Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

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Recommended Precision Touchpad settings

I’ve yet to ease into a new computer without having to fuss with some of the default settings, and the HP Spectre x360 laptop sitting on this desk has fit right into the pattern.

Most of the tweaking has involved its touchpad, because I’ve always found the defaults in Windows to be too jumpy. (I’ve said the same about some Mac touchpad defaults.) But after a few days of clicking around the stock Synaptics software, I realized I should first dump that for drivers supporting Microsoft’s more elegant Precision Touchpad software.

The directions I found on Reddit (embedded here after the jump) worked, and then I could easily shut off the touch behaviors I couldn’t stand.

  • “Touchpad sensitivity”: I changed this from the default “Medium” to “Low” because, again, jumpy touchpads bother me. I may try turning it back off to see if disabling the following two options made the standard sensitivity acceptable.
  • “Tap with a single finger to single-click”: This is the one setting I change on every laptop. If I want to click, I’m more than happy to press down so the touchpad makes an audible click; having it treat a stray touch as a click leaves me randomly dumping the cursor into documents and windows and feeling generally stabby as a result.
  • “Press the lower right corner of the touchpad to right-click”: I disabled this because it’s easier for me to remember to tap with two fingers to right-click than to keep track of which side of this invisible line I’m about to tap.

I hope this advice–which should also work on any other laptop running Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad software–makes for a more pleasant laptop computing experience. If you have other suggested settings changes, please share them in the comments.

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A Thanksgiving baking project: almost-no-work bread

Well over a decade since I got into the habit of baking sandwich bread from scratch, I still remember how nervous I was at first about winding up with a deflated loaf. The recipe I’m sharing here cuts that risk as close to zero as possible; all it asks in return is about 24 hours of time.

Because I, too, am a little hesitant to try out a recipe with that much latency, I waited to try the “No-Work Bread” recipe in my well-read copy of Mark Bittman’s “How To Cook Everything” (which you may have seen in the New York Times as “No-Knead Bread”). I shouldn’t have: This product of Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey is the most fault-tolerant bread recipe I know, and if you start it by mid-afternoon Wednesday you can have it ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

(My apologies if you’ll be spending Wednesday afternoon on highways or in the air. Maybe bookmark this for Christmas?)

  • 4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 2/3 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups water, about 70 degrees
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal

Mix the flour and salt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir the yeast into the water, and after a few minutes mix that into the dry ingredients for longer than seems necessary. This may look like a mess, but as long as you don’t have any chunky bits left, you should be fine.

(Bittman’s original recipe calls for half a teaspoon of instant yeast, which I never buy because Costco sells regular yeast in a 2-pound package. The last time I made this, I forgot the 1:1.33 instant-to-active-yeast conversion and threw the non-instant yeast in with the dry ingredients. Everything turned out fine; as I said, fault-tolerant.)

Take a 3-quart bowl and coat it with the olive oil. Dump the dough into it, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it alone for about 18 hours. You’ll know it’s done, or close enough, when it’s risen to near the top and it’s covered with bubbles as if they were craters on the surface of the moon.

(While the dough enjoys that long rise, you may want to watch an episode of the Great British Baking Show for motivational purposes.)

Dust a clean surface with flour and pour the soggy dough onto it–taking a moment to enjoy the aroma of the risen, fermented yeast. Fold the dough over a couple of times into a ball, more or less, and cover it with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

After that rest, scatter more flour on the dough and re-form it into a ball. Scatter the cornmeal on a silicone baking mat, wax paper, or a towel (as in, something that you can grab to lift the dough off the surface) and leave the dough ball there for two hours.

About an hour and 15 minutes into that last rise, put a 3- to 4-quart pot, cover included, into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Half an hour later after hitting 450°, open the oven, remove the lid and dump the dough into the pot.

This is when the results–a damp glob slumped unevenly in the pot, part of it stuck to its side–may look like a culinary catastrophe. Ignore the untidy appearance, put the lid back on, and shove it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Open the oven, remove the lid and you should see that the bread has settled back into a somewhat flattened ball. Set the lid aside, close the oven and bake for another 20 minutes. If the crust looks browned like something in a real bakery, it’s done; otherwise, try another 10 minutes.

