How I went to an event at the White House and didn’t file anything

As you might have seen on Twitter, I was at the White House Tuesday for the Obama administration’s first Demo Day. (Yes, I should have added #humblebrag to some of those tweets.) This event was both a diversity-boosting exercise for the president and a chance for the 32 startups in the spotlight, many not founded by the usual crop of twenty-something white dudes, to get some wider exposure.

White House Demo Day Obama entranceMy Yahoo colleague Alyssa Bereznak was already set to write about the diversity angle–it’s a real problem for the industry, as you can see in the testimony from some of these female and minority founders in her story. I had RSVPed after her but figured I could file something profiling some of the more interesting startups.

But then after 35 minutes spent standing the East Room of the White House and watching live video of President Obama talk to various startups in an adjacent room, then hearing Obama’s speech (key line: “the next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban”) and singing “Happy Birthday” to the president (it being his 54th birthday), we were all ushered out past the startups and back to the press room. Oops.

I did manage to get back in, courtesy of Alyssa and I running into a press contact we knew, but by then some of these companies had packed up their exhibits. I wound up only talking to five of them, just three of which were on my own list of exhibitors to check out, before I was again ushered out. That was less reporting time than I expected–nothing compared to last summer’s Maker Faire at the White House— and did not yield enough material for a story.

Am I bothered by that? Not really. Some of the people I did meet will be worth talking to later on, I was only out $4 and change in Metro fare, and confusing friends by wearing a suit for work was its own reward.

National or Dulles? Yes.

SAN FRANCISCO—I took a plane from Dulles International Airport to here on Wednesday, and today I’ll fly home to National Airport. That is apparently an increasingly unfashionable choice.

Headlines like “Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing” and “So how do you fix a problem like Dulles?” understate how unpopular Dulles has become compared to National. It may not be the airport that Washingtonians love to hate. But it is certainly the airport we no longer have to use.

National Hall with flagThe reason: the exemptions granted by the government to National’s “perimeter rule” banning flights to anywhere more than 1,250 miles away, originally put in place to protect a market for D.C.’s larger airport. Flying here and to other major West Coast destinations no longer requires trekking out to Dulles or connecting somewhere in between.

In my case, that’s meant that all of my family’s travel to see my in-laws in the Bay Area has moved to the DCA-SFO nonstop United launched in 2012, along with many of my work trips to here. National is only 10 to 15 minutes away by cab, and I’ve done the Metro commute in 35 minutes door-to-door. I’ve even walked from National to places in Crystal City. The main hall is a beautiful work of architecture (especially if you remember the Interim Terminal), and the views from the plane taking off or landing are spectacular.

But the price of convenience can be flexibility. There are two nonstops to SFO from DCA, while United alone has 10 nonstops between Dulles and SFO on this coming Monday. (Virgin America has another three nonstops; its useless frequent-flyer program and the lack of  D.C.-S.F. nonstops from anybody else helps explain why I spend so much time on United.) On this trip, a 12:39 departure out of IAD let me sleep in until a normal time and then walk my daughter to pre-school.

Lincoln Memorial River Visual viewAnd for international travel, Dulles is obvious. I do not want a flight to Europe hanging on the odds of a hop to Newark or another East Coast hub not getting delayed or canceled, and working around that by booking an hours-long connection in EWR or elsewhere is not my idea of fun. If I have to connect, I’d rather do that in the EU, where the lounges are worlds better.

Getting to Dulles, in turn, has gotten easier with the advent of Metro’s Silver Line and more frequent Silver Line Express bus service from the Wiehle-Reston East station. My trip out Wednesday ran an hour and 4 minutes and involved zero stress about traffic or parking. I can deal with that; it’s not much longer than the ride to SFO on BART (with longer headways) or to O’Hare via CTA, and it should get a few minutes shorter whenever they finally finish phase two of the project.

That leaves United’s miserable C/D concourse at Dulles–among the worst airport facilities in America, with too few windows and not enough space. I have wanted to apologize to travelers on behalf of the Washington area when I see how packed it gets before the evening bank of transatlantic flights. Any replacement for it seems years off, even as United has been upgrading its other hubs.

Dulles main terminalBut I have found a solution to that, and you can too if you have Star Alliance gold status: the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B concourse, steps from the Aerotrain station next to gate B51. In the afternoon and evening it’s got a cold and hot buffet and a full open bar, and those things can take a lot of the sting out of flying out of the dump that is the C/D concourse.

