A beautiful audio and visual history of the Lomax’s journey across:
On March 31 1939, when John and Ruby Lomax left their vacation home on Port Aransas, Texas, they already had some idea of what they would encounter on their three-month, 6,502 mile journey through the southern United States collecting folk songs.
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.
We went on a safari after the Pixel Up conference in South Africa. It was an amazing experience …but there was also The Elephant Incident.
And now I don’t need to write about it because I could never come close to recounting it as brilliantly as Jessica has done here.
The darkness closed in quickly as we rattled along the trail, the flashbulb lightning not doing much to supplement the juddering glow of the headlights. We were, by all appearances, a happy and relaxed little group, pleased with the day’s sightings, mellowed out by the evening’s drinks, looking forward to a nice dinner with wine and then a good night’s sleep. But I kept thinking about the elephant encounter from the night before—and so, apparently, did young Tas, who was bundled up next to his dad and eventually said quietly: “I don’t want to see another elephant.” We all comforted him with false bravado: no, don’t worry, there won’t be any elephants, we’re fine, it’s all fine, everything is totally fine. And all the while I was peering into the trees, and attempting to gauge the relative freshness of the huge piles of elephant dung on the road, and really, really not wanting to see an elephant either.
So it was that, despite a late night after the Great British Booze-up and South by Northwest, I made sure to get to the conference centre for the 10am start. I’m so glad I did. The presentation was absolutely amazing.
Mark and Richard had a fantastic rapport and the three months of preparation really showed. They packed in a ton of information and presented it all in an engaging and easy-to-digest way.
Yeah, I know I’m biased because I work with Richard but ask anyone who was there: these guys were on fire. You can go ahead and download the slides but you won’t get quite the same effect. Once the audio is released on the SXSW podcast you can follow along as you listen.
The typographical fun continued after lunch. I went to the world premiere of Helvetica, the movie. The screening was open to both flim and interactive attendees and the interest in it was phenomenal: the queue to get in stretched most of the way down the convention centre.
I loved this documentary. I wasn’t sure how well it could hold my interest—especially given the late night I’d had—but it had me gripped. I know it’s hard to imagine a gripping film about a typeface but that’s exactly what this was. It was also thought-provoking and funny. And the soundtrack was pretty cool too.
The director was on-hand to take questions afterwards along with David Carson who said some typically inflammatory things.
My only regret was that Joe wasn’t there. He would have loved hating it.
Much as I enjoyed the panels and presentations at South by Southwest this year, the real reason for making the trip to Austin is to hang out with fellow geeks. It really is like Summer camp.
There are some people that I consider very good friends that I only get to see at SXSW. I hope that situation will change and I’ll get to see these friends more often but in the meantime, Austin in March is the time and place for me to catch up with my buddies.
At the same time, one of the things I love about SXSW is getting to meet new people. Sometimes these are people I’ve been reading online for years; sometimes they’re complete strangers. Either way, I’m constantly amazed at just how nice everybody is. Is it something specific to geeks or did the human race just get a whole lot more pleasant while my back was turned?
The real fun started in the evening. I donned my trusty cowboy hat and ventured forth, guided by Adactio Austin. My little mashup was of help to quite a few people, which is gratifying to know.
I may be just a little biased but I honestly thought that the Great British Booze-up was the most fun. It wasn’t too loud but it wasn’t too quiet; it wasn’t too crowded but it wasn’t too empty. It was just right. And if everyone else there had just a fraction of the fun that I was having, then it was definitely a success.
As usual with events involving Clearleft, Andy did all the work and the rest of us sat back and took all the credit. For the record, Andy’s the man to thank and I for one welcome our new British Booze-up overlords. I think we’ll have to have another one next year, don’t you?
To all the people I met this year at South by Southwest: it was an absolute pleasure. And if I couldn’t remember your name in the corridor the next day, please forgive me. I’m not as young as I used to be and the Shiner Bock probably doesn’t prolong the life of my brain cells.
It seems to have become a tradition that I do a “bluffing” presentation every year. I did How to Bluff Your Way in CSS two years ago with Andy. Last year I did How to Bluff Your Way in DOM Scripting with Aaron. This year, Andy was once again my partner in crime and the topic was How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0.
It was a blast. I had so much fun and Andy was on top form. I half expected him to finish with “Thank you, we’ll be here all week, try the veal, don’t forget to tip your waiter.”
