Surprise weekend in Edmonton

It’s been a while since our last surprise weekend (see [[Surprise Visit to Drumheller]]), but not for a lack of wanting. We’ve been that busy. Either Alex has had to work (the joys of working in the medical community) or we’ve both been traveling. This weekend was the first one we’d had to get away.

It was a bit of a special one, but for no other reason than we’d barely seen each other in almost three weeks. I was away in San Jose for a conference (see [[Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Calgary to San Jose]]), followed immediately by the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival (see [[2004 Calgary Dragon Boat Festival]]), and then Alex was off in Ontario for a week and a half. So I had to plan this weekend’s getaway so we’d have some time to ourselves.

Continue reading “Surprise weekend in Edmonton”

Luke leaves Critical Mass

Today, My Favourite Giant left Critical Mass. And we are lessened by his departure.

Luke Puxley started at Critical Mass not quite two years ago. He was a daunting figure, mostly due to his sheer size. Luke is not a small man, though he never played the “big man” role. He was simply a larger version of EveryMan. He was kind, funny, helpful, thoughtful, intelligent, and hard-working.

And he liked to goof off just as much as the rest of us. Maybe moreso.

Luke was “My Favourite Giant” to some of us, “The Giant” to others, “Sir Bonks-A-Lot” to a precious few, but was as much a Critical Masser as the rest of us. He will be forever immortalized in a sketch prepared for our summer Town Hall (see [[Critical Mass Summer Town Hall and Kananaskis Cowpunch]]), most notably for his portrayal of a hard-working, sweat, big guy. (Come to think of it, some of us are still haunted by those images…)

So it was simply natural that we have to make a final burst for Luke as he heads his way to an MBA. Yesterday, Mark arranged for a lunch at the Drum and Monkey, which I couldn’t attend due to an interview I had to conduct. (For the record, I don’t much like the Drum and Monkey for lunch, anyway. Too much food, and the service is lousy.) We would make a go of the usual run of things: Vicious Circle and sushi afterwards.

Late because of a long-running conference call, I arrived at VC shortly after 17:40. Festivities were already well underway. Although we didn’t have a massive gathering, there were at least 25 people in attendance. Not shabby for someone who’d been mired on the Mercedes account for three-quarters of his employ.

Friday afternoon was sunny and warm, and sitting on the patio of VC was something we all could enjoy. It wasn’t long before the Critical Mass team dominated the east side of the patio. We could have packed in more people, but were snubbed by Steve and Jana, and later by Thelton and Christie (though they had a better excuse — anniversaries do tend to take precendence).

As afternoon turned into early evening, attendees started to drop off. The call for sushi went out, but acquired only a handful of takers: Scott, Linday, Luke, Reid, and yours truly. When minimal mass (the opposite of critical mass — when a sufficiently small number requires the dissolution of a particular state) was finally attained, the five of us headed over to the Sumo Lounge in Eau Claire Market (convenient for Luke, Lindsay, and myself, since we all live within walking distance).

We had a booth to ourselves, thankfully away from everyone else. Why thankfully? Because we were loud.

Okay, I was loud.

One litre of sake between the five of us. Luke eventually cut himself off (it was a bit much for him). Peter Kinjo, the owner and Chief Troublemaker, made a point to come around and spread his unique brand of cheer. No dancing for Luke in a rubber wig and kimono, though — I suspect they wouldn’t have fit him, anyway.

Departing Sumo, all of us but Reid (he was heading out to join up with Jim) headed upstairs to the Cineplex to play some air hockey. Luke went down in the first round, but it wasn’t an easy one. (Sake really destroys hand-eye coordination.) He’d get his revenge later on. We went around to various video games before deciding to give pool a shot. Somehow, we ended up playing darts instead. That took a while, since none of the four of us were any good.

Oh, and that round of bottle caps (drinks, not the candy) didn’t really help, either.

Scott and I finished a round of pool while waiting for Luke and Linday to finish their darts game. Despite having a near total lack of coordination at this point, I was able to aim surprisingly well. The lack of coordination finally showed through when Luke took me down in a final game of air hockey.

With that, we all headed out into the unusually warm Calgary evening, Luke and Linday heading up to Crescent Heights, Scott and I heading over to my place in Sunnyside. I offered to give Scott a ride home, but needed to sit down a while and rest before getting behind a wheel. (Just because I’m inebriated doesn’t mean I’m irresponsible.)

We watched The Simpsons on DVD before I was inspired to put on The Great Escape. I fell asleep barely into the movie (I was exhausted), waking up about an hour or so in. By this point, it was almost 3:00. I took Scott home, hitting the sack almost as soon as I got back.

The office will certainly be a quieter place without Luke around anymore. But we’re sure we’re going to see him from time to time.

After all, he’s gonna miss us at the breakfast table.

2004 Calgary Dragon Boat Festival

This weekend, we went for a little paddle. Five hundred metres in about two minutes and five seconds, to be precise.

This weekend was the 13th annual Calgary Dragon Boat Festival, or the Alberta Dragon Boat Racing Festival, depending on who you ask. It’s the largest in Alberta and attracts teams from as far away as Edmonton and Lethbridge (or so I gather). Most teams seem to be local.

The races take place on the Glenmore Reservoir, the only body of water in Calgary large enough to handle something like this. It’s big enough for a 500 metre course, with more than enough room to spare for the various sail boats and Heritage Park’s paddle wheeler, without causing trouble.

Alex and I arrived (still very sleepy) at 7:00 Saturday morning, to try and find the Topmade tent. Easier said than done, since there is almost no decoration at that hour of the morning of the first day. Fortunately, the club had been busy, already having hung the banner and brought in the trailer with the equipment (specifically, paddles and life jackets). There were three tables, some with food, and a huge pile of water bottles (over 2,000 at last estimate) to help us out.

