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4:11pm on Saturday, 29th October, 2005:

Au Revoir Austin


I leave Austin today with mixed feelings.

On the positive side, it was great to meet so many old friends and to make so many new ones. I was taken out to lunch on Friday by a group from Rutgers who were among the most positive advertisements for everything good about America that I've ever encountered. I was standing at a bar on Thursday evening chatting with people from about 5 different companies when I realised we were all English — that was spooky. I had three dinner invitations for Friday, which is three more than I usually get. I even got to play fanboy, meeting Bill Louden and Steve Jackson, two of my long-time heroes.

There was a more depressing side of things, of course, although I was expecting most of it so it didn't hurt as much as it could have. I knew, for example, that despite the fact it cost me £1,300 to fly out here, I was unlikely to get any consultancy gigs out of it. I was basically paying for the privilege of delivering the day 2 keynote. I'm not being sarcastic here: it was indeed a privilege to give the keynote. Its being at 9:30am on the day following much late-night carousing meant, of course, that the attendance would be a third to a half of what it was at the keynote the previous day, so I was expecting some disappointment there; that said, actually seeing vast swathes of empty seats with tumbleweed blowing between them wasn't great for my morale.

My speech went down better than I had hoped, which was good. I put this down to the fact that those present in the audience had had to make an effort to attend, so were probably predisposed to look on it favourably. My basic message was that the people present at the conference had actual, real-world influence in their hands on a nigh-unprecedented scale, if only they'd accept it. I think I managed to get this over at the intellectual level, but not at the emotional level. I didn't express myself passionately enough to do that, which is dispiriting but we all have our limits. Maybe if I'd made my talk less rambling? Ah well, I'm used to losing opprtunities...

I was also disappointed by some — well, all — of the panel discussions I went to. I didn't hear anything I hadn't heard before. I don't blame the panellists for this, because for most of the audience it was brand new (not everyone gets to go to State of Play); however, I'd have liked to have heard something different arise from the interactions between panel members. All the panels were entertaining, but I felt I was watching re-runs of much-loved TV shows rather than new episodes.

I was very frustrated by not being able to attend multiple presentations at once. There were some 7 or 8 threads running simultaneously, and at any moment I would have liked to have been present at a minimum of 2 of these. I therefore had to pick and choose almost arbitrarily, which meant I missed some good (or at least different) presentations, including the Thursday one that got everyone talking in the corridors (about Majestic-like augmented reality games). Damn! I was instead at one where they were discussing different relational database choices (which was good, but when I was an undergraduate I had to progam a relational database from scratch in COBOL and define its functionality using denotational semantics, so I kinda knew the issues anyway — it was just the modern practicalities that I was there for).

There were some original presentations that I actually did manage to attend, though, my favourite of which was Damion Schubert's comparison of virtual world design to casino design. Despite protesting that he was dying from some viral infection, Damion put his case over very well; if he doesn't get to give the keynote next year, he should the year after. Either that, or they should replicate this year's rant panel instead of a keynote, just for the sheer feel-good value!

All in all, I enjoyed the conference because of the people, but was left feeling rather down because we're only inching forward in this industry. I wanted to hear big ideas, I wanted to be delighted by the new, I wanted to feel the passion of other speakers, I wanted to believe that I could retire from the field tomorrow and my passing would not make a difference. I got some of all of this in bursts and flashes, but not enough. We're stumbling along when we could be making a permanent mark on humanity for the better.

I tried to get this over in my speech, but I failed. I know I was always going to fail, but that doesn't mean I have to feel good about it.

Oh well. Luckily, I have an entire 150g bar of Galaxy hidden in my luggage, so this mild depression will be over in approximately 30 minutes...

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).