San Francisco, here you come

San Francisco. California’s jewel. America’s prettiest city. Cool fog and hot startups.

I last left San Francisco on September 10th, 2001. It was a good day for flying. I had gone there to speak. Normally when I present at a conference, I stick around, listening to the other speakers and chatting with attendees. But I saw little of that conference and even less of San Francisco, for accompanying me was she who is now my wife. Even from the heights of Coit Tower, I only had eyes for her.

On October 4–5, 2007, I return to the city by the bay for the fourth and final Event Apart conference of 2007. The schedule of presentations, published Monday, outlines a holistic approach to web design rarely seen on conference stages.

There are sessions on writing the user interface and developing effective content strategies (art direction for words, if you will). Sessions on designing and redesigning brands, adding ’zazz to tired layouts, and creating designs that scale to accommodate a thousand users or millions.

Someone who’s actually done it (and at a big company, yet) will share insights on promoting and nurturing standards adoption in the workplace. We’ll find out how CSS really works and what IE7 means to developers. And we’ll learn how to design and structure forms to maximize accessibility, improve semantics, and allow for more flexible styling.

The world’s foremost expert on the subject will tell us what’s wrong with online video captioning (a concern in our increasingly YouTubed world) and how to do it right. And from one of the founders of the usability movement, we’ll gain clues into how people follow the scent of information—and how that knowledge can help us connect users to the content and functions they seek:

…how the quality of links affects whether users click on them; how longer pages actually help users get where they are going faster; the three types of graphics; how users follow a scent; and four ways your design could be blocking their smell.

An Event Apart San Francisco presents one of our most striking speaker line-ups yet: movers from Google and PayPal, shakers from Apple and A List Apart, passionate leaders and experts, all. Plus two big parties, sponsored by Adobe and (mt) Media Temple, where you can network, job-hunt, swap horror stories and phone numbers, or just boogie the night away. Plus breakfasts, lunches, and snacks on both days, and a dandy bag of swag. All for $795 (reg. $895) during the earlybird savings period through September 7th.

Readers of zeldman.com can take an additional $50 off by using the discount code AEAZELD. Enter that code in the discount coupon area of the registration form to get all of AEA San Francisco for $745. Seating is limited and this opportunity won’t last forever. Don’t leave your seat in San Francisco. Tell your corporate overlord or generous uncle about An Event Apart San Francisco 2007 today.

[tags]aneventapart, aeasf07, design, webdesign, webstandards, conferences, seminars, sanfrancisco[/tags]

Bang!

Had I known that there was an explosion in midtown Manhattan near where my wife works, and that my wife and daughter were out in the ensuing chaos, I would have been far more anxious during my train ride home from Philadelphia last night.

I had gone to the city of brotherly love on business. One of our party misplaced her iPhone, discovering the loss as we were about to board the train back to New York. The odds against her recovering it would kill a game in Vegas. But it is her only phone and she is about to leave the country, so she stayed behind in hopes of locating it. Anxiety on her account, and some guilt at having boarded the train without her, kept me plenty busy on the ride home.

Like The New York Public Library, the old Pennsylvania Station was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece (photos: concourse and entrance in 1962, two years prior to demolition). An abomination replaced it. Outrage over this desecration gave us laws supporting historic preservation and preventing future desecrations, making the old Pennsylvania Station the Jesus of buildings.

One emerges from the current Penn Station as from a none-too-clean public bathroom.

On emerging from Penn Station as from a none-too-clean public bathroom, I overheard people discussing 9/11. That seemed odd. New Yorkers don’t talk about 9/11; we leave that to politicians. When I reached home, fifteen minutes’ humid walk later, my doorman was also muttering about 9/11. Odder still.

I expected to find my daughter asleep. Not so.

“Can you tell something happened?” my wife asked.

