we transferred our many bags into the back of a taxi and made our way to the terminal. It looked like all the docks were occupied, either with cargo ships, cruise ships, or—in the case of the Queen Mary 2—the world’s last ocean liner to be built.
Check in. Security. Then it was time to bid farewell to dry land as we boarded the ship. We settled into our room—excuse me, stateroom—on the eighth deck. That’s the deck that also has the lifeboats, but our balcony is handily positioned between two boats, giving us a nice clear view.
We’d be sailing in a few hours, so that gave us plenty of time to explore the ship. We grabbed a suprisingly tasty bite to eat in the buffet restaurant, and then went out on deck (the promenade deck is deck seven, just one deck below our room).
It was a blustery day. All weekend, the UK newspaper headlines had been full of dramatic stories of high winds. Not exactly sailing weather. But the Queen Mary 2 is solid, sturdy, and just downright big, so once we were underway, the wind was hardly noticable …indoors. Out on the deck, it could get pretty breezy.
By pure coincidence, we happened to be sailing on a fortuituous day: the meeting of the queens. The Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria, and the Queen Mary 2 were all departing Southampton at the same time. It was a veritable Cunard convoy. With the yacht race on as well, it was a very busy afternoon in the Solent.
Alas, Jessica had a migraine brewing all day, so we weren’t in the mood to dive into any social activities. We had a low-key dinner from the buffet—again, surprisingly tasty—and retired for the evening.
Passenger’s log, day two: Monday, August 12, 2019
Jessica’s migraine passed like a fog bank in the night, and we woke to a bright, blustery day. The Queen Mary 2 was just passing the Scilly Isles, marking the traditional start of an Atlantic crossing.
Breakfast was blissfully quiet and chilled out—we elected to try the somewhat less-trafficked Carinthia lounge; the location of a decent espresso-based coffee (for a price). Then it was time to feed our minds.
We watched a talk on the Bolshoi Ballet, filled with shocking tales of scandal. Here I am on holiday, and I’m sitting watching a presentation as though I were at a conference. The presenter in me approved of some of the stylistic choices: tasteful transitions in Keynote, and suitably legible typography for on-screen quotes.
Soon after that, there was a question-and-answer session with a dance teacher from the English National Ballet. We balanced out the arts with some science by taking a trip to the planetarium, where the dulcet voice of Neil De Grasse Tyson told the tale of dark matter. A malfunctioning projector somewhat tainted the experience, leaving a segment of the dome unilliminated.
It was a full morning of activities, but after lunch, there was just one time and place that mattered: sign ups for the week’s ballet workshops would take place at 3pm on deck two. We wandered by at 2pm, and there was already a line! Jessica quickly took her place in the queue, hoping that she’d make into the workshops, which have a capacity of just 30 people. The line continued to grow. The Cunard staff were clearly not prepared for the level of interest in these ballet workshops. They quickly introduced some emergency measures: this line would only be for the next two day’s workshops, rather than the whole week. So there’d be more queueing later in the week for anyone looking to take more than one workshop.
Anyway, the most important outcome was that Jessica did manage to sign up for a workshop. After all that standing in line, Jessica was ready for a nice sit down so we headed to the area designated for crafters and knitters. As Jessica worked on the knitting project she had brought along, we had our first proper social interactions of the voyage, getting to know the other makers. There was much bonding over the shared love of the excellent Ravelry website.
Next up: a pub quiz at sea in a pub at sea. I ordered the flight of craft beers and we put our heads together for twenty quickfire trivia questions. We came third.
After that, we rested up for a while in our room, before donning our glad rags for the evening’s gala dinner. I bought a tuxedo just for this trip, and now it was time to put it into action. Jessica donned a ballgown. We both looked the part for the black-and-white themed evening.
We headed out for pre-dinner drinks in the ballroom, complete with big band. At one entrance, there was a receiving line to meet the captain. Having had enough of queueing for one day, we went in the other entrance. With glasses of sparkling wine in hand, we surveyed our fellow dressed-up guests who were looking in equal measure dashingly cool and slightly uncomfortable.
After some amusing words from the captain, it was time for dinner. Having missed the proper sit-down dinner the evening before, this was our first time finding out what table we had. We were bracing ourselves for an evening of being sociable, chit-chatting with whoever we’ve been seated with. Your table assignment was the same for the whole week, so you’d better get on well with your tablemates. If you’re stuck with a bunch of obnoxious Brexiteers, tough luck; you just have to suck it up. Much like Brexit.
