Weekly output: Birdly, net neutrality, SXSW’s hot apps, Google moonshots, best LTE hotspot, basic cable on extra TVs

I completed two rites of spring today: editing and uploading my SXSW photos (here’s the Flickr album) and weeding the lawn for the first of many times this year. One of them has left me sore.

Yahoo Tech Birdly recap3/16/2015: This VR Demo Let Me Soar Over San Francisco Like a Bird, Yahoo Tech

My friend and SXSW housemate Dan Pacheco had been telling me about this crazy VR demo/bird flight simulator since at least Saturday, and Monday morning I finally got my introduction. The words practically flew onto the screen as I typed up this recap, which is always a good feeling.

3/16/2015: Take Back Your Internet, Golden Frog

I moderated this Austin secure-Web-services company’s panel about net neutrality. Will all of the panelists–lawyer and activist Marvin Ammori, Data Foundry chief technology officer Edward Henigin, Federal Communications Commission counsel Gigi Sohn, CompTel CEO Chip Pickering, and Computer & Communications Industry Association European vice president James Waterworth–being very much in favor of it, the discussion got a little one-sided. But I did expose a few differences of opinion in issues like the best ways to foster broadband competition.

3/17/2015: Where Are They Now? Hot Apps From Past SXSWs that Didn’t Have Much of a Future, Yahoo Tech

I knew that the apps people had been chattering about at SXSW 2012, my introduction to this festival, hadn’t made much of a dent since. But when I realized that one of them had become the “Nearby Friends” feature on Facebook that has yet to signal the presence of a pal I’m not already talking to, I thought: there’s a column in this.

3/18/2015: Don’t Trust Humans, Wear Fluffy Socks: Wisdom From Google X, Yahoo Tech

I’d seen Google’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller speak once before, at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York last May, and so making time for his keynote was an easy call. In it, he shared some new details about Google’s ventures into self-driving cars and Internet-broadcasting balloons.

3/20/2105: This Is The Best Wifi Hotspot You Can Buy, Forbes

A month or so back, I filed a condensed version of my update to the Wirecutter’s guide to LTE hotspots, and Forbes’ tech section seems to have been the first place to run it. (I only found out about it a week later when a publicist thanked me for mentioning her client’s product in a Forbes post I had no memory of writing.)

3/22/2015: Basic cable switch on extra TVs not so simple, USA Today

This column revisited a subject I seem to cover at least every two years–your dwindling ability to watch cable TV without a separate box with its own monthly fee. This time around, it doubled as a headline-writing refresher course: The hed I wrote the first time around had not one but two techie abbreviations and failed to describe the core problem my reader had complained about in her e-mail.

Updated 3/25 to add the LTE-hotspots post.

 

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

Weekly output: Apple Watch, smartwatch UX, Hillary Clinton’s e-mail, freeing up disk space

AUSTIN–I’ve been here since Friday afternoon for SXSW. Total number of tacos consumed to date in my fourth trip to this festival: seven. 3/9/2015: Apple Watch, WTOP

I shared a few thoughts about the promise and risks of this smartwatch on the day of its debut.

Yahoo Tech smartwatch-UX post3/10/2015: The One Feature that Wil lDetermine the Quality of the Apple Watch, Yahoo Tech

I drew on months of experience wearing one Android Wear smartwatch or another to write this post explaining how the Apple Watch should not just mirror the notifications popping up on an iPhone.

3/12/2015: Emails From Hillary: So Many Mysteries, Yahoo Tech

I worried that this post about the fundamental weirdness of the former Secretary of State’s private e-mail system would draw a round of uninformed, hateful comments, and the commentariat did not disappoint me.

3/15/2015: How to find space hogs on laptop hard drive, USA Today

 This column started with my own experience of having OS X report that it couldn’t install a security update from Apple because my MacBook Air had run out of space. And then I learned about a handy Windows-file search shortcut that had escaped my attention for years.

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.

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.