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Kept Afloat In Amsterdam

It’s taken me slightly more than a month to write this post.  It’s about people at their best.

Last month, just after speaking at a conference in Amsterdam, my laptop was stolen.

Actually, to be more painfully accurate, my laptop case was stolen—and inside it at the time was the laptop, my mobile phone, and my wallet.  Plus the usual assortment of stuff that goes into a laptop case.

Because I still remember to this day advice Tantek gave me just before we boarded a bus to Narita airport, I had my passport on me.  I happened to have picked up my camera to take some pictures of the conference hall.  My clothes were still in my hotel room.  Everything else was gone.

I can’t really describe the feeling.  Maybe you’ve felt it.  Shaking and stunned and self-blaming and nakedly vulnerable.  All that magnified by the complete loss of funds and communication with my family.

And the data.  The lost data.  I have backups, but they’re never as current as one would want.  (Which reminds me: if you aren’t backing up, and you aren’t doing so regularly, learn from my loss and start.)  Besides, at that moment, as the full realization of what had happened slid coldly into my gut and started its slow, merciless expansion throughout my entire body, I didn’t think “Oh, I have backups until that date, and all my work mail is on the mail server, and I’ve been uploading the best pictures to online services.”  Those things didn’t occur to me.  They were completely blocked by the continual, sickening, endlessly looping thought: IT’S ALL GONE.

And that’s when people started pitching in to help me out.

In addition to helping me look for the case in hopes that it had just been moved somewhere non-obvious, Khris Loux of JS-Kit let me call home from his iPhone without a second thought, so I could tell Kat what had happened and get her immediately started on contacting banks and credit card companies.  And the honest concern in his eyes helped snap me back from near-paralysis, touched by the regard coming from someone I’d only met an hour before.

Then Gabe Mac, having heard what was going on, came up to me with a fully charged mobile phone I could borrow so that I could remain in contact with my family until I went home.  He didn’t ask me how I would get it back to him, because I don’t think it had occurred to him.  He just said, “Eric, I have a spare phone.  You need it.  Take it.”

So I did.  And much, much later that same night, it was nearly a lifeline.

Throughout all this, Boris and Patrick, the conference founders, were working to find out if one of the tech crew had accidentally picked it up, or it had been turned in to venue staff.  And when it became inescapably clear that the case was well and truly gone, they sent one of their staff to get a SIMM card for the phone Gabe had loaned me and 200 euros in cash so I could get home.  Just did it, because they could see that I would need those things even when I couldn’t.  They also arranged a ride for me to get to my evening’s social appointment.

That appointment was with Steven Pemberton and his lovely family, who fed me a great dinner in their fabulous top-floor flat and were more than gracious about my disordered mental state.  After dinner, Steven took me to the nearby police station and acted as translator as I filled out a report.  And then he loaned me use of his home phone to call a couple of credit card companies that I had to speak with personally in order to make sure my business credit cards were cancelled.

It wasn’t the relaxed evening of dinner and shop talk I’d been hoping to have, but I did several things that needed to be done and Steven made it possible.  And we did get in a tiny smidgen of (very interesting) shop talk near the end.

At every step of that evening, someone was there to help push me forward, help me lower the unexpected barriers just a little bit, help ease the situation however they could.  So many people coming together to help out someone they’d known for years or never before met.  Thanks to them all, I was able to get home without further incident.  Thanks to them all, I had a major yang to the theft’s yin, a powerful reminder of just how good people can be.

Thank you, all.

London: the Gathering

When I was in Boston earlier this month, one of the people I’d thought to hang out with was Jared Spool, and of course he was on the other side of the country while I was in his hometown.  This was a bit of a downer but I figured, hey, we both speak a lot, so I’d see him again somewhere at some point.

And how right I was: the week after my return home, Dopplr informed me that he and I would both be in London for the first weekend in March.  I’m there for the Carson Workshop I’m giving (and there are only a few seats left, so you should grab one while they’re still open) and he’ll be in town for reasons of his own.  As will Dana Chisnell, it turns out.