We were shown to our table, which was …a table for two! Oh, the relief! Even better, we were sitting quite close to the table of ballet dancers. From our table, Jessica could creepily stalk them, and observe them behaving just like mere mortals.
We settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I opted for an array of pale-coloured foods; cullen skink, followed by seared scallops, accompanied by a Chablis Premier Cru. All this while wearing a bow tie, to the sounds of a string quartet. It felt like peak Titanic.
After dinner, we had a nightcap in the elegant Chart Room bar before calling it a night.
Passenger’s log, day three: Tuesday, August 13
We were woken early by the ship’s horn. This wasn’t the seven-short-and-one-long blast that would signal an emergency. This was more like the sustained booming of a foghorn. In fact, it effectively was a foghorn, because we were in fog.
Below us was the undersea mountain range of the Maxwell Fracture Zone. Outside was a thick Atlantic fog. And inside, we were nursing some slightly sore heads from the previous evening’s intake of wine.
But as a nice bonus, we had an extra hour of sleep. As long as the ship is sailing west, the clocks get put back by an hour every night. Slowly but surely, we’ll get on New York time. Sure beats jetlag.
After a slow start, we sautered downstairs for some breakfast and a decent coffee. Then, to blow out the cobwebs, we walked a circuit of the promenade deck, thereby swapping out bed head for deck head.
It was then time for Jessica and I to briefly part ways. She went to watch the ballet dancers in their morning practice. I went to a lecture by Charlie Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society, and most edifying it was too (I wonder if I can convince him to come down to give a talk at Brighton Astro sometime?).
After the lecture was done, I tracked down Jessica in the theatre, where she was enraptured by the dancers doing their company class. We stayed there as it segued into the dancers doing a dress rehearsal for their upcoming performance. It was fascinating, not least because it was clear that the dancers were having to cope with being on a slightly swaying moving vessel. That got me wondering: has ballet ever been performed on a ship before? For all I know, it might have been a common entertainment back in the golden age of ocean liners.
We slipped out of the dress rehearsal when hunger got the better of us, and we managed to grab a late lunch right before the buffet closed. After that, we decided it was time to check out the dog kennels up on the twelfth deck. There are 24 dogs travelling on the ship. They are all good dogs. We met Dillinger, a good dog on his way to a new life in Vancouver. Poor Dillinger was struggling with the circumstances of the voyage. But it’s better than being in the cargo hold of an airplane.
While we were up there on the top of the ship, we took a walk around the observation deck right above the bridge. The wind made that quite a tricky perambulation.
The rest of our day was quite relaxed. We did the pub quiz again. We got exactly the same score as we did the day before. We had a nice dinner, although this time a tuxedo was not required (but a jacket still was). Lamb for me; beef for Jessica; a bottle of Gigondas for both of us.
After dinner, we retired to our room, putting our clocks and watches back an hour before climbing into bed.
Passenger’s log, day four: Wednesday, August 14, 2019
After a good night’s sleep, we were sauntering towards breakfast when a ship’s announcement was made. This is unusual. Ship’s announcements usually happen at noon, when the captain gives us an update on the journey and our position.
This announcement was dance-related. Contradicting the listed 5pm time, sign-ups for the next ballet workshops would be happening at 9am …which was in 10 minutes time. Registration was on deck two. There we were, examining the breakfast options on deck seven. Cue a frantic rush down the stairwells and across the ship, not helped by me confusing our relative position to fore and aft. But we made it. Jessica got in line, and she was able to register for the workshop she wanted. Crisis averted.
We made our way back up to breakfast, and our daily dose of decent coffee. Then it was time for a lecture that was equally fascinating for me and Jessica. It was Physics En Pointe by Dr. Merritt Moore, ballet dancer and quantum physicist. This was a scene-setting talk, with her describing her life’s journey so far. She’ll be giving more talks throughout the voyage, so I’m hoping for some juicy tales of quantum entanglement (she works in quantum optics, generating entangled photons).
After that, it was time for Jessica’s first workshop. It was a general ballet technique workshop, and they weren’t messing around. I sat off to the side, with a view out on the middle of the Atlantic ocean, tinkering with some code for The Session, while Jessica and the other students were put through their paces.
