Take Me Home Country Node: A report from SXSW 2002

“Take Me Home, Country Node”
SXSW 2002 Conference Report:
Caleb John Clark. March 9th-13th, 2002. Austin Texas.Saturday, March 9th.

I wake up thinking as I lounge in bed, maybe I’ll go Sunday instead? I’d still make my panel, but I could stay longer in my flannel.

And I come up with several other good reasons. One, a Santa Ana, AKA “devil wind from the East that sucks all the water out of the air” is blowing in an airborn stealth army of insidious plant dust units into my body. It gives me allergies in the form of a dry cough and a mind bogged down in snot. I didn’t have these back East. I was sick at the beginning of Sundance, so maybe it’s a sign I shouldn’t travel. Oyi, do I have Woodyallanitis?

Also, it’s always challenging to go to these without a travel partner, even if you know folks there. Lonely visions of hotel rooms and TVs slide show by, followed by bar squatting and card swapping with other solos and then long walks through the wilderness of a strange city to a nameless plastic seat in a windowless conference room, followed by rejection of all sexual feelers and plastic bedding with no weight as you sleep on the side of a bed fit for three.

Surfing to the “special events” page on the SXSW site changes my mind. I’ve heard from friends that this is a great small Web conference that has more healthy networking and sharing then most. The party blurbs seem to confirm this. There are readings, and EFF gatherings and a Fray story reading night, and words like “DJ” “Club” “coffee house” “free gourmet munchies” “Open bar while it lasts” “literary erotica” and “tribe”. And there are excellent panels during the day too. Blogs, IP, and gamers seem hot this year.

Ahhh the tribe. Web before suits. Wired before Conden Nast. Burning man. Take me back, country node. Cyber-fi! Fellow vets <!>

I found a conference warm up essay by Bruce Sterling that changes my perception of SXSW to one of a gathering of with a foundation of Web heads driven by passion and art with the Web as their medium.

A delay becomes a very bad idea. I’d miss the opening party, the tribal kick off, and there’s plenty of people there I know so I won’t be lonely at all! I pack extra light and hit the road for a 6ish arrival in Austin right when the party starts.

A note about packing. I’m gone 4 days and I want to fit everything in one bag so I can go carryon. This, like most travel, forces one to ask themselves what do you really need? This depends on your gall. Thus it becomes a question of what tools do I need to achieve my goal. The goal this time is not to stink. Not to wear the same exact close every day. Have a laptop and reading material. The first question for space savings is, can you wear the same shoes and pants for four days? People don’t really look at shoes and pants as close as shirts anyway, so if you wear clean jeans, yes. Next, do you mind washing underwear and socks in the shower? If yes, more space and you can have one pair drying while you’re wearing the other. Next. How much can you wear on the plane? The more you can wear, the less you pack. The last, and crucial, question is, can you buy anything you may need there? This is important because you can in fact buy chinos in most major cities in case you have to have a fancy dinner. You can also buy shirts. And the cool thing about buying clothes in other cities is that you can get stuff your friends back home don’t have access too. I end up with one backpack with a laptop sheath containing one G4 PowerBook, 5 print outs, three shirts, two socks/underwear, three T-shirts, a tooth brush, razor, condoms, etc. and I’m off.

Southwest ensues with the usual boarding chaos and standing. When we’re finally on I manage to avoid engaging in an airline seating social psychology thesis project and just take the first window seat I see.

CSRs scoot by wearing collared long sleeve shirts and the crew leader has on a suit coat and tie! Am I on the right airline? And we’re late. Coincidence? Or ties that bind? You be the judge.

Saturnight (experimental word. f its satur-day, why not satur-night?)

Williams Joseph P. Jr. is my Super Shuttle driver. That’s Bob Joe, and perhaps “P” for Peter, Jr. Very iconic Southern name. He’s a charmer. early-50s with a limp that looks painful. He seems to use talking as a painkiller and he’s got quite a smooth flow of the drug at his disposal. Within minutes he’s using my name and knows where I’m from, where I’m going, and what I do. When the next passenger gets on, a late early 40s hefty well-dressed lady named Elisa who’s visiting her sick brother, Bob Joe Peter Jr. introduces me and we’re off with him flirting with his peer. He talks in a flow of repeating phrases and patterns and variable intonations, “oh Elisa, now you don’t want to go to sixth street. Don’t go there; don’t want to go there, no sir. You’re in town for the family, a family thing, no hanky panky…no hanky panky Elisa now…you listening to me? I think I better take you home personally and keep an eye on you. Hahahha, yes sir.” She loves it and giggles like a school girl.