Let the bread cool for 30 minutes. Try not to eat it all at once.

Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.

Another experiment in spending Facebook’s money on a Facebook ad

Last week, Facebook offered me a chance to play with the house’s money: a $10 ad credit to boost my ode to RFK Stadium, which the social network’s algorithms had seen drawing an outsized audience on my page there.

Facebook RFK-post ad reportLike the last time I got this freebie, I could target people for the ad by geography, interests (as perceived by Facebook), age range and gender. Unlike the last time, I got this warning, Facebook’s belated response to learning that its self-service ad system was not magically bigotry-proof: “Ad sets that use targeting terms related to social, religious or political issues may require additional review before your ads start running.”

The logical demographic to target for a post about RFK would have been the greater Washington area–but Facebook didn’t present any such option. In a hurry and on my phone, I told it to target users in D.C., Bethesda, Silver Spring, Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax.

Then I stuck with the default age range of 21 to 65+ and added the following interests: music festivals, Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, D.C. United and local history. RFK being its dilapidated self, it’s too bad “peeling paint” wasn’t a choice.

Three days later, I got my results: The ad reached 847 people and yielded all of 26 clicks through to my post here. That leaves me nowhere near Russian propagandists in using money to get people’s attention on Facebook–even if in terms of reach I fared about as well as Sens. Mark Warner (D.-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D.-Minn.) did in their test purchase of ads to lure Hill staffers and reporters to a fake Facebook group.

But while I still see no reason to spend my own money on Facebook ads, I hope the site continues to throw out these freebies. It’s fascinating to see how the marketing machinery works from the inside; that alone easily justifies the time I put into my Facebook page.

The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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Arcadia Power, or how I’m offsetting half our electricity’s carbon footprint for free

I can credit President Trump for our latest renewable-energy move. The day he announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement–in almost four years, and for fraudulent reasons–I felt a little more motivated to find more ways to cut down on our home’s carbon footprint.

We’ve long since done the easy stuff, like having insulation blown into the walls, ditching incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs and then LEDS, and replacing a grossly inefficient air-conditioning unit. (Okay, the A/C forced that upon us by dying in the first hot week of last summer.) Putting solar panels on our roof would make a major difference but at a high upfront cost–and waiting until next year or the year after should yield a further decline in that expense.

Arcadia Power energy-use graphicIn our case, that leaves carbon-offset programs, in which you pay to have your energy use offset by buying a share of renewable energy produced elsewhere. Purchasing “Renewable Energy Certificates” won’t immediately leave more coal in the ground, so it’s no substitute for your electric utility selling a renewable-only option. But when your utility is Dominion Energy–which generates only 5.6 percent of its electricity from renewables (versus 33.8 percent from nuclear, 33.6 percent from gas and 26.5 percent from coal) and spends lavishly to stop Richmond from mandating anything greener–that’s all you have.

Dominion has its own REC program, but environmental advocates have criticized it for high overhead costs and its failure to support solar and wind projects in Virginia. What I didn’t realize until the president’s petulance about Paris got me to do some more research: Better options exist.

The one I picked is a D.C.-based firm called Arcadia Power that, thanks to a round of venture-capital funding last year, will offset half of your electricity for free. I was a little skeptical at first, but the energy experts at Grist took a skeptical look at the company and did not find it wanting. Arcadia also offers a 100-percent offset plan–at a higher per-kWh rate than Dominion’s REC surcharge–and a community-solar subscription option, but they aren’t things I need to figure out immediately.

Setting up an account there involved a day or two of waiting to have it take over my Dominion account–yes, I had to cough up my username and password first–and then getting confirmation that Arcadia was now managing my account. Since then, it’s been a drama-free experience. My payment was processed as usual from my bank (Arcadia apparently has to pass along Dominion’s credit-card-payment surcharge), and I didn’t get dinged for the bill a second time by Dominion.

The one part that hasn’t worked out so far: While Arcadia has a referral program, neither of the environmentally-minded friends I’ve spammed about it have signed up. So while I’m not spending more to support renewable energy, I may not actually save money on the deal.