As soon as the podcast is available, I’ll have it transcribed. In the meantime, Robert Sandie was kind enough to take a video the whole thing. It’s posted on Viddler which looks like quite a neat video service: you can comment, tag or link to any second of a video. Here, for instance, Robert links to the moment when I got serious and called for the abolition of Web 2.0 as a catch-all term. I can assure you this moment of gravity is the exception. Most of the presentation was a complete piss-take.
My second presentation was a more serious affair, though there were occasional moments of mirth. Myself and Derek revisited and condensed our presentation from Web Directions North, Ajax Kung Fu meets Accessibility Feng Shui. This went really well. I gave a quick encapsulation of the idea of Hijax and Derk gave a snappy run-through of accessibility tips and tricks. We wanted to make sure we had enough time for questions and I’m glad we did; the questions were excellent and prompted some great discussion.
Again, once the audio recording is available, I’ll be sure to get it transcribed.
And yes, once the audio is available, I’ll get it transcribed. Seeing a pattern here? Hint, hint, other speakers.
As panels go, the microformats one was pretty great, in my opinion. Some of the other panels seem to have been less impressive according to the scuttlebutt around the blogvine.
Khoi isn’t keen on the panel format. It’s true enough that they probably don’t entail as much preparation as full-blown presentations but then my expectations are different going into a panel than going into a presentation. So, for something like Brian’s talk on the Mobile Web, I was expecting some good no-nonsense practical advice and that’s exactly what I got. Whereas for something like the Design Workflows panel, I was expecting a nice fireside chat amongst top-notch designers and that’s exactly what I got. That’s not to say the panel wasn’t prepared. Just take one look at the website of the panel which is a thing of beauty.
Anyway, whether or not you like panels as a format, there’s always plenty of choice at South by Southwest. If you don’t like panels, you don’t have to attend them. There’s nearly always a straightforward presentation on at the same time. So there isn’t much point complaining that the organisers haven’t got the format right. They’re offering every format under the sun—the trick is making it to the panels or presentations that you’ll probably like.
In any case, as everyone knows, South by Southwest isn’t really about the panels and presentations. John Gruber wasn’t keen on all the panels but he does acknowledge that the real appeal of the conference lies elsewhere:
At most conferences, the deal is that the content is great and the socializing is good. At SXSWi, the content is good, but the socializing is great.
South by Southwest Interactive 2007 was predictably wonderful; simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. On the one hand, it seems like I spent the entire time goofing off and having fun but at the same time, it’s been the most productive conference I’ve attended in quite a while.
SXSW is a great barometer for testing the current zeitgeist in the kingdom of the geek. Personally, the Southby canary in the Web coalmine was telling me one thing: it’s all about telling stories, baby.
Finally, technology is being relegated to its correct role: a tool for allowing people to connect and share their stories. Whether it’s Ruby on Rails, Ajax, tagging or the World Wide Web itself, I got the feeling that what really matters now is personal communication—storytelling by any other name.
The obvious poster child of this new revival is the superb Ficlets, brainchild of Kevin Lawver and executed—with AOL’s approval—by a kick-ass team including Jason Garber and the amazing Cindy Li. But even if you look at any of the other hip web apps like Twitter and Flickr, you’ll find that the reason why they’re so engaging is that they’re allowing people to tell their stories.
Even at South by Southwest, people were using the Web to tell stories. There’s the comedic tale of Flat Hicks of course but there was also tragedy and even some romance. Listen to Bruce Sterling’s closing rant which rambles around the subjects of blogs, wikis, video and fan fiction (even when I disagree almost entirely with what he says, I still enjoy listening to him speak).
Mind you, this is all my own personal subjective impression of SXSW. It may well be that other people thought that advertising, revenue and business models were the hot topics but that’s certainly not what I experienced. I found a real spirit of excitement swirling around the question, “how can we make it easier for people to communicate?” Answering that question means tackling a range of subjects from visual design, typography through to the mobile web, accessibility, interaction design and the user experience. The question was confronted head-on in Kathy Sierra’s keynote but its presence could be felt hanging over all the presentations and panels I attended.
What I love most about this feeling I got from South by Southwest is its familiarity. It reminds me of why I got into web design in the first place.
Let me tell you a story…
I was at one of the innumerable late-night SXSW parties. In this case the free booze and music was provided by the good folks at Purevolume and Virb. I just had my Wii cherry popped and I was describing the experience to Andy who was my co-coinspirator for the How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0 presentation. JohnHalcyonStyn came over and told us effusively how much he enjoyed said presentation.
