Weekly output: SXSW, cable modems

Spending the first half of the week out of town for SXSW put more of a dent in my schedule than I realized–as you can see from the unusually late time I’m posting this. Seriously, where did the second half of the week go?

Yahoo Tech SXSW post3/10/2014: The News from SXSW: Technology Will Liberate Us! Unless It Enslaves Us First., Yahoo Tech

I pretty much had to focus my writeup of the conference on the remote interviews of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden–both outspoken critics of the surveillance state, both beset by glitches with their Internet-video links. It’s crazy to think that a year ago, almost nobody at SXSW had any idea of what the NSA had been up to; the mood in Austin seemed a lot cheerier about the prospects of technology back then.

3/16/2014: Buyer beware: ‘Gray market’ cable modem can trip you up, USA Today

A reader had bought a cable modem after reading my recommendation to do so last August. Then Comcast said she couldn’t use her purchase. And things got really weird. A reader has since complained that the column left him “totally confused” about whether he can buy a modem on Comcast’s approved-devices list and have it work; I’m going to have to tell him he has correctly read a confusing situation.

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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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Weekly output: phone unlocking, Gogo talk and text, laptops with dead screens

AUSTIN–I’m here through Wednesday for SXSW, getting my fill of panel discussions, keynotes, tacos, BBQ, beer and more tacos. Having this conference on my schedule is a huge perk of my job. How did I ever get by without it?

3/4/2014: Progress! Soon You May Actually Be Able to Unlock Your Mobile Phone, Yahoo Tech

A lot of tech-policy types hate the phone-unlocking bill that the House passed after some last-minute weakening, but I couldn’t bring myself to kick Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s bill to the curb in this column–it’s just so rare to see Congress turn away from intellectual-property maximalism. (The part of the column I would like to change: Its initial description of unlocking, which glossed over how this is basically limited to GSM phones.)

Yahoo Tech Gogo post3/7/2014: I’m Calling You From A Chair In The Sky, Yahoo Tech

I had my most improbable product demo yet: a ride in Gogo’s corporate jet to see how its next-generation inflight WiFi system allows you to text and talk from a plane.

The plane itself, in case you were asking, was comfortable but compact, and it wasn’t even the most interesting aircraft on the ramp at AUS. That honor goes to Zero G’s 727 and the two T-38 supersonic trainers that rocketed off the runway before us.

3/9/2014: How to get data off a laptop with a dead screen, USA Today 

This column was a last-minute substitution when I realized that writing a column on my original topic required a FireWire adapter cable that I own but could not find anywhere in my house. (If I once loaned you a FireWire 400-to-800 cable and never asked for it back, please leave a comment.) Happily, I had this idea right after that one in the queue.

Weekly output: SXSW (x2), Google Reader, bookmarks, Galaxy S 4

Another travel week ends as it should: me at home, photos from the trip posted, expenses duly categorized in Mint and a flurry of LinkedIn invitations sent.

Discovery News SXSW 2013 post

3/13/2013: SXSW Sights: Silly Robots and Serious Wi-Fi, Discovery News

This year’s SXSW didn’t feature any breakout apps, or even a particular category of app that had people excited. Here, I wrote about the panels, talks and demos that caught my interest instead–and noted the conference’s most pleasant surprise, reliable, fast and free WiFi almost everywhere I went.

3/15/2013: Digging Into A Few Of SXSW 2013′s Disruptive Dreams, Disruptive Competition Project

In this SXSW recap, I focused more closely on a few topics that interested me at the festival: 3-D printing, HTML5 apps, mobile finance and our not-fully-rational responses to transformational technology. I wrote about three-quarters of this on the plane home; the remaining one-fourth took the last three-quarters of the time.

3/15/2013: What’s the big deal about Google Reader’s demise?, USA Today

Google’s surprising (and, to many, infuriating) announcement of the July 1 shutdown of its Google Reader RSS service sparked this column, posted a couple of days early. I thought about linking to the “Hitler finds out Google Reader is shutting down” Downfall parody video, but I wasn’t sure all of the potential audience would be hip to the joke.

3/15/2013: Can the new Samsung Galaxy S4 take on the iPhone?, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a couple of minutes to discuss Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone. (Samsung invited me to what turned out to be a hot mess of a launch event at Radio City Music Hall; I opted not to run up to NYC the day after getting home from Austin, but part of me regrets not going.)

