My 2006 South by Southwest Journal (Very long)

Every March between 2002 and 2010 I regularly attended an Austin tech conference called South by Southwest Interactive. In 2006 I offered  to TechBlog to blog about my misadventures at SXSW. I generally liked that experience although it kind of ruins the fun of attending the conference. Some of the tidbits are dated now (but some are definitely not!) . I’m reposting the whole thing for archiving purposes.


Thursday March 6, 2006

Next week, I’ll be attending (and reporting on) parts of a famous arts conference, South by Southwest (SXSW) which takes place in Austin every year in March. Actually South by Southwest has three overlapping components: SXSW Music, SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive . Each component is famous in its own right, but participants or fans may not realize that SXSW encompasses more than just the part they are acquainted with. The music fest is famous for helping emerging bands find gigs and possibly record deals (see these anecdotes); the film fest includes lots of independent films along with a series of panels on promotion, distribution and genres; the interactive portion (from which I’ll be liveblogging) covers a wide range of topics having to deal with content creation (blogging, copyright, digital convergence, web entrepreneurship and multimedia). The film portion lasts the longest (although its panels overlap with Interactive); and quite a number of films premiered here get wider distribution (see these interviews with SXSW 2006 filmmakers); the music portion has the greatest number of performances (see this music schedule ) all around town; the Interactive portion is the most offbeat (with an annual kickball game, nightly literary events, and of course parties).

People buy badges for film/music/interactive or some combination of the three. In the past I’ve attended the Interactive portion, and afterwards I feel simultaneously exhilirated, inspired and exhausted. Some attend two or even three of the components, a feat requiring Herculean amounts of stamina.

Purchasing badges is not terribly expensive. Badges for Music or for all three (the “Platinum Badge”) are the most expensive (because it includes free admission to all the venues). For those who wait until the last minute, the prices for Music/Film/Interactive badges are (respectively): $575/$300/$300. However, if you buy your badge several months in advance, the price is discounted heavily. For example, I bought my Interactive badge last September for $195. If you consider that the 4 day SXSW Interactive portion includes many technical topics and caters to web programmers, the price is shockingly low (contrast that with Oreilly’s Etech which costs almost $1700). For geeks, one particularly striking thing about SXSW Interactive is the male to female ratio. It may be one of the few geek conferences where the gender ratio resembles that of the real world.

Last year SXSW Music launched a bit torrent consisting of 3 gigabytes of free mp3s from almost all the artists performing that year. I am happy to report that the 2005 torrents are still available and that a similar 2006 bit torrent file exists for this year’s performers. (Update: the 2005 bittorrent files seem to be down at the moment. Will check into that). See also a music weblog called See You In the Pit with links to mp3s and reviews of performers. Once again, Houston music weblogger Robert Duffy will be providing some first-rate live coverage of SXSW Music.

SXSW Interactive has featured great ideas and web technologies before they went mainstream. Over the next two weeks while guestblogging here, I’ll try to touch upon the most interesting things I see and hear. I’ll be liveblogging SXSW here on Techblog starting on Saturday March 10 until the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

Finally, this question may be rhetorical, but why attend conferences in person anymore? Cost-conscious companies are less willing to send workers to out-of-town conferences (or even in-town conferences), and the blogosphere can often spread the same memes just as quickly. Starting in 2003 or so (for example), bloggers attending SXSW Interactive started transcribing panels they attended (the most notable being Heath Row whose lighting-fast typing produced some great transcripts of SXSW 2004 and SXSW 2003). This can have its surreal aspects. At one panel led by linux devotee Doc Searls a few years ago, I noticed he was typing vigorously after speaking his piece; it took me a moment to realize he was blogging about and moderating the panel both at the same time. At that same panel (I think), audience members were asked to raise their hands if they had a weblog. Every hand in the room shot up. For every SXSW Interactive panel, chances are that a minimum of three people have already blogged about it (perhaps even before the panel actually finishes!)

For those who would rather listen to the SXSW panels while driving down Highway 59, itconversations records a lot of first-class conferences on technology. Last year they featured several recordings of previous 2005 SXSW presentations, and this year they will probably feature more. Given the large number of mp3 recorders in people’s hands at the moment, I predict that mp3s of most presentations will hit the Internet fairly soon. I’ll link to them when I can; chances are links to them will also become available on the unofficial SXSW group weblog, SXSW baby).

Friday March 10 2006  How to Pretend to be a SXSW Geek.

Off to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin

Already the blogosphere is abuzz with anticipation. From Dave Nunez’s guide to SXSW:

There is a LOT of ad-hoc and errr… “multitasking” side chatter going on during the panels. People whip out their laptop and start clattering away taking notes, browsing and IM’ing. In some cases they’ll be supplementing what the speaker is saying with quick google searches or playing peanut gallery in an IRC room, “Can you believe she just said that?” or “This speaker is pretty good. How is the speaker in your room?