Then it was time to briefly part ways again. While Jessica went to watch the ballet dancers doing their company class, I was once again attending a lecture by Charles Barclay of the Royal Astronomical Society. This time it was archaeoastronomy …or maybe it was astroarcheology. Either way, it was about how astronomical knowledge was passed on in pre-writing cultures, with a particular emphasis on neolithic sites like Avebury.
When the lecture was done, I rejoined Jessica and we watched the dancers finish their company class. Then it was time for lunch. We ate from the buffet, but deliberately avoided the heavier items, opting for a relatively light salad and sushi combo. This good deed would later be completely undone with a late afternoon cake snack.
We went to one more lecture. Three in one day! It really is like being at a conference. This one, by John Cooper, was on the Elizabethan settlers of Roanoke Island. So in one day, I managed to get a dose of history, science, and culture.
With the day’s workshops and lectures done, it was once again time to put on our best garb for the evening’s gala dinner. All tux’d up, I escorted Jessica downstairs. Tonight was the premier of the ballet performance. But before that, we wandered around drinking champagne and looking fabulous. I even sat at an otherwise empty blackjack table and promptly lost some money. I was a rubbish gambler, but—and this is important—I was a rubbish gambler wearing a tuxedo.
We got good seats for the ballet and settled in for an hour’s entertainment. There were six pieces, mostly classical. Some Swan Lake, some Nutcracker, and some Le Corsaire. But there was also something more modern in there—a magnificent performance from Akram Khan’s Dust. We had been to see Dust at Sadlers Wells, but I had forgotten quite how powerful it is.
After the performance, we had a quick cocktail, and then dinner. The sommelier is getting chattier and chattier with us each evening. I think he approves of our wine choices. This time, we left the vineyards of France, opting for a Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
After one or two nightcaps, we went back to our cabin and before crashing out, we set our clocks back an hour.
Passenger’s log, day five: Thursday, August 15, 2019
We woke to another foggy morning. The Queen Mary 2 was now sailing through the shallower waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Closer and closer to North America.
This would be my fifth day with virtually no internet access. I could buy WiFi internet access at exorbitant satellite prices, but I hadn’t felt any need to do that. I could also get a maritime mobile phone signal—very slow and very expensive.
I’m not missing Twitter. I’m certainly not missing email. The only thing that took some getting used to was not being able to look things up. On the first few days of the crossing, both Jessica and I found ourselves reaching for our phones to look up something about ships or ballet or history …only to remember that we were enveloped in a fog of analogue ignorance, with no sign of terra firma digitalis.
It makes the daily quiz quite challenging. Every morning, twenty questions are listed on sheets of paper that appear at the entrance to the library. This library, by the way, is the largest at sea. As Jessica noted, you can tell a lot about the on-board priorities when the ship’s library is larger than the ship’s casino.
Answers to the quiz are to be handed in by 4pm. In the event of a tie, the team who hands in their answers earliest wins. You’re not supposed to use the internet, but you are positively encouraged to look up answers in the library. Jessica and I have been enjoying this old-fashioned investigative challenge.
With breakfast done before 9am, we had a good hour to spend in the library researching answers to the day’s quiz before Jessica needed to be at her 10am ballet workshop. Jessica got started with the research, but I quickly nipped downstairs to grab a couple of tickets for the planetarium show later that day.
Tickets for the planetarium shows are released every morning at 9am. I sauntered downstairs and arrived at the designated ticket-release location a few minutes before nine, where I waited for someone to put the tickets out. When no tickets appeared five minutes after nine, I wasn’t too worried. But when there were still no tickets at ten past nine, I grew concerned. By quarter past nine, I was getting a bit miffed. Had someone forgotten their planetarium ticket duties?
I found a crewmember at a nearby desk and asked if anyone was going to put out planetarium tickets. No, I was told. The tickets all went shortly after 9am. But I’ve been here since before 9am, I said! Then it dawned on me. The ship’s clocks didn’t go back last night after all. We just assumed they did, and dutifully changed our watches and phones accordingly.
Oh, crap—Jessica’s workshop! I raced back up five decks to the library where Jessica was perusing reference books at her leisure. I told her the bad news. We dashed down to the workshop ballroom anyway, but of course the class was now well underway. After all the frantic dashing and patient queueing that Jessica did yesterday to scure her place on the workshop! Our plans for the day were undone by our being too habitual with our timepieces. No ballet workshop. No planetarium show. I felt like such an idiot.