How could we not act on this?  So I pinged the folks at Carsonified and asked them if they knew of a venue where we could arrange some kind of meetup.  They were not only glad to help out, they offered to organize the whole thing.  The result: a Web Geek Gathering at the Pitcher & Piano Trafalgar on Sunday, 8 March 2009.  Jared, Dana, and I are all planning to be there.  You should plan to be there too.  You should also RSVP because, unlike the web, there isn’t infinite available space.  Not to mention I’ve heard rumors that there might be some manner of free drinks.  I mean, I’m just sayin’ what I heard.

Hope to see you there!

Bahstahn: the Gathering

The Robot speaks truth: I will be visiting the northern reaches of the greater Boston area in the first few days of February to do some client training (which is one of the many things I do).  To celebrate, I’ve managed to pull the Markup & Style Society (which of course includes that simplest of bits, the inestimable Mr. C.) out of hibernation, get them to link up with the Build Guild, and have the two jointly sponsor a gathering open to all who wish to join us.  Welcome to the social!

This massively meritorious meeting of minds will take place on 2 February 2009 in historic Salem, MA:  here’s the Upcoming entry with all the details and RSVP action.  If you plan to be with us, make your voice heard.  Or, if you’re the fearsome and mighty Windhammer, who rumor has it may also be there, bring forth thunder!  On the Upcoming page.

Hope to see you there!

South Bypass

I’m going to follow the lead of the Airbag crew and mention publicly that, as per the decision I reached last March, I will not be attending SXSWi this year.  I thought about posting to that effect a few months ago and decided against it—what, am I supposed to post about every conference I’m not attending?  That doesn’t exactly scale.

But there really is something different about SXSWi.  It’s the annual tribal gathering for our field and a couple of related fields, or at least is the annual tribal gathering who aren’t freaky/insane/hardcore enough to hit Burning Man.  The default assumption is that you will be in Austin in March, which is actually a symptom of the conditions that led me to opt out this year.

I can sum up why I’m not going in just a few quick bullet points (and if you’re going to attend any panels, get very used to bullet points):

  • I can’t concentrate above a certain noise level
  • I don’t function well in large crowds
  • I don’t drink alcohol
  • I’m not single

There is a last selfish reason to go, which is to see a bunch of friends and acquaintances I don’t get to see other places.  Only SXSWi has grown so incredibly huge that I didn’t really get to do even that last year.  There were people who were there the whole time I was that I never saw, like Matt.  I don’t mean that I didn’t have enough time to talk with them, either.  I mean that at no point did photons scattered by their bodies land on either of my retinas.

Don’t get me wrong: SXSWi is a huge buzz.  You can get a geek high just standing around soaking up the ambient energy, and you never know who you’re going to run into.  I once shared a cab with Cory Doctorow and Lisa Rein without, I think, any of us really knowing who the others were until halfway through the trip.  The opportunities to meet and greet and get to know people of every kind are just incredible.  Like I said, it’s a tribal gathering.

So there is of course a part of me that’s sad I won’t be there, because the great thing about SXSWi is the people, both those I know and those I don’t know yet.  There’s a much bigger part of me, though, that’s glad I’ll be spending those five days at home with my family instead of feeling frustrated and lonely in a crowd notably bigger than the town where I grew up.

Anyway, if you’re going and especially if you’re going for the first time, I urge you to pay special attention to the wisdom of Mr. Bag:

Want to meet that OMG OMG OMG blog A-lister?! Fine, just go do it. Nobody, and I mean nobody in this industry is so huge that they can’t be bothered to say hello and shake your hand. And that’s it, done.

To which I’d only say “that OMG OMG OMG blog A-lister” should be replaced with “anyone who interests you”.  Blog A-lister, design rockstar, code guru, startup maven, whoever.  Just go up and say hi and spend a few minutes chatting.  It’s totally cool.  In fact, it’s kind of the point.

In-Flight Commentary

Herewith I present the latest in what can only now be called a series of travel-tip posts.  (The first one, published a couple of years back, was about avoiding jet lag, if that’s of interest.)

I recently came upon a way to while away the lonely hours of a long plane flight and thought I’d share.  Two words: commentary track.  More specifically, listening to the commentary track (or tracks) of a movie you’ve already seen and enjoyed.

How is this better than just watching a movie?  Well, because you’ve seen the movie, you don’t really need to watch it: you can just listen to the commentary.  Thus, you can crank your laptop’s screen brightness down to “off”, thus saving some battery power.  Which you’ll need, thanks to the power required to drive the DVD.  If the commenter says, “Ooo, look here at this bit of the screen”, you just pip the brightness up enough to see what’s going on, and then crank it back down after.