Touch down in the city. It’s a small city by a river. Gray, trees. We pass the convention center and there’s the Four Seasons and the Radisson. It’s got a mini-downtown feeling, like a chunk of New York was plopped down in Texas with the streets flowing with sparse 5 am foot traffic. You can cross the streets before the green walking guy, that kind of car traffic. Lots of cranes and construction.

Check in. Off to the opening party at GSD&M Advertising about 15 blocks away. It’s one of those ad firms with a lobby that looks like a fancy museum. Three story ceilings, excellent pictures on the wall that could be art photography, but they are of the community service the firm does. This firm feels very meshed into Austin’s infrastructure. There’s enough food and the whisky is free. This becomes a problem only for those trying to give the 2002 TIM Awards. Whoever planned this event did not time the free drinks thing with the speaking thing, because by the time people want to be heard from small mics mid-span up their spiral staircase, half the people are just drunk enough not to care more about what they are saying then what anyone else, even with a mic, is saying. To this day they might have no idea what a TIM Award is. I know I don’t.

I get my first hug from friends I have not seen in a while (hesketh.com) and only rarely in person. We talk and drink, sort of that awkward settling into the vibe thing at a conference. I meet some new folks. It’s a casual feeling, not too packed, not many suits at all, I’m relaxing quick. Cards are exchanged (I’m going to protect the innocent by using domain names only) with names like vanderwal.net, digital-web.com, anitrapavka.com, and designflea.com

We’re off to bar #2, an Irish one, for a Digital Web Magazine happy hour. Again, not too packed and friendly people. The bouncer is reading something that looks classic. People are, gasp (choke), smoking at the bar inside. A haven and hell for reformed smokers making them like an ex-junkie given a fresh needle, a hotel room, and 6 months paid vacation. Quitting in California is one thing since big brother is on your side, but a dark wooden bar smelling of whisky in Texas, now that’s a challenge.

A quick stop at the So New Media opening at Bouldin Creek Coffee house for chilly back porch readings and then I decide to light out on my own for the Electricity and Me at Gallery Lombardi.

The cab pulls down a side street to a one-story warehouse by some double train tracks. This looks good. Spinning lighted hanging contraptions along a front porch bespeak of things inside arty and technical. The first exhibit is the best. A transparent 5ft screen with butterflies projected on it that are flying about randomly. The pattern is excellent, and seems non-repeating. But there’s more. I watch a young woman walk up to the screen and put her arm out and butterflies land on her shadow! One on her hand and a group on her head There’s a waterfall screen too, and it makes the water flow around your shadow. A quick geek inspection reveals a PC, projector and feedback camera on the ceiling for each screen. Excellent. And there’s more, like a small Exploratorium gallery full of electronic art. There’s a small Frankenstein looking thing, all kinds small exhibits of robots, holograms, and things lit up. But the butterfly thing stuck. It was one of those examples of technical things that just captivate people in one move, like TV, or chat, or a good Web surf on a fast line. Watch a few seconds of those things over someone’s shoulders and you’re hooked and able to take part with little training.

The gallery is thinning out because the Tang and vodka is long gone. Outside on the long porch people mill about. I talk to couple guys from SXSW about the thousands of audio files they’ve put online with some new compression vise called Aug for short, I think…it was late.

While we’re talking small light appears way down on the train tracks. It’s a slow moving freight. It passes with that inevitable increase in force that turns into a behemoth of steal and noise. It’s a two-engine double-decker, with 2 staked shipping boxes the size of semi-trucks as each car. Three buzzing black dressed folks run to the tracks and make us nervous. They stand very close to the train, and then closer. Then one jumps it and takes a ride, curled up on the side like baby monkey hanging onto her swinging mother. He comes walking back a few moments later from the dark. A bum joins us, her route to the darkness blocked by the train. The train is very long and one of the daredevils is very drunk. She’s too close and a friend slides up beside her to baby-sit. People relax as the visions of her small frame getting sucked up into this lumbering steel monster fade.

