Fair and Balanced

Originally uploaded by Simon Willison.

When we were in Austin we stayed with some friends, who were quite distressed to come through to the lounge in the morning and find us plopped down in front of the television, watching everything from televangelists through to Fox News. I think they under-estimated the novelty value of American cable to people used to the balance and lack of histrionics of the BBC. As Simon says, you’ve gotta love Fox News.

The first actual day of the conference, Saturday, we spent trying to attend as many panels as possible, whilst simultaneously introducing ourselves to random people in the hallways. Although fun, it was a bit of an uphill struggle until later on in the day when people who’d attended the year before had arrived and started being friendly. My full (and possibly unintelligible) notes are here

The Imagination Challenge

The first panel of the day was Alex Manu’s The Imagination Challenge. He had some very interesting thoughts about how we were going to start banging up against the limits of our own imaginations before we ran out of possibility with the technologies we use. The session was about methods to stimulate imagination.

There were some very interesting concepts that were my key take-outs from this session:

  1. There is a difference between an adult and a grown-up. We should strive to be grown-ups (grown-up children) rather than adults, who lose their childlike perspective on the world
  2. There is NO DIFFERENCE between work and play. When we can see the two as interchangeable, then we can truly be working with our imaginations and exploring the limits of possibility
  3. Something cannot exist until it can be imagined — Manu gave examples, such as commentators not believing their eyes the first time someone used the backwards high-jump style, Inca elders having to have children describe the Spanish galleons to them, because they could not conceive of boats so big. The Emperor’s new clothes story is the archetypal example of this

Key quote:

“It is better to be a purposeful grown-up than an accidental adult”

Keynote: Opening Remarks

Zeldman‘s opening keynote was, as other’s have noted, primarily SXSW cheerleading. Nevertheless, I found it quite interesting and he did present very well, even if he does look a lot like Elly’s architecture professors ๐Ÿ˜‰ He reaffirmed for me that SXSW was worth coming to just to meet all the people you’re already reading, and to discover who else you should be reading. Since we funded our own trip this year (everything from flights to passes), it was a nice thing to be reassured about on the first day.

I thought his presentation style was really amazing — slides were sparse, acting more as notes to him I think, but the headings were interesting enough that if you were there you can look through them again and they help you relive the talk as well. He was very funny and self-deprecating, especially when talking about web standards (guilt) when in previous years people would come up to him in the hallway and apologise for their sites not validating.

Fun quotes:

  • “I’m here to tell you what you already know, but, like my clients, you’ll think I’m amazing for doing so”
  • (Explaining that his family isn’t here because there were carseat issues) “…so we’re looking at each other like the baby’s on fire!”
  • “The people here are so good that I’m in a really good mood, even though I kinda owe myself some depression” (because the family couldn’t make it)
  • (SXSW is all about…) “…putting meat on the virtual … “
  • “is it ‘break brad with bread’ or ‘break bread with brad’ ?” I think it’s safe to say it will forever be break brad with bread

How to Hot-Wire The Creative Process — Drive It Like You Stole It

I was drawn to Curt Cloninger‘s panel by the subtitle and so initially put off when he proclaimed that this was just for redneck credibility since he was presenting in Texas. The rest of the session was quite useful though, although my notes are pretty much just me copying down his slides so you’re probably better off looking at them.

Most useful concepts:

  • Blitz to get yourself going — put yourself under pressure if you’re the procrastinating type
  • “A good concept poorly executed is more compelling than a bad concept well-executed”
  • Don’t doubt yourself whilst you’re working — leave that for another time
  • Fail early and fail often — the analogy he used is you should imagine all your ideas are plates in those push-down cafeteria plate things. Basically, you have a stack of ideas and maybe you need to work through the crap ones to get to the great idea underneath
  • You need to celebrate failure because it surrounds success

He also showed some tools for autogeneration of designs, as well as some strategies for using “regular” tools (like Photoshop) in different ways to stimulate creativity. Unfortunately I a) don’t have a Mac and b) am not really a designer, so at the moment these tools and strategies aren’t massively useful.

How To Make Big Things Happen With Small Teams

Jason Fried really was one of the best presenters of the conference. His presentation is well worth a look, as are some of the notes other people have made that he links to. This session was one that just had me completely buzzing by the end. A lot of what Jason was talking is very much in dialogue with my flexible planning project, which was very encouraging in terms of the overall usefulness of what I’ve been doing.

