Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

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Halfway around the world in less than two weeks

I racked up 13,686 miles in the air over the last two weeks–with about 21 hours on the ground between each trip–and yet the experience didn’t physically destroy me as I expected. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Thinking of homeThe stage for this exercise in propping up the airline industry was set last January, when the wireless-industry group CTIA announced that it would consolidate its two annual conventions into one and run “Super Mobility Week” in Las Vegas right after IFA.

I tried not to think about the scheduling until this summer, and then I gulped and booked my tickets: Dulles to Berlin via Munich and returning through Heathrow, then National to Houston to Vegas and back.

The flying was actually pretty good. The perhaps embarrassing amount of time and money I’ve spent on United paid off when I could use an upgrade certificate to fly across the Atlantic in business class on a flight going as far east into Europe as feasible.

Not to sound like every other travel blogger, but the lie-flat seat really is one of commercial aviation’s better inventions. I slept sufficiently well on the way to Munich that on waking, I momentarily wondered where I was. That rest, followed by being able to shower and change out of slept-in clothes at Lufthansa’s lounge in Munich, helped me feel human again sooner than usual; instead of napping that afternoon in Berlin, I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about Apple’s iCloud security breach.

I almost fell asleep at dinner that evening and then had one obnoxious night when I woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another hour or two, but that was about the end of my adaptation to Central European Time. And then an exceedingly rare, free “operational upgrade” at the gate bumped me from an oversold economy section into business class for the return. (Thanks, United!)

Even with a great nap on the way home, I could barely type a sentence in one try by the time I fell asleep in my own bed after 11 p.m. that night–5 a.m. CET. But I zonked out for seven hours straight, woke up feeling fine, walked our daughter to her pre-school (a big reason why I didn’t book a direct but early flight to Vegas), did a few chores and then headed off to the airport.

I was a bit of a zombie on the first flight, but from then on the jet lag was only slightly worse than on any other trip to the West Coast.

Flying home on Sept. 11So apparently I can function on that kind of schedule.

But over the last two weeks, no amount of frequent-flyer travel hacking could stop a lot of things from slipping. Back at home, the lawn grew untidy and the vegetable garden became a mess. I couldn’t use my ticket to an exciting Nats game.

On my own screen, I gave up keeping up with my RSS feed after a week; it’s probably now groaning under the weight of 2,000 unread Apple-related items.

Even without companies committing any major news in Vegas, my ability to fulfill my regular obligations decayed to the point that I filed today’s USA Today column on Friday evening. That should never happen with a non-breaking story, especially not when that haste apparently results in an avoidable error in a piece.

This post, in turn, was something I’d meant to write Saturday.

And I missed my wife and my daughter something fierce when I had to say goodbye to them twice in six days.

Next year, CTIA’s show will again follow IFA by a day. Should I once again fly more than half the circumference of the Earth in less than two weeks? That will require some careful thought.

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.

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. Update, 10/30/2104: The bus now goes to both terminals, but you should still get off at T1 instead of spending an extra five minutes to reach T3.

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

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.

Post-CES travel-tech recap, 2013 edition

Last week was a little busy. I flew to Las Vegas to cover CES, walked several miles each day trying to stay on top of show events, wrote and spoke at length about it, ran into Vint Cerf (who, no kidding, asked for help getting on the Internet) and met Bryce Harper (I told him thanks and good luck). And I subjected various hardware and software to the cruel and unusual punishment of five days at the electronics show.

CES 2013 travel techHere’s how technology worked out compared to last year–and 20102009 and 2008.

This time, I left my 2011-vintage ThinkPad at home in favor of the lighter, faster MacBook Air I bought last summer. The battery life and backlit keyboard were great; I was not so fond of having to break out an Ethernet adapter (not Apple’s, but a $10 Monoprice model that worked just as well once I went to the trouble of installing drivers for it) when I didn’t want to take my chances with WiFi.

But–this is going to sound crazy–the WiFi actually worked at lot more often at CES this year. Even in the past-fire-code-packed Samsung press conference, where the Mandalay Bay convention center’s wireless somehow never dropped. I would love to think that we’re learning a few things about scaling this technology.

I did my standup computing on two loaner smartphones I’d packed, an unlocked Galaxy Nexus on a prepaid T-Mobile SIM and an HTC 8X Windows Phone unit on Verizon. Both were a lot better than the smartphones I took last year–even though one of them was a Verizon LTE Galaxy Nexus. (Yes, the VzW Nexus was that bad.)

I employed the HTC phone and its faster, more reliable LTE connection for a fair amount of tethered access. That worked fine in my hotel room but was almost unbearably unreliable in crowded settings like Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ bizarre keynote. As in, the one where Jacobs kept going on about how awesome our wireless future was going to be.

I took more photos with the 8X than with the Nexus, but I still spent more time on the Android phone. I blame Twitter–specifically, its buggy, clumsy excuse for a Windows Phone client. The Nexus also had slightly better battery life, but I was pleasantly surprised to see I didn’t have to recharge both phones by lunch every day.

The one application I used most often was Evernote. Once again, it was terrific to be able to start a note on one device, then seamlessly pick it up on another. And once again, I could not get through the week without a synchronization hiccup resulting in conflicting modifications that I had to reconcile by going over two copies of the same note to see which one was newer.

For photo editing, I used mostly iPhoto, with OS X’s Preview handling some basic cropping. My word processor? Don’t laugh: OS X’s TextEdit, combined with the free WordService plug-in, sufficed to generate copy to paste into an e-mail or a blog post.