The tents were set up in a block “U” shape, with Topmade in the southeast corner. Each tent was about 10 feet by 10 feet square, with a high pointy roof. Some tents were subdivided to handle the size of the teams. Some had only half a tent. There were even rumours of quartered tents.

Topmade had three entire tents.

There are eight teams in Topmade: Dragoneers (the competitive team), Dynasty (the semi-competitive team), DI-Hard Dragons (where I started, a recreational team), Water Dragons (another rec team), Spirit Dragons (rec), Trico Select Dragons (rec), Red Dragons, (men’s team), and Phoenix (women’s team). The latter two (men’s and women’s) aren’t dedicated teams, and are comprised of members from the other teams.

By 8:00, we were all assembled and DI-Hard started its warm-up. That was a bit difficult, as the weather outside was not exactly cooperative. It was cold and raining. None of us were particularly happy about that. Warm-up not really having lived up to its name (but our muscles sufficiently loosened), we were called down to the marshalling area to prepare for our first race.

The festival was set up with the tents quite a ways from the docks. Why, I don’t know. It meant all the teams had to go up and down a set of stairs that was simply not big enough for all the traffic. The marshalling area was at the Calgary Canoe Club’s docks (which is where we sailed from). In between the tents and the stairs was the stage and beer tent, ideally set up to prevent the easy flow of competitors from their tents to the boats. (Seeing a theme of planning here?)

We arrived at the marshalling area, shivering in the cold, and told to wait in the rain while the opening ceremonies took place. We didn’t get to really see or hear them (we were just far enough way to miss it), nor did we really care at that moment — all we knew was that we were cold and wet, and it wasn’t even 9:00 yet.

Finally, the first batch of racers went out and the festival got underway. We took our place under the marshalling canopy until it was our turn to go out. There were 12 dragon boats, used in rotations of six — half out on the race, the other half loading for the next one. Ideally, not a problem. However, the weather conspired against us, and it was exceedingly difficult to stage the boats without them drifting in the wind. So the process was a little slow.

When our boat was called, we marched down to the docks and lined ourselves up for our boat. We were up against one of our own in the first race — Water Dragons (I think), which Arnold (our coach and drummer) also drummed for. For what reason, we’re not sure, but Arnold left us for the other boat, bringing in Christine from Dynasty to drum in his place. Thankfully, Topmade’s drummers are all top-notch.

Here’s the trick to dragon boating: Focus. That’s it. That’s all there is. Don’t listen to anything but your drummer and your steerer. I mean any *thing*. Not the birds, the wind, the PA systems, the crowd, you name it. All you should hear are instructions. That’s how you get through a race without killing yourself (or the rest of your team) wondering how other teams are doing, etc.

Christine took us down to the staging area, which is two buoys (about 20 metres) behind the start line. It took a while to get the boats sorted out, but we finally got ourselves lined up. Then the six boats slowly started forward. These were rolling starts, meaning you didn’t totally stop before “Go!” was called.

Normally, in race conditions, I get severe nerves. When I was on the swim team back in high school, I used to get so nervous my bladder would shrink to the size of a pea (yes, pun intended) right before a race. That’s what focus gives you — no nervousness. You pay attention to the drummer and steerer. You focus on their words, and you can actually forget what else is going on around. It’s very zen.

From the moment the first start was called until we heard “let it ride!”, I can’t really tell you what happened. We weren’t perfect, we weren’t ideal. But we won the race, one of two heats we’d run on Saturday. (A bit of a misnomer, since the festival organizers later discounted all the first heats for some unknown reason.) Our time? About 2:21.

Bonnie (our steerer) just about broke down when we got back to the docks. The wind and water currents had given her an extremely hard time. Added to the stress of the first race, she wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions, and understandably so. She, like most of the rest of us, would pile into sleeping bags and blankets to try and warm up when we got back to the tents.

So began the day of keeping an ear out for which team was being marshalled, having to run back to the tents for equipment, running back and forth from the portable toilets, and generally trying to stay warm. Just before lunch, after we’d all been in the rain and the cold far too much for one day, DI-Hard was called down again. Only to be sent away after a while because the officials were cold.

Apparently, they didn’t notice the runny noses, blue lips, and shivering bodies of the competitors.

DI-Hard’s second race was considerably better than our first, coming through with a time of 2:16, knocking five seconds off our previous time. It was good to have Arnold at the drum again. But it wasn’t good enough to win — we came second. We were beat out by last year’s grand champions. We weren’t too upset about that.

I also race for the Red Dragons, who came up later that afternoon. This was a small race, as there were only four men’s teams. (By comparison, there were over 12 women’s teams, three of whom were from the same club.) This was a race I was looking forward to. Arnold guided us through a visualization (as most of the teams did before a race) and a stretch.

We entered the lane, lined up, rolled to a start, and 2:05 later, were flying past the finish line. The next nearest boat was over a boat length behind (so I’m told).

Races ended for the day with what’s called the Beer Run. This is when a group of teams (the competitive teams, I think) race for, well, beer. A keg of it, so I’m told. Dragoneers (who had done exceptionally well all day) didn’t win, unfortunately.

Alex and I took off for home. That night, we went over to her family’s friend’s house, not far from the University. This was the family of her best friend, Rebecca, and where her father and stepmother were staying while in town. It was a chance to meet Rebecca’s parents (Rebecca is still in Costa Rica) and mutual friends visiting from Rocky Mountain House.

Dinner was awkward, but not because I was the “new guy”. It was because of a freakish little event that only seems to happen in movies and coming-of-age TV shows, where the new boy thorough screws up in front of the parents. In my case, it wasn’t because of anything that I did myself. It was because of the chair I was sitting on.

Now, I’m not overweight. In fact, I’m pretty much in line with what I should weigh for my height. But that didn’t stop the chair under me from creaking, cracking, bending, and finally breaking. It happened over a couple of seconds, so in theory I could have reacted more quickly. But I didn’t. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor, amidst a mass of shattered wood. There was no laughter, just stunned silence.

