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.

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Weekly output: 4K UHD TV, Tech Night Owl, stolen phones

This week was a lot less productive than I’d hoped, even factoring in Monday being a holiday and most of Tuesday’s schedule getting canceled out by snow and sub-freezing temperatures. I’m going to be paying for that this week.

1/20/2014: All of the Potential Problems with 4K TV, Yahoo Tech

This was set to be last week’s column until the net-neutrality ruling upended my schedule. Considering that nobody’s rushing out to buy UHD sets before the Super Bowl, I don’t think the delay hurt this post too much.

1/25/2014: January 25, 2014 — Adam Engst and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I returned to Gene Steinberg’s podcast to talk about my new role at Yahoo Tech, net neutrality, the Mac’s 30th birthday and more.

USAT stolen-phones update1/26/2014: Tip: Serial number can’t recover stolen smartphone, USA Today

Barely a year has elapsed since I’d last covered find-my-phone apps in my USAT column, but two major changes have come around since that piece: Google offering its own, free phone-finder app for Android, and increased attention to the lack of a persistent kill-switch feature for smartphones beyond iOS 7’s capability and Absolute Software’s aftermarket Lojack app for some Samsung Android devices. Besides, the reader asked for help nicely.

On Sulia, I noted my old Washington Post colleague Ezra Klein’s departure from the paper, voiced some anger about a Kafkaesque overreaction by law enforcement and the MPAA to somebody wearing Google Glass to a movie, griped about bad USB-port placement and the stubborn survival of obsolete music formats in cars shown off at the Washington Auto Show (yes, you’ve read those two rants before), and reported about my experience using Absolute’s software to wipe and lock a Galaxy Note 3.

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.

More questions answered about my role at Yahoo Tech

LAS VEGAS–My involvement with the new Yahoo Tech site hasn’t been a secret since the holiday preview posted in December, but with yesterday’s launch at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote it’s a lot more public. Following, answers to some of the questions I’ve gotten since then.

Yahoo Tech languageQ. Is this your new job?

A. No. Writing a weekly “The Rules of Tech” column is my new freelance gig. I will continue to have the pleasure of making four large estimated-tax payments to the IRS a year.

Q. What about your other work?

A. My assignment at Yahoo is to cover tech policy (not just laws and regulations, but the boundaries and limits set by corporations and each other). So don’t expect to see me getting into that area of technology elsewhere–that’s why I had to bid farewell to my tech-policy blogging at the Disruptive Competition Project.

But outside of that, I can continue to write elsewhere. Further, I should continue to write elsewhere–staying current with people’s tech frustrations in my USA Today column and reviewing gadgets elsewhere will make me a more informed tech-policy writer. That outside work can also let me indulge my wonkier instincts instead of plunging into the weeds in every single Yahoo post.

I may, however, have a little less bandwidth in the near term for other assignments as I work my way from “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” in this new role.

Q. Where are the comments? Why no RSS feed?

A. Shocking but true: Sometimes sites launch without every intended feature. I’m told those things are coming, so please keep clicking refresh at least once a day.

Q. Are they hiring? Taking on other freelancers?

A. Too soon to say, and those questions are also kind of above my pay grade. I can say that it’s been a busy few weeks; right now, I think we’re all dreading the fact that we only have [checks watch] maybe another hour to sit and admire our handiwork before getting back to it.

Q. Are you worried about being associated with a Web property that’s made so many technological missteps in the past?

A. That’s not a very nice way to talk about the Washington Post. (I kid, I kid! Just judge me by my work, okay?)

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.

CES tips for rookie reporters (2013 edition)

Will this January really mark my 17th trek to CES? I’m afraid so–I’ve been going to Las Vegas every winter for the annual gadget gathering since 1998.

CES 2013 laptops

What was then known as the Consumer Electronics Show seemed positively overwhelming at the time, but as I’ve wasted an increasing number of brain cells on memorizing the finer points of the show and the city, the Consumer Electronics Association’s annual gathering no longer feels so insurmountable. I hope the following tips (most updated from a Dec. 2011 post) help you profit from that experience.