Bedtime. A quick walk under a hanging round cage with small balls bouncing around popping from electricity amid a strobe light, reminding me of a lotto disco, and I’m hailing a cab 15 blocks from my hotel. It’s the same guy who dropped me off and he’s not surprised to see me.

Sunday, March 10th.

Panels http://www.sxsw.com/interactive/panels/> start at 10:30, keynotes at 2:15. Very nice. It is as a conference web site said, a party with the propriety to have a conference. The panels are upstairs in the convention center along a hallway with several rooms for couple of hundred folks, and one bigger keynote room. There’s a nice patio. The size is manageable. Food is scarce, but like a lot of places in Austin it seems, beer can be had at anytime. I make a 12:30 panel on trend setting design and listen to folks from netdiver.net, moluv.com, mirrorproject.com, and linkdup.com talk. It’s pretty good. The main point here seemed to be that whatever your passion happens to be, you can still get on the Web and make a space for yourself, and in a lot of cases, lots of others like you. Mirrorproject.com is for submitting pictures of yourself in the reflection of something and has 5000+ photos. Talk of tongsville.com surfaces for the first time, but not the last. Tongsville is a pixel art virtual space and will go on to win best of show.

It is also from this panel that the quote of the conference appears. At one point the moderator from Canada says in a thick English-as second-language accent, “I mean this Web site was sticky. People just keep on coming and coming and coming.” The audience helped her realize her joke. At least I think she understood.

A pattern starts to emerge in the talk and URLs. A pattern of the Web being younger then many of use can see because we are immersed in it. And, after the crash, things seem old and battle weary. But it’s only been 6.5 years for the Web. Comparisons of TV and Film are heard and I start getting more perspective. I think of what it must have been like to be involved with TV when it started. Seven years in must have felt like decades if you were going full tilt. Many folks probably left the industry before it stopped being live, many more by the time color came to be. I wonder if they look back and think, “what in god’s name was I thinking! If I knew what was coming I’d have kept pushing forward.” But perhaps still others look back and think, “If I knew what was coming, I’d have gotten out quicker!”. Parrellels like this are dangerous because each medium is different. Hopefully the Web will not become, “a medium, so called because it is neither rare, nor well done.” As Fred Allan said about TV. Or has it already? And what I was seeing was the ever present tiny slice of light we still see today amid the flow of garbage on TV?

On another level I start to get twinges of being out of the loop. Maybe I’ve seen one too many URL that I didn’t know about. This feeling is followed by one of being surrounded by people, most of whom I do not know very well and some of whom might talk about you me one way, and then a different way to your face. It is irrational, but I felt it momentarily around such stars of the Web, like some Hollywood has-been who is coddled by the industry, or on the way out, and never knows it. Later on I bring this up and find out that others, even ones in the limelight, feel some of that and count on their old friends to keep them in the real loop of honesty, like rock stars who keep friends of theirs around they knew them before they made it. And some people speak of the draining nature of being “on” all the time, instead of with folks they can relax around and be totally themselves and say whatever they want about anybody. This passes quickly. Austin is very friendly and the people at the conference are really amazingly open and cool. I go in search of a wireless zone to post.

On the tradeshow floor I stand,
Garbage can under hand,
Laptop perched on can,
Stealing all the high bandwidth that I can.
802.11b,
The bandwidth you can’t see.

3:30pm I slide into a panel that had NASA mentioned. I love NASA. They are the quiet uber geeks. This one is called IDSA: Wear Today, Gone Tomorrow – Evolving Technologies for Your Body. I catch the end of a medical technology company that makes a plastic that can be used for fake eyes, parts of damaged skulls, ears, etc. Gruesome before and after photos, but they gave out some placeholder eyeballs which are cool.

NASA was there with a full space suit and a woman who works on them. She did the usual NASA deadpan delivery of really cools stuff. Good to see the agency is still in the PR dark ages. She’d drop lines like “This is basically 4 layers of milar and some other layers that have to keep a human being in a comfortable balloon they can move all directions in, that can handle 600 degree changes in temperature and micro meteorites.” Or, “I worked for two and a half years on gloves.” And, “We have to make a lot of stuff from scratch.” You know, stuff, like space suits with movable joints and gold plated visors. She showed a great video of two spaced suited guys on a vomit comet (a training plane that can mess with gravity by doing dives at high altitude). One was in an Apollo suit and the other in a new suit with three joints just for the hips and much more rigid material everywhere. They were doing endless silly movements to show why the old suits won’t work on Mars if we have to do any serious archeology. Very funny to see the Apollo guy get I’ve fallen and I can’t get upped.