This definitely ranked high in my list of Uncomfortable Moments.

We didn’t stay too long, leaving just after 20:00. Alex and I were both exhausted from the day, and Alex wasn’t feeling very well, either. When we parted ways that night, Alex commented that she might not be able to make it out the next morning.

The phone rang at 6:01. Alex’s condition hadn’t improved much. We talked about it for a while and decided that she should stay home at least until she felt well enough to come down. Yes, there is the issue of letting the team down. Somewhere, you have to draw that line. I knew that, somehow, we’d make it without her, even if just for a while.

Sunday was cold and wet, though it (thankfully) never really rained. Running into Bonnie and Chris upon my arrival, I dropped the bomb that Alex wasn’t coming. Bonnie immediately freaked — how do we balance a boat with one less person? We couldn’t register a new person easily (though it wouldn’t have mattered — the officials never checked) and we’d be out one person’s weight on one side.

DI-Hard was one of the first teams up again, and we were down at the docks ready to run. It was calm, the wind having died overnight. The reservoir was glass. This was going to be a good race. Arnold lined us up, and we shifted Carrie to the other side to balance things out (how that worked, I’ll never understand).

Despite all the preparation and focus, the heart just wasn’t there. We didn’t paddle well, we didn’t have the timing, and the results showed it. We were not happy at all with our first race. Arnold tried to bolster our spirits, but it just wasn’t working.

Good news hit us not long after we got back to the tent — Alex was going to make it after all. Things had settled and she was ready to roll. She found us down at the docks as we were watching other teams display their muster.

DI-Hard’s fourth race was the one we were meant to run. It was timed, it was solid. We didn’t win, but we didn’t care, either. We knew it was good, and our time showed it — 2:15. Not much better than the previous day, but Alex wasn’t the only one feeling a bit down — Graham was also well under the weather, so probably hadn’t been able to put in his all (he has the longest reach on the team, and can use it well).

The Men’s Final came up soon after. Mark and I were already quite high from the DI-Hard’s run, so were looking forward to this one. The Red Dragons had met before the race, and discussed that we were not only going for the gold, we were going to try and break the two minute mark. It was something we all thought was possible.

I thought Arnold might actually force his larynx out from the way he was yelling. The boat moved in surges like I’d never felt before. It was so bad that my outside foot slipped three times off the support, causing us to lose time and momentum. It was probably because of me that we didn’t break the two minute mark.

Towards the finish line, we were all grunting in unison, powering our way through the strokes. All I could hear was the screaming onshore as teams cheered the racers on. When we finished, we all looked at Arnold for the results. All he did was smile and hold up one finger.

The high continued right up until the finals were announced. At that point, the proverbial crap hit the fan.

The festival breaks everyone into divisions: A, B, and C. Generally, the better you are, the higher you rank. Dragoneers are always A. Last year, DI-Hard was the C champion, and we were looking to be the B champion. Imagine our surprise to learn that we were in Division A…

…and our total dismay to find out we were in the Consolation race. No medals.

This sparked a huge furor in the team. How the hell could this have happened? What the hell was a “consolation race”? Hey, you did well! You did so well that we’ll let you race again just for the heck of it! To say that we were ticked off is putting it mildly. Even more so when we saw that slower teams had gotten into the medal round of Division A, and faster teams were in the medal round of Division C.

Somehow, we’d ended up being too good for Division B, but not good enough for Division A.

This is when Arnold straightened us out. According to the system, it’s luck of the draw. You race who you race against — there’s no planning aside from names drawn from a hat. If you win, you get three points; second gets two points; third gets one. Points are tallied and that’s how you end up in the race you end up in. By that measure, we were the seventh best team out of 45 teams. By last year’s rankings, we would have been the Division B winners.

No, we weren’t racing for a medal. We were now racing for ourselves. Screw the official nature of everything, we were out to prove a point: You want to come up with a completely moronic way of organizing a series of races, that’s your problem. We’re not about to be shown the door that easily. We were determined to win that race, and post a better time than some of the teams in the Division A finals.

Two teams didn’t show up for the Division C consolation. Couldn’t really blame them, either. Spirit Dragons came in second. Dynasty, a better team than DI-Hard, won the Division C finals. No Topmade teams made Division B (go figure), so we cheered on whoever we could.

Division A consolation came up, and we were back in the boat again. Arnold was there, telling us that we had already done better than last year’s festival, medal or no medal. He looked us square in the eyes and said that he’d waited for five years to get a first in the Calgary festival, which we did with the men’s team. It didn’t matter if there was a medal at the end, it was the progress that mattered. It was how we showed our mettle then that would prove how we would perform in the future.

The team had never been that focused. We ran the best race that DI-Hard probably has ever done. We were barely a second slower than the previous run, but it didn’t matter — we’d won. For that, we were happy. All of Topmade (except Arnold and the Dragoneers, already out to their final) waited for us at the top of the dock, to shake our hands. Nah, we didn’t win a medal. Somehow, I don’t think that really would have made a difference.

The Dragoneers were against the two toughest teams: Crew Yahoo and the Edmonton Dragon Boat Club. (Trico Select was also in the race, but … well, to put it as succinctly as possible, there were never in it to begin with.) For the first 250 meters, we had no idea where the various boats were (out of the three, anyway). But by the 400 metre mark, the Dragoneers were pulling away. And they poured it on.

I think we all went deaf when they crossed the line first. This was turning into a banner year for Topmade.

The Women’s final was last, but certainly not least. Sang (DI-Hard’s captain) and not quite half of the Dragoneers went for the Phoenix boat. They were up against several strong competitors, including the Magic Spindles, who had defeated Phoenix before.

There is a reason the women’s team is named “Phoenix”.

