Snapshots from SXSW

It’s now been three days since I got off the plane at National Airport, officially ending this year’s SXSW itinerary, and it’s taken me that long to catch up on sleep, do laundry and edit and upload pictures. (The traditional post-conference LinkedIn binge remains undone.)  And maybe I’ve gained a smidgeon of perspective on the event too.

Attendees make their way through the convention center.Once again, my primary first-world problem was deciding which panels and talks to attend. I was more ruthless and/or lazy this time, deciding I wouldn’t even try to get to such relatively distant locations as the AT&T Conference Center at the University of Texas’s campus (where my 2012 panel drew maybe 20 people) or the Hyatt Regency at the other end of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

But then I wound up not watching any panels outside the convention center and the Hilton across the street. Of those, remote interviews with Julian AssangeEdward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald topped my list. But I was also fascinated by a debate about net neutrality in which law professor Tim Wu noted our own responsibility in putting a handful of giant companies in charge (“we don’t have a culture on the Internet of preferring alternatives”), a talk about wearable computing that pivoted to discussions of “implantables” and “injectables,” and an honest unpacking of the failure of tech journalists to break the NSA-surveillance story (TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis: “We need to step back from our role as cheerleaders and give a more critical eye to the people we’re surrounded with”).

My geographically-restricted attendance led me to miss many other discussions that had looked interesting beforehand. Not only was this narrow-minded conduct, it stopped me from walking around more to make up for all the food I ate.

It would be hard to avoid putting on a few pounds while in Austin on a normal weekend, but when you don’t have to pay for most of your food, courtesy of pervasive corporate and PR sponsorship, the city becomes a thoroughly enabling environment. And a delicious one! For example: the brisket at La Barbecue (thanks, Pinterest), algorithm-driven cuisine at IBM’s food truck, and breakfast tacos at Pueblo Viejo (that was on my own dime, and you should be happy to spend yours there too when you’re in Austin).

Austin’s nightlife hub on the first night of SXSW Interactive.As for empty calories–um, yeah, they’re not hard to find at SXSW either. This is the single booziest event on my calendar. That can be an immense amount of fun (my Sunday night somehow involved both seeing Willie Nelson play a few songs with Asleep at the Wheel from maybe 20 feet away, followed by the RVIP Lounge’s combination of touring bus, open bar and karaoke machine), but waking up the next morning can be brutal. To anybody who had a 9:30 a.m. panel on Sunday, only hours after the time change cut an hour out of everybody’s schedule: I’m so sorry.

And then the night after I left, some drunk-driving idiot crashed through a police barricade and killed two people.

Even before that, the “do we really need this event now that it’s been overrun by marketing droids?” conversation about SXSW was louder than usual. I have to note that three of the most interesting panels–the Assange, Snowden and Greenwald interviews–featured subjects thousands of miles away; in theory we all could have watched those from home.

But this is also an event where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise see and might not ever meet–a long-ago Post colleague from copy-aide days, Internet activists you should know for future stories, journalists who put up with the same problems as you, entrepreneurs with interesting ideas that might go somewhere, and so on. Maybe this is a colossal character defect on my part, but I enjoy those conversations–even the ones with the marketing droids. And that’s why I do this every year.

(After the jump, my Flickr set from the conference.)

(7:30 p.m.: Tweaked a few sentences because I could.)

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International upgrades: plugs, phone, passport

Preparing for an overseas event like Mobile World Congress or IFA isn’t too different from getting ready for CES, except that your power adapters and phone won’t work like usual, and you can find yourself waiting a whole lot longer to escape the airport when you return.

Plug adapter, SIM and passportTo address the first issue at MWC, I packed a small power-plug adapter from Monoprice. I picked that not because the Cube2 cost $15 and change at the time, but because it includes two USB ports to charge other devices. This is actually the second one of these I’ve used; the first had its USB ports go dead, but Monoprice sent a replacement after I returned the old one at their expense.