Sunnight

This is the awards night < http://www.sxsw.com/interactive/web_awards/>. The Earls. John Halcyon of cockybastard.com fame is our host. But first a nice outside break with the great folks I’ve been adopted by, they are a good crowd of well-known and excellent human beings. I feel a little like a fan swept up into the rock star limo and back stage parties. The warm-up party is one drink ticket (boo) and lots of food. American Spirit is on the deck with smokes sponsoring. Seems strange that big tobacco is sponsoring a young future looking conference of screaming liberals, vegans, veggies, etc. Even stranger is the amount of smokers who are happy about it.

Our host appears to Rocky music in a 100-gallon Nerf cowboy hat and pink fur and plastic. He’s good and gives a summary if the last four years of SxSW. 3 years ago it was change the world. 2 it was to own it. Last year was fuck, fuck, fuck. This year is brother can you Pay Pall a dime.

The awards scream by. I do not know most of the URLs. Later I find out that I’m not alone. Tongsville.com wins three. On their first acceptance speech they come up and say, “I guess just goes to prove that winners do do drugs.”

A blog called dollarshort.org wins and a mousy woman comes up and says, “I really don’t win things, so now I guess some things might have the change on my blog.” The first annual Iron Webmaster award is given with the consensus being three fold. 1. Watching web programming is really boring 2. You can’t make a good web page in an hour. 3. There might not be a second event like this.

We get out 1/2 hour into the “event of the conference”, fray.com night, a wonderful tradition. It’s full when we get there and we can’t get in, including some speakers. We’re stunned. WE can’t get in? Us? The digerati? We all decide to hit the urbanpath.com launch party, which promises free drinks and great food. Arriving we find that the food is gone and the drinks are one free drink ticket for beer, wine and well drinks only. We all agree that this site will never make it with a launch party like this and repair up to a loft in the pseudo dive bar. The loft quickly becomes a fray blocked digerati node of lounging and drinking.

By midnight we’re sauced and head for the Omni bar. The Omni hotel is in one half a new skyscraper that has a bar on the ground floor between the other half with a roof some 30 stories over the two halves. There’s no music so the talking is good amid an incredible airy feeling from the amount of airspace above your head. And yet you’re inside and if you scream it echoes.

Evan from blogger.com fame and I end up at the bar just in time for the arrival of a rouge social unit. She’s a well-dressed woman in her late 40s, plump, jewelried, perfumed, and trailed by several guys. She gravitates to Evan and I and grabs our arms as she launches into the story of her childhood. She says she was a gymnast, very flexible. She was thin then and just out of training in how to be a good wife from her Indian grandmother. This did not involve cleaning, but instead training on Karmic blowjobs using vegetables with a final exam on the village idiot. Ok. We order another drink to recover and she moves on with her village idiots in tow. Oh, and she knows Bono, he’s charming.

Steve and Heather Champeon (hesketh.com) and I stumble home. I love seeing these two. They are a grounding force from North Carolina and Steve is from Maine so we always bond over talk of trees and long relaxing silences.

Monday, March 11th.

Ouch. Water. Must find café. Wait…accessing…Fray night was at a café. Drag self to The Hideout, proud members of the independent-laptop-friendly-coffee-house-salon type place.

Drug store stop on the way for some light allergy meds. Turns out Austin is very high on southwestern allergy content. The daunting wall of allergy meds is well…daunting. I am joined by a woman who is also daunted. We chat. She leaves and says, “Well, I’m sure I’ll see you again”. I was taken back. Why would she see me again? Was she going to stalk me? Or maybe she was just being friendly?

There’s a slow line at the Hideout cafe. It gives me plenty of time for one to see exactly why the line I slow. I do some calming and breathing exercises to handle it, but I fail and slip quickly into a silent consulting lecture to the owner on his needs for workplace efficiency modifications when people are desperately trying to give their money away for flavored water.