She had seen the explosion while standing about a mile north of it (just as, on September 11th, 2001, she had seen the twin towers on fire from a position on Fifth Avenue about two miles north of the disaster) and asked two firefighters who were also gazing in its direction if the intersection where it had occurred was known. 41st Street, they said. Reassured that our home had not blown up, she went on to the rendezvous where she was to pick up our daughter from her baby-sitter. Our daughter and her baby-sitter were not there. I can imagine my wife’s reaction to that absence. (I knew nothing about it, sitting in a crowded Amtrak car, discussing a client project, and worrying about a missing iPhone.)

Finally our daughter arrived; her baby-sitter was put in a cab; and my wife and daughter attended a birthday party for one of our daughter’s friends—a younger girl who had just turned two. Pizza and cupcakes were served.

At seven, the party ended, and, as at all children’s parties in New York, the guests were shooed out.

Philadelphia is 100 miles from New York. I made it in an hour. It took my wife and daughter two hours to traverse the single mile home. The subways were out, two avenues were closed, the whole world was taking buses or walking north, away from the disaster. Just below the cutoff and oblivious to it, I walked home knowing nothing except that I had had a good meeting in Philadelphia, and had perhaps overdone it on the huevos rancheros at Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat Restaurant.

Here’s how it looks in a newspaper:

A steam pipe installed in 1924 ruptured in a thunderous explosion shortly before 6 p.m. today, sending steam, water and debris shooting outward and sending clouds of smoke and dust billowing through Midtown Manhattan at the height of the evening rush. One person died of cardiac arrest, and more than 20 others were injured. The authorities ruled out any criminal activity, saying the explosion was apparently caused by a failure of antiquated infrastructure.

How was it for you?

[tags]steampipe, explosion, nyc, newyork, newyorkcity, myglamorouslife[/tags]

The heartbreak of technology

It is an internet connectivity trifecta:

  1. The phone company configured your DSL line wrong.
  2. The new DSL modem supplied by your ISP was a dud.
  3. Your brand-new Airport Extreme wireless router does not work. It’s under warranty, but to get it replaced, you must endure another hour-long session with Apple technical support. You’d rather chew off your own leg. (Update.)

It’s really a fourfecta. The phone company fixed the DSL line, but didn’t tell the ISP. They didn’t even tell their own service technician. Dude showed up to fix a line that wasn’t broken. You wonder what the guys in his Anger Management class had to say about it.

Two and half weeks into the void, a light bulb moment: Maybe it’s the modem. ISP sends new modem, you get your speed bump.

But only when you plug directly into the modem. For your new Airport Extreme wireless router cannot find an IP address even when you enter it manually. Indeed, this remarkably attractive piece of technology cannot be configured in any meaningful way. It cannot even restart without hurting itself.

You read that the new Airport Extreme works great. Alas, there was one lemon in the production line. You got the lemon. Trifecta.

Two faces

You tell PC users you bought an Airport Extreme because it was time for a new router, and Apple computers work best with Apple routers. Besides, Apple has that whole 802.11n thing going. That 802.11n is just so much better than the outdated spec they’re using. They just wouldn’t understand.

You tell Mac users you bought an Airport Extreme to replace a perfectly good third-party router, because OS X 10.4.x is semi-incompatible with third-party routers. All too frequently, one of your OS X 10.4.x Macs becomes unable to find a wireless signal sent by your ancient Linksys router.

You didn’t have to buy the Airport Extreme router. You could fix the compatibility issue by adjusting a setting on the old router. To do so, go to Fresh Kills, dig your old G4 tower out of the landfill, boot into Virtual PC, and log into the old router.

Can’t find the old G4 tower in the landfill? Buy an Airport Extreme. Apple makes it. Their stuff just works.

Support

The Lithium Woman in Apple Technical Support was unable to suggest anything beyond restarting the hardware and sticking a pin in the Reset hole—things you tried many times before breaking down and calling Apple. Why this tech support call took an hour is a mystery. Why it is called “support” is a more profound one.