Now, plenty of other people had come up to me to give positive feedback about our jolly jape but this compliment from Halcyon really meant a lot to me. You see, he was one of the people who inspired me to make stuff for the web. I distinctly remember sites like prehensile tales, 0sil8 and the inimitable Fray triggering something in my brain that made me realise what it was I wanted to do with my life.
Here we are, ten years later, and South by Southwest has confirmed the choice I made back then. There’s a familiar feeling in the air and it’s nothing to do with corporate buy-out or business models. It’s the feeling of exhilaration and excitement that comes from connecting with people through a shared experience. It’s probably the same feeling that our ancestors had when they gathered around the campfire at night to swap stories. They had fire, we have the hyperlink. Our campfire is the whole world. Our stories are individual and multitudinous. Our time is now.
The Clearleft office will be deserted from Thursday of this week to Tuesday of next week. That’s because everyone is going to be letting off steam at geek Summer camp: South by Southwest Interactive.
This will be my third year at the conference and I’m really, really looking forward to it. Sure, the panels and presentations will probably be good but the real reason for going is just to see all my friends and peers gathered together in one place. Most of San Francisco will be transplanted to Texas for a few days, the Philly gang will be there en masse, the Seattle-ites will be flying their geek flag high, the Oz Squad will represent (and I can’t wait to see them again) and, of course, the Brit Pack will be out in full force.
As I did last year, I’ve put together a microformatted Gmapped list of parties and events I’m planning to get to at Adactio Austin. You can subcribe to the calendar and stick it on your phone or iPod if you want an easy way to keep track of the time and location of the next party while you’re in Austin.
Not every night is as busy as that. Friday looks relatively free (apart from Break Bread with Brad which is not at the Gingerman this year—it’s at Buffalo Billiards). Brian Oberkirch pointed out that Lucinda Williams will be playing over at Stubb’s that night. I may go to that if I can round up a posse of like-minded fans of her own gravelly brand of Southern country.
So overall it’s shaping to be one hell of a good time…
My enjoyment of South by Southwest is going to be tinted by a heavy dose of regret. That’s because Jessica won’t be coming. The Home Office is extending her residence permit. That’s taking quite a bit of time, to put it mildly. While that’s going on, they’ve got her passport so she can’t leave the country so she can’t come to Austin. This, as you can imagine, makes me quite upset.
Traveling without my soulmate feels strange, as if I’m only half there. I’m sure I’ll still have a grand ol’ time in the heart of Texas but if you see me with a hangdog expression every now and then, you’ll know the reason why.
Andy and the gang have been diligently geotagging events using Yahoo’s geocoder API. Best of all, these latitude and longitude co-ordinates are now also being exposed through the API. Methinks Adactio Austin won’t be the last mashing up of event and map data I’ll be doing.
On the Upcoming site itself, you can now limit the number of attendees for an event, edit any venues you’ve added and edit your comments. This comes just a few days after Brian Suda mentioned in a chat that he would like to have the option to edit this comment later (right now he’s looking for somewhere to stay during XTech).
One of the very first panels on the very first day of South by Southwest was Traditional design and new technology. The subject matter and the people couldn’t be faulted but there were some technical difficulties with the sound. I was at the back of the room and the dodgy mics made it hard going at times.
Khoi and Mark had some really good insights into the role of traditional design disciplines in the brave new media world. I enjoyed the fact that the panelists weren’t always in agreement: I like it when things get stirred up a bit.
Towards the end of the discussion, a question came up that turned the subject on its head: how has new technology affected old media. I didn’t get the chance to mention it at the time, but I immediately thought of last year’s Guardian redesign.
There are a lot of very webby touches to the new-look Guardian: blue underlined “links”, sidebars with the acronym FAQ, etc. Perhaps it’s a result of this webbiness, but I really, really like the paper’s new look and feel.
I’m not the only one. When Shaun came to visit, he was quite taken with the Guardian. The custom made typeface — Egyptian — sealed the deal.
I didn’t post my initial reaction to the paper’s new look because I wanted to allow some time to live with it for a while. My feelings haven’t changed though. I still like it a lot.
I do wonder, though, whether my emotional response to the design stems from the fact that I’m web-based kind of guy with a web-based aesthetic. It would be interesting to compare my reaction (or Shaun’s) with that of someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time browsing websites.
My Adactio Austin mashup proved to be very useful during South by Southwest. It was very handy having instant access to the geographical location of the next party.
Austin being Austin, I didn’t have to worry much about getting online: the city is swimming/drenched/floating/saturated in WiFi. After attending Tantek’s birthday celebrations at La Sol Y La Luna restaurant, which is not located downtown, a bunch of us stood on the street and began hailing taxis to get back into the town centre. In an attempt to ascertain exactly where we needed to tell the cab driver to take us in order to reach the next party, I whipped out my iBook, hoping for a net connection. There were five networks. That’s my kind of town.