Well, we still had a full day of activities. There was a talk with ballet dancer, James Streeter (during which we found out that the captain had deployed all the ships stabilisers during the previous evening’s performance). We once again watched the ballet dancers doing their company class for an hour and a half. We went for afternoon tea, complete with string quartet and beautiful view out on the ocean, now mercifully free of fog.
We attended another astronomy lecture, this time on eclipses. But right before the lecture was about to begin, there was a ship-wide announcement. It wasn’t midday, so this had to be something unusual. The captain informed us that a passenger was seriously ill, and the Canadian coastguard was going to attempt a rescue. The ship was diverting closer to Newfoundland to get in helicopter range. The helicopter wouldn’t be landing, but instead attempting a tricky airlift in about twenty minutes time. And so we were told to literally clear the decks. I assume the rescue was successful, and I hope the patient recovers.
After that exciting interlude, things returned to normal. The lecture on eclipses was great, focusing in particular on the magificent 2017 solar eclipse across America.
It’s funny—Jessica and I are on this crossing because it was a fortunate convergence of ballet and being on a ship. And in 2017 we were in Sun Valley, Idaho because of a fortunate convergence of ballet and experiencing a total eclipse of the sun.
I’m starting to sense a theme here.
Anyway, after all the day’s dancing and talks were done, we sat down to dinner, where Jessica could once again surreptitiously spy on the dancers at a nearby table. We cemented our bond with the sommelier by ordering a bottle of the excellent Lebanese Château Musar.
When we got back to our room, there was a note waiting for us. It was an invitation for Jessica to take part in the next day’s ballet workshop! And, looking at the schedule for the next day, there was going to be repeats of the planetarium shows we missed today. All’s well that ends well.
Before going to bed, we did not set our clocks back.
Watching the ballet dancers doing their company class.
Watching a rehearsal of the ballet performance.
The workshop was quite something. Jennie Harrington—who retired from dancing with Dust—took the 30 or so attendees through some of the moves from Akram Khan’s masterpiece. It looked great!
While all this was happening inside the ship, the weather outside was warming up. As we travel further south, the atmosphere is getting balmier. I spent an hour out on a deckchair, dozing and reading.
At one point, a large aircraft buzzed us—the Canadian coastguard perhaps? We can’t be that far from land. I think we’re still in international waters, but these waters have a Canadian accent.
After soaking up the salty sea air out on the bright deck, I entered the darkness of the planetarium, having successfully obtained tickets that morning by not having my watch on a different time to the rest of the ship.
That evening, there was a gala dinner with a 1920s theme. Jessica really looked the part—like a real flapper. I didn’t really make an effort. I just wore my tuxedo again. It was really fun wandering the ship and seeing all the ornate outfits, especially during the big band dance after dinner. I felt like I was in a photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel.
Passenger’s log, day seven: Saturday, August 17, 2019
Today was the last full day of the voyage. Tomorrow we disembark.
We had a relaxed day, with the usual activities: a lecture or two; sitting in on the ballet company class.
Instead of getting a buffet lunch, we decided to do a sit-down lunch in the restaurant. That meant sitting at a table with other people, which could’ve been awkward, but turned out to be fine. But now that we’ve done the small talk, that’s probably all our social capital used up.
The main event today was always going to be the reprise and final performance from the English National Ballet. It was an afternoon performance this time. It was as good, if not better, the second time around. Bravo!
Best of all, after the performance, Jessica got to meet James Streeter and Erina Takahashi. Their performance from Dust was amazing, and we gushed with praise. They were very gracious and generous with their time. Needless to say, Jessica was very, very happy.
Shortly before the ballet performance, the captain made another unscheduled announcement. This time it was about a mechanical issue. There was a potential fault that needed to be investigated, which required stopping the ship for a while. Good news for the ballet dancers!
Jessica and I spent some time out on the deck while the ship was stopped. It’s was a lot warmer out there compared to just a day or two before. It was quite humid too—that’ll help us start to acclimatise for New York.
We could tell that we were getting closer to land. There are more ships on the horizon. From the amount of tankers we saw today, the ship must have passed close to a shipping lane.
We’re going to have a very early start tomorrow—although luckily the clocks will go back an hour again. So we did as much of our re-packing as we could this evening.
With the packing done, we still had some time to kill before dinner. We wandered over to the swanky Commodore Club cocktail bar at the fore of the ship. Our timing was perfect. There were two free seats positioned right by a window looking out onto the beautiful sunset we were sailing towards. The combination of ocean waves, gorgeous sunset, and very nice drinks ensured we were very relaxed when we made our way down to dinner.