We could hear Arnold at the 250 metre mark. Although he was steering, he was yelling so loudly that it was possible to hear him over the crowd. Spindles were pouring it on, but Phoenix’s form was almost perfect. They crossed the line to a tremendous cheer. I think Alex had her ears plugged from the cacophony.

Trouble started not long afterwards. One of the boats (originally thought to be Phoenix) protested. Something wasn’t right. We couldn’t figure out why the heck we’d protest our own win. *That* wasn’t right. As it turned out, it was the Spindles — they’d smacked the starting gate on the way out and hadn’t had the run they wanted. They would have to race again.

Topmade jeered the announcement so loudly that you couldn’t hear the PA over the club. This was just ridiculous. These people had just poured out everything in a hard race, and because of one steerer’s mistake, all would suffer? Several of the Phoenix women were downing whole bottles of water — the ones on the Dragoneers probably felt like giving up, even if just for a moment.

The six teams went back to the start line, over 500 metres away, and prepared for the second race. (Incidentally, dragon boats always move under their own power when loaded with rowers — they are never towed.) Most of us felt for our poor clubmates — we knew what it was like to finish a hard race. But to then jump into a second one? That was torture.

The PA system cracked with the radio chatter echoing the instructions from the start line: various boats being jockeyed into position. Hangs were clasped, stomachs tightened, foreheads knotted, and breaths held. Even when the start tone sounded, there wasn’t much sound from the crowd.

There was no way to tell how the teams were doing. We could almost feel the exhaustion from the team. We all looked expectantly, hopefully, as they all crossed the 250 metre mark, almost dead-tied. The cheers started around the 300 metre mark, and rose steadily as the boats closed in on the finish line. If we could have heard Arnold’s voice over the din, it would have probably been like listening to a lion’s roar.

Somehow, all the hopes of every member of Topmade must’ve made it out to the Phoenix boat. It started to pull ahead, probably as a result of a power 10. From the 400 metre line to the finish, the gap just got larger and larger. On the first run, they had paddled with 154 strokes (yes, someone counted). On the second, 186. Despite the extra run, the extra exertion, and the sheer power required to pull off two wins in a row, the cheer from Phoenix nearly brought tears to the eyes of everyone on shore. It was a well-deserved win.

The Topmade club stood at the top of the dock, welcoming back every single paddler from the final race, handing them bottles of water (we barely made a dent in our supply). The women were happy, but exhausted. Some had to be helped away. Even Phoenix, despite their win, showed their fatigue. Even then, happiness was obvious.

Topmade cheered our victories back at the tent, and took the time for presentations of our own. Arnold, possibly the hardest-working guy in the club, and Nick, who keeps everything working (though no-one really knows how), were given carbon fibre paddles after a collection from the teams. Then all of us posed for pictures.

The awards ceremony took place at the beer tent, after the band finally took a break. It was something else to go up with the men’s team for our gold medal. There’s something to be said for having that chunk of metal around your neck that just shows you’ve done something. Mark and I both lamented that the rest of DI-Hard wouldn’t get that experience.

After the awards, the festival effectively ended. It was late — about 19:30, and most of us were tired. The women in the finals had been quite giddy with what was left of their adrenaline, but even they were passing out. It was time to go home.

Despite the complaints about festival organization (poor tent locations, bad timing on the first day, and an utterly ridiculous ranking system), it was a good time. And I look forward to next year.

Especially after I modify my workout routine a bit.

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Troubles trying to get home

Travelling is never easy. Especially when my best friend Murphy is along for the ride.

I rose late (catching up with sleep lost the night before), and met up with Craig, Jill, and her daughter Jamie in the concierge level for breakfast. Craig did a short presentation on the tools he has for managing the pay-per-click materials for the Hyatt programme. I hadn’t seen it before, so watched with interest. I realized that like with everything else we have, Craig has a great deal to offer for SEM presentations and theory, and that the two of us really need to get ourselves organized within Critical Mass.

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Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Last day

Search Engine Strategies 2004, San Jose, California, Day 4

I should have woken with another hangover. Especially since I had slept only about three hours. It was the last of the seminar, and I didn’t want to miss anything.

I called Craig’s room once to see if they were going for breakfast. There was no answer. I wasn’t surprised.

Continue reading “Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Last day”

Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Yahoo! Party

Search Engine Strategies 2004, San Jose, California, Day 3

I wasn’t hungover. Since I had only two beers at the Google party (and they ran out!), I wasn’t really reeling from any overdoses. I skipped the swim in favour of a little extra sleep.

Craig finally pulled me out of bed with a phone call, and we headed up for breakfast. Our tales of the previous night were fairly tame. It was ironic that the “upstart” of the industry, and now current reigning king, also had the most conservative party.

Grabbing our stuff on the way back down, we proceeded to the first event of the day: an Executive Roundtable, featuring VPs from Yahoo!, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, and MSN Search. (Obviously absent was Google, but the SEC doesn’t allow them to postulate on anything this close to their IPO. Danny jokingly offered to forecast on their behalf.)

On the whole, the session was a bit of a wash. The AOL guy kept talking in circles and didn’t really say anything of note. The Yahoo! guy was an old hat, and had done this quite a lot. His measured speeches and “insights” were crafted to not say much, but say it well. The Ask Jeeves representative was possibly the most informative, but with them being #8 on the list, he really didn’t stand to lose anything by being there. All three of them eyed the MSN guy very carefully. Microsoft has been tinkering away in their garage for a while, and you can already hear the roar of the massive engine they’ve been building in secret. Everyone knows what they’ve been doing, but the question is what impact it will have.

Craig and I were not impressed with the MSN guy — he kept giving the company line. Following the roundtable, we were commenting about this very fact. Just off my left shoulder, I spied a woman listening in to our conversation. After a couple of moments, she stepped forward and introduced herself. Anna, from MSN.