There’s an attractive young couple behind me, sort of college bohemian. To my surprise the guy says Hi and introduces himself. I’m suspicious. The woman follows suit. I wonder if they are a tag team Amway sales force? And raise me shields. We talk. They welcome me to Austin and ask about the conference. He’s a geek in college; she works in a charter school like me. Turns out they were just being friendly. Interesting. I drop my shields and want to move next door to them.

In the halls of the conference I search for a wireless signal. There are Mac Titanium PowerBooks everywhere and few PC laptops. Eventually I find an area with a solid signal and log-in. A panel ends, the hall fills up, and I’m about to sit for the next one when a group of folks I know appear and we’re off to the Ironworks BBQ lunch place on a little river walking distance away. It’s a classic picnic table meat place. You can get your meat on paper, or with beans and potatoes. They have soda in class bottles, including Sunkist orange soda. There’s two wood stoves working and a line about 12 ft up on a wall that says “Flood line 1935”. I have beef meat; it’s so slow cooked it crumbles and is gristle/fat blob free.

We return in time for Simon Assaad and David Carson’s keynote lead by Heather Gold. These guys are great. They do heavy.com and tell the story of their financial maneuvers in building their company. Very Hollywood – telling one person you’ve got a meeting with their competition on Wednesday so they book you on Tuesday. Then calling the one you said you had a meeting with, but didn’t and telling them about the Tuesday meeting which makes them book you on Monday. One’s in a suit, the other black with spiked hair. They freely admit it is because while they both do a lot of creative and financial, they’ve found it helps to split up their personalities for meetings and PR so both suits and artists have someone they feel comfortable talking too.

Next up is a panel on tools for open source online community and collaboration tools with folks from, Slashcode, GeekAustin, LiveJournal.com, Slashdot.com, and swinney.org. Some great talk about trolls, rights, and security ensues.

The day ends and we repair to the bar of PF Changes by 5pm. A couple of adapativepath.com guys and I talk and hydrate. For the second time at the conference the subject of film comes up and its relationship to the Web. This time we talk about the time flow in Citizen Kane and a vestige of Well’s radio days with lines like “Look over here by the window” which I never realized were silly in a film where the person saying it is sitting by a window.

Monnight

Most folks head off for 20X2, a series of 20 people doing 2-minute readings. I decide to go over the Vox Nox readings where Derek is reading from the Design for Community book with other authors. It’s a small gathering. The author’s range all over the map, from academic threads that are hard to follow with conference daze, to poets and Derek’s great opening story from the book about his first online community in high school using notes in a desk with an unknown person in another class. A surprise author shows up. I didn’t get his name, but folks said he was pretty successful. He read from a work in progress. I was amazed at his style of reading. He was clearly a pro. He changed his voice for characters just enough to make it almost media and thus different then reading it silently to yourself. Some authors seem to read deadpan, which always causes me to ask myself why we don’t just all sit together and read it, then talk about it. And this guy has amazing narrative flow. If you closed your eyes and didn’t listen to the words too much you could still tell if it was an action scene, or an introspective time etc. by the rhythm of the words.

Then we’re all off to the EFF party, a sangria event at a bar on South Congress over the river. It’s on a long street with dive bars every once in a while and some shops. It’s out of the city about a dozen blocks. While in the middle of schmoozing Steve C. grabs my arm and say, “Come with me” and we’re walking down the street with me asking a lot of questions because I don’t want to leave the party yet. Turns out we’re just going down the street a block to a little hotel which shall remain nameless, so I have a chance of staying their next year.

Walking in one notices the latticework maze that slows you down. Walking under a Japanese like walk way I suddenly feel like someone spiked my sangria with acid. It’s quite. Fine gravel is under my feet. I’m on a walkway with trees. I see a patio with flames of fire through more latticework. There’s ferns, and trimmed bushes, the sound of fountains and shadows of two story buildings in some strange Asian/northern Californian/Santa Fe style. We walk to the patio. Tables, a fire, slow cool music. People chatting. The front desk is also the bar, wine and beer with only edemami and apples for munchies. Suite 16 is having a little social, but we stay on the patio. It’s a very calming place and totally out of the vibe of the street it is on, like a secret zone with an invisible shield of sanity. The bathroom as tea candles. The Portuguese wine is cheap and good and comes in a tough little cup, which I like. They have Flat Tire beer as well. Very nice. 1:30 am comes quickly and I decide to crash early with most of the crowd.

