An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.

Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.

 

Event-space review (second in a series): the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

My work-from-home job doesn’t provide me with a regular commute to an office, but it does allow an irregular commute to a handful of event spaces in the District for one conference or another. Last summer, I posted a guide to the most frequent such venue, the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center; second place on that list probably belongs to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a few blocks west on Pennsylvania Avenue. If you’ve got an event coming up in this enormous facility–at 3.1 million square feet, it’s the largest building in the District–here’s what you need to know.

Reagan building Reagan bustLocation

The Reagan Building’s 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW address is obviously convenient for anybody walking from the rest of downtown, taking Metro (the Orange, Silver and Blue lines have a stop in the basement) or taking the 14th Street Bridge from Virginia (though I can’t speak to parking options). But with an oversized Capital Bikeshare dock on its 14th Street side and the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track around the corner, it’s also well situated for two-wheeled travel.

Be advised that one does not just walk into the Reagan Building, because its entrances greet you with metal detectors and X-ray scanners. It annoys me that I have to take my laptop out of my bag when I don’t need to do that at airports… by virtue of the Global Entry membership I obtained with a cursory interview in this very building.

Bandwidth and power

Many of the Reagan Building’s meeting spaces are below street level and therefore have terrible phone reception. Inconveniently enough, the WiFi requires a username and password–and yet every event I go to here seems to leave that information out of the program. Half the time, the event organizers also forget to tape a printout with those details in any obvious spot.

Power outlets, however, are reasonably easy to find. I can’t remember seeing the auditoriums get split into two or three, so if you’re in a room you should be able to count on locating one along a wall instead of realizing that you’ve found a temporary divider.

Reagan building atriumCatering

It’s been remarkably good over the variety of events I’ve attended here, not all with high-dollar production values. I can’t say that I’ve had any memorable meals here, but what do you want for free ethics-compliant hors d’oeuvres?

Extras

There’s not much of a view to be had from most of the building, leaving you to focus on the Reagan Building’s own fine if restrained architecture. The vast atrium that greets you when you enter from 14th Street is one of Washington’s better public spaces, but otherwise this edifice focuses on fitting into the rest of the Federal Triangle area. Since the Reagan Building filled a parking lot, I’d say it succeeds at that.

If you weren’t a fan of Reagan’s rhetoric about the risks of government power, you can also derive a certain malicious glee at seeing the 40th president memorialized in an $818 million temple–double earlier estimates!–to big government.

Okay, maybe this SXSW commercialism really has gotten out of hand

AUSTIN–SXSW is really two events. One is the long series of panels and keynotes that teach me new things and get wheels turning in my brain for weeks afterward–for instance, yesterday President Obama did a Q&A that was supposed to be a sales pitch for SXSW techies to lend their talents to making government work better but wound up being his most revealing discussion about device encryption ever.

Sixth Street during SXSW(Twitter was not pleased with Obama’s displeasure about “fetishizing our phones above every other value,” to judge from my own timeline.)

But there’s also the Marketing Spring Break that surrounds this conference, in which every other social media manager, PR rep, advertising executive, and brand ambassador in America takes their employer or client’s corporate credit card and goes on a spending spree with restaurants, bars and caterers here.

The result is a schedule crammed with happy hours, receptions and parties, this year even more so than in the four before that I’ve been privileged to attend this event. My own calendar this evening features five events, most overlapping each other’s time slot. I am not sure what I could say to a normal human being’s “I hate you” assessment:

2) “Don’t hate the player, hate the game!”
3) Actually, just go ahead and hate me.

It’s not just tech startups lighting their investors’ money on fire in the hope of repeating Twitter’s 2007 SXSW breakout. The social scene here also features a wide variety of big-name Establishment firms looking to capture “mind share” by giving away free beer, tacos and BBQ–anytime I am overcome with SXSW-scheduling angst over which panel I won’t be able to attend, I can chill at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Connected Yard, the McDonald’s Loft, the Budweiser Beer Garage, or the Comcast Social Media Lounge.

I don’t know how all of these companies can get an acceptable return on their investment. What I do know: I’m not getting out of this place any skinnier.

CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.