Sulia worked well for sharing my notes from SXSW in something close to real-time: for instance, highlights from Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman’s keynote, details about one startup’s dubious patent filing, and a glitchy demo of Siri’s Eyes Free Mode in a Chevy hatchback on the show floor. I also noted Google’s backpedaling after a stupidly terse  post had people thinking the company was ending support for the open CalDAV schedule-syncing standard.

SXSW 2013 by the numbers

Modern science provides an extraordinary number of ways to quantify one’s participation in the South By Southwest Interactive festival that wrapped up Tuesday (its sleep debt is still with me, to judge from the hour-long nap I just woke up from). Here are a few:

  • SXSW 2013 badgeSteps taken, as recorded by a Jawbone Up: 98,610 steps, adding up to 51.64 miles. This includes mileage at home Friday morning but leaves out my walk to the bus that took me to the airport Wednesday morning.
  • Tweets sent while in Austin: 178, excluding retweets of other people’s thoughts but including tweets about non-SXSW news.
  • Data usage on my phone from March 8 through March 13: 739 MB, 192 MB of which came from tethering my laptop to my phone.
  • Food truck check-ins on Foursquare: seven
  • Bar check-ins on Foursquare: 14. (Some of those stops were mainly for food. Don’t judge me!)
  • SXSW sessions attended, or in one case watched from an overflow room: 11. Sadly enough, this is considered a pretty good showing in some circles. There are least as many that I seriously regret missing.
  • Business cards collected: 33. Yup, still waiting to see some app make this printed product obsolete.
  • Business cards handed out: not enough to exhaust my supply, fortunately.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the festivities…

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Weekly output: phone unlocking, iOS and Android video, Google Calendar sync, Tim Berners-Lee

Work finds me in Austin this weekend for the SXSW Interactive festival. I’ll have more about that over the next few days; for now, here’s what I have to show for myself, professionally speaking.

3/5/2013: Unlock And Load: White House Picks Phone Policy Fight, Disruptive Competition  Project

The White House surprised many people with its favorable response to a petition seeking the legalization of unlocking cell phones without carrier permission–it said “yes” and then endorsed the idea that carriers shouldn’t be denying service to unlocked phones from other operators. The latter is a somewhat novel idea in wireless but has been been the law in wired since the FCC’s underappreciated “Carterfone” ruling of 1968. But there are important caveats to the White House’s statement, and noting them helped push this post past 1,000 words.

3/9/2013: Work around video playback issues on your mobile device, USA Today

Like many of my USAT columns, this one started with a question from one of my relatives–my mother-in-law couldn’t watch a video of her grandson in her Yahoo Mail account on our iPad’s copy of Safari. The piece also has a tip updating advice I gave in November about sychronizing Google Calendar with an iOS device.

TBL BoingBoing post3/9/2013: Tim Berners-Lee: The Web needs to stay open, and Gopher’s still not cool., Boing Boing

The inventor of the Web had some interesting things to say in his talk at SXSW; after tweeting out highlights of the keynote, I pitched my editor at Boing Boing via Twitter direct message (making this my fastest salesmanship ever) and wrote up this recap later that afternoon.

On Sulia, you could have read me noting the White House’s phone-unlocking petition response (and, in retrospect, reading a little too much out of it) drawing a lesson for tech journalists from the outrage over EA’s botched SimCity launch, called out two still-absent features in Google’s updated Maps apps for iOS, and applaud the seemingly-impossible success of the free WiFi at SXSW.

SXSW suckup, 2012 edition

It seems wrong to be thinking about next year’s SXSW conference when I’ve only just started digesting the inevitability of CES 2013. But the annual routine of picking panels for next March’s gathering in Austin is already upon us, with voting opening on Monday for SXSW Interactive and running through Aug. 31.

Last year, I had the luxury of being asked to join panels other people had organized, one of which made the cut and yielded a great discussion about the SOPA and PIPA debate. My pitch for this year, “How Traditional Media Got/Get Tech Policy Wrong,” started with a great insight from that conversation: Bad tech-policy coverage in traditional media sources yields poor Congressional understanding of these issues.

So in this follow-up, I want to get into the history of this subpar coverage and the reasons for it, based on what I’ve seen in the reporting of others and my own faults. If you think that’s an interesting topic, please vote for my panel. (That requires a free registration, but I can attest that the SXSW organizers aren’t spammy.) Internet votes count for “about 30% of the decision-making process,” with SXSW’s board and staff making up the rest.

But don’t just vote for my panel: The SXSW PanelPicker site features 3,117 proposals in all for just the Interactive segment of the conference.