Of course you can rip the movie with the commentary audio track to your hard drive to save the battery even more.  Also, if you’re willing to live without visual reference, you can rip the audio track itself and listen on an iPod.  But honestly, how many of us will go to that level of effort?  It’s a lot easier to bring along a single DVD and pop it into the laptop.  I also like this approach because plane flights are one of the few times when I have enough enforced downtime to get through a whole commentary.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to be on one of the newer planes with grounded power outlets, your power worries are moot.  Still, when you have five or six hours ahead of you, a good commentary track or three is a good way to make the time pass more quickly.

Come Tuesday

Some news for folks in London (UK) and Cleveland (US).  If you don’t fit either of those descriptions, well, I don’t know what I can do.

For those of you in or near London, I’ll be at a Geekminidinner the evening of Tuesday, 14 August 2007, which you can read a bit more about over here.  (Apparently, I need to print out an article I wrote a while back and staple it to Ian‘s forehead.)  Come on ’round and join us!

About four and a half hours after that starts, I’ll be missing (in both senses of the word) the Cleveland area Web Standards/Web Design Meetup.  Once left for dead, this group has come roaring back thanks to the tireless efforts of a COBOL dude who is much less scary than his profile photo would seem to indicate.  He does run the Ubuntu Satanic Edition, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.  Seriously, he’s a great guy.  I have never once heard him say “SATAN!” in a deep growly voice, no matter how many times I ask.

The point being, 18 people have already said they’ll be at the Meetup, and you should absolutely add yourself to that list.  Assuming you will actually be there, of course.

As for London, I don’t know how many will be there, but probably not as many as the Cleveland gathering.  Hey, it’s okay, folks.  Don’t feel down about it.  Not everyone can be as cool as Cleveland.  We’ll do our best to have a good time regardless.

Better Know

I don’t know about you, but I keep a “staging” file for my posts here.  It’s a text file on my hard drive where I can write posts offline, and can also keep a list of things I want to write about.  Right now, that list is longer than a typical short entry.  I suppose two weeks’ vacation (photos from which are slowly going up on Flickr) will do that to a schedule, especially with all the driving that was involved.  (And may I express my deep and unbounded loathing of the usually ambiguous and often misleading road signage in the New York City/New Jersey area?  Yes?  Thank you.  I needed that.)

So, to begin the jamcracking: AEA Chicago‘s early bird deadline is fast approaching; it’s just nine days away as I post this.  As we start gearing up for the show, we’ve re-started (and rebooted) an AEA feature called “Better Know A Speaker”.  Originally, these were testimonials from Jeffrey and me, but that turned out to be more than our schedules can accommodate.  So we’ve redone them as short interviews with speakers, which I think is far more interesting anyway.  The first of these new BKAS pieces, with Dan Cederholm, went up last week.  This week we’ve got Jeremy Keith.  In the weeks to come, we’ll cover the rest of our Chicago speakers.  The AEA news feed is of course the best way to keep up with these tidbits and other AEA info, but I’ll probably either blog or linkblog them here as well.

Arctic Flight

We climbed out from Cleveland, rising above snowy muted fields and west-edge suburbs, bound for San Francisco.  As the ascent continued, the plane striving beyond personal electronics altitude, the whiteness below thinned out, fading to the dull brown of winter.  By the time we passed out of the cloud cover streaming off the lake, the snow had disappeared completely.

From the middle of Ohio to the middle of Indiana, there was no snow to be seen.  It was then that we started to see curved and blurry regions of snow, a light smear of frosting spread southeast from the shores of Lake Michigan.  Just beyond Chicago, the ground began to turn pale again, shading back from brown to white.  By the time we reached Iowa, winter had taken over; floes of ice were visible in rivers and lakes.

Viewed from five miles aloft, the only thing that saved the landscape from taking on an Arctic primality was the roads, houses, and sketches of field boundaries.  Even at that, I was reminded of flying above Greenland.  There was a faint feeling of another Ice Age, of a chill not entirely attributable to the air handling in the plane’s cabin nor the thin air screaming just beyond the plastic window.

The snow did not release its grip on the land until we reached Nevada.

In San Francisco, the locals complained insistently about the cold.

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