To fix the second problem, I once again bought a prepaid SIM–which at Barcelona’s airport, I was able to do before even reaching baggage claim. (Making this purchase is not so easy elsewhere; Berlin’s Tegel airport has no such retailer.) I opted for an Orange prepaid SIM, $21.05 at the current exchange rate, with 1 gigabyte of data but no included calling or texting.

I was fine with that, since I could always place a VoIP call using the GrooVe IP app, while texts to and from my Google Voice number continued to travel over the Internet. And the one time somebody did phone me from D.C., I happened to be in the press room with my laptop open, so I took the call via Google Plus’s Hangouts app—and broke it to a TV producer that I couldn’t make it into the studio that evening to discuss OS X’s “gotofail” vulnerability.

Despite being on my phone all the time, I only used up 313 megabytes of data. Almost 100 megs came from tethering: I loaned my connection to a Yahoo Tech colleague who needed to finish a few edits after the WiFi was turned off at an event. It’s always nice to be able to give the gift of free bandwidth.

Finally, my return to the U.S. did not involve the usual wait to show my passport and get it stamped, courtesy of Global Entry. After years of hearing friends rave about this trusted-traveler program, I finally signed up at the end of last year (it helped that my frequent-flyer status meant United covered the $100 application fee). It was kind of magical to exit customs 12 minutes after getting off the plane at Newark; doing so by having a machine scan my fingerprints and then report a match with a government database added the faintest whiff of dystopian sci-fi. Having spent more than an hour to clear customs at Dulles, I think I can live with that.

Time-zone arbitrage

Spending the past five days in Barcelona, six hours ahead of the East Coast, has me thinking anew about the finer points of having different digits on your clock and those of editors and readers. 

World clockYes, jet lag sucked. I woke up Monday at 4:30 a.m. and then couldn’t get back to sleep, leading to a couple of naps in the press room. (A laptop does not make a good pillow.) But a day later, my eyelids no longer felt like they weighed 200 pounds, and I realized again that the time-zone gap can also be my friend.

Specifically, it turns the morning into—not an accountability-free zone, but at least a self-directed time, thanks to almost nobody in a position to direct my coverage being awake. Then it allows my copy to arrive early in an editor’s day for a change. If my editor is based in the Bay Area, I look even more prompt: The story sent at 5 p.m. arrives at 9 a.m.

At some point, this equation will flip and I’ll have an evening upended when an editor decides my copy needs another run through the typewriter. But so far, the worst that’s happened is me turning into that annoying guy who answers e-mails on his phone during dinner.

Social media also highlights that temporal shift: Twitter and Facebook look a lot quieter than usual until lunchtime, to the point where I question the wisdom of tweeting out observations that will get lost in the timelines of most of my usual audience. But then I  have my phone pinging with notifications until I go to sleep myself.

Back at home, the three-hour gap between the East and West Coast should also benefit me when dealing with editors there. But it’s too easy to waste that advantage until it’s 6 p.m. here and I have a different deadline looming in my own time zone: cooking dinner.

Flying to the West Coast, meanwhile, permits jet lag to work for me: On the first couple of days, I usually snap awake not much later than 5 a.m., and I am never more productive than in those hours before I finally get breakfast. And if the event I’m covering won’t have people committing news after lunch—for example, Google I/O keynotes usually start at 9 a.m. and run until about noon—my workday will also end earlier than usual.

But then I also have to deal with the 7-9 p.m. keynote that opens each CES. Not only does it throw a wrench in my scheduling machinery, it ensures I can’t eat until a time that feels more like 11 p.m. At least I don’t have to write stories about those things anymore.

Travel checklists

Sometime after I made the horrifyingly stupid mistake of going to CES without my laptop’s charger (leading to a couple of days of frantic power management that had me feeling a tiny bit like an Apollo 13 mission controller), I added a “Travel checklists” note to my phone to remind me of things I’d need to pack or do at home before heading out.

Travel itemsAside from “phone and laptop chargers,” it had a short list of other things I could see myself forgetting: business cards, snacks, headphones, earplugs and an eye mask for an overnight flight, a spare flash drive (now that they’re a standard PR giveaway, that’s not so important), turning down the heat or air conditioning at home, stopping delivery of the Post, watering the plants, and so on.

