The first day of SXSWi this year was a little overwhelming. Perhaps I was still recovering from the Geeks with Guns episode; perhaps there were just that many more people here this year. Nevertheless, it was great to see so many folks coming together. There also seemed to be fewer people attached to their laptops this year — although I was an exception to this rule. For the record though, I don’t even have wireless so I really was just taking notes!

Knitting Tag Clouds for Grandma — Beyond Folksonomies

The official site for this panel can be found here and my full notes are here

Key Thoughts:

  • FOLKSONOMY — bottom-up way for organising information, more general than a taxonomy
  • TAXONOMY — formal, top-down, specific way of organising information
  • Lot of talk about taking folksonomies to the next level and developing into something more generally useful. The chaps on the panel seemed to think this needed technological innovation; the ladies disagreed
  • Eventual consensus was that we really need to expand the use of tagging/folksonomies beyond the geek community and into the general public for the next level to be reached
  • Barrier is usability problems with current tagging implementations — everyone is focusing on growing their own tagging systems, without enough standardization or improvement

Quotes

  • “I’m Liz Lawley and my blog is not my identity!”
  • “This will be more an exploration than an exposition”

Dan Gilbert: How to do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times

This guy was fantastic and I took a lot of notes — you can find them here.

  • Expected Happiness = (odds of gain) x (value of gain)
  • This formula is all you need to work out how to do precisely the right thing at all possible times — but our brains aren’t wired to do this well.
  • People are prone to errors in the calculation of odds, because we decide how LIKELY something is based on how easily we can ENVISION it
  • We are also prone to miscalculating the value of gain, because we are basically built to detect CHANGE — we compare with the past (how much did it use to cost?) rather than the possible (what else could I do with this money?)
  • We also make mistakes when there is greater variety (more options increases the chance of not making a decision at all!) or when things are further away (in space or time)
  • Basically our brains have evolved a long way, but not enough to deal with the new world :: “We are not stupid, but we are ancient”
  • Application of science is what can help us make the right logical decision

Cyberplace: Online in Offline Places

This was essentially a ubicomp panel, although not billed as such. It was definitely a lot more practically focused than many ubicomp discussions I’ve seen. The key point was that we need to be able to tie information (online) to location (offline).

The panelists essentially just discussed the various products they had created or worked on and the positives and negatives of the experience. The inability of cellphones to really pinpoint their own locations was a frequent bitch. The value of tying online information to offline places was obvious — although personally I’m not sure how you’d distinguish between the “plaque” style of info and the graffiti … or accommodate the people who sometimes WANT to look at the graffiti!

My full notes can be found here.

Quotes

  • “Although it seems really stupid from a safety perspective, the first thing that people do is to tag their houses: “I live here!”” — Michael
  • “Dodgeball makes me sad because I’m usually at home and all my friends seem to be out leading these interesting lives” — Heath

Designing for Global & Local Social Play — the Secret Identity game

Most of the session time was taken up with the Secret Identity game — everyone had to think of a secret and then we all went around the room trading secrets with people. The intent was that you treated each new secret as your own. At the end, people wrote their secrets on a big green sticker and stuck it on thier backs. There was a very interesting shuffle around the room, whilst everyone tried to see everyone else’s backs!

My full notes are here.

  • The dynamic of global and local is interesting — the web is global, but often we are more interested in local concepts : connecting to people we already know, finding out about the places we live in
  • Play doesn’t just mean gaming — it can mean “trying things on”, identity play and so on
  • New situations are a good opportunity for play. When you move to a new location, approaching finding out about your new surroundings as play means that you can safely explore
  • Interesting concept of “Collapsing Context” — more likely to find people you know in your online communities too. Analogous to “small world”, I suppose. Specific example is of Liz playing World of Warcraft alongside her kids

Quotes

  • You have permission to push back on things because it is play — danah
  • “Packing and unpacking is a process of renewal” — Irina
  • Im not a grad student Im a professor and have tenure, so I didnt do ANY research before turning up! — Liz
  • “Your son is acting inappropriately in the guild right now — can you please logon and sort him out?” — Liz


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.

The real point of leveraging solipsism is this:

If you can let your users do what they want to do anyway, but get some sort of emergent behaviour that is more broadly useful, then you’re on to a winner.