Lufthansa doesn’t mind if you’re on a domestic itinerary, and when you’re done you can reach the C concourse in 15 minutes by taking the Aerotrain back to the main terminal (you’ll still be airside), then staying on as it stops under the A concourse and then concludes next to C. If your flight’s at one of the D gates, you’ll have to switch the mobile lounge at the main terminal; budget a few more minutes and enjoy the view of airplanes on the way.

Dulles gate B51 viewI’m not going to pretend that my travel choices work for everybody, especially for people whose possibly saner allocation of travel funds leaves them without any elite frequent-flyer status. It may not work even if you are a frequent traveler; a friend with 1K status on United got fed up with his upgrades never clearing, switched his business to American and now rarely sees the inside of Dulles.

But I am saying that the “Dulles is the worst ever!” storyline is a little ridiculous, and so are all the ideas you see in comments about this airport suggesting we should expand National’s runways into the Potomac and close Dulles. You know what? While I’m at it, I want somebody to bring the Concorde back so I can fly supersonic across the pond.

Back in the real world, these are the two airports in my life. I might as well use them effectively.

Event-space review (first in a series): the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center

I just spent three days in a row at the same event venue–at two different conferences, which strikes me as a particularly pathological level of Washingtonality.

That also made me think: Why not review the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center? I’ve spent enough time there over the years–much like some of the news organizations chronicled in its exhibits, this museum seems increasingly reliant on the events business–so sharing the accumulated knowledge I’ve picked up along with an assortment of event badges seems the least I can do.

(The two conferences: the Ashoka Future Forum and Mashable’s Digital Beltway.)

Newseum conference center interiorLocation

The worst I can say about the Newseum’s 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW address is that it’s a tad inconvenient for people coming in on Metro’s Orange, Blue or Silver Lines. In that situation, you’re looking at either a 10- to 12-minute hike from Metro Center or Federal Triangle (if you’re coming from Virginia, exit at Metro Center to avoid a long wait to cross Pennsylvania) or changing trains twice to get to the closest stop, Archives.

Otherwise, it’s an easy walk from Capitol Hill and a reasonable stroll from much of downtown. The closest Capital Bikeshare station is at 6th and Indiana, barely two blocks away.

The real payoff awaits upstairs, the $450 million view from the outdoor terraces on the seventh and eighth floors. I like that scenery so much I used it as a backdrop for my Twitter profile pic. (My thanks to Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin for taking the photo.)

Bandwidth and Power

The “Newseum Guest” WiFi is routinely swamped by demand (and has a history of not providing a working IP address to my phone), and yet T-Mobile’s signal fades out once I get too far from the windows. It’s depressing. Bonus feature Friday: I couldn’t get the Newseum’s own site to show up over its WiFi, even as my phone was able to display it.

Outlets are also pretty scarce around here. Tip: In the main auditorium, get a seat all the way at the back and look for the outlets in the floor concealed by metal flip-up panels. If you’re going to a breakout session in one of the smaller conference rooms on the eighth floor, they’re harder to find. I’m not sure any exist in rooms 806 and 807 except behind the speakers’ table.

(You’ll note that I’m using some of the same criteria that I use to judge airport lounges, another specialized space in which I spend a fair amount of time.)

Newseum city view with beverageCatering

I have yet to get a bad meal here. Breakfast usually isn’t hot but always features a good variety of pastries, the boxed lunches show some creativity (though like most, they include far too much food), and the hors d’oeuvres are world-class. If an event includes dinner, you should be in luck–especially if it’s at The Source restaurant on the ground floor.

Plus, you can usually count on mid-afternoon snacks that include such shelf-stable fare as Kind bars and little packages of trail mix. Stash them in your bag for future travel sustenance.

Extras

The restrooms are not only spotless but feature a form of decor that could only exist in a museum of journalism: flubbed headlines and captions from the Columbia Journalism Review’s archives such as this April 24, 2000 gem from the San Francisco Chronicle, “State Governments Are Sold on EBay for Surplus Auctions.”

The check-in swag has included a free Newseum ticket at least half the time I’m here. That’s nice, given that I’d rather not pay to attend a museum devoted to my profession–and which still has a 2010 interview of me about the publishing possibilities of tablets playing on a screen on the second or third floor. And on the way out, there’s the chance that scanning the newspaper front pages on display at street level will reveal the byline of a high-school-newspaper colleague.

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

CES 2015 travel-tech report: less battery angst, more about bandwidth

One of my post-CES traditions, besides waiting for the din of slot machines to fade from my head, is critiquing how various gadgets and apps helped me cover the show. See, for instance, my 2012, 2013 and 2014 recaps.

CES 2015 gadgetsThis year, I once again leaned on my 2012 MacBook Air, paired with the Nexus 4 I bought last spring. I took all my notes on each in Evernote, and for once I didn’t have any sync conflicts; maybe the app was happy that I finally signed up for Evernote Premium?