At the start of the call, you said all you needed was help accessing the Manual Configuration panel to type in the WAN I.P. address, because for some reason the Manual Configuration Panel would not load. But the Lithium Woman made you plug stuff in and unplug stuff and turn stuff on and off for an hour. It was the stuff you’d already done, and you explained that, but that’s how tech support works, so you did it.

At the end of the hour, having sufficiently atoned for your sins, you again asked for help accessing the Manual Configuration Panel, as you needed to type in the WAN I.P. address, and the Manual Configuration Panel just wouldn’t load.

The Lithium Woman said you shouldn’t have to type in an I.P. address.

Impasse.

After a while, feeling bad for her, you offered her a face-saving way of ending the call without having helped you.

You figured, once your new DSL network was set up, your Airport Extreme router would just work.

But let us pause

Most readers stopped after the first paragraph. A few hardy souls made it all the way here. Thanks for sharing the journey.

Die-hards will want to suggest solutions. For them, a few details.

Automatic setup and manual configuration both end in “please try again” error messages.

The router freezes and crashes without ever connecting, suggesting that the problem is software based. We’ve wiped Airport Utility off the hard drive with App Zapper, removed preferences, reinstalled from disk, and run Software Update to download and install the latest version. That kind of reinstall usually does the trick. Not this time.

Resetting the device with a straightened paper clip is the only thing that briefly lets you access Manual Setup. You enter the IP Address, Subnet Mask, Gateway (Router), and DNS Servers. You verify the data. The device restarts itself. You bite your nails. The software congratulates you. You open a browser. You are not online. And you can no longer access or change settings. Unless you restart the device with a straightened paper clip.

Nothing works. You are the proud owner of a piece of modern art. The object is beautiful, but it has no heart. There is no network, no nothing. George and Martha. Sad, sad.

Noware

I’m on one of the oldest DSL installations in New York City—you should see the copper in my closet. It is also one of slowest DSL connections still in active use in the world, I believe. Maximum throughput never exceeds 32 KB/second.

The syrup-slow pace keeps me honest as a web designer: if our page weights cause pain, I feel it and we fix it. Still, when every YouTube video stutters, and every emusic.com preview times out, maybe it’s time for a speed boost.

After An Event Apart Boston, I ordered a DSL speed upgrade. I should have harpooned myself repeatedly in the thigh. It would have hurt less and been quicker.

No matter who you choose for an ISP (I use the Mac-friendly company Speakeasy), upgrading DSL service in New York City almost certainly means working with Covad and Verizon. Those two companies installed my original DSL network back in the go-go, dot-com 90s, and it was up to them to flip the switches once again.

It’s been an amusing two weeks of reboots and service calls—of voice mail that never hangs up, and an internet connection that never connects. For your pleasure, I will share two conversations that actually took place:

The phone call

Two weeks in, the DSL technician from Verizon phones me.

He asks what the problem is.

I say, doesn’t he know what the problem is?

He says nobody tells him anything. This turns out to be true.

He doesn’t know I’m a Verizon customer.

He doesn’t know Verizon works with Covad and Speakeasy to provide DSL.

I ask if he is the guy in charge of DSL for Verizon and he says yes.

He asks what the problem is.

I explain that the modem isn’t getting an IP address, and there is no internet connection—not even when you manually enter all the IP data.

He says, “So you have a synch problem.”

I say, because he seems to want this, “Yes. I have a synch problem.”

He says he’ll be right over.

This really happened

Using my phone, the Verizon technician calls Covad to initiate tests. The Covad operator tells the Verizon technician to hang up at once.

“No wonder he doesn’t have the internet if you’re using his phone,” the Covad operator says.

“What are you talking about? That’s a feature of DSL, that you have an internet connection even when you’re on the phone,” the Verizon technician explains to the Covad operator.

This conversation really happens. I’m right there.

Noware

Adam Greenfield has famously said, “The age of ubiquitous computing is here: a computing without computers, where information processing has diffused into everyday life, and virtually disappeared from view.”

I believe him. But meantime, I need to use computers and phone lines.