I imagine some of the themes from his presentation will emerge in subsequent blog posts, but here’s a summary of the particularly useful things he came out with:

  • Having a small team of great people has massive advantages — but you need to leverage them. Act your size and kick ass
  • Keep your mass down (mass is everything that stops you moving quickly)
  • Work within your constraints — they can help you be more creative. Make your constraints an advantage
  • “Build half a product, not a half-ass product”

So, it’s been about ten days since the end of SXSWi 2005. Although this is not long enough to take a longer term view of the experience, I think it’s enough recovery time to allow me to write up the event with the beginnings of hindsight. During this week I’ll be posting my notes of each day, but today I’ll start with the story of how it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

NOTE: This is a story. For those of you accustomed to fasttrack blog-to-mind data interfaces, it may seem a bit LiveJournalesque. But I think it’s a pretty good story, so I’ll tell it as one. Feel free to wait until tomorrow if you want the SXSWi notes or the usual blogementary.

I previously alluded to some passport issues — namely that to visit the US, one has to have 6 months validity left on your passport. I only had two, but as I noted in that post, the UK Passport Service had a one day fasttrack service, so I thought I was sorted.


Simon and I had wandered over to Wales to the Newport office and even arrived early. We were expecting some problems with his application, for reasons I’ll leave up to him to explain, but had not imagined that I’d have any issues. So, fine, no problem, fill in the form, got all the paperwork, old passport still in good condition, photos all taken the right way, yada yada. Get to the counter and the lady explains she’s just got to look up my record to check that my existing passport is legit. So she wanders over to a computer and tries. No dice. I don’t exist in the system.

She comes back and explains that since I received my previous passports from the British High Commission in Pretoria, they have no electronic record of me in the UK. [As an aside, doesn’t that just sound like they’re crying out for a systems consolidation project??] They’re going to have to fax (!!) the people in Pretoria and just hope that they get back to us in time for them to issue the passport. At this point, there’s only really 3 hours left before the cutoff in the UK when they can issue the passport and only 2 hours left before the South African office closes (they’re two hours ahead and close pretty early anyway).

So now I’m panicking a little. Simon is too, for a different reason — turns out he needs someone with “standing in the community” who has known him for at least 2 years to attest that he is in fact who he says he is. After some discussion with the staff, it turns out that I can count as “someone with standing in the community”, because I hold a management position, so I sign his papers and that’s fine. Then the lady who’s been dealing with my application tells me that I’ll need someone to sign for me as well … and we can’t find any way to cut it that defines Simon in such a way that he can sign me forms.

So now I’ve got two problems — firstly, I need the South African office to send my files pronto and secondly, I need to dig someone up who’s known me for two years, has standing in the community and has nothing to do on a Wednesday morning and can get here. That last point is the most difficult, since most of the obvious choices (my colleagues and lecturers) obviously aren’t going to be able to get here in time. I press the staff on what the actual definition of “standing in the community” is and they eventually admit that anyone with a degree will do. Ah! This can work! I run through the list of PhD students I know, trying to think of one who’s known me long enough and probably won’t mind wandering over to Newport right this minute. I call Mead and even though I’ve woken him up, he agrees to hop on a train immediately and come sign my forms. Phew.

In the meantime my mother (bless her) has ignored the fact that I only asked her to look up the number of the South African office and has already been on the phone to them. Since she’s not the person in question, however, they won’t give her any details. I think that her trying helped anyway though, since when I get through I get about 2 sentences into my explanation of why I’m calling and the woman on the other end says “I think I just spoke to your mother. Hold on and I’ll try to get you through to the person on float”. Apparently this means that the next person I get to speak to is the person whose responsibility it is to actually get the records out, verify them and fax them off to wherever they need to go. I explain my predicament and she immediately displays the primary difference between the UK and South African attitudes:

Me : Well, you see, since my passport was issued there they don’t have an electronic record of me.
Her : OK, well I’m in the system now. OK, so you’ve had a child’s passport and an adult one issued here.
Me : Yes
Her : So what happened to your existing passport then? Did you lose it?
Me : Oh, I’ve got it right here, but that’s not good enough apparently.
Her : You’ve got it with you? So what’s their problem then?!?

I laugh at this and she evidently decides she likes me, as she agrees to get my file processed in advance. She cannot send it until she receives a fax from the UK office though, so I return to the counter to relay this. The lady there assures me that she will send the fax now (never mind that I was under the impression it had already been sent!) and that provided it comes in in the next hour or so that I will still get my passport today.

In the meantime, Mead is en route and eventually arrives just as the fax comes through from the South African office. In a blitz of form and photo signing, it appears that my passport is going to happen after all! Simon is still waiting on his documents to be faxed from London, so I rag him about the fact that Pretoria (distance: 6000 miles) has responded before London (250 miles) and then we go to lunch. Food in Wales appears to be both very good and rather cheap, so that’s enjoyable. When we return it appears that Simon’s passport is going to happen as well, so we wave goodbye to Mead and go wandering around Newport in search of a couple of hours of timewasting.