Here’s how to fit in among a bunch of entrepreneurial creative geeks:

  1. Don’t mention these words: Microsoft, Time-Warner, SBC,, myspace, George W., friendster, copyright reform, Grokster, comment spam. In this crowd, it’s dangerous; you might subject yourself to rants lasting 30 minutes or more.
  2. Scoff at the previous speaker’s remarks and mention an even hotter buzzword, (“Didn’t somebody already show the technology doesn’t scale? Aren’t people using CalDev now?”)
  3. Bring an extra extension chord for hooking up your laptop. Great conversation starter.
  4. Don’t act amazed when you meet a female geek.
  5. If you work for IBM or Apple, don’t talk about it at all. Geeks could care less. They’d be more impressed if you talk about a comic book you are working on or a flash video game.
  6. Take photos indiscriminately. (Everyone at sxsw is taking photos of themselves, friends, the elevator, the lights, the nearby dumpster). (See these flickr photos tagged sxswi ).
  7. Be shameless about self-promotion (with buttons, cards, stickers, flyers, pink hair , radical T-shirts, etc). Every other person I meet seems to start a conversation like this, “I run, this cool new site that uses blanketyblank technology to help you do blanketyblank.” Even if you don’t have a shtick, feel free to mention some vaporware you plan to release soon.
  8. Act slightly uncomfortable at parties. (Your level of external discomfort is inversely proportional to your level of god-given talent).
  9. Ignore anyone over 30. Maybe they were doing interesting things back in the last century , but now they are here merely to reminisce about the boom and hear the speech by Bruce Sterling (quintessential old-timer geek). The only exception to the above rule is if an over-30 has sold his web innovation to yahoo, in which case he is treated like a hero.
  10. Whenever the subject of wireless convergence or community wifi comes up, look ahead with a wistful expression and sigh.
  11. If you run into a web luminary while in the bathroom, resist the urge to gush over his recent blogpost or podcast. Trust me–don’t. (I learned the hard way after 4 years of attending). The luminary is in the bathroom for one reason–please respect that.
  12. Everyone’s energy level is so high here that it becomes fatiguing very quickly. Sometimes you’ll meet a cool geek during a “downtime moment”, in which he’ll be impassive and incoherent. Let him be. He’s probably in a state of recharging. Don’t write off these people too quickly; the next time you meet him he might be fully back to his extraordinary self.
  13. Understand geek modesty. Every blogger/web designer will say, “My site currently sucks, but I’m working on something that will look awesome when it comes out.” That’s perfectly normal. (It’s always funny when a presenter accidentally stumbles upon an old/incomplete page that looks terrible; we laugh not at him but with him. All of us have legacy/archived webpages that look awful in contemporary browsers and we never had time to fix).
  14. The fun of going to SXSWi is running into people who are incredibly talented and famous and you have never heard of. It’s a little like waiting in line at Walmart behind two people who won the Nobel prize for chemistry last year. On the outside they look perfectly ordinary, and even if you hear them talk, you wouldn’t have a clue they were famous or brilliant. Enjoy it. At my first SXSW I ran into a tattooed renegade flash artist named Josh Davis . I knew he did something with Flash, but I ended up talking instead about his trip to Yugoslavia (I had gone there too recently). We had the usual 5 minute exchange of witticisms, and he invited me to his demo the next day. I hedged, saying, maybe I’ll come, but I would have to check my schedule (truthfully, I wasn’t particularly interested). “No,” he said, “you really have to see it. It will be incredible!” “I’ll try,” I replied, walking away, noticing a crowd of 30 people three feet away looking at us, awestruck. As I went for refreshments, one of them tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “That’s Josh Davis. He’s big. I mean, really really big! He’s like the most famous flash artist on the planet!” (The next year I did see his demo, and yes, it was incredible!)
  15. Don’t worry about faux pas. Even the geekiest among us haven’t heard of 70% of all the cool things out there. Ignorance is embarrassing only if you let it. At some point you’ll discover that the person with whom you’d been exchanging your incoherent and ill-informed opinions about Ajax technology was in fact the brilliant person who invented it last year. It’s probably wise not to disparage any product or web technology unless you 1)actually know what you’re talking about and 2)you have checked to make sure the person you are talking to didn’t invent it or write a book about it.
  16. Fanboy moments. It’s ok to walk up to some lowly artist or geek and rave about something they did. In your mind this person might be famous, but often nobody else probably thinks so. Last year, I had my first fanboy moment (yea!) when a total stranger came up to praise my Austin Sucks essay. A year before that, I ran into Cameron Barrett, a blogger I’d been following for over two years. When I saw him, I was incredibly nervous; did he realize how religiously I’d been following his daily reports about the web? Cam was unfazed by the encounter and went on to the next panel. Clearly, he didn’t find it awkward/humbling/or wierd. That’s good.