I spent several hours earlier this week browsing through all those entries, employing such scientific methods as looking at their titles (how I made many of my last-minute attendance decisions in March) and searching for friends. After the jump, you can read about the ones I know I’ll be voting for, grouped under categories I made up for this post. I can’t promise that I’ll actually attend all of these between March 8 and 12, but I will at least feel slightly wistful about missing some of them.

Updated 8/21 to add another handful of picks and re-arrange the panels listed under each category to suggest where each ranks on my must-attend list.

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Weekly output: new iPad, 4K, Web chat, DVD ripping, Facebook social apps

For some weird reason, this new tablet from Apple kept showing up in my work this week. How does that happen?

3/19/2012: The New iPad: A Super Screen and a Big Battery, Discovery News

When two different Discovery colleagues mentioned their interest in buying the new iPad, I opted for an unconventional product-review tactic: I offered to stand in line that Friday morning to make that purchase for them, on the condition that I get to spend a few days testing the hardware before turning it over. As a result, this is one of the few reviews of Apple’s latest tablet to feature photos taken of one new iPad with another.

3/20/2012: Retina displays, 4K TVs push pixel limits, CEA Digital Dialogue

My new-iPad coverage continued with a look at what its magical and revolutionary seriously impressive Retina display means for other handheld devices–and why TVs don’t need a similar beyond-high-def upgrade. This post involved way more math than usual and may have been the first time I’ve dealt with a tangent function since high school (if by “dealt with” you mean “plugged variables into a WolframAlpha equation form”).

3/23/2012: Spring Gleaning: Smartphones, Social Media and Tablets (Web chat), CEA Digital Dialogue

Unsurprisingly, the new iPad also prominently figured in this month’s Web chat. But I also got some good questions about secure browsing over public WiFi, a sluggish iPhone, problems syncing an iPad with iTunes over WiFi (I’m pretty sure that query came from one of my NASA Tweetup pals), rooting an Android phone, Windows 8′s clashing interfaces, phone screen sizes and my own uncertainty about what kind of phone to get next.

3/25/2012: Tip: How to copy a DVD to your PC, USA Today

The first item in this week’s column, recommending the open-source Handbrake for DVD ripping and revisiting my dislike of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s anti-circumvention clause, began with a query from my neighbor across the street. The second started with an exchange on the DC Tech Facebook group complaining about the Washington Post’s Social Reader app.

A SXSW first-timer’s take

It’s been over a week since I got back from South By Southwest Interactive conference, and I’m still not quite caught up on sleep. (That may have something to do with having a toddler at home, and having that toddler come down with a cold.) I’m also behind on many of my post-SXSW digital chores: I only uploaded my photos to Flickr Tuesday, and here I am still writing the  “what did I learn?” post that I’d meant to crank out a day after coming home.

So let’s get it over with already. In a word: Go. SXSW is enormously informative and entertaining, it can be a good business-development proposition and takes place in one of the more pleasant American cities you could spend a long March weekend in. It’s easily worth having to recharge every device you carry every time you’re sitting still.

But you should be prepared for the chaos. I knew there was a lot going on, but I didn’t realize that, for instance, there would be 52 other events happening in the same 3:30-4:30 time slot as my panel. This made a mockery of many of my plans to meet other folks in the tech and journalism businesses, even with the help of battery-draining people-discovery apps.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much concentrated brainpower on display at most of SXSW’s talks and meetups. But there’s nothing you can do except try to appreciate the value of serendipity.

I also didn’t factor in how spread-out SXSW would seem. My talk took place in the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, next door to the University of Texas campus. That was only a mile and a half on foot from the convention center, with frequent shuttle-bus service–but that still made for a round-trip commute of close to an hour in traffic. And because it was raining buckets that afternoon, only about 16 people made the trek to my panel. (Which was fine: We had an excellent discussion anyway.)

Aside from Saturday, however, none of the commuting involved was too objectionable. Downtown is eminently walkable, and I had the good fortune to share a rented home that was a pleasant 30-minute stroll from downtown. From there, I could also walk in about five minutes to a stop on Austin’s sole light-rail line that was just a three-minute ride from the convention center. Considering the insane cost of hotels during SXSW, I strongly endorse sharing a house with friends, or strangers if necessary–not that I needed much encouragement doing so after my successful shared-housing experiences at two NASA Tweetups in Florida last year.

I wish I’d thought to record my panel in some way, since it was not Webcast and nobody else seems to have thought to do so. That was apparently the case with most SXSW panels. At one I attended, “Preserving the Creative Culture of the Web,” archivist Jason Scott noted that he’d set up his phone to record the session for that very reason. So the only trace of my panel is tweets from people in the audience; I will try to append links to them to my earlier entry about it.