During the blackout of 2003, when there was no electricity in the northeast, and no water in New York City apartment buildings above the sixth floor, Adam Greenfield less famously told me, “Infrastructure’s a bitch.”

Adam Greenfield is right.

Gas

When I walked our dog this morning, two muscular officials were urgently pressing our young doorman to rouse the building’s superintendent on the phone.

The super is a Romanian with a warm heart and an unfortunate resemblance to Saddam Hussein. His voice came blaring up on the intercom.

“The gas leak is in the school,” I heard him say, meaning the high school that abuts our apartment building. “Everything here is hunky-dory.”

“Nothing is hunky-dory,” said the younger of the muscular officials into the intercom. “The leak is in the Chinese restaurant, too. It’s definitely in this building.”

As I worked through the early morning morning, I heard many fire engines.

The Wife called to tell me that a natural gas odor was being reported all over the city. We decided not to panic, and to phone each other again when we knew more.

A while later we knew more. We knew the “smell of gas” was being reported from Battery Park to upper Manhattan, and in parts of New Jersey.

We knew that the smell was not natural gas but mercaptan, a chemical that is injected into natural gas to let people know when there’s a leak.

We knew that some trains to New Jersey were suspended. Some buildings had been evacuated. The subway was still working.

We discussed sending our two-year-old to Brooklyn with a baby-sitter, in case Manhattan blew up.

If we were going to do it, we’d better do it while the subways were still usable. If a state of emergency was declared, the underground would clog with terrified human beings, trampling each other.

We decided, on the basis of no evidence one way or the other, that Manhattan was not going to blow up today.

A little while later, the mayor said the same thing.

Train service to New Jersey was restored before lunchtime.

Nobody knows what caused the smell.

Tanks

During his time in the military, a man I know served in Psychological Operations, or as it is better known, PSYOPS. Psychological Operations are designed to attack the enemy’s morale, undermining confidence and introducing fear.

Stationed at South Korea’s border with the North, my friend’s job was to create soundscapes. By mixing sound effects loops, he created the audio illusion of an apparently endless procession of armored vehicles. To the North Koreans, who could not see what was on the other side, it sounded like an immense army was mobilizing at their border.

My wife recalled this story during a dinner last night at an elegant restaurant. At least, it was elegant until we showed up. Our two-year-old daughter had missed her nap and was conducting a series of terror attacks on the linen, cutlery, and staff.

In an effort to save the restaurant from destruction and our family from shame, we tried bribing, coddling, and various distractions. When nothing else worked, we resorted to an escalating series of empty threats. Eventually, if only for a moment, we prevailed.

Gently removing sauce from her delicate blouse, my clever wife observed that parenting is like PSYOPS. You want them to think you have the tanks.

A Jewish King

We’ve begun asking our two-year-old daughter how she’d feel about acquiring a sister or brother. Last night while I was diapering her, she said, “I want a baby.”

“You want a baby?” I said.

“I want a baby!” she said.

“What kind of baby?”

“A Jewish baby,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I’d gotten that.

“You want a what?”

“I want a Jewish baby,” she said. Then amended it: “A Jewish king.”

Now I was sure of what I was hearing, but I wasn’t sure I was awake.

My wife entered as I finished snapping the child’s hippo jammies.

My wife said, “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

“Uh huh,” I said.

Our attentiveness pleased our daughter.

“I want a Jewish king,” she said.

“Okay, honey,” I said to our daughter, “you’re freaking us out a little bit, now.”

She grinned to show she understood. “Jewish king!” she said.

Children say strange things, many of them meaningless. No doubt that’s the case here. Still, this morning I started checking real estate listings in Bethlehem. Just to be on the safe side.

Kiss the sky

Rose 4:30 am. Wife and Kid in car service 5:30 am—off to airport, then Michigan. The Kid, not yet two, gets airplanes. On Fire Island, during a vacation which ended weeks ago but seems to have taken place in a separate century, she flew a toy airplane “to Jamaica” for several afternoons running. Not only that, she pointed out the real airplanes and helicopters occasionally flying over the island, and distinguished correctly between the two types of airborne vehicle.