Check back tomorrow for my report about the conference’s first day.

SXSW Day One: Toy Soldiers

SXSW Interactive has begun. Lots of geeks armed with laptops, blackberries, mp3 players and bottles of water are scurrying past the videographers (at the SXSW Film Conference next door). On one bathroom break, I noticed 5 men standing before the urinal, all with laptop cases hanging over their backs. Have you heard of the pack men wear to simulate the experience of being pregnant? Women, take note: look at how carefully men cradle their laptop. Laptops are their babies.

Actually, everybody is loaded with battery packs, recorders, notepads, freebie stuff. I feel like a soldier ready for battle. (See an annotated picture of my gear) . Student volunteers are everywhere standing around, earning time which they can use for the Music Festival. Several tables are covered with toy soldiers, legos and barbies to play with during the break.


Photo, J.D. Lasica; SXSW Participants Playing in the Interactive Playpen

The first panel is about podcasting and ways to make it profitable. Each panelist was a sound professional who had brought his own microphones (and was consciously speaking to a hypothetical podcast audience). Amazingly, all the different sound systems and mikes were causing a lot of noise and interference on the PA system. One audience member asked about product placement; didn’t having corporate sponsors on their podcast compromise their independence? “I’m all for corporate sponsors,” one podcaster said, “and I just want to say that Evian water is one of my favorite brands of water. And Walmart is a really really great store.”

There’s a special press room, beside the panel rooms, guarded by a volunteer UT student.

“Can I go there?” I ask.

“Are you press?”

“Well, sort of…”

“Where’s your press badge?”

“Gosh, you need a badge?”

“Sorry….” she says, while I try to peer over her shoulder to see what’s inside. Were the occupants inside sipping champagne and having their shoes shined?

For lunch, I stumbled into a room where several poets were performing slam poetry to blues music. They were great, and afterwards, I talked a bit to them. They were promoting a movie they starred in showing at SXSW Film Festival.

“So, have you been doing poetry slams for a while?”

They both looked at me in amazement. “Anis recently won the national championship. He’s the most famous slam poet in the country.” (here’s a random poetry audio file I found through googling).

On the way to the next panel, I made small talk with a filmmaker in search of Starbuck’s coffee. I point her in the right direction and ask her what she’s here for.

“I worked on a film called ‘Oh in Ohio.’ It’s about a woman who can’t have an orgasm.”

Day 1  Can we trust them? How much do we share?

Every year at SXSW Interactive two or three memes bubble to the surface. Here’s what I’m hearing this year:

Can we trust them? And how much should we share?

“They” are the big web companies and search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN) who are offering a panoply of useful services for free. Google’s mantra, “don’t be evil” is supposed to reassure, but people here (who are both content creators and consumers) feel uncomfortable placing their trusts in companies who ultimately are about making money.

In a panel about the book digitalization project, representatives from Microsoft and Google were on hand to talk about how they intend to proceed. (This project has aroused a lot of controversy relating to copyright and fair use; for an introduction, see this teleread article).

Google, in conjunction with college libraries, has been scanning out-of-print books from college libraries (even without receiving explicit permission of publishers). Google claims “fair use,” and that’s a debatable point although Google has the incentive (and legal resources) to assert these rights.

That’s not the point. Librarians/educators and geeks here have a problem with Google’s login and tracking. “Why do I need to login to my Google account when I want to read an online book?” one audience member asks. “Isn’t that an invasion of my privacy?”

Daniel Clancy, the Google representative, clarifies a few things. First, Google requires logins only when accessing copyrighted works. If you are viewing public domain texts on Google Print, for example, login is not required. Often Google relies on logins simply because of limitations related to cookie management. If this technical problem were solved, logins may not be a requirement. Besides, if a corporation like Google weren’t doing this stuff, which entity would? If, for example, the federal government were to spearhead a book digitalization project, would that be more reassuring?


In another panel, media guru Justin Hall suggests a future trend for gaming, that of players sharing game experiences via the web with friends. Perhaps MMO gamers and XBOX players can broadcast a log of their adventures (game souvenirs?) which other people can browse through and enjoy. Hall talked about the fun of “self-surveillance” tools. Over the past 10 years, Hall has been “oversharing” on his personal website since 1994; it’s fun to do, he says (he’s even posted tasteful nude photos of himself before). But it’s also a chore, even for the web savvy. Why can’t games create tools for sharing this kind of information automatically? Can’t a videogame help simplify the task of broadcasting your online adventures automatically without having to expend the mental resources? A person who might feel uncomfortable disclosing details of his life online might have no qualms sharing gaming details or even his Netflix rental history or ipod playlists. Web applications (not just games) should make it easy for individuals to fine-tune privacy controls.

