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SXSW

Every year in March, around 30 000 people descend upon the city of Austin – that bastion of cool in the sea that is the state of Texas. The mega-event brings together music, film and tech enthusiasts, and it’s been known to launch careers of bands like the Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes, and kick off buzz for movies like the critically-acclaimed indie Short Term 12 (a must-see if you haven’t yet). It’s biggest impact is within the tech world, where Southby (as it’s affectionately known) has been the launching pad for Twitter and Foursquare. Disturbingly, this year’s event was marred by a car crash in which a drunken performer who was speeding away from police, rammed his car into a crowd outside one of the venues, killing 2 people and injuring dozens. It left a sombre mood over what is usually a festival occasion for celebrating new ideas. But, in the spirit of that celebration, the 5 trends  that stuck out most for me from this year’s event…

Your next favourite chef may not be a person…

IBM created a lot of buzz for its food truck that was giving out samples to show off Watson, the computing system best known for winning Jeopardy three years ago. It’s able to create food items no human chef could think up. Kenyan Brussels sprouts with sweet potato puree, ginger and almonds, anyone? How about a creamy Czech pork belly moussaka with peas, parsley root, cottage cheese and dill? With Watson, you input a region, a main ingredient or two and a type of food, such as soup or pie, and it analyzes thousands of recipes and matches chemical flavor compounds that are most likely to surprise people and also taste good. IBM says Watson is not meant to replace chefs, but it does show what cognitive computing is capable of. Like organizing my cupboard, perhaps?

* Hey Mr DJ, no need to put a record on…

A new start-up, called Lightwave, has created technology that pretty much makes asking for song requests unnecessary – because the DJ will be able to ‘feel’ what you want to hear. A-Trak played a party held inside a giant plastic igloo, where about 150 people wore special bracelets that measured their movement, body temperature and excitement level. The DJ had an iPad in front of him that showed the crowd’s excitement in real-time, and he could adjust it according to the dancers’ mood. Waitresses also served bottles of water when temperatures started rising too much from all the dancing. Lightwave believes the technology is useful not just for bands at concerts, but also for movies, sporting events and political rallies.

Make space in your wallet for Bitcoin…

An ATM installed on the floor of the SXSW Trade Show that allowed people to buy bitcoins using cash, together with the various panels dedicated to the subject, show just seriously we should be taking the headline-making currency, which was launched in 2008. Pundits like the fact that the virtual currency is a network that lets people transfer ownership, and is an alternative to buying services and products online via a public ledger. More bitcoin ATMs are due to be installed in Asia and Europe, and even rapper Nas, whose friend venture capitalist Ben Horowitz has invested about $50 million in Bitcoin-related start-ups, is a fan.

* You may finally be able to keep some secrets…

Security and privacy online were major themes at Southby this year, what with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden both beaming into virtual conversations. Both called for the public to be more conscious of the information shared online, and, elsewhere at the fest, Tor, the free software that prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits, was lauded. As was an app called Secret launched a month ago. It lets people share their deepest and darkest thoughts with the people they know, without their names attached. So kinda like Facebook, without the faces.

Get used to seeing everyone wearing glasses…

And not just the cool hipster kind. All throughout Austin, people could be spotted wearing Google Glass, giving rise to Instagram hashtags of the word ‘Glassholes’. The term entered the popular lexicon to ridicule early adopters of the technology that allows you to record things and surf the web through a glass panel you wear over your eyes. But, as pretentious as the wearers may seem, experts seem to agree that we are only at the beginning of the technology acceptance cycle, and there is much more to come from the potential Google Glass has to offer. Given the number of sessions devoted to it at Southby, it won’t be long before we’re all dealing with laws about where one can and can’t wear the glasses.

Somewhere along the time and space continuum, it became March 2014 already. So here we are, on the eve of another SXSW adventure. For that really is the only way to describe the next 10 days of tech, film and music events. This year’s line-up spans the serious – virtual discussions with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange about the issues of privacy and freedom of information – to the super fun – Bill Cosby performing to a room of 300 people (try getting into that venue!) and Lena Dunham talking about how one creates an Emmy-nominated  hit TV show that’s spawned many an Internet essay.

This will be my 3rd time covering the event – all 3 of the portions:  Interactive, Film and Music. I’ll be looking to see and do as much as my enthusiasm will allow (which, as many know, is a lot). There are highlights I’ve already put down in a schedule, but I also have taken heed of the golden rule of SXSW (and any good festival, really) to be ready to go with the flow too.

Some of the highlights I’m looking forward to include seeing Austin Kleon, author of one of my favourite books on being creative, Steal Like an Artist, who’ll be talking about his new one, Show Your Work, hearing Robert Duvall talk about his long and fruitful career, seeing an extended Q-and-A with Wes Anderson following a screening of his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel, trying to get into that Bill Cosby show, experiencing Damon Albarn‘s first solo album, Everyday Robots, in concert, trying to track down as many of the bands on the NPR Austin 100 list, and, and, and…I’ve barely scratched the surface.  There really is so much to factor in – including the spontaneity that usually goes along with a SXSW adventure. You can bet I’ll do my best – with a breakfast taco or two along the way!

* The Arctic Monkeys won 2 prizes at this year’s Brit Awards, which were, for the first time, streamed live online. The Sheffield rockers performed at the ceremony, along with the likes of Beyonce, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars. 

* Sir Elton John, Jack White, Kanye West and Lionel Ritchie are headlining this year’s Bonnaroo festival, making the festival sound like it’s going to be an eclectic mix of an experience.