Planning

The onslaught of PR pitches requesting meetings at CES hasn’t started yet, but it’s only October. Wait until early December! I suggest you be exceedingly conservative in booking appointments: You will be late to most of them (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of his or her own.

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung, Panasonic or Sony. In those cases, scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. (Hopefully he–almost always a he–hasn’t had so much media training that he can longer converse like a normal human being.) If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with tethering enabled or a portable WiFi hotspot); a travel-sized surge protector with USB ports (it can make you friends when there’s only one wall outlet left); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking (CES does not take place in the MacBook Air’s magical world of invincible wireless); twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger.

Press conferences and other events 

The day before the show opens consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip. Unless you get VIP access, you can rarely get into more than every other press conference–the lines outside stretch on too long. And except for Sony’s customary event on the show floor, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware or Q&A with the people involved. As tech scribe Roy Choi told me in January: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

The opening keynote takes place on the evening of press-conference day. Microsoft owned that for years but gave up the slot after 2012. Last year Qualcomm took its place, with epically awful results.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience right after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew helped put together my last two trips to IFA in Berlin.) At each, you’ll get access to a ballroom full of vendors showing off their wares, plus a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both are in pitifully short supply. “ABC” here stands for “always be charging,” or at least anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. Don’t feel bad if at other times, you must use your laptop as a giant external battery for your phone.

Don’t expect wireless to work with so many gadgets in use, although you may find the occasional exhibit space with a more robust wireless network than usual. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–152,759 attendees in 2013. If you can find a wired connection, use that instead.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to most of CES’s exhibit space, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers. Budget 15 minutes to get from one of its three halls to the next, 25 to hustle from one end to the other. The Central Hall, where most of the big-ticket vendors exhibit, eats up a day by itself. The North Hall, home to automotive electronics, satellite radio and a grab-bag of iDevice accessories, takes less time, as does the South Hall and its collection of smartphone and tablet vendors, camera manufacturers and–well, everybody else.

There’s also some exhibit space in the convention center’s parking lot, in the LVH hotel (about a 10-minute walk from the North Hall), and in the Sands Expo and the next-door Venetian about a mile and a half southwest.

Some companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

CES 2013 monorailGetting around

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic to and from the convention center. But you often have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management’s unwillingness to accept D.C.-level crush loads.

The monorail also fails to stop at the Sands or the Venetian–what seems a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Quad station and walk north.

Alas, the alternatives to the monorail can be even worse. Shuttle buses run between the official show hotels, the LVCC and the Sands but suffer from excruciatingly long lines, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show. You can spend half an hour waiting for a bus to have room, then lose another 30 minutes to crawl three miles. Only the taxi lines can make this delay seem tolerable.

Some evening events happen at the Wynn or the Encore, slightly closer to the LVCC. Remember my advice about walking shoes? Spare yourself a tedious queue for a shuttle or taxi and use them to hike the mile and change from the convention center to the hotel.

Las Vegas also has public buses, and they can be convenient for travel up or down the Strip–or, should you magically get a few hours free, a field trip to the downtown neighborhood Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh is spending $350 million to terraform into a walkable community.

The RTC can get to or from McCarran as well, once you realize two quirks. One is the horrendous signage in Terminal 1’s baggage-claim area; I had to go downstairs to “Level Zero” to see any indication of public transit. The other is no direct service to the new Terminal 3–but if don’t check bags (a smart move at CES anyway), you should be able to clear security at T1 and then have a slightly longer tram ride to your gate.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Weekly output: IFA (x2), Windows optional updates, OS X Automator

This post may contain more typos than usual, on account of it being typed almost 23 hours after my day began in Berlin (give or take a few naps on planes).

9/6/2013: IFA Electronics Show Features Some Gadgets Behaving Badly, Disruptive Competition Project

Having already decried TV and smartphone resolution overkill in earlier DisCo posts, I had to tee off on the IFA show floor’s examples of extremism in pursuit of a captivating, buzzword-compliant spec sheet. I liked this comment from somebody whose handle reminds me of one of my favorite commenters at the Post: “We need a 4K OLED refrigerator we can use to read our UHD grocery list.”