But as role-playing becomes more sophisticated (and more ethically ambiguous), do players really want to create breadcrumbs about gaming adventures? If you were a hiring manager, would it bother you to learn that a job applicant has been playing an evil flesh-eating zombie on some MMOG (and acting the part admirably)? At present just keeping track of your credit report is a handful; maybe later on, you’ll have to dispute reports about your gaming shenanigans (“No, I was NOT the evil zombie that kept backstabbing newbies or dynamiting people’s mansions on Second Life. Change that!”)

Google, Yahoo, MSN and other portals could probably create these self-surveillance tools. And for free too–hey, isn’t the Net great? But when search engines started sharing user data with governments (most notably the Chinese government ), that woke up critics (especially in the wake of NSA/FISA revelations, as well as clumsy efforts by the FBI to use the Patriot Act to access library records and web surfing patterns). Consumers want better control over the uses of their personal data.

Curiously, this same issue came up at a Pycon Conference I attended two weeks ago. Jonah Bossewitch, (a programmer and media educator at Columbia) worries less about Internet companies than data collection outfits like Checkpoint Systems that aggregate data from multiple sources with minimal accountability. Bossewitch discussed the concept of a “bioport” (a biography portal that is a combination blog/diary/appointment book). He writes:

The personal utility of having this repository available is very clear. With the right suite of visualization and analysis tools, the BioPort could become the ultimate psychoanalytic device – one which allows individuals to know themselves better by helping them identify and discern recurring behavioral patterns in their own lives. It could also transform social spaces, by allowing communities to come together and securely share slices of each others BioPorts.

The problem, he says, is you can’t reverse a disclosure. He adds:

Our ability to cope with trauma and stress depends upon the function of forgetting. I doubt I am alone in contemplating the horror of revisiting the details of grade school with the precision of modern day surveillance apparatus. And yet, this is the world that we are on the verge of establishing, without the slightest consideration of the consequences, for every child born in the 21st century.

Perhaps more shocking than memories that can’t be filtered and don’t dissipate, is the impact that surveillance might have on deception. Arguably, modern day society is founded on lies, ranging from small little white lies between friends and neighbors, to corporate advertising and marketing, to Orwellian political spin, to the lies we tell ourselves to preserve and maintain a likeable version of our self (in spite of any evidence to the contrary). Pervasive surveillance threatens to rip apart the fabric of deception that currently binds together social groups, nations, and individuals.

Bossewitch is pessimistic about the possibility of corporations bringing this kind of control to consumers. For better or worse, data miners might have more insight into ourselves than we do ourselves. How many times is right on the mark when recommending a book or DVD for you to buy? Would you rather that be right or wrong?

Stendahl at South by Southwest

“I love South by Southwest,” one musician/programmer told me at an evening SXSW party. “But it’s also overwhelming. So much stuff, so many fascinating people, each with their own unique spin on the Net, web design and business models. Everyone here is making a movie or figuring out a new way to use google maps. I’m exhausted. I need sleep. I need a few days to process it all–no, a few weeks. Actually I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with a normal person for a change. Are you a normal person?”

Of course, I am only staying at the Interactive portion; there was also the Film portion and Music portion. In the first year I attended SXSWi, I used to envy those with the Platinum badge (which entitled them to attend events for all three portions of the conference/festival). Now I almost pity them.

It’s called Stendhal’s Syndrome , named after the French novelist who has so overcome with emotion after visiting the Italian museums that he became physically ill:

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

A century later an Italian physician noticed that tourists in Florence were frequently afflicted with physical ailments ranging from panic attacks to temporary insanity after visiting the museums. Thankfully, this condition was temporary, but often severe enough to warrant medical attention.

Here at the Austin conference center, we were all infected (in varying degrees). Everyone here had a website and an idea; so many technologies and quirky forms of creative expression; it seemed unreal and fatiguing and even slightly irritating. Last night, while waiting outside a club, a man with several dolls–er, I mean action figures– was moving them around, explaining their respective personalities using crazy voices. He did live animation, and maybe he was creative, but it was late. I really just wanted to belt him (apparently, he was liveblogging SXSW too !).

As I walked to my car, a friend pointed to a man sitting outside against the wall. “That’s John Perry Barlow, you know.”

“Who?” I said with slight attention.

John Perry Barlow. The guy who started EFF , the lyricist for the Grateful Dead.”

We kept walking. and I glanced back at him. That was the same man I’d run into several times, exchanging little more than mutual nods or perhaps an “Excuse me.” In the afternoons he had a pleasant enough smile, but now on the sidewalk, he was just hanging out, gazing ahead, lost in a daydream, seeing refuge from the steady (but maddening) onrush of creativity.

SXSW Day 2 1/2: Virtual Love and Entrepreneurship

This year’s SXSW was larger than ever; this year, they launched a new part called Screenburn (which covered gaming topics).

