CES 2017 travel-tech report: My devices are showing their age

 

I took the same laptop to CES for the fifth year in a row, which is not the sort of thing you should admit at CES. I’m blaming Apple for that, in the form of its failure to ship an affordable update to the MacBook Air, but 2016’s Windows laptops also failed to close the deal.

My mid-2012 MacBook Air did not punish my hubris by dying halfway through the show and instead was content to remind me of its battery’s age by running down rapidly once past 25 percent of a charge. Seeing a “Service Battery” alert last fall had me thinking of getting the battery replaced beforehand, but my local Apple Store’s diagnostic check reported that I could hold off on that for a little longer.

2017-ces-gearWhen I had to recharge my MacBook, nearby attendees could also guess its age from the black electrical tape I had to apply to its power cord to cover a frayed area–yes, this is the power adapter I bought not even two years ago. In any darkened room, they might have also noticed the glow coming my from my laptop’s N key, on which the backlight shines through now that this key’s black coating has begun to rub off.

My Nexus 5X Android phone, my other note-taking device, kept bogging down as I was switching from app to app. If I could upgrade the RAM on this thing, I could–but, oops, I can’t. Its camera, however, once again did well for most shots, and T-Mobile’s LTE held up up except for press-conference day at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

WiFi was once again atrocious. I’m not surprised by this, only that the Consumer Technology Association tolerated this kind of crap connectivity at its most important event.

Two hardware items I know I can and should easily replace before next year’s CES are the USB charger I took for my phone and my travel power strip.

The remarkably compact charger that came with my wife’s old Palm Pixi almost 10 years ago still functions as designed, but it doesn’t charge my phone fast enough. I only took that item to Vegas because I lost the charger that came with my Nexus 5X (yes, the one I almost misplaced last year at CES) at Google I/O. I should have packed my iPad mini’s charger, which replenishes my phone much faster, but I won’t mind buying a cheap, fast-charging, two-port USB charger. Any endorsements?

My travel power strip also charges USB devices slowly, but the bigger problem is this Belkin accessory’s relative bulk. The Wirecutter now recommends a more compact Accell model; remind me to get that sometime soon.

I’d written last year that I probably wouldn’t take my aging Canon 330 HS point-and-shoot for another CES, but I did anyway. I experienced my usual wishes for better low-light performance and the ability to touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus, but this camera’s lens cover also no longer closes without me nudging its plastic petals into place.

I should have spent more time at CES checking out replacements, but I only had time to verify that the Canon pocket-sized model that looked most appealing doesn’t take panoramic photos.

I’d like to think that I’ll address all of these hardware issues well before next year’s CES. I’d also like to think that by then, I will always remember to note a CES event’s location in its calendar entry.

Mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe

This time of year means falling behind on gift shopping and getting overrun by CES pitches, but it also brings my annual excuse to make my mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe. It’s pretty great and not that much work, though the dough does call for an overnight stay in the fridge. Share and enjoy!

Christmas cookies (an old recipe)

Makes a few dozen cookies, depending on cutter size

  • christmas-cookies-before4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl, then set aside. In a stand mixer’s bowl (or a large, regular bowl; you can combine everything by hand with more effort and sufficiently soft butter), mix butter, sugar and egg, then add sour cream and vanilla before adding the flour mixture. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

christmas-cookies-coolingThe next day, cut the ball of cookie dough in half. Preheat oven to 375° and lightly grease cookie sheets with butter or cover them with parchment paper. Cover a clean kitchen surface with flour and roll each half of the dough flat to about 1/4 in. thick. Cut with cookie cutters, place on cookie sheets and decorate with colored sugar (I stick with red and green because Christmas, but use what you like). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

About those cookie cutters: You want a mixture of small, bite-size cookies in generic shapes and larger, statement cookies for when you absolutely, positively need 200-plus calories of cookie in one serving.

You also want some creative shapes. Stars, basic geometric shapes, trees, and gingerbread men and women all work. But as the D.C.-outline cookies in these photos should attest, I’ve grown fond of state-shaped cookie cutters like those you can buy in the District at Hill’s Kitchen, across the street from the Eastern Market Metro stop and just off the 8th Street SE row of shops in Capitol Hill.