Tuesday, March 12th.

Hide out for coffee. There’s a huge line for tickets, the music people must be coming to town. Speaking of people in town, I finally ask around about all the supposed 60,000 college students at UT. Turns out they are on Spring Break. Very nice planning, no wonder the bars have been so pleasantly easy to get into.

I manage to catch Josh Davis’ panel on painting the digital canvas. He’s hot and a great presenter of his Flash work. “It’s called math” as a friend of mine says later. He gets Flash to paint for him, and he’s a trained artist, so the combo works. He talks a lot about using a framework that tells Flash what to do over and over again, with slightly different results. To get a print of his work, you’d need to do a screen grab.

This framework thing gets me thinking about the panel coming up that I’m on. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of frameworks within which to be creative. While “thinking outside the box” seems to be in vogue, I actually like to think within the box too, and I think it has a long wonderful history of proving very creative for others as well. My two favorite examples are script writing and painting. Painters literally work within a box – the canvas. They don’t sit there spending hours deciding what shape their canvas will be, it’s just a rectangle and the work lies in what to fill it with. Script writing has a ridged format, 90 to 110 pages, Courier font, specific margins, conventions, use of capitals, etc. The challenge is the story and characters.

But what if you port this over to online community I think as Josh is talking about this new art? Well, good communities seem to have very clearly defined frameworks within which people freely communicate. The framework is a purpose of the community, the special interest it centers around, the tone it sets, the technology needed, rules, etc.

And further, just like John’s work is created by the application and constantly changes, but within the same motif, online communities are constantly changing the content, but the motif is steady if the framework is strong. So, if you take a sample of say the last 20 posts of a community it is like a painting of information from you framework. Ha! Or maybe I’m just spinning from days of SXSW’s pace…

2pm and Derek takes me and the two other panelists (John Styn of citizenx.com and Matthew Haughey of metafilter.com)out to lunch. Our panel is to discuss lessons learned when the users strike back. It’s the last session of the conference and we’re all dazed and overloaded. I’m concerned that the room will be empty. But we rally and have a great warm-up and get positive. John and Matt are smart and we all get ideas from each other.

The room fills up. We have an overhead they surf to the person’s site who is talking. For me this is the NoEnd.org site. Confusing and static since NoEnd is closed, small, and not Web based. But apparently we cast a long shadow and as a community have shared what we’ve learned well.

Derek is a consummate moderator. We each tell stories of users striking back. John tells of learning of Hottubbing and doing that to citizenx.com when it was at 140,000 users. He’s down significantly after rebooting and has limited the “show your tits” to sections of the site. He’s also implemented taxes and the users not only don’t mind, but wanted to pay. I think it’s $5 a month. Matt gets the biggest applause when he tells us of his technique of dealing with trolls. He makes them invisible to everyone but themselves! We converge on the idea of using a core, or sponsors to sponsor new members so you can go to the sponsor if trouble starts and they will know the person better. This avoids misunderstandings and saves moderator’s time. I tell the story of NoEnd after 911 and our first attempt at a 7 day break. After polling the list people seemed generally positive about it, but wishing it hadn’t gotten to that stage. Also, some said we were still a little wounded. I told of how we discovered that part of the problem was core member slacking and not reading the list enough. Derek polls the room and finds out that almost everybody is part of a community, but only 4 make their living at it. We end with QA with Josh Davis sparking things up with some great questions. After, we make it across the hall the patio for some air and to let is all sink it. We’re done. That’s it. A few more parties, ending at Bruce Sterling’s.

Tuenight

After dinner out with panel and company we all head for the adaptivepath.com one-year birthday party. On the way I hook up with Issy, a second cousin I have not scene for 26 years, since that trip to snowbird central in Florida. My mother had called my cell phone to hook us up as Issy is a local now, a transplanted East Coast Jew in Texas, or as they say here, “I don’t live in Texas, I live in Austin.” Issy comes with me to the party. She’s in her 40s and works at a non-profit. We talk amid the mix. She is curious about what sort of alien ship and landing party I’ve arrived with, being as she is not a techie. She writes down a lot of URLs as I talk. Timing in the universe being what it is, my father calls my cell right after she asks about him. They talk briefly. He used to make eggplant lasagna with her father – random.

