Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

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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?

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?

Black Hat priorities: don’t get pwned, do get work done

LAS VEGAS–I took my own phone and laptop to the Black Hat USA security conference here, which is often held out as a bad idea.

Before I flew out to Vegas Tuesday, I got more than a few “Are you bringing a burner phone?” and “Are you leaving your laptop at home?” questions.

Black Hat backdropBut bringing burner hardware means dealing with a different set of security settings and doesn’t address the risk of compromise of social-media accounts. And writing thousand-word posts on my phone risks compromising my sanity.

So here’s what I did with my devices instead:

  • Put my laptop in airplane mode, then enabled only WiFi to reduce the PC’s attack surface to that minimum.
  • For the same reason, turned off Bluetooth and NFC on my phone.
  • Set the Windows firewall to block all inbound connections.
  • Used a loaner Verizon hot spot for all my data on both my laptop and phone–I even disabled mobile data on the latter gadget, just in case somebody set up a malicious cell site.
  • Connected only though a Virtual Private Network on both devices, each of which were set to go offline if the Private Internet Access app dropped that encrypted connection.
  • Did not plug in a USB flash drive or charge my phone through anything but the chargers I brought from home.
  • Did not download an update, install an app, or type in a password.
  • Did not leave my laptop or phone alone in my hotel room.

Combined, this probably rates as overkill–unless the National Security Agency or a comparable nation-state actor has developed an intense interest in me, in which case I’m probably doomed. Using a VPN alone on the conference WiFi should keep my data secure from eavesdropping attempts, on top of the fact that all the sites I use for work already encrypt their connections.

But for my first trip here, I figured I’d rather err on the side of paranoia. (You’re welcome to make your case otherwise in the comments.)

Then I showed up and saw that everybody else had brought the usual array of devices. And a disturbing number of them weren’t even bothering to use encryption for things as basic as e-mail.

The conference that got away: Viva Tech 2018

In an alternate universe, Sunday’s recap of my last week’s work would have included a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, the growing tech gathering that’s now in its third year. In 2016 and 2017, I moderated a round of discussions and got my travel covered, which was an excellent way to go to one of my favorite cities.

That didn’t happen this year, and I’m the reason why. I didn’t think to e-mail anybody involved with the conference until a third of the way through April, which in retrospect was absurdly late for an event of this size. I got a reply a few days later, saying they were “quite advanced” in assigning panels but wanted to know if there were particular topics I could handle.

My response emphasized my flexibility, which may have been a mistake in that it didn’t say “give me everything open on this topic.” In any case, I didn’t get another e-mail back and then ensured I wouldn’t be going to Viva Tech by not sending any more myself.

(If you listen closely, you may now be able to pick out the sound of a rather small violin playing for me.)

The lesson here is nothing new: Sitting back and waiting for good things to happen is more likely to result in nothing happening. Which in this case not only foreclosed any chance of organizer-paid airfare and lodging but also meant I didn’t get to cover Viva Tech talks by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

I did, however, avoid having four weeks in a row of business travel, and being around this weekend meant I could catch up with an old friend from my college paper at a gathering on the roof of his apartment building. That wasn’t so bad.

I will try to be more assertive for next year’s Viva Tech… although its mid-May scheduling may overlap with Google I/O. In which case: le sigh.

My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.

Conference-app feature request: block out my schedule as I pick panels

NEW ORLEANS–My calendar includes a lot of conferences (especially this month), and as a result my phone features a lot of conference apps.

Collision app schedulingThe conference that has me here, Collision, has one such app. As these things go–meaning, let’s set aside how many of their features could be done just as well by Web apps–it’s not bad. But the personalization tool that lets you cobble together a schedule of talks that appeal to you is deeply broken.

The schedule at Collision, as at other conferences with multiple stages and venues, is packed with events that happen at the same time. The app should clear up that clutter by not letting me be in two places at once–meaning, when I add a talk to my schedule, it should gray out every other talk overlapping with that timeslot.

That way, I’d immediately see the opportunity cost of going to one talk versus another. But the Collision app does not do that. And although it is smart enough to stick an orange “Priority” label next to my own panels, it doesn’t even block out talks overlapping with the most important items on my agenda.

This is a common failing with conference apps. I don’t recall the SXSW app doing this kind of schedule triage, even though that’s even more vital at an event with so many more overlapping tracks. The app for Google I/O, my destination next week, definitely omits this function. And since the Web Summit app is built from the same template as the Collision app, it will repeat this omission… unless somebody in management is sufficiently moved by this post. Can y’all hear me out on this?