In one panel gamemakers bemoaned the lack of a market for lowbudget games. Gaming guru Warren Spector confessed that it’s practically impossible for a company to return a profit on a game on anything less than a $20 million budget. “I would propose a lower-budget game to my bosses, and they would just refuse,” he said. Gamers have expectations about a game’s production values and visuals, and it’s harder for lower budget games to compete in today’s market (however innovative your gameplay). This may a sign that the industry has matured to the point where a high degree of specialization of labor is necessary to bring a game to market.

I saw previews and demos of two fascinating games. The first, Spend the Night (warning: turn off your speakers!), is a fantasy dating game with some degree of explicit user interaction (i.e, sex) and role playing. Describing it as “Second Life Meets the Sims Meets,” Glennis McLellan from Republik Games spent less time describing actual gameplay than examining the social/ethical issues involved.

First, would women actually play such a game? And would women like a game with a virtual sex component? (Wouldn’t that drive some away?) Citing surveys that show that 1/3 of visitors to “adult content” sites are women, she thinks there is sufficient interest among women (as long as the “sex component” doesn’t become the game’s central focus). Her surveys show that women are drawn to cooperative gameplay (no first-person shooters, please) and games with strong visuals. According to McLellan, female players want the freedom to customize and accesorize avatars (no surprise here); they would like a game where they can meet (and flirt with) new men. (You can learn a lot just by observing what goes on in chatrooms, she added).

On the other hand, woman also enjoy a game they can play even while married, so that suggests the need for alternate gameplay paths–not just paths for hooking up and bedding. (James Au, who gave a talk at SXSW which I had to miss, once wrote about infidelity in virtual games). McLellan said that many women surveyed would be interested in a game they could play alongside their spouse; that’s an odd idea (even if you ignore for a moment the “swinging” aspects); on the other hand, wouldn’t it be fun for an online dating service to set up online games for members to play before they meet? That way, you can assess personality traits by how humanely a date kill monsters (compassion) or how assiduously they quest for a magic bauble (ambition). The big question, of course, is whether people who pair up within the game will also try to meet up in real life (raising issues of sexual predators). The other issue is how to authenticate people’s identity. Players can have only one character at a time (male or female); the game would have safeguards to conceal identities of players (unless players chose to disclose them), but the company is seriously considering a “gender verification service.”

My prediction: after the hype of its release dies down and Puritans start protesting the corruption of morals, people who actually play the game will find that it is neither as cool or as evil as painted out to be, but just a clever way to incorporate existing features from other games into a new one.


Nerogame Soldier-robots learn how to fight

Later, I saw a demo of a game called Nero, which used neural networks to allow game agents to learn and adapt based upon experiences. In Nero, robot soldiers start out tabula rasa exhibiting all kinds of random behavior. Your challege is to devise training scenarios for the robots that reward certain kinds of behavior and penalize others. These training scenarios allow the robot-soldiers to learn from experience.

Some robots (the “dimwits”) never quite adapt to the surroundings, while others “learn” sophisticated algorithms for functioning as soldiers in combat. Smart robots are cloned, while dimwits are eliminated; a player can also train soldier robots to specialize; one kind of soldier-robot (for example) can be trained to launch a blitzkrieg, while others can be trained to defend a territory or keep an eye out for intruders. The game was started by five UT undergraduates (and one graduate student); it received a lot of attention recently after winning an independent gaming award. The second part of the game is releasing your trained killing machines into the wild and watching them perform against soldiers trained by another player. Oddly, the most engaging part of the game is not the final battle (when everything is essentially on auto-pilot) but the training process itself.

Games as learning environments came up on several other SXSW panels. The army uses games not only to recruit people , but also to give future soldiers a taste of a soldier’s life. According to an army trainer, kids are hard-wired for immersive games and feel comfortable learning military tasks in such a fashion. A educational game designer for whyville makes a similar point, saying games involve holistic thinking (a crucial competence in today’s competitive economy). His game, whyville offers a community environment for young kids to learn about nutrition, disease and diet (their avatars become more obese depending on dietary decision–now that’s biofeedback!). (Read more about whyville).

But even games without an explicit educational purpose can ultimately have educational value. One fascinating talk, Virtual World Entrepreneurship, covered how some are making lots of real money inside videogame environments like Second Life. Although a lot of money is being made by (warning: all text, but not safe for work), running and working at cyberbrothels or extortion, it is eclipsed by the number of enterprising individuals selling conventional goods and services. According to cyberjournalist Peter Ludlow of Second Life Herald, people are selling fashion items, Real Estate and once even a nuclear device (which was traded among mafia and ultimately used to take down a simulation server). Some legitimate corporations, sniffing the potential for cheap marketing, are hiring people to design branded objects for the game; others are starting banks and currency exchange services. When one audience member mentioned the possibility of using SecondLife to train people about tantric sex (for example), the Second Life developer mentioned that 25-30 colleges are using Second Life in course curriculums, and over 100 people are running “instruction businesses” in SecondLife. “It’s easier to meet some people at a virtual conference than a real one,” he said.