The stuff-to-take list has grown increasingly specialized in recent years: a microfiber cloth to clean dirt and fingerprints off gadgets I’m going to photograph, a travel power strip, an external battery pack for my phone, a short ruler to check the dimensions of devices, transit-payment cards for other cities, and Ethernet and HDMI adapters for my MacBook Air. For an international itinerary like tonight’s departure for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, add in a power-plug converter, the tiny tool I need to pop out my phone’s SIM-card tray, a couple of roaming SIMs and any leftover currency from my last trip to the same part of the world.

My ability to stay on top of all those items got a huge upgrade a few years ago when my wife got me this great messenger bag: It may not be as professional-looking as the black Lands’ End canvas attache I carry around town (along with a large fraction of other working Washingtonians), but it’s a lot more comfortable to wear all day. So it’s become my go bag for any travel; almost all of the things itemized above live in it full-time, freeing me from having to think much about them.

The things-to-do-before-departure list, however, has grown more involved since our daughter’s arrival. I try to ease the single-parenting duty that falls to my wife by ensuring the fridge is full of leftovers, preferably ones our little one will eat (good thing she loves risotto too), the laundry basket is nearly empty, and no bills are left waiting to be paid. I hope that helps, but I always think there’s some chore I’m forgetting–just like I always think there’s something I’ve forgotten to pack.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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Things I have learned from life on the cold front

The coldest January Washington’s seen in almost 20 years is finally coming to a close, and it may even crack 50 degrees over the weekend. That makes this a good time to go over some lessons learned over the past few weeks of polar vortex-level chill.

Cold thermometer• Pipes can and do freeze in these conditions. If you’re really lucky, the burst pipe is almost directly over the sump pump, the plumber lives in your neighborhood, the repairs only run $600 and change, and your power tools still work after being rained upon indoors.

• Even after living nine and a half years in a 94-year-old house, you can still discover new leaks that let cold air seep into the basement.

• It’s easier to spy the biggest of those gaps from inside the basement when the ground is paved with snow and the sun’s shining down on it.

• Your mother was on to something when she told you to wear a hat any time you go outside in the winter.

• Thermal underwear generate a crazy amount of static electricity that, when layered under khakis, causes them to wrinkle in weird ways. Which I am okay with, given the circumstances.

• The less-than-stylish flannel or fleece-lined pants you can get from L.L. Bean and elsewhere are a good thing to have bought before this month. 

• Capital Bikeshare still works in the cold–and since biking provides more exercise than walking, you can warm up a little in the process. But fitting a helmet over a warm hat is difficult.

X-country skis• Cross-country skis work even better–and when it’s this cold, the snow makes a delightful sort of squeak. (Pity the roughly four inches we got on the 21st only allowed me to do laps in a nearby park instead of, say, skiing across the Key Bridge like I did after the “snowpocalypse” of 2010.)

• The Potomac River frozen over is a beautiful sight. Try not to miss it.

• Working from home when it’s below 15 degrees outside constitutes an excellent excuse to make a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch (jazz it up with a little caramelized onions or sautéed apple slices) and wash that down with hot chocolate.

CES 2014 journalism-tech report

For once, I made it through a CES without my phone dying. But it was close: Wednesday night, I arrived at a party with my phone showing 2 percent of a charge left. One of the hosts asked if I wanted a drink, and I replied that I could use an outlet first.

Phone battery charging

America’s annual gadget gathering is an unfriendly environment for gadgets. Too many people using too many phones, tablets and laptops result in jammed airwaves and a severe power shortage.

And this year, I gambled a little by not bringing any a spare review phone or two for backup. Plugging in my Nexus 4 every time I was sitting down helped the phone survive the show. But I also think I tweeted less than last year and didn’t take as many pictures as I expected (including only one panorama and no “photo spheres”).

