Je t’aime, Paris

Eiffel Tower in 1991Lesser-known fact about me: For one happy summer in 1990, I qualified as a part-time Parisian. I owed that to my dad, who had first lucked into a transfer to his employer’s Paris office and then–nepotism at its finest!–arranged a summer job for me there.

Each morning, I’d board the train in the suburb of Louveciennes, transfer to the RER, escape from the subterranean, odorous archipelago of the Châtelet – les Halles station, and enjoy a short walk to Dad’s office. I’d plug away at building out a database, then take a long lunch break and explore the city.

I’d come back, immerse myself in Paradox for another few hours and then head home. I felt like I’d won an occupational lottery on top of the life-lottery victory of my parents’ move to France in 1989 and my subsequent spring, summer and winter breaks there.

Paris office viewThe two and a half years my family spent around France’s capital before returning to the States in 1991 gave me the chance to know the city beyond bucket-list tourist attractions: the sculpture garden of modern architecture that is La Défense; quiet, tree-lined streets in the inner arrondissements; the roof of the old opera building that a friend and I somehow made our way to after ditching a tour.

This time also left me with an enduring fondness for baguettes, croissants, Camembert, crêpes, Côtes du Rhône, steak frites, duck breast, any other entrée done up with a pan sauce, and Calvados.

And it taught me to speak French well enough that Parisians stopped automatically replying in English. (I had an unfair advantage at Georgetown’s foreign-language proficiency exam: When my examiner handed me a Le Monde story and asked me to discuss it, I realized I’d read that piece a week before while spending Easter with my family.) That fluency has faded, but I still enjoy dusting off my rusty French to help a visitor like the gentleman at the Walmart near Union Station who needed a prepaid SIM card for his phone.

France passport stampsI wish I were writing this out of idle nostalgia. But I’m not. The city I adored 25 years ago fell victim to a series of monstrous crimes Friday night, apparently committed by the same craven death cult that has murdered thousands more across the Middle East and has no right to call itself “Islamic” or even “human.”

There is nothing I can do to reverse that. But I can say this much after almost a quarter-century apart: Paris, it’s been so long since last we met, but I will return. That’s a promise.

Bikeshare is my other Metro

My mental map of D.C. has looked a lot different since I got a membership to Capital Bikeshare. Being able to jump on one of those red rental bicycles and ride the next 30 minutes at no extra cost effectively collapsed my sense of distances between neighborhoods.

SmarTrip card and CaBi keyBut it’s taken me longer to realize how “CaBi” has changed my commuting budget: It’s replaced so many Metro rides that its annual membership fee has become effectively free.

Letting bikeshare replace bus transfers was easy and obvious (going from Farragut Square to 16th and U is a million times more pleasant on a bike than on a crowded, slow S-series bus). Then I learned that CaBi not only worked well for going from my home to morning or evening work events downtown–with the bonus of getting a Key Bridge vista of the Potomac and the city–but would also spare me Metro’s peak fares and recently-iffy reliability.

(I take CaBi home from downtown much less often. The bikes weigh about 40 pounds and only have three gears, making getting up the hill from Rosslyn a tedious and sweaty exercise.)

Finally, I got into the habit of chaining together bikeshare rentals, docking a bike at one station and then taking out another from an adjacent dock. (You can also get an extra 15 minutes of time if you get “dockblocked” by a station with no open spots.) With a combined 60 minutes of free travel available, Capitol Hill events easily fall within CaBi range.

So how much has this saved me? A few days ago, I went through my trip history and added up every ride longer than a mile, figuring that would be a decent proxy for trips I would not have otherwise taken on foot. The total over the previous year: 43, with the bulk of them understandably concentrated in spring, fall and winter. Valuing each Metro trip avoided at $2–a lowball estimate for the train, high for the bus–gets me to $86 in savings.

And that, in turn, is $11 more than the $75 I paid for this year’s membership and still exceeds the $85 I’ll pay at my next renewal.

An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

Post-travel to-dos

Cards and card

I’m through the worst of what I’m not-so-fondly calling Conference Month, and all of this travel is reminding me of the tasks that await each time I come home and finish unpacking.

Let’s see:

  • Do laundry.
  • Catch up on other household chores: sweep the floors, do the dishes, bake bread, reaffirm my earlier decision that the late-summer lawn is a lost cause.
  • Go over my e-mail to see which messages I should have answered three to five days ago.
  • Tag and categorize business expenses in Mint, then verify that I didn’t forget to record any cash transactions in the Google Docs spreadsheet I use for that purpose.
  • Send LinkedIn invitations to people I met on the trip, assuming their profiles show signs of recent life. (Go ahead, call me a tool now.)
  • Throw the latest set of press-kit USB flash drives onto the pile.
  • Scan business cards into Evernote.
  • Download, edit, geotag and caption photos, then post them to Flickr (for public viewing) or Facebook (for friends).
  • Make sure I got the proper frequent-flyer credit for the last round of flights.
  • There’s probably some other chore that should be on this list but that I will only remember when I’m on my way to National or Dulles.

As I write this, there’s a stack of business cards on my desk and several dozen pictures in iPhoto that have not been edited, geotagged, captioned or shared. And I only have five days before my next work trip, the Online News Association’s conference in Los Angeles, so you can imagine how well this is going.

Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?


CTIA ROI: Did I need to go Vegas for this?

LAS VEGAS–My stay here only ran about 38 hours, but even if my itinerary hadn’t gotten upended by flight delays Tuesday I would have only spent 42 hours here. That was by design: I didn’t choose to go to CTIA’s Super Mobility Week until I’d already committed to going to Portland for the XOXO conference.

CTIA logoThat way, I didn’t risk much on the news value of an event that hasn’t exactly padded out Vegas taxi lines he last two years–selling one story should cover my additional travel costs.

But even by those low standards, the show organized by this D.C. trade group underperformed. The floor was a vast expanse of peripheral players hawking cables, cases, chargers or the industrial hardware that keep our phones online, from cell towers to backup generators to drones to inspect cell towers.

Among companies most wireless customers might know well, only Verizon, Samsung, AT&T and Tracfone had a notable presence on the floor. None committed any real news. (A Tracfone staffer said that prepaid carrier didn’t have any publicists around when I stopped by. PR tip: Not helpful!)

The opening keynote Wednesday featured appearances by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, but neither yielded enough material for a story for my usual outlets. If you missed my tweeting Wednesday morning: Wales is helping to launch the U.S. branch of a U.K. wireless reseller called The People’s Operator that lets you direct some of your spend to charity, and Wheeler said he’s confident that next March’s auction of some broadcast-TV spectrum to wireless carriers will succeed and that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules won’t stop wireless carriers from investing in their networks.

And then I spent the next two hours watching Apple’s event. This is the second year in a row that Apple has elected to introduce a round of new products on the opening day of what’s supposedly the wireless industry’s leading domestic event. The people at CTIA must be so pleased by that.

Many tech journalists were in San Francisco for Apple’s event. Others sat out CTIA because they’d gone to IFA the week before and didn’t want to deal with that much travel.

I’m not writing this to trash-talk CTIA’s efforts, although their decision to stage this show right after the electronics extravaganza in Berlin now looks a huge unforced error. Wireless is one of the most interesting and important parts of the tech business today, and you’d think it needs and could easily support an annual gathering like any other industry’s.

But one that’s marked by an absence of news and exhibitors, which happens only a day or two after a larger event that involves 9.000 miles of travel, and which takes place in a city that’s not quite my favorite place to go, is not something I need on my travel budget again. Sorry, CTIA.

Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.