At the entrance of the dining hall—and at the entrance of any food-bearing establishment on board—there are automatic hand sanitiser dispensers. And just in case the automated solution isn’t enough, there’s also a person standing there with a bottle of hand sanitiser, catching your eye and just daring you to refuse an anti-bacterial benediction. As the line of smartly dressed guests enters the restaurant, this dutiful dispenser of cleanliness anoints the hands of each one; a priest of hygiene delivering a slightly sticky sacrament.
The paranoia is justified. A ship is a potential petri dish at sea. In my hometown of Cobh in Ireland, the old cemetery is filled with the bodies of foreign sailors whose ships were quarantined in the harbour at the first sign of cholera or smallpox. While those diseases aren’t likely to show up on the Queen Mary 2, if norovirus were to break out on the ship, it could potentially spread quickly. Hence the war on hand-based microbes.
Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished reading Ed Yong’s excellent book I contain multitudes, but I can’t help but wonder about our microbiomes on board this ship. Given enough time, would the microbiomes of the passengers begin to sync up? Maybe on a longer voyage, but this crossing almost certainly doesn’t afford enough time for gut synchronisation. This crossing is almost done.
Passenger’s log, day eight: Sunday, August 18, 2019
Jessica and I got up at 4:15am. This is an extremely unusual occurance for us. But we were about to experience something very out of the ordinary.
We dressed, looked unsuccessfully for coffee, and made our way on to the observation deck at the top of the ship. Land ho! The lights of New Jersey were shining off the port side of the ship. The lights of long island were shining off the starboard side. And dead ahead was the string of lights marking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Queen Mary 2 was deliberately designed to pass under this bridge …just. The bridge has a clearance of 228 feet. The Queen Mary 2 is 236.2 feet, keel to funnel. That’s a difference of just 8.2 feet. Believe me, that doesn’t look like much when you’re on the top deck of the ship, standing right by the tallest mast.
The distant glow of New York was matched by the more localised glow of mobile phone screens on the deck. Passengers took photos constantly. Sometimes they took photos with flash, demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how you photograph distant objects.
The distant object that everyone was taking pictures of was getting less and less distant. The Statue of Liberty was coming up on our port side.
I probably should’ve felt more of a stirring at the sight of this iconic harbour sculpture. The familiarity of its image might have dulled my appreciation. But not far from the statue was a dark area, one of the few pieces of land without lights. This was Ellis Island. If the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of welcome for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then Ellis Island was where the immigration rubber met the administrative road. This was where countless Irish migrants first entered the United States of America, bringing with them their songs, their stories, and their unhealthy appreciation for potatoes.
Before long, the sun was rising and the Queen Mary 2 was parallel parking at the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn. We went back belowdecks and gathered our bags from our room. Rather than avail of baggage assistance—which would require us to wait a few hours before disembarking—we opted for “self help” dismembarkation. Shortly after 7am, our time on board the Queen Mary 2 was at an end. We were in the first group of passengers off the ship, and we sailed through customs and immigration.
Within moments of being back on dry land, we were in a cab heading for our hotel in Tribeca. The cab driver took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, explaining along the way how a cash payment would really be better for everyone in this arrangement. I didn’t have many American dollars, but after a bit of currency haggling, we agreed that I could give him the last of the Canadian dollars I had in my wallet from my recent trip to Vancouver. He’s got family in Canada, so this is a win-win situation.
It being a Sunday morning, there was no traffic to speak of. We were at our hotel in no time. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to check in for hours, but at least we’d be able to leave our bags there. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that they had a room available! We checked in, dropped our bags, and promptly went in search of coffee and breakfast. We were tired, sure, but we had no jetlag. That felt good.
I connected to the hotel’s WiFi and went online for the first time in eight days. I had a lot of spam to delete, mostly about cryptocurrencies. I was back in the 21st century.
After a week at sea, where the empty horizon was visible in all directions, I was now in a teeming mass of human habitation where distant horizons are rare indeed. After New York, I’ll be heading to Saint Augustine in Florida, then Chicago, and finally Boston. My arrival into Manhattan marks the beginning of this two week American odyssey. But this also marks the end of my voyage from Southampton to New York, and with it, this passenger’s log.
I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.
The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.
Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.
The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.
I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.
For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:
They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.
But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…
Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.
A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.
There were some really good talks at the event, but alas, the muti-track format made it difficult to see all of them. Continuous partial FOMO was the order of the day. Still, getting to see Christina Xu and Brenda Laurel made it all worthwhile.