* Staying with music, Apple announced its iTunes Festival will be setting up at this year’s SXSW – Coldplay will open the music portion of the conference/festival. We’re still waiting on the announcement about who the Keynote music speaker will be…Any chance we’ll get Bono or Sir Paul McCartney??

* The cast of the new Fantastic Four reboot has yet to be confirmed, but it looks as though Miles Teller (who had an excellent year at Sundance earlier), Kate Mara (currently shining in House of Cards), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station‘s breakout star) and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) will be the ones playing the Marvel superheroes.

* Tori Amos is preparing to release her 13th studio album, which has the very Amos-esqe title of Unrepentant Geraldines. It’s due out in May, and the cover art shows off her appreciation for visual arts too.

[Pic: Brit Awards]

SXSW
I can feel the inspiration coursing through my veins – the visceral, tingling feeling of being driven to action that comes from listening to someone passionate about their life and their living. I’ve been getting small doses of it here at SXSW, but this morning, it came in one big shot, courtesy of Dave Grohl.

Donning spectacles that he got “from a pharmacy”, the Scream/Nirvana/Foo Fighters musician took to the stage of Ballroom D in the Austin Convention Centre to school those gathered in the room (and listening online) about the importance of finding one’s voice and putting the musician first. Whether or not you’re a musician, Dave’s words had relevance and meaning. And aside from that, he’s a compelling storyteller (even when not singing or playing instruments) with a killer sense of humour. (Witness the laughter at his telling us about entering a battle of the bands with a group called Nameless – “you think it’s easy coming up with a band name? It’s the hardest f***ing part. Foo Fighters is a dumb f***ing name!” he roared.)

I still have some of Bruce Springsteen’s words from last year’s keynote written on a piece of paper pinned to my fridge door. The lesson I took away from that stirring speech was “have ironclad confidence but know that you suck!” – a healthy balance of self-belief and humility useful to any profession.

From Mr Grohl, who called delivering today’s keynote “his musical life’s greatest honour,” I took away a few more insights into what makes him one of the industry’s most loved and respected artists, starting with the beginning of his musical fire. How first hearing Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein made him want to make his own music, even if at first, it was “only about [his] parents, [his] dog and friends down the street.” How listening to his cousin Tracy’s punk rock collection was the “first day of the rest of [his] life.” How he wanted to “incite a riot, or a revolution, or save someone’s life, or inspire them” – just as he’d seen happen around him with the music scene of the Regan-era. But most importantly, how he found his independence, his space and place in the world, by “being left alone to find [his] voice.”

“Am I the best drummer in the world? No, he chuckled. “Am I the best singer? Not even in this room!” he bellowed. But I have a voice.” The self-confessed Gangnam Style fan proposed: “Whose to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice? The Voice??, he answered himself, incredulously, before asking us to imagine the scenario of Christina Aguilera adjudicating Bob Dylan.

“As a proud father,” Dave said of his two children, “I pray they’re left to their devices to find their own voices.”

There’s no doubt Grohl’s words today – just like his music – will certainly inspire the very aim he’s wanted his whole life. At the very least, he’s made this fan-turned-student-for-a-day, who feels a little like she’s lost her voice, feel thrill of determined passion once again.

SXSW

SXSW
This past weekend was filled with epic moments of the SXSW-kind – from hearing Elon Musk talk about how he wants to see travel to Mars happen in his lifetime, to getting drenched in a downpour after dancing to DJ Spooky in an underground wine cellar. We’re constantly hearing that this event is all about serendipity, and being open to moments as they happen; to have a plan but be ready to scrap it at a moment’s notice, and that is a great way to approach SXSW.

Except for when it comes to Elon Musk. This was one talk I – or anyone else for that matter – was not going to scrap for anything. The South African-born space explorer gave insight into his life as the head of three multi-billion dollar, game-changing companies – SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City – at Day 2 of SXSW. Here is a great (w)rap up of it from Saul Paul. The organizers had him sum up the keystones of Musk’s interview with author Chris Anderson:

I also wrote about it for Memeburn, so you can read that here. But it was interesting to hear someone like him say that his biggest mistake has been to put more emphasis on someone’s talent over their personality. Musk said he thinks it’s important to have a good heart, and that should be even more important than skill level and accomplishment. A killer combination of all that would be the ultimate though – so no harm in continuing to pursue the best!

SXSW

More great and inspiring words came from Newark mayor Cory Booker, who told SXSWers that he is going to run for Senate. The man should run for the President in a few years time, he’s got the right kind of attitude needed for higher office. As mayor, he’s used Twitter to really engage with his constituents and I’ve seen how he replies to such a large number of people that it’s no wonder he’s the poster-man for coffee.

SXSW

As for the film portion of my SXSW adventure, I managed to see Some Girl(s), which was originally a play by Neil LeBute and stars Adam Brody, and Before Midnight, the third and final piece in Richard Linklater’s love letter to life and human connection. Neil, who adapted the script for the Some Girl(s) wasn’t in town for the premiere, due to weather-affected travel delays, but Adam was, and he sat in front of me, squirming a little in his seat during the film’s more intimate moments.

SXSW

An absolute highlight though was seeing how Jesse and Celine face the cold hard truth of life at 40 in Linklater’s Before Midnight. He was there to introduce the film, telling us stories about being at the first incarnation of SXSW Film 20 years ago. The movie is set in Greece this time and it will leave you applauding the filmmaker with even more respect and admiration than he already commands.