(At this point, you’d think we should probably take back the things we were saying. We didn’t. We meant every word, and apparently that’s what she was interested in.)

The three of us chatted for a while about MSN and their plans for world domination (okay, I added that last bit — Anna didn’t mention anything about that). We knew that once MSN gets their search system up and running, they’ll drop Yahoo! as their search provider. Our question to her was, what will happen to their pay-per-click program? Overture currently powers MSN’s PPC system — so are Overture’s days numbered?

Anna, although only having been with MSN for four months, knew the answer. Of course, she didn’t tell us. One advantage of having listened to American politics on TV for so many years, and having a degree in rhetoric, we have a great ability for disseminating the truth. But not like it wasn’t much of a stretch, anyway. Without actually saying it, Anna told us that while they value their partnership with Overture, Microsoft does want to flex its own muscles. One day, Bruce Clay will have to update his diagram so that the MSN circle no longer has arrows going into it.

Successful Site Architecture came up next for me. This was a particularly interesting topic. Although a Fundamental course, it shed a few points on the work that I do every day. Nothing new, mind you, but confirmation of the direction we’ve been going in. (Although, when I get back, I need to change a few standards.) Everything I’ve seen paled in comparison to Trademark Brand Protection Issues. Despite the fact that my blood sugar level bottomed right out (I feel asleep for a short while), the issues raised in the seminar will be extremely valuable for us and our clients, as we’re sure to run into the same problems. Finally was the Very Vertical session, which was a discussion about other search engines and directories than the big ones — engines that are dedicated to specific industry and topical verticals. It wasn’t a very full session, but should have been — this wa a great session full of strong information.

The last session also shed light on the post-Yahoo! party. Everyone seemed to know that there would be a party, the question was who would hold it, and where? It would be Eon Media, a division of SBI.Razorfish (one of our competitors). The location? The Flying Pig Pub. I made sure to grab some cards to pass them around to the gang, so they’d know where to go.

Following the main sessions was Danny’s Evening Forum. Basically, his chance to do a Phil Donohue schtick, run around with a microphone, and have the audience be the panel. Questions were raised, questions were answered, and the results were exceptionally interesting. First, we need a form of Better Business Bureau to handle all the black hat and rogue SEM firms that are giving the rest of us a bad name. Second, although we know MSN will dramatically shift the search landscape, none of us believe that it’s going to completely steamroller Google or Yahoo! — it’ll be roughly a three-way tie.

After a quick run up to our rooms to dump our bags, Craig and I headed over to The Tech Museum of San Jose for Yahoo!’s soiree. This was the number two search engine’s attempt to make up for Google’s bash the night before. Not nearly as extravangant as Google’s, Yahoo!’s party was ripe with food and drink, and a very fun environment to play around in. Museum staff were on hand to help us out with some of the exhibits (a demonstration of a rocket pack, surgical implants and how they work, and virtual scanning to name a few). Unlike Google, Yahoo! didn’t run out of beer (though there was a fear they would).

I took a spin on the rocket pack simulator. You sit in a large, very uncomfortable chair that has three pads that support it on a cushion of air. You sit underneath a mockup of a satellite that has three circles of blinking green lights. The idea is to guide the chair so that a red light (projected from the chair onto the satellite) covers the green lights. That set will go out, and the next illuminate. It was fun.

Especially since I’d already had a couple of beers.

The museum was reminiscent of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, with a lot of hands-on experiments. Guests either spent their time playing around, or stood and chatted with others. It was a better networking experience than the Google party, but we were still hampered by size and the fact that we were scattered across two floors (with the ground floor in between, for added separation).

Around 21:00, Brad, Megan, and I decided that it was time to move to the second party. The Yahoo! party was showing signs of beginning to wrap up, and we wanted to hit the next venue before it was too late.

Well, at least Brad was supposed to come with us. Somewhere along the line, we lost him. Instead, we picked up another fellow SEMer from Vancouver, whose name I now forget, and headed out in search of our destination. A vague map and an accurate address finally brought us to the bar. There were only about 20 people there upon arrival. It was only a short time before the crowds started to arrive, Craig appearing just before them.

It wasn’t long before the Eon Media party was turning into another LookSmart bash. Booze flowed freely, people shouted above the din of laughter and music, and we all generally carried on until last call brought an end to things around 1:15. Craig, Megan, Brad, and I headed out into the night, trying to find something new.

Which was a lot harder than it sounds. San Jose pretty shuts down at about 1:30. The hotel’s bar closes at midnight! That didn’t stop Craig from acquiring two bottles of wine from the restaurant’s manager (who even brought them up to Craig’s room).

Nor did it put a pause on Brad, who decided that he didn’t want wine — he wanted beer. While we were waiting at the bar for the wine to be prepared, Brad decided to acquire his beverage of choice. The bar was technically closed, so wouldn’t sell him any. Yet, a moment later, I saw Brad holding a Samuel Adams. How on Earth he’d produced it out of thin air was obvious when I saw the swinging kitchen door just behind him.

Laughing at his audaciousness, I commented that he hadn’t thought about the rest of us. Brad smiled and vanished again, returning with two Heinekens. Surprisingly enough, the bar staff didn’t notice, nor did the manager comment on the three cold beers we brought to Craig’s room.

The four of us went up to Craig’s room to engage in continued conversation and “wine tasting” until well into the wee hours of the morning. Brad didn’t last too long, having consumed far too much beer and booze for his own good. He staggered his way out the door and headed off for his hotel, somewhere in the general vincinity of I Don’t Know, and I’ll Find It Eventually.

The three of us continued until somewhere well after 5:00, after we’d polished off 2/3 of a bottle of red wine apiece. Megan and I were ready to pass out, Craig not far behind. I was more-or-less ejected from the room; Megan crashed with Craig.