Discovery IFA post9/7/2013: Samsung Smart Watch Leads IFA’s Gadget Parade, Discovery News

This show recap led off with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear (allegedly) smart watch, then noted such other high-profile IFA debuts as two Sony camera modules designed to work symbiotically with smartphones. I had to leave some details out, which is why I devoted a third post to the show on my blog.

9/8/2013: Are optional Windows updates necessary?, USA Today

An overdue round of system-update installations on my ThinkPad reminded me that other people were probably as puzzled as I to see fading apps like Silverlight get a prominent spot in Windows’ “Optional Updates” list. Then I further remembered that I hadn’t written a Windows-specific Q&A column in a while. The tip part of the piece offers some encouragement to try out OS X’s Automator scripting tool, but I suspect not many readers will follow it.

Sulia was an all-IFA proposition this week: I posted a report about my first impressions of the Galaxy Gear, kvetched about the radically better selection of cable- and satellite TV hardware in Europe, complimented one convertible laptop concept and cast doubt on others, wondered about the utility of Sony’s add-on cameras for phones, and suggested some manufacturers’ rush to sell curved OLED 4K sets was best intrepreted as a call for help.

Update, 9/11: See also my Flickr set from IFA; slideshow is after the jump.

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IFA extras: tidbits from Europe’s big gadget gathering

BERLIN–I’ll be leaving this fair city many megabytes heavier, between my notes about the IFA electronics trade show and all the photos and videos I’ve taken. Here are some observations I had to leave out of my my reports for the Disruptive Competition Project and at Discovery News.

Rack of TVs• The “Air Command” contextual menu in Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 strikes me as yet another example of something that looks great in a demo but will rarely see much use outside of that. You’re supposed to extract the stylus, press its button, tap the screen and then choose something off the Air Command palette that may itself open up further options: Does that sound like something you’ll want to do standing up?

• This may get me some hate mail, but Windows laptops are showing more creativity than MacBooks. The ability of more of them to convert to tablets, either by folding or detaching a screen, offers a level of utility unavailable from Apple–and since these convertible models accept touchscreen input, Windows 8 fits better on them than on my rapidly aging ThinkPad.

• But some Windows vendors have basic quality issues to address. The Toshiba convertible I inspected Wednesday visibly flexed when I pressed the plastic in front of the keyboard; when I eyed the seam between its screen bezel and the back of the lid, its backlight glowed through the gap. An Acer tablet, meanwhile, couldn’t scroll through the Windows 8 start screen without blurring noticeably.

• LED lights have the same prominence here that compact fluorescents had at CES a decade ago. (We’ve swapped out CFLs for LEDs in a few spots at home and like them a bunch.)

Sphero Revealed• The Sphero robotic ball I reviewed for Discovery the other week now has a “Revealed” version with some clear sections that let you see its innards, and its makers Orbotix will update the iOS and Android Sphero app so you can just drive the thing without the distracting game mechanics I called out in that post.

• It’s remarkable how little space 3D TVs got here, a mere three years after its big debut at CES. And not all of the 3D TV exhibits here made a good case for the technology: TCL’s demo of glasses-free viewing looked awful, as if I were watching it through wavy 1920s-vintage windows.

• I came here hoping to finally settle on my next camera, but I’m still on the fence about a few models that offer a larger sensor, a decent zoom, GPS and the ability to connect to a phone via WiFi–or which of those qualities I’ll have to sacrifice. Any thoughts on Panasonic’s ZS-30, Sony’s DSC-HX50V and RX100 Mark II and Canon’s SX280 and S120?

• Cameras have been using WiFi to connect to smartphones for a few years, but now both Sony and Panasonic are adding NFC wireless to some new models to automate that pairing process, in much the same way NFC helps two Android phones set up an Android Beam file transfer.