Verizon’s online tech support needs some serious work

Yesterday I logged into my Verizon account for the first time in months and got an unpleasant and embarrassing surprise: a $2.80 “router maintenance” fee for having an old router. It was unpleasant as all junk fees are, embarrassing because I’d covered this exact problem in my USA Today column.

And Verizon had even warned me about the charge. Once. A July 19 e-mail advised me to upgrade my router to avoid the fee but offered no instructions on returning the router I hadn’t used since 2012–since we don’t get Fios TV, I’ve always been able to plug in the router of my choice.

verizon-chat-safari-incompatibilityI saw on Verizon’s support site that I could have them call me back, so I plugged in my number. After a day of nobody calling, I tweeted to the @VerizonSupport account that this support option wasn’t too supportive. In a direct-message reply, a rep told me to try Verizon’s chat instead.

I hadn’t seen that as a choice on the support site earlier, and clicking that link yielded a 1990s-esque error page with the useless message “We are sorry, but a problem with your request has occurred.” Somehow, this chat doesn’t work in Safari. Memo to Verizon: Running the default Mac browser is not an edge case.

I asked why we couldn’t deal with my problem in our direct-message chat. My interlocutor’s reply: “We have to secure your account and the chat is the secure location for that.”

verizon-tech-support-chatFine. The chat link did work in Chrome, and then I was treated to thanks-for-your-patience automated messages every 30 seconds, each heralded by an annoying chime. The chimes stopped at some point, but a rep never showed up until I closed the chat window by mistake.

I tried again, and a human entered the chat right away. The rep asked for my name, phone number, address and account number–an understandable request, since I wasn’t logged into my Verizon account in Chrome, but also information that I could have given just as easily in a Twitter DM chat.

Which would have been more secure too: Chrome reports that Verizon’s chat site employs the obsolete and insecure SHA-1 algorithm.

After some back and forth to establish that I haven’t powered on this old, Verizon-issued router in years, the rep said Verizon would send a return mailer kit for the thing and, after I asked a second time, said they would also refund the two months of router-maintenance charges.

Total time to get $5.60 returned to me: about two hours. I need to rethink this particular business model.

 

Why yes, I did get your CES pitch. Again.

As I started working on this post, my phone buzzed and its screen lit up with a predictable subject line: “Are you going to CES?”

Of course it did. And of course I am. This January will mark my 20th consecutive trip to CES, the gadget gathering formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show–which itself will mark its 50th anniversary. So this December features not just my usual late and disorganized attempts to shop for gifts, but the annual wave of requests to book meetings at CES.

And just like last year, I have yet to address more than a small fraction of that correspondence. To save tech-PR types some time, here are my answers to the most frequent questions about my schedule in the first week of January. To save myself time, I copied much of this from last year’s post.

GoPro clusterAre you still going to CES?

Since I’m apparently serving a life sentence at this show, that would be a yes. I’ll be there from Tuesday morning through Saturday night.

Will we see you at our press conference?

Your odds are actually better this year, since my flight should land at LAS before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. That leaves me a lot more time for the events before the show officially opens Thursday. But that doesn’t change the basic problem of big-ticket press conferences at CES: endless lines to get in. Not be all “do you know who I am?!,” but if you can put me on whatever list frees me from spending an hour queued up in a hallway, it will help your company’s cause.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. I should have answered all of these pitches by now; sorry for the delay.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Thursday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Friday will find me in the South Hall of the LVCC (it’s become drone central) and then probably in the Sands, where it looks like I’ll be moderating a panel on cybersecurity… which will actually be the second panel on cybersecurity I’ll do that day, because CES.
  • Saturday’s my day to cover everything else before what I’m sure will be a delightful 3.5-hour red-eye flight to O’Hare and then home to National Airport.

Can we set up a meeting at [Pepcom/ShowStoppers]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom (Pepcom is in the Mirage, ShowStoppers at the Wynn), rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Strip trafficCan you come to our reception/happy hour/dinner/party? 

Pepcom and ShowStoppers have me occupied most of Wednesday and Thursday night, but if you have an event before or after them in someplace nearby, I’m more likely to show up. If your event has a couch I can fall asleep on, that might help too. If it will be in a place with no convenient way to charge my devices, that will not help.