It was already lightening outside when I crawled into bed.

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Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Google Dance

Search Engine Strategies 2004, San Jose, California, Day 2

The alarm started at 6:30. I hit snooze several times before I finally had the realization that I needed to get out of bed. Almost instantly, I knew that I was going to have an ill-feeling day. My stomach was empty and rotten from all the gin and beer, and my head felt like a boxer’s practice bag.

I tried to take in a swim before breakfast. I wasn’t able to make much of it. Alcohol poisoning usually retards physical ability, and exertion is a little difficult. But a little raise in the heart rate is better than nothing.

I went right up for breakfast after showering. I didn’t call Craig, as I figured he had to be feeling at least as bad as I did, if not worse since he drank more than me, and was out longer. A heaping batch of eggs and the greasiest bacon I could find was a start to me feeling better.

First up was the Keynote speech, delivered by our host moderator, Danny Sullivan. Danny is the most recognized search expert. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a really good presenter. Craig missed it due to a conference call that one our our project managers scheduled him into despite the fact that he was 2,000 kilometres away.

That kind of annoyed me. No, actually, I take that back. It really pissed me off. Craig and I are here for not only our benefit, but also the company’s, and he missed the entire morning session because one person (who didn’t even really have the proper authority to boss Craig around, in my humble opinion) decided that their priorities exceeded everything else. I don’t appreciate that level of short-sightedness, especially where plans aren’t fully concrete. It’s unacceptable, in my mind. Craig and I both suffer as a result, since Craig’s absence meant two sessions we wouldn’t see.

Anyway, I went through four sessions, not including the keynote speech. (I would go until well into the afternoon before I found Craig again and found out what had been going on.)

The keynote speech was important. It was a chance for Danny Sullivan (the host moderator) to make his points about Search Engine Marketing and its power and future. In particular was the addressing of Seth Godin’s accusation that SEO is black magic, something I felt was quite inaccurate. (I’m sure he’s had many a retort since then.) I won’t doubt that it *looks* like black magic, but when you deal with a million variables, and have no control over 999,999 of them, you can’t always predict the results.

(And you thought I was going to mention something about any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic, didn’t you?)

The Organic Listings Forum was quite solid, delivering a lot of very interesting information about how to handle listings without having to pay for them (a common problem in the industry — all the bang with none of the buck). Of particular interest was seeing Bruce Clay, one of the SEM heavyweights. Dynamic Web Sites, though a Fundamental track session, did shed a couple of lights and ideas on the the problems we face on a near-daily basis on the MBUSA account.

During the lunch break, I made a point of circulating through the exhibit hall, seeing what Critical Mass is up against for competition (there’s a bit, but not really anyone like us, surprisingly enough), and what other services are readily available. Some we might want to offer, but in the end there’s just other things we need to be aware of.

I met Mike and Albert from SiteLab (what I would assume is a competitor to Critical Mass, based out of Houston). We chatted about our respective clients and the challenges they often face. They have the US Navy as one of their clients — government contracts are simultaneously the best and worst ones to have.

After lunch, I dove into Search Engines and Web Server Issues. Sadly, the session was light on content and didn’t really provide anything we couldn’t have read from the PowerPoint presentations. Last up was the Optimizing Flash session, which is something near and dear to my heart (as I am regularly touted around the office as being a Flash hater — which I am not, I just don’t agree with the frequency of use and the typical implementation). The only real thing I got out of that was the verification that while some search engines can scan Flash, they don’t really index on it, and that you shouldn’t plan on Flash ever being indexed.

Craig and I met up for a bite to eat after the sessions. Still hung over from last night’s little fiasco, we decided that we *absolutely* needed to eat something before we went out for tonight’s little soiree: The Google Dance.

No, it wasn’t a *dance* per se. (Although there was dancing.) It’s a party — a big one. The name stems from something in the SEM industry called the “Google Dance”. This is when Google updates its algorithms, usually about once a month. Sometimes, the effect is minimal, and it’s barely noticed. Other times, the changes are huge, as it was with a particular update known as “Florida”. This succeeded in changing the long-standing results for thousands of websites, causing quite the ruckus. It seems very appropriate that the name of the party should be a play off the one thing that our industry actually fears from Google.

They supplied buses. Their office is a 20 minute drive on the freeways from downtown San Jose. (A cab ride would have been something expensive.) After powering back an appetizer plate and a couple of beers, we hopped in line with Brad, the creator and host of Search Engine Radio. Craig had met Brad at the Toronto conference and is a regular listener (Brad says that Craig is his only fan). I’d listen, but the timing is lousy for me, since it’s always when I’m in meetings.

Upon arriving, we were all handed t-shirts bearing the name of the party, and ventured on in. Google’s offices are at the old headquarters of SGI (Silicon Graphics). They’re slowly expanding into all the available space, but for now only occupy about half of it. The courtyard in the middle is where all the hubbub was taking place.

Like all of the other parties we’d experienced so far, this was free. Didn’t cost us a cent, outside of the flight and hotel. (Okay, that costs Critical Mass…) Quite a party, too. Free drinks, free food, a live band (Ozomati, whose music defies simply classification, but was exceptionally good), a live DJ, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in INSANE quantities, giveaways, and demos of all their products.

Oh, and they tried to recruit new employees from the plethora of folk there.

Craig, Brad, and I wandered about a bit, seeing was there was, having some beers, talking with other people, eating, and generally taking advantage of the situation. (We joked about trying to break in and steal the algorthims, but we wouldn’t have even been able to get into the stairwells with all the security guards about.)

With all the people there, it wasn’t surprising that I eventually lost track of them and ran solo for a while. I ran into Nikki and Megan again, and chatted about our pasts, what we did for hobbies, and what we thought of Google’s impending IPO (officially announced tonight to be next Tuesday, 10 August).