• Strangest neologism heard here: “Glancivity,” a noun thrown out by Samsung’s Pranav Mistry at Tuesday’s event introducing the Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear watch. This post has already run on too long to have much glancivity, right?

• Number of times my phone’s battery ran out: two. That’s pretty good, considering that one was the fault of my laptop for shutting off power to its USB port overnight.

• Number of Evernote sync conflicts: two. Also better than I expected, given the wildly fluctuating bandwidth availability. (I’ll have to whine about that later.)

Updated at 7:30 p.m. to link to Sphero’s announcement and clarify the status of this reversal.

Trade shows may have ruined Las Vegas for me

LAS VEGAS–I’m writing this from a hotel room a little before 7 a.m., and I did not just get back from the casino floor. Instead, I got back after a couple of receptions for the CTIA 2013 wireless-industry show, thought I’d lie down for a bit and then slept for six hours.

The Strip at nightI could head downstairs now for a little gambling–but, honestly, I have some e-mails to attend to after this post, and then I want to get to McCarran to try to get on an earlier flight home. Maybe I’ll have time to hit the breakfast buffet first?

This is what traveling to Vegas for business has done to me. I have now made my way to this city 18 times. Sixteen of those (!) were for CES, there’s this trip for CTIA, and I went to Vegas once for a friend’s bachelor party. The one time I couldn’t get my expenses reimbursed or put them on a Schedule C, I had to stop myself from asking for a receipt everywhere.

I can’t tell you what any of the fancy shows at the Strip hotels are like, but I have memorized the fastest walking route through the Venetian’s floor to the Sands exhibit space. I’ve eaten in some of the better restaurants in town, but I have no idea what they charge. I should find better uses for my brain then caching the locations of bathrooms in the convention center.

Before the invention of blogging and Twitter, I had a little free time in my Vegas schedule. One year, I blew off a keynote to check out the Star Trek Experience; another, I detoured to the Gun Store and discovered how quickly an M-16 can empty a clip. But from 2007 or so on, my only time to experience Vegas as a civilian has been the last night in town–except when I’m too tired and conk out first.

Duly keynoted

SAN FRANCISCO–I set a personal record for keynote livetweeting with the 3.5-hour production that opened Google’s I/O developer conference here on Wednesday morning. That was by far the longest tech-event keynote I’ve sat through, but nowhere near the strangest.

I:O logo onstageFor that, I might have to give the nod to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ freakshow of a CES keynote this year that somehow included Steve Ballmer, Bishop Tutu, Guillermo del Toro and Big Bird. But I could also point to last year’s I/O keynote, capped off by a livestreamed skydive onto the Moscone West roof. Or what about the epic networking meltdowns of one of 2010’s two I/O keynotes?

The Microsoft keynotes that opened CES through 2011 were their own breed of weird, thanks to their history of random celebrity-guest appearances and technical meltdowns.

The keynotes Steve Jobs led for Apple were models of restraint in comparison. (I can’t speak to the live experience of those since his death, as I haven’t been gotten given a press pass to any of them.) Jobs spoke at a measured pace, the slides mostly consisted of white text on black backgrounds, supporting speakers didn’t come onstage to their own at-bat music, and the guests who didn’t work at Apple were almost always confined to executives at other tech firms cooperating with Apple on various projects–not random boldface names.

But the Steve Jobs And Apple Show made its own mistakes. The extended dissertation at Macworld NY in 2001 over how Apple’s PowerPC processors weren’t really slower than Intel chips was both legendarily dull and distinctly dodgy, given that Apple was already working on its subsequent switch to Intel. (Trivia: I think was also the one and only time a review of mine got favorably cited in an Apple keynote, when Jobs gave a shout-out to my iDVD review.) And was it really necessary to end each one by playing an ad for the new product not once but often twice?

I can’t think of too many other forms of creative output more in need of editing than the average tech-industry keynote. But if the people involved can’t do that, I have two lesser suggestions: Keep any slides with numbers on the screen a little longer, so we can jot them down correctly, and follow Google’s good example by providing power strips and Ethernet in at least the first rows of seats for the press.