To be honest, the conference was only part of the motivation for the trip. Spending a week in New York with a gaggle of Clearlefties was its own reward. We timed it pretty well, being there for the Superb Owl, and for a seasonal snowstorm. A winter trip to New York just wouldn’t be complete without a snowball fight in Central Park.
Funnily enough, I’m going to back in New York in just three weeks’ time for AMP conf at the start of March. I’ve been invited along to be the voice of dissent on a panel—a brave move by the AMP team. I wonder if they know what they’re letting themselves in for.
In this masterclass we’ll dive into progressive enhancement, a layered approach to building for the web that ensures access for all. Content, structure, presentation, and behaviour are each added in a careful, well-thought out way that makes the end result more resilient to the inherent variability of the web.
I must admit I’ve got a serious case of imposter syndrome about this. A full week of teaching—I mean, who am I to teach anything? I’m hoping that my worries and nervousness will fall by the wayside once I start geeking out with the students about all things web. I’ve sorta kinda got an outline of what I want to cover during the week, but for the most part, I’m winging it.
I’ll try to document the week as it progresses. And you can certainly expect plenty of pictures of seafood and port wine.
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.
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:
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.
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.
I’m back from my week in New York and, as promised, I took a whole bunch of typical tourist photos. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time: that city really is all it’s cracked up to be. But for most of my stay I wasn’t being a tourist; I was working.
I spent five days enjoying the company of the standards-savvy developers at Time Warner. They couldn’t have been nicer. I even had my own office on the 19th floor for the duration of my stay.
Two of my days were spent giving workshops in DOM Scripting and Ajax. These workshops went well but given the banner-ad driven business model of most Time titles, it seems unlikely that the marketing folk will allow much Ajax. It was kind of heartbreaking to see the developers’ ideas for improving the user experience get dashed on the rocks of page views. Still, things may change. Nielsen is changing its metrics from pages viewed to time spent. David Sleight is doing some celebratory cartwheels at this news. Had I known last week that he works in the office directly across from the Time Warner building, I might have been able to catch a glimpse of his gymnastics from my office window. Maybe next time.
The rest of my time in the belly of the publishing beast was spent looking at some code, chatting and generally geeking out with my Big Apple colleagues. I found some time in the middle of all this to give an impromptu presentation on microformats. Magazine-based sites (especially those in the sports and entertainment categories) are ripe candidates for some hCalendarisation.
Today we’re happy to announce that we are adding support for the hCard microformat to Google Maps results. Why should you care about some invisible changes to our HTML? By marking up our results with the hCard microformat, your browser can easily recognize the address and contact information in the page, and help you transfer it to an addressbook or phone more easily.
This is a huge leap in the number of published hCards on the Web. It would be interesting to get exact numbers but I’d guess that the amount of places returned in Google Maps searches runs into the millions. The beautiful thing about all this is that I suspect the change was trivially easy: just adding a few extra class names into a template.
With this seismic shift in the landscape of published microformats, I think we in the microformats community may have to shift our focus slightly. Instead of just being concerned with evangelising the publishing of microformats, it’s now incumbent upon us to show regular Web users how they can consume this wealth of semantic information, whether it’s through the use of a Firefox plugin like Operator, bookmarklets or—soon—native browser support.
Our work is just beginning but before we dive in, we can afford to pause for a few moments today to celebrate this great leap forward.
July was going to be a busy month for me. I was going to go to New York to do the Ajax workshop. Then I was going to stick around for An Event Apart. After that, I was going to head over to Seattle to hang out with brother-in-law before heading down to Portland to speak at Webvisions.
Alas, the workshop has been cancelled. No surprise, really… I imagine that most web developers in the area are quite rightly heading to An Event Apart and I imagine most people’s budgets won’t stretch to doing a workshop as well. It’s the just the wrong place and the wrong time to be putting on a workshop.
No workshop means no trip to New York. That means no Event Apart, no trip to Seattle, and no Webvisions for me.
On the plus side, maybe I’ll actually get some work done next month.
My previous workshops in London and Manchester were a lot of fun and garnered plentyofpraise so I’m really excited about taking the show to New York. If you live in or near New York city, come along for a day of Ajaxy goodness and come away with a Neo-like “I know Kung-Fu” awareness of DOM Scripting.
Oh, and If you sign up now, you’ll also get a copy of my book.