All I have to say today is YAARRRRR!!



Ron Displays the HK
Originally uploaded by meriwilliams.

Whenever we come to Texas, we’re not just attending SXSWi, but also visiting some good friends who live here in Austin. They happen to own Pasta & Co which makes the best fresh pasta in Austin (and probably the world). The pasta-maker at this fine establishment also happens to collect guns — everything from handguns to shotguns to assault rifles. He also builds sniper rifles, on occasion. So whenever we come to Texas, we try to make a little time to enjoy the pasta, the steak and the guns, as well as the fine company of the geeks.

Last year, we took Simon along with us. The outpouring of amazement and delight at the photoset on Flickr resulted in us widening the invitation this year to include some other geeks. Molly, Andy, Yvonne, MJ and Ian all answered the call and came along. We met at the pasta shop, for a quick gun safety briefing. Anyone looking in at the shop would probably have assumed there was some sort of arms deal going on — on one of the kitchen tables salads were being prepared, on the next the differences between an AK47, an HK and a Berretta were being explained!

We piled into the trucks (everyone seems to drive a truck in Texas!) and headed for Red’s Shooting Range. What all the geeks seemed to find hilarious was the stops that were made along the way — Ron went home to grab some AK ammo and Sheryl made a pasta delivery en route. That’s just the way it works, I say! Once inside we were joined by MJ’s friend Jackson and the real fun began.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow (or shot by shot) account of who shot what and when — rather I’ll summarise as follows:

  • Everyone was very brave and pretty much tried all the guns. Even the assault rifles. There’s a full list of what was available here
  • Andy and MJ (both gun virgins) showed remarkable courage and talent — Andy in particular even impressed Ron with his innate skill!
  • Everyone seemed to have a blast!
  • The ATF proved that they are a force to be reckoned with!
  • MJ proved that she is infinitely talented at photo composition
  • Ron and Sheryl both showed immense patience and generosity in helping us to experience this!

On Monday we are going to be taken some Aussies along for a shooting experience. Since Friday a bunch of people have approached me about being involved next year — largely due to Andy’s gushing recounting of events, I think! If you are interested in coming along to Geeks with Guns 2007, then please leave a comment here and we’ll see what we can organise. I’m not making any promises — due to the obvious issue of safety, we may not be able to do this in a big group — but we’ll see what we can do!

We’re already in Austin, visiting with our friends before SXSWi. We flew on Friday and enjoyed a great flight, given that we were on a 777 (max capacity 280) with only 79 other passengers. Plenty of room to stretch out for once!

Since then we’ve mainly just been chilling, enjoying the lack of snow (especially as this is happening pretty close to home) and the fantastic food. We even managed to fit in some BBQ yesterday on our way out to San Angelo.

Looking ahead, we’re going to be teaching more geeks to shoot (as we did last year with Mr Willison) , breaking Brad with bread, generally hanging out at SXSWi causing trouble, trying hard to win cool stuff and then getting inked again by the wonderful Karen Slafter. Our lovely hosts (who incidentally make the best fresh pasta in all of Austin) have also managed to score us some VIP tickets to Texas Roller Derby so we will be at the expo bout at the Convention Center later next week as well!

For those who are going to be at SXSWi, whether we met you last year or not, we look forward to seeing y’all 🙂

The great thing about going to a conference in Austin was that we got to see old friends again and to hang around for a few days after SXSWi had finished. These days quickly devolved into a “food, guns and ink” tour of Austin.

Food

We came, we ate, we sat back in our chairs too stuffed to change the channel from Fox News. Never doubt that Austin is an absolutely amazing place to be from a food point of view.

BBQ

The most obvious delicacy (if it can be described as such) is of course barbeque. Having heartily enjoyed our original BBQ at Ironworks on the first day of SXSW, imagine our shock when we were told that this was “crappy, tourist barbeque”!

On a previous visit to Austin, I had been taken out into the countryside to visit both the Oakridge Smokehouse and the Salt Lick, but this time around we didn’t have quite enough time to travel out to either. So, we went for the local option, the sublime John Mueller’s BBQ. It was very very good. I had ribs, but based on the brisket taster that everyone gets slapped down on their plate, I probably should have gone for that. What I really love about BBQ in general in Austin is the casual way it is treated — you’re eating some of the best food you’ve ever tasted … with a plastic knife & fork (or just your hands!) off a paper plate on a plastic tray.