Before this same vacation was halfway over, a mini-tornado touched down in nearby Queens, New York, initiating a week of hard rain. To find out if we needed to evacuate the island, we turned on the beach cottage’s small TV and watched the local news broadcasts, which were only slightly less operatic than The Sopranos. Panting TV journalists interrupted their Katrina-like reportage of the weather event to hype airline terror threats that turned out to be pranks or mistakes. When the TV showed three airplanes in a row as part of its “terror in the skies” coverage, The Kid pointed, clapped, and cried, “Airplane! Airplane!”

And when The Wife was called to her ancestral home last week, The Kid, not yet two, understood that Mommy was taking an airplane to give Grandma an all-better kiss.

Now they are both flying to the ancestral home to see Grandma. As I write this, they must be nearing their landing place. But I am not with them. I go to Seattle.

My grandfather, for whom I was named, died in a plane crash when my mother was eleven. The incident colored every moment of her life. I grew up afraid of flying in consequence—convinced I would die like my namesake. I don’t know when I stopped being afraid. I do a lot of flying, and my main worry, when traveling solo, is to be sure I’ve packed a book I love. (When traveling with The Kid, my anxieties revolve around liquids, snacks, diapers, and naps.)

I do a lot of flying, but not nearly as much as I could. I could speak in a different place every week if I said yes. These days I am careful about yes. Not because I fear, but because I love.

Today it’s Seattle. The book I’ve packed is The History of Love.

Five years

I’ve dug up some things I wrote from New York City and posted here on September 11th 2001 and in the first days following:

9 1 1
“My part of New York City is not burning.” Written 11, 12, and 13 September 2001. Posted about a week later, when telephone and internet service were restored.
Day four
“Tonight, for the first time since Tuesday, we were permitted to cross 14th Street.” 14 September 2001
The angry flag vendor
“The peaceful vigil at Union Square has turned into a carnival of sorts.” 23 September 2001

These mini-essays are not art. They are not reportage, either (but what is?), and may not even be accurate. We were all a bit dazed—although not so dulled as now. The shock and sorrow were fresh. The events of September 11th had not yet been branded, nor turned into tools of partisan rancor, nor made into a mini-series, nor used to justify atrocity.

Silent phone, secret phone

Two weekends ago, my office phone line and an unknown number of other phone lines in my area went dead. I was in Chicago so it didn’t bother me. By Monday night, Verizon had apparently fixed the problem, and phone service was restored for me and my neighbors.

Come the following Sabbath, Verizon rested again.

If you called my office Saturday morning, you would have gotten a busy signal. If you tried Saturday afternoon, also a busy signal. The same on Saturday night.

Things got interesting on Sunday, if you consider no change interesting.

By Monday morning, the phone line was still dead. Noon brought no sudden restoration of telephony. 2:00? A disappointment, quite frankly. As the sun sets on a New York Monday, the absence of phone service attains a mystical sheen. Call me now. Busy signal. Dial again. Busy signal. Busy, busy, busy signal.

I tried using Verizon’s website to find out how to report the problem but it was like searching the moon for goats.

So I went downstairs to the Verizon pay phone, jotted down the “repair” number listed beside its little coin slot, and dialed it on my mobile.

See, if a pay phone goes down, that’s a problem.

That pay phone repair number was honey. After a mere six minutes of voice menu negotiation, I received my prognosis from the computer voice emulator that provides Verizon’s customers with quality service.

Thus spake Verizon:

“At present there is an outage in your area. Verizon is committed to restoring your phone service by … 8:00 … P.M. … on … Wednesday … June … 14th.”

“Committed to restoring” is the sweet part.

As far as I can tell, the problem involves phone lines, so you can see why it would take one of America’s largest phone companies five days to tackle a brain teaser like that.

Fortunately I only use my telephone to run my business, contact my family, and report medical emergencies. So the next few days should be just fine.