There was a lot of head nodding between the three of us that this might be the start of the fall of Google. This was Google’s last hurrah as a private company. Next week, their staff will become millionaires overnight, there will be flashy, new cars in the driveways, and we’ll probably see a brief glimpse of the dot-com era for a while. But only a while.

Reality will set in again, and the pressure will be on Google to continually perform and produce. I’ll be surprised if this party happens again next year, particularly if it happens at the same level.

Google’s stock price will be the biggest question. It’s currently listed to start at USD$108. At that price, it’s well out of the range of most people, and only in the reach of investors. The biggest question is whether it will sell at that price, or if people will force it down. Undoubtedly, some will buy, and undoubtedly, the price will fall. It must — the dot-com era is over, and Google or not, the current reality can’t support a price like that.

Well, that’s what we think now. A week from now might prove otherwise.

The party started to quieten down when news spread that Google had run out of beer. When we heard it for the first time, the reaction was one of shock — how do you run out of beer? It’s like running out of water! Sure, there was still wine and some mixed stuff, but beer is the life blood! (Okay, yes, I’d only had two and wasn’t having any others, but that wasn’t the point!)

Nikki and Megan left about 21:30 or so. Nikki was tired, having been on her feet all day, and being five month’s pregnant doesn’t help. Megan, like the rest of us, was exhausted from last night’s alcohol-fueled marathon.

Craig had already left, having gone back to the hotel to rest. (I didn’t know for sure, but since I couldn’t find him…) I boarded a bus about 22:05, and was in my room by about 22:30. But I wasn’t exhausted, and decided to rest and relax a bit. Tomorrow’s another day of sessions and education.

And the Yahoo party.

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Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Overture and LookSmart

Search Engine Strategies 2004, San Jose, California, Day 1

After an exceptionally sound sleep, I awoke to get my day started. I had planned to start all my days with a workout (I’ve been slacking for the last little while, and need to get back into the habit), but ran out of room in my bag to bring my workout clothes.

I gave yoga a shot. If it weren’t for the slippery carpet, I might have done a better job (didn’t bring my yoga mat, either).

Craig and I met up in the Concierge Room on the 26th floor. Bacon, eggs, fruit, and a bit of juice. Far more than the muffins and pastries of the conference’s continental breakfast.

Following our morning meal, we headed down for registration. Didn’t take long — all we had to do was provide our names. That got us our name tags, and our bag o’ goodies. (Which actually contained a lot of useless stuff, too.) We spent some time trying to figure out which seminars we were going to, specifically trying to hit as many of the topics as we could. Not too easy, as there are at least four each period, and there are four periods a day.

I went to four sessions: Using Search for Market Research, Search Term Research & Targeting, Personalizing Search, and Search Detours. Search for Market Research was a good perspective change, if light on other content. I fell sleep during Search Term Research & Targeting. Craig had recommended it because it was a good introduction. However, I’m quite a ways past introductory level, so it was a tad dull. Having a long-standing beef with personalization, I wanted to see if the Personalizing Search had anything of value. It didn’t. Lots of talk about products, but no promise of effectiveness, nor any real content for marketers to handle the situation where the same query will generate different results for different people. It also didn’t help that the presenters weren’t the most interesting. The poorly-named Search Detours (most of the presenters renamed it Search Shortcuts). Like Personalization, it was very thin on content, and most of what was presented had no practical application from a marketing perspective.

Craig and I ducked out a bit early. We had some time before the Overture party, so went in search of some shopping. Craig was thinking of a new shirt, and I needed a swimsuit (guess what else I forgot).

Macy’s is supposed to be a great department store. You think I could find one swimsuit that was appropriate? They were all beach suits, and what ones I could find that weren’t too bad where all XL or XXL. Go figure. Luckily, a Copeland’s Sports store just outside in the mall had what I needed.

Returning to the hotel, we got ready for the Overture party, held at the bar in the Hilton next door. The party started at 18:30, and was pretty deserted when we arrived. Craig initially wanted to leave and come back, but before long, as swinging.

LookSmart staged what I can only call one of the most ballsy coups I’ve seen in a long time. They were running around, handing out cards for a party they were holding at a different location (not far away). I can only assume that Overture wasn’t particularly happy about that.

At the Overture party, I met Todd. Todd has a website that promotes Costa Rican destinations. I’m finding it quite interesting that there are so many people who know a lot about Costa Rica lately — it’s almost as if every person I meet has been there. It’s insane. But at the very least, I have yet another information source to use as Alex and I try to organize our vacation in January.

Craig bailed a little earlier than I for the LookSmart party; I followed soon after. The party was held at Pete Escovedo’s Latin & Jazz Club. LookSmart had booked the whole place to themselves, and you had to be with the conference to gain access.

It was a small venue, once a single-screen theatre. It’s now an intimate little club that features the music of Pete Escovedo, who is a Latin Jazz legend. (At least, that’s what the invite card says. I’ve never heard of the guy.) The music was hot, the environment lively, and drinks free.

I was quickly introduced to Megan and Nikki, who work for Urchin Software. They’re up as exhibitors, and were enjoying themselves hanging out with the rest of the troublemakers. (Nikki is five month’s pregnant, so wasn’t enjoying herself as much as she probably wanted to.)

Craig then introduced me to gin and tonic, a drink I had formerly snubbed because I dislike the taske of tonic water. Instead, I found the drink exceptionally tasty, and realized why the British have taken such a liking to them.

This, it would seem, was my downfall. (As Craig later commented, it’s a bad sign when I suddenly, and very loudly, exclaim: “This is the best [expletive deleted] thing I’ve ever had!”) I had started off with beer at Overture, and had switched to hard liquor. I don’t know how many I had, but it was too many. By at least five. When we finally headed back to the Marriott, I knew I’d had too much. The beer in the hotel bar finally did me in, and I had to leave Craig and Jill Whalen in the lounge and retreat to bed.