Mexican

As previously mentioned, we also went to El Chile Cafe, an absolutely excellent Mexican place. Personally, I’m always quite wary about Mexican food. It’s very different from both the South African fare I was brought up on and the blander British food I’m now used to — not to say that’s a bad thing, just that I’m never quite sure if I’ll love or hate something. I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty the special I had was (I can’t for the life of me remember what it was tho!) and others around the table seemed to especially enjoy the prickly pear margheritas they were sipping on.

Italian

Since we were lucky enough to be staying with friends who own an Italian deli, they felt they just couldn’t let us out of the country until we had experienced the produce from Pasta & Co in all its gastronomic glory. And glorious it was — the table groaned with everything from pumpkin & walnut ravioli through to fresh egg pasta with vodka sauce. Following this with lamingtons and other hedonous desserts was too much for us, but some not only managed to eat their tiramisu, but also to serenade it.

Remind me of this next time I complain my life is uneventful, OK?

Ice-Cream

Is ice-cream really its own category? I hear you mutter. Of course it is! Especially when you have the wonders of Amy’s Ice Cream to experience. Since we first came across it on St Patrick’s day, Simon partook of Guinness ice-cream, whilst Elly and I chose some slightly more conventional but no less delicious options from their normal menu. There was also a little mini-version at the airport, where we saw the best tip jar sign ever:

Sign reads:

Guns

The day before we left for home, we managed to get out to Red’s shooting range with a variety of guns lent to us by a friend. I thought that most of the excitement would be in shooting 3 handguns, 2 assault rifles and some other smaller weapons, but in fact most of the entertainment came from watching Si & Elly discover the joys of gunpowder:

Simon Willison holding an HK-45 assault rifle

Elly looking very happy as she reloads a small calibre rifle

More can be found over at my Flickr guns tag

Ink

Last time I was in Austin I had a tattoo of a wolf done (which you can see here) which was the first I had designed for me. The designer & tattooist was a lady called Karen Slafter at SouthSide Tattoos. She is the best tattooist I’ve ever seen — fast & light of touch, but very creative and inventive with her use of colours and movement. This time I had a mountain lion done:
New Mountain Lion Tattoo

It was amazing — she took about half an hour (with her various animal encyclopaedias and so on) to design it and only 45 minutes to ink it. If you’re ever thinking of having ink done, she’s absolutely brilliant and I couldn’t recommend her more highly. Elly got a new tat as well, a fish to accompany her existing one, as you can see here.

[NOTE: Hell, I am sooo bad at writing up drafts. But nevertheless, I figure I should still say this stuff, if only to keep the magic of SXSW alive in my own head for a little longer. Apologies is this is so March by now 😉 ]

Since we were staying with friends in Austin (in exchange for a new website for their fantastic Italian deli and fresh pasta market) and because of jetlag, we didn’t attend all that many of the evening events. Nevertheless, a run-down of my favourites is obligatory, so here it is.

Vox Nox

By far my favourite evening event at SXSWi this year was Vox Nox at the Red Eyed Fly. We had been there the night before, for Fray Cafe 5 (thanks to Jeremy for explaining the first time round and reminding me again by email when my brain turn sieve-like), which was also very entertaining. Vox Nox, however, beat it hands down. From Curt Cloninger doing his punk thing, through Molly managing to get ‘avarice’ into a song lyric, to Eric Meyer making the whole front row cry with his very moving storytelling, it was just amazing.

It of course didn’t hurt that we followed this up with the most fantastic Mexican meal ever, combined with excellent company in the form of Zoom, T and Simon (who shall, according to the Austinites, henceforth be known as Niles or Nigel).

Bruce Sterling Party

Honestly I think the venue for this was a mistake. It was difficult to circulate and meet people, I’m told the beer was crap lite stuff (I don’t drink anymore) and generally it didn’t seem to even resemble the cool parties of previous years that everyone talked about. Nevertheless, we did have some fun. Highlights included getting branded by MJ, getting promoted to the First Team in Quidditch and hanging with the Britpack a little, which we hadn’t done much of previously.

The Really Cool Stuff

The really cool extramural stuff at SXSWi was just hanging out with cool people though. From barbeque on the first day, to having lunch with a table-full of unpresuming but famous people, to hanging out with Molly, Anders and others in the Hilton Bar, performing cunning acts of furniture stealing with Ping just prior to the Web Awards and so on and on. Generally just being surrounded by loads of friendly, smart people was more than enough reason to go all the way to Austin.




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.

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.

Nuh-uh.

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!