 

Things I did not get around to doing in five days of CES

LAS VEGAS–Another CES is in the books for me. I’m departing a day later than most people, and I still did not have time to cross everything off my to-do list. I’m not going to say I missed all these things, but the show still feels a little incomplete without them:

GoPro clusterAttend CES Unveiled: The show’s opening reception is always a total zoo, but it also represents my first chance to say hi to all the tech-nerd friends I haven’t seen in months. Unveiled was never going to happen once my tardy booking of flights (meaning, Oct. 4) left no reasonably priced options that would get me into Vegas in time for the event but not with hours to kill beforehand.

Take a taxi or a shuttle van: With Uber and Lyft finally operating throughout the city and even picking up passengers, I did not have to bother with either McCarran’s horrendous taxi line (with a ripoff $3 credit-card-payment surcharge waiting at the end of the ride) or the long wait for a shuttle van to depart. I did, however, have to learn that there’s a floor 2M between floors 2 and 3 in the T1 parking deck, on which you must meet a ride-hailing service’s vehicle.

See the opening keynote: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynotes have been more substantial than average at CES, but I didn’t finish a few work chores in the Mandalay Bay press room Tuesday to get to the Venetian in time for this year’s presentation. I’ll have to watch it when I get home.

Get to Pepcom’s Digital Experience: This reception is a great way to catch up with a wide variety of smaller exhibitors and get a decent meal, but a Yahoo Tech team dinner had to take priority.

CES security stickerHave my bag searched: This year’s CES was supposed to involve screening of everybody’s bags. But the security-pocalypse we all dreaded never happened. Nobody ever searched my bag on any of the times I entered a CES exhibit, not even when I got a green “Security Approved” sticker placed on it Tuesday morning. I am fine with that; I faced a much bigger risk every time I had to cross six- or 10-lane roads designed with an “Auto über alles” mentality.

Take a show shuttle from the convention center: I only took one of the official show shuttle buses Tuesday morning. The rest of the week, I either walked to the convention center (I found an Airbnb room only 10 minutes’ walk away) or took city buses up and down the Strip.

Ride the monorail: Not staying in a giant hotel on the east side of the Strip made this high-priced but traffic-independent ride irrelevant on most days. I should have taken it Thursday night, though; going from the convention center to the Cosmopolitan by bus took about an hour.

Strip trafficSee VR porn: This is apparently a thing now, and I did not clear time in my schedule–in the interest of science!–to attend the demo my friend Sascha Segan wrote up at PCMag.com.

Test-drive the Chevy Bolt: I had to blow off an appointment to test-drive this compact electric vehicle because I needed to finish writing a couple of stories. Read my Yahoo colleague Daniel Howley’s report to see what I missed.

Gamble: Not staying in a hotel with a casino waiting downstairs severely lowered my odds of getting in any blackjack time. And by the time Friday night’s events were wrapping up, I was too tired anyway. Considering that I had the Terminator for a dealer the last time I gambled here, that may not be the worst thing ever.

2015 in review: less change than usual

I’m ending 2015 writing for the same core set of clients as in 2014–Yahoo Tech, USA Today and the Wirecutter–which ranks as unusual for me. That could change (yes, I’ve read some of the same stories as you about Yahoo’s prospects) but if it does I will figure something out.

2015 calendar view

Another way to look at things would be to say that I need to put more effort into my self-marketing. As in, I only sold a handful of stories to places outside those three, only two of which were new clients. I’m working to improve on that.

But overall, I can’t complain too much about 2015. In addition to once again providing me with the chance to learn and write about a topic I find interesting, this year saw me stumble my way into interviewing will.i.am, shake hands with the last man to walk on the moon (so far!), and have the honor of Washingtonian naming me one of its 100 “Tech Titans.”

After going a year without buying any major new hardware, I have a new phone, a Nexus 5X, and a new tablet, an iPad mini 4. I still need to upgrade both laptops and my desktop, but the computer industry will have to wait until 2016 to get my money.

Travel for work took me to most of the same places as last year, with one exception: Dublin. Going there for Web Summit in November may have been my favorite business trip of the year, because the trip doubled as an overdue reunion with some of my Irish cousins and an overdue introduction to the youngest among them.

I hope your year also afforded a chance to reconnect with friends or family you hadn’t seen in too long. Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you in 2016.