So much money (real and virtual) is trading hands these days that economists are studying game currency trading; Second Life is working on a way for players to “jump into an ecommerce browser” from within the game. Although the gaming company is reluctant to start a centralized government, at some point intervention might be necessary to prevent currency manipulations or set up dispute resolutions. “Should Second Life people intervene when an island is an “ill-gotten gain” (bought illegally)? “Yes,” the Second Life rep said. “You shouldn’t be,” Ludlow replied.

I described this panel later on at a party to a programmer who started a niche Ebay service to telephone people 5 minutes before an auction is about to end. “The dirty little secret about Second Life,” he told me, “is that when people are playing, 90% of them are completely naked.”

SXSW Day Three: Digital Convergence in the Parking Lot

I arrived late at the conference on Day Three. As I parked my car in the parking lot, the attendee came over smiling.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re the guy who keeps forgetting to pay his money.”

It was true. Every year I parked at the same parking lot three blocks away from the conference center. Parking was $5, and I normally had no problem remembering to put the money in the slot. But by a fluke I met two SXSW participants in front of the money drop and forgot to insert my money. Two days in a row.

Later I remembered that I had forgotten to pay. The first time was during lunchtime, and I streaked back to the parking lot to pay. The second time I realized it only at the end of the day (I found a warning ticket on my windshield).

I began to apologize, but the man waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. Everybody forgets things these days. People are too busy concentrating on their job that they forget to pay. But as long as you pay eventually, there’s no problem.”

“How did you remember my car?” I asked.

“I put chalk on your tires if you haven’t paid. You see, I work at five different parking lots, so I have a system for keeping track. But I certainly remember your car. On Saturday you must have come back at about noon to pay, and then on Sunday you must have paid in the evening. I remember all the cars that come into this lot.”

I talked to the middle-aged man some more. His name is Kadar, and he is from Somalia. He has lived here with his wife and child for ten years. I told him that I used to live in Austin before being laid off from Dell in 2001. He remembers that year well. “That was a bad year for parking lots,” he said. “I ended up taking another part time job at a restaurant.”

But this year was a good one for Kadar. “There are lots of conferences,” he says, “and lots of cars. Last weekend I worked double shifts; it was great. This has been a very good year.”

I paid Kadar, thanked him and rushed off to the next panel (which had already begun). The speaker was talking about ubiquitous computing and how it would empower individuals in an age of digital convergence.

SXSW Day Three: New Web Technologies: Cool or Stupid?

Here are some new technologies I stumbled upon last week at SXSW. Some are brand new, while some have been out for a while. Some are full-fledged businesses, while some are simply hobby sites. You decide: cool or stupid?

  • Yahoo answers is Yahoo’s equivalent to Google answers. The difference? In Google Answers, people post a question and name a price to receive the correct answer to it. Whoever answers correctly receives the bounty (minus a transaction fee to Google). In Yahoo’s version now in beta, no money is changing hands (except from advertisers), so the answers are more frivolous, less helpful. Sample question: Why do they put round pizzas in square boxes?
  • From the laboratories of coder/writer Jay Wynia, here is a way to search flickr photos for Creative Commons photos using the Interestingness criteria . You can use this to find CC graphics which you can use on your commercial website (just check “Commercial” on the form).
  • Wynia runs a site that lets you do a criminal background check in Minnesota for free. (He’d do it in Texas, but criminal records are not publicly searchable here).
  • While walking to an evening event on 6th street and becoming disoriented, a friend took out his cell phone and sent an SMS message to Google for info. Google received the SMS text query and replied via sms with search results and directions. I don’t use premium services like SMS (although they are godsends at loud parties!), but this strikes me as practical. Incidentally, last week Austin announced that all of downtown Austin will have free Wifi by May 2006.
  • At an evening party I met a nice woman from Limewire. Limewire is an open source gnutella p2p client (available on Mac/Win/Linux). Considering that the Grokster copyright decision essentially made companies liable for copyright infringement when the company has “induced” this behavior, I found it amazing Limewire is still around. The woman from Limewire didn’t really want to discuss Grokster (she had come to Austin to listen to music, not revisit Supreme Court cases), but she stressed that Gnutella clients like Limewire had legitimate noninfringing purposes–like filtering search results for Creative Commons audio content. I haven’t used Limewire in years (back in 2002, I found its performance sluggish and frustrating). But in four years a lot can happen, and I can’t wait to try it out again. (I’ll post a review on my personal blog when I try it).
  • From the SXSW 2005 Web Awards, there’s Stuffopolis, a way to catalog personal belongings online (and keep track of who is borrowing things from you).
  • Perhaps it was only a gaming exercise, but on Austin’s Sixth Street a tinkerer from Make magazine demonstrated how to reprogram Roomba for a real world game of Frogger.
  • IRC on steroids. I’ve used IRC once or twice, but mostly avoided it because of the clutter and interruptions. In a seminar on creating building blocks for independents, Tantek Celik made the surprising-but-obvious point that IRC works well because it uses fewer network resources and requires no registration. Yes, sometimes lowtech solutions are the best ones. One developer described how his IRC client buzzed him whenever a certain keyword comes up on IRC. Old news perhaps to regular IRCers, but still a cool feature to me.
  • Earlier years of SXSWi stressed DIY, user-centered design, creating communities, folksonomies and unlocking creativity. This year I heard more emphasis on running a niche business and organizing collaborative groups. The new thing these days is bar camps or ad hoc groups of people who get together to solve problems. (I guess we can trace all this to flash mobs from several years ago). This kind of thing is already common in the tech community, but Meet Ups and Yahoo groups are now bringing this kind of thing to local communities and nontechies. (Read info about the upcoming barcamp in Houston).

