July 23, 2009

Web Industry Prattle, Direct From Seattle (Part I)

Day 1: The natives tried to warn me about Seattle when I was still in California. "It's cold and rainy, even in July," said Captain Clemente, as we lounged on the hot sand at his reunion party in Laguna Beach. "The sun doesn't set until, like, 9:45 or so, and the city's surrounded by deadly volcanos. It's another planet for sure, dude." My wife and I were due to fly from Burbank to SeaTac in about twenty hours, but the Captain's ominous warnings weren't doing much to offset the usual onslaught of bitchiness that always crept into my soul before traveling.

My brother was sitting on a towel across from us and knew as well as I did that Clemente had barely set foot in Washington between tours of duty in Iraq and was only giving me a line to wind me up. "Relax Keir," Bryn said quietly. "Em will be with you, and if all else fails you guys can call Jeff Hostert and he'll be happy to show you around."

I appreciated the gesture at the time, but I knew we'd never need Hostert's help. My wife Emily was stoked beyond measure to visit Washington, the land of Sexy Teen Vampires, and I figured that momentum would carry us through the four days we'd be there. Em could play tourist all she wanted to while I was stuck in yet another Web Nerd Conference, so if I survived the technical workshops I'd have to endure for the Company's continuing education in Art and Commerce, my wife would certainly have the logistical wherewithal to rescue my addled brain.

Emily said as much as we taxied toward the gate after landing in Seattle. "You're doing great, Keir," she smiled. "Just hang in there til we get to the hotel and then you can crash."

"Thanks baby," I croaked, grateful for the pleasantly short flight. "You're gonna drive, right?"

"Right," she replied. The rental car check-out was conversely automated and convenient, and before long we'd zipped up Interstate 5 to downtown Seattle and got ourselves settled into the Sorrento Hotel on Madison Street. It was a surprisingly balmy day for Washington—we'd landed in the middle of an unseasonably massive heat wave—and we decompressed in the air-conditioned, vaguely Victorian hotel room for about an hour before going out to explore the city.

Our section of Seattle looked a bit like San Francisco, but more resembled Claremont with hills, so it was a little surreal walking around in the California-like heat with snow-capped Mt. Rainier looming in the distance, and that odd sense of displaced familiarity wasn't helped by Em's sudden squeals of delight. "Ooooh, the Puget Sound Blood Center! It's right across the street! We're truly in the vampire section of town!"

My wife's eyes were bulging with excitement, but she calmed down a little after we walked a few blocks to the Red Lion, where my conference would be happening over the next two days. Suddenly famished, we ducked into the nearest bar & grill and attacked some hamburgers with indecent gusto. The Mariners were on TV from Cleveland, and so we watched the game for a bit before heading back to the hotel, exhausted and ready for bed.

Day 2: The first day of the conference began with a lurch. Vile bleeping and screeching from my mobile phone alarm jerked me into consciousness, and Em stirred fitfully beside me. I got up, stared into the bathroom mirror and was confronted by a hideous red heat-rash on my forehead, an ugly reminder of a sun-fried California Saturday.

Naturally, Emily laughed at my misfortune. "You look like Gorbachev with that Mark of The Beast on your dome," she said, and I grimaced with shame. So the morning wasn't promising, but within an hour we were both staggering down the hill just like yesterday, before separating at 5th and Pine—me for business, her for pleasure. I walked another few blocks to the Red Lion, elevated to the third floor, and sneaked into the nearest conference room, thickly populated with web geeks and provisioned with bland muffins and blander coffee.

I was late to the first packed session, cramming myself into the right-hand corner to catch a presentation on "vision" by a chubby, bespectacled elf-man with a snide streak wider than his waistline. I furtively looked around for familiar faces from Boston—the agenda of classes looked to be a near-repeat—but I'd never met any of these people before. The session peaked with a hilarious insight about college and university website design—"they're all home pages with photos of girls under trees!" said the speaker, jiggling his fat chin—before descending to a horribly dated Apple corporate video from 1987 that attempted to picture "The Year 2010."

The next two speakers were the same as in Boston—a woman from the W3C reprised her markup guilt trips ("It's called 'accessibility,' and you lazy nerds still aren't doing it well enough, goddamnit!"), and a grizzled CSS guru who repeated his presentation word-for-word, right down to the same laugh lines, and openly advocated screwing around with new technology because "it's neat to play with!"

We all groaned as the session ended, and made our way to a lunch session geared toward shameless networking. I snagged a cheap boxed sandwich and wandered over to the "Social Media" table, but only had enough time to exchange a few superficial pleasantries with the people there: a woman from the Seattle Library and an IT guy from a local Indian casino.

I'd already blundered my way through a series of multiple failed Tweets in the CSS session, so I skipped the Twitter workshop in favor of back-to-back workshops on design best practices and mobile phone websites. My mind was a hopeless void for most of both classes, not least because the presenter (who was the same guy for both) opened up the deadly firehose of knowledge as soon as we all sat down, and didn't let up for the next two hours. It was a grueling endurance test, and I barely held on to my britches all the way through the infinite vagaries of iPhones, Blackberries, Nokias, and Androids.

After that, the day's final session on microformats—another repeat from Boston—was an ugly epilogue. The lecturer was the same boring drone, too—and still had a bug up his ass about the W3C regulating his genius. The man realized something was wrong, though—stopping with five minutes to go for questions and admitting "I'm the only thing standing between you guys and alcohol, right?"

"At least he knows his place in the world," quipped a red-afroed girl nerd next to me, and I laughed even though I wouldn't be getting sloshed with everyone else at the convention mixer. I ditched the Red Lion as soon as the class ended, trotting a few blocks to meet Emily on the third floor of a downtown shopping mall choked with out-of-towners.

"Take off your sunglasses," she said as I approached. "Apparently only the tourists wear them."

"We are tourists," I said, but she waved it off and continued. "I've been shopping all over this place today, and have been getting crap from people the whole time. I think they can smell the California on us. Some guy even said 'well aren't you dressed for the weather?' and I've been bent out of shape ever since."

My mood wasn't the greatest either, so all we did was schlep around the waterfront looking for a place to eat dinner, but nothing seemed appealing, and we ended up back at the Elephant & Castle below the Red Lion for some more well-handled beef and beer. We were too drained to do anything else, so dragging our asses back up the hill to our hotel was the only option.

When Emily's last hope for salvation—watching a new "True Blood" episode on HBO—didn't materialize, all we could do was pass out again and hope the next day would bring better Fun and Wisdom.

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