We part. I share cab to Bruce’s party. Bruce Sterling that is. The writer. He has a party on the last night every year. At his keynote he passed out directions to the crowd. His house is in a nice older part of town with old lawns and big old trees in the yard. He’s got a wonderful old home with a huge porch and lots of wood. We walk up. The porch is full, but not crowded. Sure enough he’s opened up his house, literally. I mean you can walk into his office and browse books and there’s an email list on his iMac if you want to leave your email. I see a pile of “Air University” Journals from Maxwell Air Force base. There’s only a boom box on the floor with low music, and strange physics stuff on a normal TV. The back porch is also open so you can walk through his house and out the other side. The kitchen has some drinks, food and coffee, but nothing outrageous, just a good house party. There’s a couple of contraptions there too that Bruce shows off. One is a balancing chime that works off a candle; the other is a candle driven mini-still. Someone has balanced two forks on two toothpicks at right angles and a group is standing around discussing the physics of the situation.

It’s really quite amazing at first, or unusual, for a man of his position to open up his life to a sort of public. Then I start to think, by opening up like that, with no rules, or signing of things, or security (that I could see) he is counting on us, his loyal fans, as his protectors. If we saw someone stealing or doing something stupid, I think the crowd would want to take care of it before anybody knew, because it would be such an uncool thing to do, and so we could all come back next year.

Bruce is wandering around a lot. His kids are too. He’s easy to talk to, but distracted being the host. Later in the night I find myself with some my pose at Bruce’s liquor cabinet getting a tour and taste from him. There’s coffee flavored tequila, Croatian moonshine, etc. We do some shots. Later, wafting out onto the sprawling southern wrap around porch, I find packs of Dunhill Reds on tables with matches. Apparently they’re there as party favors. Very cool.

We settle in for a chatting kind of low-key house party that just puts the joy back in your heart. No trouble, no fights, no drunks, but few sobers. Very southern laid back I think. I meet some great people, like two CS professors from UT who insist all popular OSs “Suck!” and something about Xerox Parc. There’s a foreign busty blond programmer, the couple from somewhere in Asia, and that older guy in a tee shirt in the kitchen who seemed to know everybody. People swing and neck in a hammock. Cabs come and go. There are leaves on the lawn. I don’t want to ever leave. But I do when most of the rest of the crowd.

We make it in time for the last drink at the Omni, like we need it. It’s quiet. I walk home again with the Champeon’s. We part on the 7th floor of the Radisson. My cab driver the next morning is French New Orleans. The airport is sane. On plane I sit next to a 40s something father of two teens on the plane. He’s the single most calm, happy, father I’ve met in ages. Just a middle-aged guy with a gut and thinning hair and no problems with that. Turns out he used to work at Apple in the 1980s to the early 1990s. Now he’s at an educational software company. All in sales. He had some great stories. His kids were traveling with him on business so they could bum around San Diego. They were sitting scattered all over the plane. He kept letting them borrow his iPod. The way he interacted with his kids was so natural, like they’d all made it though the tough years of childhood and now he was just one of them, and treated them like adults, and they returned respect and did their own thing. He would smile every time he talked to them, and make jokes or snicker. This guy had a mellow sense of humor that was just relaxing. Turned out he worked totally at home and traveled about half the week. He had a pool and swam at lunch. He worked until about 3 after waking up early to get the kids to school. His wife was a graphic designer. He told of some hard times, and Austin getting too crowded. He’s thinking of moving to Colorado he said, “and the kids are into it too.” He seemed like the jovial chief of a wonderful small tribe of good folks doing their thing, like the big tribe I was just part of.

“SXSW is a gathering of the tribes. It is a place where folks truly committed to the web as a creative medium meet once a year to hook up and hang out while enjoying the music, cuisine, and chaos of Austin, a town like no other. SXSW is something between Woodstock and Spring Break, with a conference thrown in for the sake of propriety.” — Quote from the SXSW site by Jeffrey Zeldman, www.zeldman.com 2002 SXSW Interactive Panelist.

THE END

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