I brought an old Canon point-and-shoot camera (some of its work is on display in the Flickr set shown after the jump). It was fine in most cases, but there’s no way I’d take that to another CES. Modern cameras have better resolution, low-light performance and telephoto reach, and now camera vendors also seem to have agreed that they all should support automatic picture transfers to cameras for on-the-go sharing.

The photo above shows the two other major pieces of technology I brought: the Belkin travel surge protector that avoided “who gets the last outlet?” awkwardness in various press rooms, and the nerdy Airbeltbag messenger bag that distributed the weight of my gadgets sufficiently well to keep my shoulder from feeling completely destroyed. Continue reading

Weekly output: CES (x8), Java, Flash, browser crashes

CES week has usually been the single busiest workweek of the year, and this time around did not disappoint. It also featured perhaps my shortest and certainly my highest-profile TV appearance yet.

1/9/2013: Wild West Show: What’s Happening At CES?, The Motley Fool

About eight hours into what became a 14-hour workday, I chatted briefly with the Fool’s Rex Moore for a show-opening video segment about some of the trends I’d seen thus far.

1/9/2013: Live @ CES – Erik Fisher & Rob Pegoraro, Panasonic

As it did last year, Panasonic ran a series of interviews with tech-industry types, journalists,  athletes, politicians and various other guests from its CES exhibit. Here, I discussed the intersection of sports and digital media with the Sports Business Journal’s Eric Fisher and host Jordan Burchette. I trust nobody was surprised to see me rant yet again about the idiocy of regional blackouts for live game coverage.

1/10/2013: CES 2013, Part 1: Tech To Open Or Close Markets, Disruptive Competition Project

I evaluated some of the more talked-about CES appearances in terms of whether they might entrench incumbents in a market or offer an opening to their challengers.

PBS NewsHour CES recap1/10/2013: At Consumer Electronics Show, Sorting the Go-Go Gadgets from the No-Go, PBS NewsHour

This show assessment for the NewsHour’s Rundown blog got a shout-out on that night’s NewsHour broadcast, right after an interview of my old Post cubicle-mate Cecilia Kang. Which makes a certain amount of sense, since the piece’s length and tone made it the closest thing to the CES-recap columns I wrote for the Post for… wow, 14 years in a row.

Note that the first version of this posted had a stupid mistake in the description of 4K resolution; when I was trimming a paragraph on the technology, “million” wound up where “thousand” should have been, and it took a reader’s comment to bring that to my attention. (That’s only one of the reasons why I try to read every comment.)

1/11/2013: Tech Talk: 01/11, CBS News Tech Talk

Larry Magid, a longtime tech journalist I enjoy running into at events like this, saw fit to include a sound bite from me in that day’s one-minute tech update.

1/11/2013: CES 2013: Three Ups, Three Downs, Discovery News

My CES recap for Discovery–also, my first in the site’s new design–covered the same trends I tackled in the NewsHour piece but benefited from another day’s worth of soaking in the show.

1/11/2013: CES 2013, Part 2: The Gadgets That Weren’t There, Disruptive Competition Project

I did a post like this back in 2011 that critiqued the absence of non-TiVo video recorders (among other things), didn’t think to return to the theme last year, but realized it would fit in well with DisCo’s focus on the ways outside factors distort and limit what the tech business can do.

1/11/2013: Earnings Surprises, Motley Fool Money

The Fool’s Chris Hill interviewed me about the show for the Fool’s weekly podcast. He had me on as a guest pretty regularly when I was at the Post; it was good to be back.

NBC Nightly News spot1/12/2013: Feds: Your Internet browser could be at risk, NBC Nightly News

An editor at NBC noticed the column I wrote for USA Today about Java security last spring and e-mailed to ask if they could interview me for that evening’s show. They recorded something like 30 minutes’ worth of footage; they asked good questions, didn’t cut off my answers and finished by asking if there was anything else I wanted this piece to say. Maybe 10 seconds of that wound up on the air, with me identified as a “USA Today Technology Writer.”

(I was worried they wouldn’t use any of it. Between the heat from the studio lights in NBC’s Nebraska Avenue offices and my own don’t-screw-this-up anxiety, I started getting a little flustered and began fumbling some of my answers.)

Anyway, now I can cross “be interviewed as an expert on a national nightly-news show” off the bucket list. And in yet another weird coincidence, that night’s broadcast also featured my friend Daniel Greenberg, one of my best freelance contributors at the Post, talking about video-game violence.

1/13/2013: How long will Flash survive?, USA Today

This week’s column looks at the persistence of Adobe Flash on the desktop and recants some of my earlier optimism about a quick sunset for that format. (Though I have to note that Discovery’s new design finally does away with Flash for slide shows, even older ones; I no longer feel guilty about linking out to those.) It also shares a few tips about talking crash-prone browsers out of their sulk.

Update, 10:37 a.m. In the midst of looking up all those audio and video appearances, I forgot to note my too-long-for-Twitter updates on Sulia: a rant about Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ chaotic keynote, my experience trying “brainwave cat ears,” a note about the relative absence of 3-D TV from the show floor, a micro-essay about CES’s continued gender gap, and a report of a prototype screen that can raise and lower individual buttons, and many more.

(With 15 of these 500-to-1,000-character posts a week, I can’t see adding them all to the weekly roundup, any more than I’d inventory my tweets. But maybe calling out a few highlights will work.)