Battery life on both the laptop and the phone has declined a bit as they’ve aged, but I had much less angst over that than I’d feared. Some credit for that goes to my having to step away from the show floor for an hour or so each day to write, which gave me a chance to plug in everything. Some also goes to the compact external phone charger WAMU gave me when I was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show in December. I have no idea who made that device, but it’s a great piece of hardware, including a micro-USB cable long enough to allow you to easily tuck it and a charging phone into a jacket pocket.

I remembered to pack my Belkin travel power strip this time; the two USB ports on the top helped charge devices overnight, while the extra outlets allowed me to not be a jerk when taking the last available wall outlet. See that flat contraption to the right of the power strip? It’s a Charge Card, a USB cable that’s been designed to fold flat and fit in a wallet. I picked up one from the vendor at CES a few years ago and remembered to bring it this time.

My primary source of bandwidth was not hotel or convention WiFi but LTE from the AT&T and Verizon mobile hotspots I’ve been reviewing for a future story. Most of the time, they worked great (their battery life makes them a much better choice than a phone for extended tethering), but the overwhelming amount of WiFi traffic sometimes prevented my Mac from connecting to either.

I shot a decent amount of pictures and video clips on my phone for quick sharing from the show floor, but for anything I wanted to publish I switched to the compact Canon 330 HS model I bought just before last year’s show. I’d picked out that model in particular for its ability to geotag photos using a companion phone app–but I never used that feature during the show. Why? I spent almost all of my time in only a few locations, while that Android app does too much damage to my phone’s battery if left running full-time.

I took a new gadget to the show, the Moto 360 smartwatch I reviewed in September. The experience strengthened my conviction that the idea here is sound–it really does help to have an external, wearable display for the most important notifications coming up on your phone–but the implementation needs work. In particular, charging should neither have to be a nightly routine nor require an ungainly cradle like the 360’s.

The other good reason to bring a smartwatch to a trade show: having its step counter inform you of how many miles you’ve walked. I peaked on Thursday with 25,308 steps.

The other new item I brought doesn’t count as a gadget, owing to its complete lack of electronics: a caliper that I bought after reading too many Apple Watch stories that offered only vague guesses about the device’s thickness. I used that cheap Home Depot purchase to check the thickness of a few smart watches and one absurdly thin HDTV.

2014 in review: old and new clients

Somewhere there must exist freelance writers who keep the same core group of clients for many years in a row, but I’m not one of them. This year, like last, saw the Web addresses and the names on checks and direct-deposit transfers change yet again.

2014 calendarRealizing the transient nature of freelance work makes me appreciate the third anniversary of my contract-columnist gig with USA Today that much more. They continue to be one of my favorite clients, and this year that association led to some enjoyable extra work at Gannett’s NowU site.

Then there’s Yahoo Tech. This year kicked off with the moderately mind-bending experience of seeing my photo and those of my fellow columnists on a giant slide during Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote; since then I’ve discovered that I work with a fun bunch of people, that moderating comments gets difficult after the first few hundred, and that I enjoy taking my own stock-photo shots more than I’d realized.

And selling extra stories to Yahoo Tech beyond my weekly column has generated some much-appreciated extra income… while allowing me to cross “fly in a private jet” off the bucket list.

After those two, the client that’s occupied the bulk of my time has been the Wirecutter. Writing its guide to wireless service–already updated once, with a second revision in the works–has involved an enormous amount of time and math, but it’s made me a better student of the wireless industry. And I appreciate how my friends there not only run a good comment system and participate in it regularly but will send me quick notes about noteworthy input there.

I’ll also give a shout out to VentureBeat, which has neatly filled a gap in my current lineup by allowing me to review gadgets and apps that I should check out but which already have reviewers assigned at Yahoo and USAT.

Most of this outside work stepped up in the last third of the year. That plus a few payment hiccups earlier that inconveniently coincided with quarterly-tax deadlines provided me with the humbling experience of developing an intense interest in each invoice’s progress. Things are fine now, but the experience left me more sympathetic to startup types who have to obsess over cash flow.

I traveled almost as much as I did last year but with a much less even distribution of trips. As in, I didn’t go anywhere for work in August but then spent over half of September away from home. Ugh. Can the conference-scheduling cabal space things out better in 2015?

Although I upgraded the security of my accounts this year, I didn’t make any serious hardware upgrades–the first time I’ve gone 12 months without any major computer or gadget purchases since I started freelancing. I hope the industry can forgive me.

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you all in 2015.

You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.