Weekly output: Stasi Museum, new iPhones

For the first time since I-don’t-know-when, I didn’t watch an Apple new-iPhone event live. I had planned on doing that in the air on my way to Austin Wednesday for the Online News Association’s conference, but the plane was a regional jet with Gogo WiFi–and I realized after takeoff that I’d forgotten my Gogo password, didn’t have that password saved in LastPass and could not reset it without, you know, Internet access. Then I further realized that a) since nobody had asked me to opine on Apple’s new hardware as of noon, that probably wasn’t going to happen later on, and b) since my upgrade had cleared on this flight, I could skip creating a new Gogo account for the occasion and instead enjoy a leisurely lunch before napping in a chair in a sky.

9/10/2018: Remember Stasi spying to understand the GDPR, The Parallax

The day I arrived in Berlin for IFA, I set aside a few hours to explore the Stasi Museum, a grim monument to the oppressive surveillance of the German “Democratic” “Republic.” I’d prepared myself for the visit by watching “The Lives of Others,” but it was something else to see the physical relics of East Germany’s campaign to take up residence in the heads of its subjects. Writing this gave me a chance to quote a co-worker from 1993: Shane Green, who was a fellow intern at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and went on to work in Berlin and learn about the Stasi’s destruction of privacy before a lot of other Americans.

9/12/2018: Apple’s upcoming iPhones, Al Jazeera

My one bit of punditry–so far!–about Apple’s new phones came late Wednesday morning (or that evening if you watched the Arabic-language channel in in Qatar), an hour and a half before Apple’s event. I did a quick live interview to talk about the prospects of higher prices and a wider array of iPhone models, plus the chances that President Trump would slap a tariff on Chinese-made iPhones.

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How to pick a panel out of a lineup

AUSTIN–Once again, ONA is bringing some serious FOMO. Like any conference with multiple panel tracks, the Online News Association’s gathering here requires me to choose between as many as 13 talks happening in the same timeslot.

ONA 18 badge backThe past five ONA conferences I’ve attended have featured few lackluster panels, so this choice is not easy unless I think I can sell a story from the talk.

Setting aside that mercenary motivation, when I’m looking at two or three panels of equal interest to me, I have to ask myself a series of questions. Does the talk feature people I’ve heard before and liked? Or would I rather hear from speakers I’ve never seen? Do I want to say hi to the people on the panel afterwards? Will the conversation make me uncomfortable? (That’s usually a good thing.) And will the panel I skip have audio or video posted that I can check out later on?

At least all of ONA’s panels occupy a few floors of the J.W. Marriott here, so it’s not like SXSW and its archipelago of venues. There, the panel choice is often made for you by your location.

As a last resort, I may pick my spot for the next hour on a simpler metric: Does the room have a power outlet open near a chair?

Weekly output: IFA oddities, Windows laptop trends

PORTLAND–I’m nearing the end of one work trip, after which I’ll get to spend a whole 40 or so hours at home before heading out for a second. No, I’m not heading to the Bay Area for Apple’s new-iPhone event Wednesday (I haven’t gotten an invitation to one of those occasions since 2010, which is fine); I will instead spend that afternoon flying to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

Like XOXO here, ONA is an event that has me paying for the conference badge. In a few days, I will try to write why I think it sometimes worthwhile to put this kind of dent in my business model.

Yahoo Finance IFA-oddities post9/4/2018: The weirdest, most interesting, and most unavailable gadgets from IFA 2018, Yahoo Finance

This illustrated recap of the oddest hardware I saw at IFA, including a robot dog and a “Solar Cow,” ran a couple of days after my return from that gadget show in Berlin. This sort of listicle has become a staple of my tech-trade-show coverage, because the gadget industry doesn’t seem to be getting any less weird. And after I’ve filed a few thousand words from a faraway city, stringing together a post from 200-word chunks feels exponentially easier.

9/7/2018: Laptops get thinner, lighter, more secure – and, in one case, audio-hostile, USA Today

This overview of laptop-design trends seen at IFA–most of which I like, one of which I absolutely hate–took a few more days to appear online. I can’t say that any of these changes made me feel bad about my almost-year-old laptop… which is fine! Most people should not buy a new computer every year.

 

Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

Weekly output: Facebook diet, 8K TV, social-media hearings

Another trip to Berlin for IFA is in the books, which means I’ve spent another year wondering when Berlin Brandenburg Airport–which was originally scheduled to open before my 2012 introduction to the show–will ever inaugurate scheduled commercial service.

8/28/2018: How to detox from Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I’d had the bones of this piece in mind since sometime after writing a similar how-to on reducing Google’s role in your life. I’m going to guess that most people didn’t install the Facebook Container extension for Firefox (although I am now running that on my Windows laptop), but I do hope that a good fraction of readers opted out of Facebook’s noisier mobile notifications.

Yahoo Finance IFA 8K post9/1/2018: Forget 4K TVs — 8K televisions are already here, Yahoo Finance

If it wasn’t obvious enough the last time I covered this topic: No, I really don’t think anybody should pay extra for 8K resolution, and if this entire format vanishes into consumer irrelevance as 3D TV did, I won’t be too sad. Meanwhile, I appreciated seeing Yahoo give this a little more publicity with a repost on Yahoo Sports.

9/2/2018: What to expect as Google, Facebook and Twitter face Capitol Hill lawmakers, Yahoo Finance

I wrote a curtain-raiser for Wednesday’s grillings of social-media executives in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Based on how prior House interrogations of tech execs have gone, my expectations for the latter hearing are exceedingly low.

How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

Weekly output: a privacy-optimized version of Android, wireless plans, Facebook forced breakup, cryptocurrency insecurity

Monday afternoon kicks off a ridiculous three weeks of travel: I fly to Berlin then for IFA, come home Sunday, fly to Portland for XOXO the following Thursday, return the Monday after that, then two days later fly to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

8/20/2018: How a European Commission antitrust ruling could impact Android privacy, The Parallax

Remember when I said I’d eventually get around to writing about the EC’s blockbuster Google fine? That was not an idle threat.

8/23/2018: Some wireless plans have aged better than others. Has yours?, USA Today

Researching this story about good wireless plans you can’t sign up for anymore allowed me to realize what a dope I was in February of 2017 for not jumping on the deal T-Mobile’s offered then.

8/23/2018: Why breaking up Facebook will never work, Yahoo Finance

Writing this post required boiling down some complex arguments to chunks no longer than maybe two hundred words each. I think I did a good job of that, but I did not go a good job of correctly spelling Open Markets Institute fellow Matthew Stoller’s first name. Even after copying and pasting his moniker and title from OMI’s site into my notes, I then called him “Barry Stoller” in the story. Stupid and avoidable mistakes like that are just exasperating.

8/24/2018: Crypto investor: How hackers used my phone number to steal $23.8 million, Yahoo Finance

When I first saw a Reuters story about a cryptocurrency investor suing AT&T for lax account security that helped hackers steal almost $24 million in holdings, I thought “I know this guy!” Then I e-mailed Michael Terpin, and after a few days of e-mail tag we talked at length on the phone. Then I bent over backward to give the various companies involved time to comment on his travails, and none provided a meaningful response.