While I had anticipated that Adactio Austin would make the evenings run smoother, I had planned on it affecting my daytime activities. As it turned out, my little experiment landed me a place on a panel.
When Aaron and I were preparing our DOM Scripting presentation for this year’s conference, I made sure that we nabbed ourselves a slot on the first day. I wanted to get the work out of the way so that I could relax for the rest of the conference. It was a good plan but the use of microformats in my mashup prompted Tantek to ask me to sit it on his Monday morning panel. That’s how I found myself sitting behind a microphone together with Tantek, Chris and Norm, talking about the practical implementations of hCard and hCalendar.
I have to say it was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable talks I’ve ever given. We began the morning in a cafe geeking out about microformats, then we were in the green room geeking out about microformats and finally we were on stage geeking out about microformats. The movement from one location to the other went so smoothly that I felt as relaxed on the panel as I did in the cafe. I’m really glad Tantek asked me to say a few words.
Mind you, I probably came across as a complete booze hound. Tantek talked about the philosophy behind microformats, Chris talked about the tails extension for Flock, Norm talked about microformats at Yahoo! Europe… and I talked about where to go to get free beer. At this stage, I had also been doing some practical research in the field so I suspect my voice was somewhat raspy.
It was really interesting to compare the change in the perception of microformats within the space of one year. At South by Southwest 2005, there were two standout presentations for me: Eric and Tantek independently gave talks about this new fangled idea called microformats. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of the concept, so it was a real eye-opener for me. This year, microformats were a recognised, exciting technology. One week after SXSW, Bill Gates announced that “We need microformats”. That’s a lot of recognition.
From my experiences with my own humble experiments, I think there’s a lot of value to be had with mixing up events (using hCalendar) and mapping (using geotagging). Throw folksonomies into the mix and you’ve got some pretty big steps towards a good lowercase semantic web.
Think about it: if you’ve got some kind of application that’s native to a web of data (as Tom so succinctly puts it), you’ve already got addressable objects (using the most basic RESTful interface of all: URLs). Now, if you can add geographical, temporal or semantic data to those resources (using geotagging, hCalendar, and tagging, respectively), you can increase the value of that data exponentially. Just think of all the mashup potential of that content.
Dammit! In hindsight, I wish I could have nabbed Tom, Reverend Dan, Thomas and Tantek in Austin to have an impromptu brainstorm in the corridor about this stuff.
The interactive portion of South by Southwest is over. It’s been quite a whirlwind.
It was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Wherever I went, I met great people and I was able to put more faces to blogs I read. If I had one complaint it was that there just wasn’t enough time to really talk to everyone. I wish I could have cloned myself for the duration of the conference. There are a lot of people I would have liked to have spent more time with.
To anyone who came up and introduced themselves to me, thank you. Thank you very much.
To anyone who I went up to and introduced myself to, sorry. Extra special apologies to the woman whose foot I stood on while I was having a fanboy moment with Derek Powazek. I finally get to meet the person responsible for me “getting” the web all those years ago and I go and ruin the moment.
Just about everyone who was in Austin last year was back again this year except for Dan, Doug, Elsa and Joe who were greatly missed. Those who did attend came en masse. To paraphrase Bruce Sterling, people were showing up in buddy lists.
Attendance was up; way up. Fortunately everything scaled up pretty well. The rooms were bigger and the venues booked for parties were expanded. The Brit Pack contingent was at least twice as big this year, but we’re being given a run for our money from The Oz Squad.
The really gratifying thing about SXSW this year was the increase in the number of women attending. As Leslie put it, it’s a very good sign when there’s a queue for the women’s toilets at a tech conference. Compare and contrast to the Carson Workshops Summit here in England where, out of 800 attendees, the number of women was a low single figure percentile.
I think BlogHer helped enormously in raising the profile of women at SXSW this year. I really, really hope that this trend continues and spreads to other conferences. It just remains for us men to get over the ‘boys will be boys” jokes and downright sexism that rise to the surface with depressing predictability.
For the most, I kept myself offline for the duration of the conference. I kept my laptop firmly closed during every presentation and enjoyed them more for it. I’m relying on the audio files and Cindy’s l33t liveblogging skillz to refresh my memory. I have lots I want to talk about: microformats, tagging, accessibility and more on the role of comments and online communities.
Expect to see some rambling posts prompted by panels and corridor conversations.