This is why the old corporate groupware angle so seldom took off — people won’t do things for the good of the group unless there is a distinct personal benefit to themselves. The only example I can think of where this DOES work, is the calendar functionality of some corporate email packages. The group benefit is that when setting up a meeting it is evident when the entire group is free. The personal reason to keep your electronic calendar updated, however, was primarily driven by the ability to sync Palmpilot with primary computer — people wanted to have one calendar including both the meetings arranged by email and those set up on their palms, so they synced, which allowed the group benefit.

My raw notes for the last day can be found here.

Web Design 2010

Some of the interesting discussions and questions are here (although Dave said that might not be a permalink, so apologies if it moves). The panelists were Doug Bowman, Eris Free (“the sleeper hit of the festival”), John Hicks, Dave Shea and John Allsopp (the most entertaining moderator of SXSWi).

Although this panel was quite entertaining, I this to be much more a function of the personalities of the panelists than the content. There were some interesting thoughts though as to where the web was going to be in 2010:

  • Applications are moving online — there are current examples (Gmail, etc) showing comparative usability
  • Application delivery seems to be moving towards a service vs product mentality
  • A key issue will be new interaction models — we need an alternative to the keyboard and a number pad isn’t going to cut it
  • Nobody knows what technologies will matter in 5 years time

Personally I think that the anticipated change was far greater than is really feasible in a 5-year time frame. People were talking about the disappearance of the desktop machine, the browser, the keyboard. I think that this might well happen at the bleeding edge, but in reality there’s a whole lot of world that needs to catch up. And, as I pointed out in the session, the key thing holding back the developing world is not the price of computers or software (you know where your Mac goes when it dies, right? And about Linux, yeah?), but bandwidth. I don’t know _anyone_ in South Africa with a home broadband connection yet. And that’s what’s going to stop the developing world keeping up. After all, Linux will run on any old thing.

Decentralized Social Networks

Again, the people on this panel were interesting, but it was a bit thin on content. Key message: XFN is cool because your network information is distributed, so you needn’t put it into many different services or worry about who owns your relationship data. Also, Rubhub helps you keep track of people who’ve XFNed you.

Keynote: Bruce Sterling & Alex Steffen

This keynote rocked. I knew that Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen would be interesting, but I was surprised at how cool & clued-in Bruce Sterling was as well. I’d recommend that you watch the video, because they were very entertaining.

3-D Printed Widget Against My Laptop style=

Key thoughts:

  • Humanity produces way too much crap — we need to reduce our waste in production, but also in what we throw away
  • There’s too much toxic stuff going into the atmosphere — this is where Bruce Sterling smoking his Converse shoes comes in
  • We need radical new ways of building and creating things, as we’re running out of space
  • LEAPFROGGING involves skipping a stage in development, usually on a societal/country level
  • TREEFROGGING is all about finding alternate ways to live on a personal basis (Treehugger.com)
  • Sterling’s ideal is that one day things will be manufactured to be intelligent about what they’re made up from — so basically when they’re discarded they can make their own way to a recycling plant, or send out a distress call to be picked up by someone and recycled

Cool quotes: (all Sterling unless otherwise noted)

  • “I’m a green protocrat…”
  • “The actual is the new virtual” (on 3D printing)
  • “Yeah, we’re going in, let’s scan his head and print out his skull!” (on the advantage of having 3D-printing for neurosurgeons)
  • “We’re building a city the size of Seattle every 5 days!” – Alex
  • “Just go throw it over the side to the pirahnas of bloggerland” (on the massive rise to fame of the solar backpack after bloggers picked it up and ran with it)
  • “Design is design for the dump” (everything gets thrown away sometime)
  • “What would your reaction be if you got into the shower and it said to you ‘You have a surprisingly large amount of jet fuel in your system today…'”

Spam, Trolls & Stalkers

All about how to deal with conflict & problems in online communities. A good session with quite a lot of practical focus.
Practical Advice:

  • You need to “tend the conversation”, else things will quickly get out of hand
  • Overspecific rules are an invitation to game the system; try to deal in broader concepts instead
  • You can’t automate intelligence — judgement is needed in all of this
  • Don’t talk about what you’re doing to stop antisocial behaviour on your blog
  • Figure out ahead of time what sort of community you want — even if it all goes out the window, at least you’ve given it consideration and perhaps you’ll give it some “soul”
  • You need to pay attention to community content — as the host, you’re liable
  • Dead blogs, unupgraded blogging software, etc, is producing spam havens — people who desert or fail to tend are part of the problem!