I was going to hurt the next day, and I wouldn’t be the only one…

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Search Engine Strategies Conference 2004 San Jose, Calgary to San Jose

The trip to San Jose wasn’t the most enjoyable I’ve had, but it was far from a bad experience.

Craig and I breezed through security. It goes to figure that it you arrive with plenty of time at the airport, there won’t be a line for you to have to wait through. If you don’t arrive with sufficient time, the lines will be exceedingly long. We were through in minutes, with more than enough time to spare.

I had to lie at the immigration desk, though. Critical Mass has had so much trouble trying to get across the border into the States that Craig and I played the role of tourists — we’re only here to visit. That’s the problem with crossing the border — since 9/11, the privileges that Canadians have had crossing the border have been greatly reduced. Previously, all we had to say was that we were Canadian, and that was enough. Now, we have to have passports and papers. It’s ridiculous, especially when we’re coming here just for a conference.

What kind of conference, you ask? One on search engines. Yeah, it sounds kinda dopey. It’s the Search Engine Strategies 2004 San Jose show, one of the single largest conferences in this industry. It’s big. Really big. And Craig and I have to make sure that we really make the most of it and see what we can do.

Our flight to San Jose was in two segments: the first to Denver, the second to San Jose. And what we didn’t really know until we checked in was that we had a nearly three-hour delay in Denver. Not the most rivetting place to be stuck. Craig and I passed the time discussing business over beers at a quasi-French restaurant.

(Hmm. That’s not entirely accurate. More like a bistro with a French name. In the middle of Colorado, in a massive airport. Go figure.)

The flight to San Jose was late by nearly 30 minutes. A bit rocky, but uneventful, otherwise. United Airlines has gone cheap, though — you have to pay additionally for meals on domestic flights now. At least beverages are still free.

San Jose’s airport is small — we had to use stairs to get off the plane. Three baggage carousels, kept quite a distance from the plane we arrived on, weren’t enough for the flights coming in — it took a while for our two measly bags to appear. But at least they did.

The hotel was more trouble than I would have liked, but only because Mastercard hasn’t processed my payment yet. A royal pain in the butt, but not the end of the world. It just means that I’ll have to revisit the front desk in the next couple of days to get the issue sorted out. Since it’s a Sunday, I’m not going to get upset. If Tuesday rolls around and things are still amiss, there might be trouble.

The conference doesn’t actually start until tomorrow, but already the cast is beginning to assemble. Craig and I took the chance to whip down to the hotel’s bar to see who was about, and have a beer or two. Two of the speakers were there, along with several other attendees (at least, I would assume as such). We paired off with a couple of Heinekins, and went about ordering some food. We hadn’t eaten since Denver, and it was now almost 22:00. Appetizer platters, including crab cakes, shrimp tempura, basically what I’d call a lobster pogo, and something called black truffle popcorn (although it didn’t taste like a truffle). Pricey, but tasty.

We didn’t stay down for too long. We were both wiped from all the travelling. We cleared the bill, said good night to those around us, and headed for bed.

Certainly the next few days are going to be interesting.

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Preparing for the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival

This has been another crazy week. Lots that I’ve done, general mayhem in and out of the office, and this morning, I’m boarding a plane for San Jose.

Recap: We’re gearing up for the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival, which runs August 7 and 8 at the Glenmore Reservoir. (Those of you in the Calgary area should come down — apparently, it’s a big event.) This mean the DI-Hard (the team I’m on) had practices Sunday and Monday. That was hard, only because Sunday would have been an ideal day for floating down the Bow River. It was 32 degrees here.

Monday’s practice was, simply put, hell. Arnold (our coach and drummer) took us through a lot of drills, including three race pieces. As we were returning to the dock, our sides aching and our shoulders collapsing, we were doing pause drills. Basically, take a stroke and then pause until told to take another. It’s to practice timing. We were hearing “hit!…. hit!…. hit!….” from Arnold, but were chanting in return: “hit ARNOLD!…. hit ARNOLD!…” He called it off once he realized what we were saying.

Tuesday night was yet another practice, but this time for the Red Dragons, the Topmade men’s team. I’m the junior. Most of the others have been dragon boating for years. I’m a lightweight by comparison. Mark and I volunteered from DI-Hard to come out and give it our all. The men’s team really moves, and does things a little differently. Arnold is the coach here, too, and might also be the drummer. He guided us through similar drills to DI-Hard, with one major difference — we’re paddling with our eyes closed.

Yep, closed.

Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but you’d be surprised how effective it is! Once you cut out all the other distractions, all you have is the sound of paddles hitting the water, and the surge of the boat. According to Arnold, we apparently had better timing with our eyes closed than we did with them open. Though I suspect our technique didn’t look so hot. We even did a practice race like that. It’s easier when you don’t know where the finishing line is.

On the way back, doing pause drills (again) with our eyes closed, my rotator cuff officially gave out. I couldn’t hold the paddle up anymore. hankfully, it’s the last practice for a while, so I don’t have to worry too much. Still, it’s a little concerning.

Now what’s the deal with San Jose? I’m going on business trip. My first since going to Cincinnati over four years ago (see [[Live from Cincinnati]]). But this is not for a client, it’s for a technical conference on search engine marketing. Yes, believe it or not, there is much more to search engines than just plugging in a couple of keywords and pressing “I’m Feeling Lucky!”. I already know a lot about them (relax, I ain’t gonna bore you about them here), but I need to know more. Believe it or not, it’s part of my job now.

So I’m going to San Jose for five days with Craig (co-worker and fellow expert-to-be) and see what information we can glean. Hopefully, it will be fun. But I don’t have my hopes up. If we’re lucky, we’ll hit San Francisco. If we have time, which we won’t know until we get a better picture of the schedule.

And on that note, I gotta run. Plane to catch. See y’all later!