The last surprise at SXSW was the volume of free food and drink. It was a weird sort of corporate-subsidized gift economy–somewhat like other conventions I’ve attended, but with less of a sense that the publicists involved had to show a measurable return on the effort. It was easy to get used to the thoroughly enabling notion that you could show up someplace and not have to pay for whatever you might nibble or sip there. As I commented to a friend at one point: “It’s like being in the mob, except I can’t actually have people killed.”

(Even if you do have to pay for a meal, Austin offers perhaps the best dining value of any city in the U.S. And it’s fantastic eating: I don’t know how everybody there hasn’t bulked up on $3 tacos and $5 BBQ sandwiches.)

As you might imagine, I’m already set on returning next year, when I may even feel like I know what I’m doing on day one.

Self-promotional note: If you have other questions about SXSW–or anything else I’ve written about lately in the world of tech–ask me from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow during my Web chat on CEA’s blog.

Weekly output: Safari reloading, screenshots and privacy, Windows 8, SXSW and smartphones (x2), syncing, Android keyboards

I wrote the first three stories on this list using an external keyboard hooked up to my ThinkPad. That move came courtesy of the busted keyboard that stopped responding to certain keystrokes–including Enter, Backspace, 8 and h–sometime between my going to bed the night before SXSW and my getting on the first flight to Austin. That did not add to the business-travel experience.

3/11/2012: Tip: Avoid hiccups in Safari browsing, USA Today

I’m glad this column’s format doesn’t require using a specific reader’s name, because this problem comes from my own experience with Apple’s browser. (The day after this posted, Apple issued a 5.1.4 update to Safari that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do much to solve the problem.) In the rest of the column, I offer a reminder that I too often leave out of pieces on privacy: If something online is sufficiently interesting, people will take a screengrab of it and share that image, regardless of whatever privacy settings once protected that item.

3/12/2012: Windows 8: The Shock Of The New, And The Old, Discovery News

I wanted to like Microsoft’s upcoming replacement for Windows 7. I still do. But blowing up a smartphone interface, Metro, to laptop-screen dimensions seems like a fundamental mistake. So does making touchscreen gestures critical to so many routine actions. Yes, many of my peers in tech journalism–see, for instance, ZDNet’s Ed Bott–have been far more positive about Windows 8. But most of those reviews were done on touchscreen tablets loaned by Microsoft , while I installed the Consumer Preview release alongside Win 7 on a non-touchscreen laptop.

3/13/2012: Smartphone Battery Life Goes South By Southwest, CEA Digital Dialogue

Forgive me for writing yet another rant about lame smartphone battery life–but my experience at the conference set a new low. And I wasn’t alone in this dilemma. The night after I wrote this, I found myself at a bar next to a spare power outlet. I plugged in my travel power strip and soon had people coming up to me with dead or dying phones, offering to trade a drink ticket for one of the remaining outlets on the strip.

3/16/2012: Which Apps Might Outlive SXSW, Discovery News

In retrospect, I could not have picked a much worse time for this post to go up–on the morning that Apple’s new iPad arrived, and only hours before the news of Mike Daisey’s duplicity would break. What was I thinking? Anyway, I do like how this piece turned out, so please read it when you get bored of reading about tablet computing and journalist standards–if not sooner.

3/18/2012: Tip: A cautionary tale about syncing, USA Today

I wasn’t sure this reader’s question about unexpected BlackBerry contacts syncing would be relevant enough until Andy Baio wrote a great piece for Wired.com about the perils of giving too many third-party apps access to your Web services. That inspired me to pivot from one person’s glitch to the larger issue of being too generous with access to our data. The balance of the column, a reminder to check for alternate software keyboards on an Android device, came about because commenters on my Boing Boing review of the Samsung Galaxy Note asked why I didn’t tell readers to switch from Samsung’s obnoxious keyboard.

Since I’ve now posted this summary on a Sunday two weeks in a row, I’m going to continue with that schedule. I trust that you all are okay with that. Also: If you don’t want to wait until the end of the week to see where I’ve been writing and/or find my Twitter feed too noisy, I’ve set up a tumblr blog under my LLC’s name, Prose Hacking, where I link to each story I’ve written more or less in real time. This is probably a misuse of tumblr, but–hey, I needed to develop a minimal level of competence with that platform, and I needed to do something with the domain name I registered for my company.