More on SXSW: Video Interviews with leading podcasters/videobloggers at SXSW (produced by Jon Styn, 4 minutes long). After Liz Lawley declares that SXSW2006 is the “official” tag for the conference, Chris Casciano confesses that tagging things is a pain in the rear.

SXSW Day Four: 3 Rants (and a Quibble)

Since SXSW gathers creators and distributors of original artistic content all in one place, it is not surprising to hear a rant or two.

Rant 1: Bruce Sterling on how America appears to the rest of the world. Sterling has been living in Serbia which seems like “the ultimate reality-based community” after a decade of Milosevic’s delusional rule. From that vantage point, Americans seem “hugely, scarily fat…so poisoned they look about to pop.” In contrast to Serbia (where broadband can be had for $20/month), American towns are still trying to wire up their towns (“this is a scary sign of the complete incompetence of the US federal government… Have people in Washington D.C. forgotten how to build anything?”) He mentions political leaders who essentially embrace views of science that “Adam and Eve rode around on dinosaurs….How are U.S. diplomats supposed to explain these things to foreign governments?”

Rant 2: How the Entertainment responds to people with more permissive attitude about remixing: legal intimidation. (Read more about it in Derek Powazek’s account on the Darknet panel). Mark Ishikawa says:

We want to make sure that people understand you can be caught; it is very difficult to hide; there are some procotols which are almost impossible to detect somebody, but the masses of people are still using protocols where you show up with an IP address. The way we work we look like just an another user –you can’t tell us from anyone else; it’s like walking into a crowd and saying, “hey, who has cocaine?” Everybody raises their hands and says, “Hey you can get some from me.” We write down your name, address and where we saw you and move onto the next guy.

Ishikawa and a MPAA rep received harsh remarks from the crowd of writers, filmmakers and artists in the crowd:

  • “I wanted to TIVO a show on HBO, but it conflicted with another show I was TIVOing. Why should I wait a year for the DVD to come out when I can just download it?” (You should buy another TIVO, the MPAA person said).
  • “I moved across the Atlantic, so now my entire DVD collection is unusable (because of region DVD encoding). Shouldn’t I have the right to obtain copies I already paid for?” (You should have read the Terms of Service for the DVD when you bought it, the industry rep replied. The original asker of the question replied, “paying multiple times for content you already paid for is not a solution; it’s a ripoff.”)
  • “What are you going to do to solve the distribution problem aside from suing people?” After Kori Bernards of MPAA described how distribution channels are evolving and how important it is to educate (i.e., scare) consumers, the questioner replied, “You still haven’t answered the question! What specifically is the industry trying to do?”
  • “If I can buy a song from ipod, why can’t I also buy the right to remix it?” (We are working on that, one of them replied).

My biased take: Big Media companies like Time/Warner and Viacom are essentially lawsuit factories. Their business model is founded upon the mistaken assumption that the only way you can make a profit from content nowadays is to spend millions promoting mediocre films and enforce exclusive rights absolutely over it. Attitudes and actions will change only after people stop choosing forms of entertainment with onerous limitations on use.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative:


Photo, George Kelley

SXSW Participant with Creative Commons license

Rant 3: Burnie Burns rails about the Big Pipe ISP’s and the idea of “net neutrality.”

(Oh, by the way, he showed a hilarious 3 minute entertainment satirical cartoon at the beginning of his speech: Real Life vs. the Internet).

