A gloomy, rainy September 11th in New York City. An eye doctor visit in the morning left my eyes dilated. For hours, I was overly sensitive to light. It was a perfect way to experience this city on that day.
In my apartment building, a woman boarded the elevator going down. About 60 years old, carrying someone else’s clothes to the laundry room. We were the only two passengers.
“Wet Tuesday,” she said. “Hot day, six years ago. Six years ago, my daughter was on TV, running for her life.”
In the doctor’s office, with dilated eyes, I siphoned bandwidth from an unsecured wireless network and read The New York Times on my iPhone, holding the handset close to my face. An article about Gen. David H. Petraeus’s testimony generated hundreds of comments. At least four of them were rational.
At 1:00 I braved a sudden monsoon in Curry Hill to meet a friend who was traveling in from Brooklyn. He told me he’d been somewhat concerned about coming into Manhattan on September 11.
At 3:30 I was home, hanging wet clothes from the shower rod and thinking about Iraq. I cannot stop thinking about it.
At 2:00 am I woke up. In my dream I had been trying to bring the soldiers home.
[tags]9/11, september11, nyc[/tags]
How to make love to a ghost
Sunday morning, while dreaming, I began receiving messages from the other world. They covered matters of etiquette when interacting with the dead, and even offered glimpses of what the spirit life is like:
Do not accept food from a ghost.
Do not make love to a ghost, even if she is your wife.
Don’t ask ghosts questions about time. They don’t understand them.
Fill your eyes with tears. That is how a ghost sees.
These messages were conveyed clearly, and with authority. Although I knew their origin, I was not afraid. So matter-of-fact was my acceptance that I began framing what I was learning within a normal workday context. Specifically, I realized that these messages made the perfect Tweets.
For while Twitter may reduce the immense possibilities of communication to single-line banalities of 140 characters or less, it is paradoxically the perfect vehicle for distilling and broadcasting profound, irrational truths, such as those the dead share with us while we dream.
This dream also involved Robert Benchley and so many cartoonish implausibilities that it is possible that the messages I received came only from my own mind. But is that not equally infinite?
(The dream’s plot involved a luxury cruiser, torpedoed in World War II. Benchley, urbane in middle age, piloted a series of unlikely rescue vehicles, including a school bus that somehow managed to navigate the ocean and deftly avoid smacking into large chunks of wreckage. It was night, and raining, and black and white. A young Michael Keaton, who was sometimes a young Jack Nicholson, also played a role in the endless and pungently fraught narrative.)
I sat at my desk today with just one goal: to write the web design survey results article for A List Apart, or at least to make a good start of it. As the day draws to a close, I have not written a word on the subject. And I know I will not. Maybe tomorrow.
I write well, but find the work daunting. Beginnings, especially.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.