Finally around 4pm we return, Belgian chocolates in hand as a thank you to the ladies behind the counter who have gone above and beyond in their pursuit of a true fasttrack for our passports, and collect our passports. The final conclusion is two-fold:

  1. The UK Passport Service rocks
  2. I get to go to Austin after all!

With the move to the new version comes the ability to do static pages and manage them with WordPress itself. Obviously I’d rather do this, so there’s some work to be done to change all the About etc pages over into being WordPress static pages. In the meantime there may be some outtages — bear with me ๐Ÿ™‚

Following some rather good reviews I saw about a month and a half ago, I’ve finally gotten around to upgrading to WordPress 1.5. It was (relatively) painless, although I am glad that Elly was around to offer advice.

I also moved Lucy across from MT to WordPress, since she’d had a month unable to post because MT was giving some weird error that even Professor Google couldn’t identify. That was a remarkably painless upgrade, except for one irritation — there is a feature that is quite simply broken in WordPress.

The feature I am talking about it the one that lets you have your blog at one address and your WordPress installation somewhere else (say, in a wordpress/ directory). Unlike the 1.2 install process, the 1.5 install no longer offers you the option to specify this at the outset (which did used to work). Now, the only way is to get through the install process and then try to change the location in Options. I did this with Lucy’s blog and NOTHING HAPPENED. I searched around the intarweb a bit, found some discussions, tried some of the solutions and still NOTHING HAPPENED.

Eventually I decided it was just less hassle to delete the install and start over again. I seem to remember that when Elly & I first made the move across from MT to WordPress, there was a similar problem … and a similar solution.

So, Matt and co, here’s my message to you: I love what you’re doing. WordPress kicks ass. I absolutely love using it. But this is a little problem that can be extremely irritating, especially if the user has to resort to reinstalling to get their blog where they want it. Please iron out the wrinkles and then you’ll be WAY unstoppable ๐Ÿ˜‰

Related: Upgrading from 1.2 to 1.5, Backing up your database and the general upgrade page

A certain game developing friend and I have an ongoing argument about the level of user challenge needed in good games. I have similar conversations with *nix gurus who think that having to learn the command line interface is the most rewarding thing about using a computer. In both cases, I feel that developers are mistaken to believe that the interface needs to be challenging.

However great the sense of achievement when you master the horrifically complicated controls for Hitman on the PS2 (it was originally written for PC) or remember the arcane command that will reveal all of your Linux box’s secrets to you, that hurdle should not have been placed in front of you in the first place. You should have been focusing on skillfully sneaking up behind that guy and garrotting him, or setting up your firewall (incidentally, see Ping’s new project because this whole area sorely needs attention).

Most people aren’t enthused by overcoming an interface challenge. Interface challenges are what make them give up. Task challenges are what keep them coming back and getting better and better. Work out what your user is actually trying to achieve and then get the hell out of their way.

I was going to expand on this, but then I realised that Kathy already said it:

“If you look at things that people are passionate about, there is always some way to tell that people have really become experts. They ski double-black diamonds. They have a black-belt. They are a grand master. They grow rare orchids. They speak conversational Klingon. So one of the ways to help people become more passionate is to figure out what it looks like when people are better at that thing, and help find ways to make that happen for people.

Molly posted some questions about SXSWi that I thought I would answer here, as a taster for the full write-up I’ll do next week whilst avoiding writing my dissertation back in Blighty.

Which was the most memorable panel you attended?
I think there were two that were equally memorable – “DIY Now, Or Somebody Else Will” and Jason Fried’s “How To Do Great Things With Small Teams”
The most memorable keynote?
Definitely the keynote discussion between Bruce Sterling and Alex Steffen of WorldChanging. I particularly loved the little 3D printed dinosaur!
Do you think that SXSW is more a social or content-oriented event?
It’s strength is that it can be both – you can choose what to focus on and influence mightily what you get out of it
What would you like to see more of at SXSW?
Personally I’d like to see a wider focus. As web applications start to be a real possibility, catching up in usability, functionality & speed, we need to be reaching out to all the application developers that will soon be thrust into a new platform. They’ll be better at it if we help them out
What would you like to see less of at SXSW?
How would you describe your experience overall?
Brilliant!! Thoroughly enjoyed both content & socialising and learnt a great deal in the process. So thankful to Simon for raving about it so much and convincing us we had to be there this year.
What will you remember about the food and drink you had while in Austin?
I am trying to forget all about it, because remembering will make living in the UK absolutely unbearable ๐Ÿ™
Do you have a “best moment” or two (or ten) that will stay with you forever?
Plenty — but I will cop out and promise to cover this in the write-up next week

Tomorrow morning Elly & I embark on the 21 hour journey home. By Sunday we will hopefully be back in the land of broadband and tea and I’ll start transposing my notes into entries and scribbled notes on the back of napkins into quote collections. There will also be much sharing of pictures of geeks with guns!