I should have packed an external phone charger–my MacBook Air, unlike the ThinkPad I brought to CES in 2012, can’t charge a phone when closed and asleep in my bag, and it’s not that fast at replenishing my phone when awake. (On the other hand, the ThinkPad doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, making it far inferior to the MacBook for keynote note-taking.) I also should have remembered to pack my travel power strip, which I sorely missed on press-conference day but survived without the rest of the trip.

WiFi was not quite as reliable as last year, but it did suffice in the only places Ethernet was a viable option–meaning I never used the MacBook’s USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

The Canon 330 HS camera I’d picked up at a low, low sale price on the Wirecutter’s advice worked out better than I’d expected (see my Flickr set from CES to judge for yourself). I never even had to recharge the battery, and it was compact enough to leave in a jacket pocket full-time.

But after I couldn’t get the Canon’s WiFi linked to my phone–the upcoming 340 HS that I saw at CES should ease that by automating the pairing process with NFC wireless–I was stuck geotagging and uploading photos on a computer, same as ever.

That communication breakdown also cost me the chance to have the phone fix the incorrect date I’d set on the camera. Yes, I was the guy still writing “2013″ on his photos, something I only noticed when I couldn’t find them at the end of my iPhoto library. Everybody point and laugh now… because I’m totally sure this mistake will have been engineered out of possibility by the time I pack for CES 2015.

Wintry mix: a Christmas playlist with a little indie-D.C. cred

By now, your brain is probably crammed full with the holiday songs you’ve heard since you were five–and they’re all stuck on repeat, right?

Playing the traditional earworm cleanser, AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” wouldn’t be seasonally appropriate on this day. But maybe the following playlist will help: songs by artists based around D.C., or who at least got their start there, that either speak to the holiday or to the time of year.

 

Merry Christmas!

(Links are to Amazon’s MP3 store or if unavailable there, to iTunes; if unavailable there as well–yes, that remains possible–I pointed to Amazon CD listings. You can also hear most of these on a Spotify playlist.)

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

My 2013 gardening report card

The forecast calls for below-freezing temperature tonight, so I officially put this year’s gardening season in the books by plucking the last few, still-green plum tomatoes off their dying vines. That also means it’s time to assess how growing my own food worked this year, as I did in 2011 and 2012.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoes: B+

The removal of a tree that had cast too much shade on one raised bed and, I guess,  better luck made a huge difference: We’ve had a good selection of plum tomatoes since about the middle of the summer–even while the other two plants yielded next to nothing. It was nice being able to skip buying plum tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Arugula: B

Unlike the last two years, I couldn’t get a fall crop started in time (I blame travel and a failure to focus when I was in town, followed by the stores near me removing seeds from their shelves), and the spring crop didn’t yield as much as before either. Even so, I’ll repeat my prior endorsements: This stuff practically grows itself, yo

Lettuce: B-

I love being able to step outside, grab some lettuce leaves, wash them off and put them on a sandwich or a burger. But without a fall crop (see above), that pleasure ended sometime in June.

Bell peppers: B-

These were late starters but came around over the last two months. Considering what red bell peppers cost in the store, they’ve definitely earned a spot in next year’s garden.

Green beans: C

Once again, I didn’t plant enough in the spring–I could pick enough beans off the plants to make a side dish for one, not so much for two and certainly not for four. And then a dry August put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Herbs: D

These did much worse than I expected, and I can only guess it’s because I took too long to enrich the soil around them with compost. The mint was its usual bulletproof self (it’s in a separate pot to stop it from overrunning the entire back yard), but cilantro was a no-show, and rosemary, sage and thyme died on me more than once. And the basil never yielded enough for a batch of pesto: How pathetic is that?

Strawberries: D

The pot on the back patio yielded fruit more often than last year, but I still haven’t figured out how to avoid having the squirrels make off with too much of it.

Cucumbers: D-

This was not the complete failure of last year, only a nearly-complete one. That leaves me even more confused as to how this vegetable could have grown so well two years ago and not since.

Also worth noting: Not through any effort on my part, I had a butternut squash vine grow on its own in one of the raised beds and give me exactly one squash.