While consumers were happily sending email and trading mp3s in the 1990s, Burns said, AT&T began buying companies and reconstructing its former empire. He pointed to this statement by AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre:

I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network — obviously not the piece from the customer to the network, which has already been paid for by the customer in Internet access fees — but for accessing the so-called Internet cloud. Now they might pass it on their customer who are looking for a movie for example, but that ought to be a cost of doing business for them. They shouldn’t get on the network and expect a free ride.

Even AT&T’s new logo bears a curious resemblance to the Death Star, Burns said. “It looks like it’s half built, but don’t be fooled; it is fully operational.”

According to Burns, the Verizon chairman said essentially the same thing a week later, suggesting that the day may come when content providers will have to pay to put content on the web (if only for priority access).

This raises all sorts of questions, Burns says. How would priority access work? How do you qualify for it–do you have to pay? If you run an adult-oriented web business, what happens? Will there be censorship or will access providers essentially turn into smut peddlers? (The new icon for AT&T–he argues– may change from Ma Bell to Jenna Jameson).

My take: This is definitely the most provocative speech I’ve heard in my five years at SXSW (here is the actual podcast). But I wonder if we’re thinking too conspiratorially here. Burnie Burns makes these terrific machinima videos, but it’s unlikely that any Death Star scenario will prevent him from distributing web videos. Technologies like bit torrent have essentially solved the problem of hosting larger files. Pardon my limited 20th century brain, but I have a hard time imagining how bandwidth requirements will change that drastically over the next decade or two. We’ve already figured out how to share music, porn, multiplayer games and movies using existing bandwidth capabilities. Will our future demand for bandwidth continue to be so insatiable?

So we have two extremes: Big Media (characterized by small amounts of mediocre content, slick marketing and high profitability) and independent media (characterized by large amounts of offbeat content, lousy marketing and little profitability). Burns says that everybody comes to a film festival as an independent and no one wants to leave that way. But how do you sell your content without selling out your artistic values of openness and sharing?

What I as a content creator worry about are Terms of Service (TOS) and End User Legal Agreements (EULAs) on products and services. Access providers require elaborate terms of service which consumers must agree to before they sign up. People who buy content (DVDs, software, etc) also face elaborate End User Legal Agreements that no individual can keep up with, much less understand. Consumers (and content creators) click right through these things. Is it realistic to expect consumers to hire attorneys every time they need to understand the meaning of a paragraph in a EULA or TOS?

To take an example from credit cards, how many consumers understand their Terms of Service? How many realize that missing a payment by just one day makes you subject not only to late fees but punitive interest rates lasting as long as six months? (Don’t believe me? Check this PDF or this short guide).

How many people who sign up for SBC DSL actually keep a copy of their Terms of Service at the time they signed up?

How many people keep a copy of the EULA Agreement for Windows SP2 or Windows Media Player 10 ?

Instead, we click OK, and then, if for some reason the content provider or access provider decides to invoke some clause to curtail our behavior (regardless of whether the contract actually grants them that right), consumers just end up caving in. True, access providers and content providers have been adept at couching their threats with friendly language (see this classic threat letter by Disney forbidding a straightforward fair use request ). Big Media companies are in the business of creating brands that produce warm and fuzzy feelings. That’s why when you think of Time-Warner, you are more likely to think of Sex in the City rather than the fact that it forbids the singing of Happy Birthday in public places or that it threatens grandmothers with unwarranted million dollar copyright lawsuits.

I dread the day when after carelessly checking a box in some End User Agreement, I will inadvertently forfeit some future right to how I produce, use or distribute personal content. Content creators should worry less about some future Death Star/AT&T scenario than the fact that EULA/TOSs are becoming lengthier, stricter and more incomprehensible.

SXSW Day 4 Closing Thoughts: Why No Geek Conferences in Houston?

So endeth my ramblings about South by Southwest Interactive. Now geek attention is turned to the latest conference of the week .

Before signing off, I want to point you to some other things:

When several hundred people show up at a geek conference, everyone is going to take home something different. Check any of the links mentioned above, and you’ll discover how much I actually overlooked or missed. For example, I totally skipped out on the panels on Ajax, folksonomies, digital convergence, videoblogging, web communities, searching, web standards and web design. All interesting things, but I chose to miss them/not blog about them for one reason or other.

Certainly there are dozens of fun geek conferences every year, and only the rare person (or Net superstar) has the time or money to attend these things (though living in the Bay Area helps). Podcasts and blogs put the knowledge from these conferences only a few mouseclicks away, whether you are in Houston or Albania. It is now possible to soak up crazy exciting stuff from geek conferences without needing to make hotel reservations or hire a dogsitter.

Finally, if it is so easy to absorb knowledge from these conferences without actually attending, what’s the point of going to one? Or of organizing one? Here in Houston, a much larger city with oodles of geeky talent and creativity, we don’t have any event of comparable size or significance. Has anyone wondered why? Are Houstonians smart…or just very lazy?



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