Okay, jerk, we get that you’re busy. Are there any times or places that won’t cause you to whine about your trying circumstances?

So glad you asked! Considering how annoying it is to get around Vegas during CES, giving journalists a lift in exchange for a quick product pitch can be pretty smart–I’m surprised I’ve only gotten one offer along those lines. Breakfast is also a good time to try to get a reporter’s attention at CES, because what they do to bagels in CES press rooms should be a crime. And remember that I’m around through Saturday–my schedule should open up after the insanity of Thursday.

Any interest in the e-mail I sent yesterday?

If there is, I promise I will write back… in the next week or so… probably.

Year-end cash considerations

Yesterday, I forgot to invoice Yahoo for the last month’s worth of stories, and my stupid oversight may save me a little money next year.

That’s because the odds of payment for November’s work at Yahoo Finance arriving by Dec. 31 just got two days’ worse. And if I don’t get paid by then, I don’t owe taxes on the money until 2017.

2016-in-changeThe downside of this scenario is that my 2016 income, already assured to fall below 2015’s because I wrote less than usual in early summer, will drop even more. That potential embarrassment bugs me, but apparently not enough that I remembered to get the payment machinery in gear by Friday.

Deferring income isn’t exactly an advanced financial hack, but it is something I couldn’t do when I worked on a salary.

Tax calculations should also drive me to go on a moderate hardware-spending binge this month. My laptop and my desktop are both ancient, and replacing either now would put a nice big expense on my Schedule C.

Alas, Apple seems uninterested in shipping a new laptop in my price range, or a new desktop at any price. The Windows universe offers a few enticing options, but on closer inspection I realize that the laptops I like all omit at least one feature I’d appreciate.

More important, CES is now only a month away. And I can’t possibly make any big electronics purchases before using that event to see what the gadget industry has in store for this year–its no accident that electronics rarely land on my Christmas list.

That leaves me another way to lower my tax burden: a late-December spree of charitable donations. You may have read a lot on Twitter about #GivingTuesday this week, but for me that day comes on the last Tuesday of this month–when I know the donation will count for my 2016 taxes but won’t come due on on my credit-card bill until sometime in February. Please do the same if you’re financially able.

Virginia voting tip: distrust constitutional amendments

Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.

Newspaper ad for 2016 Virginia constitutional amendmentsOver more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.

This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.

Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.

This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”

On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.

Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.

But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:

“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law

No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.

Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?

We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.

My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.

R.I.P., Vine: what I learned from sharing 100 six-second clips

I can’t lie: When Vine came into the world in January of 2013, I thought that sharing six-second video clips was ridiculous. My comment at the time was that we had moved one step closer to the blipvert ads of Max Headroom.

vine-app-logoI resolutely avoided the Vine app (not hard to do when my phone was chronically out of space) until a year and a half later, when I found myself staring at a crosswalk sign that kept saying “Change Password” instead of “Walk” or “Don’t Walk.”

There was no other choice. I installed the app and uploaded my first of many six-second clips.

I’ve now shared exactly 100 of them–a nice round number I didn’t quite notice until Twitter announced today that it would kill this video-sharing service.

The most common theme of my Vines has been “weird stuff at tech events”: dancing robots, another dancing robot, a drone herding painted sheep, a bot barista, and a two-faced TV. That last clip, shared from CES this January, has been my most viewed one, thanks to it being embedded in a Yahoo post.

But I’ve also found that six seconds is just the right amount of time to illustrate an inefficiency in a smartphone interface, document an obnoxious abuse of Web coding, and catch a smartwatch failing to keep up with the time.

Vine turned out to be a crafty way to share non-tech tidbits too: the tide going out, the view from the front of a Barcelona Metro train, the American flag in a breeze over the Mississippi, butterflies flapping their wings, a plane taking off from National Airport.

I realized that having a completely artificial constraint can force you to be creative–just like Twitter’s 140-character count or a print headline’s two-column cap impose their own discipline. And I learned that having only minimal editing options pushed me to get a clip in one take instead of thinking I could clean it up later (meaning I would never get around to doing so).

Meanwhile, you all who shared your own Vines helped keep me entertained, informed, and sometimes weirded out.

Now that’s all winding down. Why? Twitter’s post announcing the impending shutdown of Vine’s apps–but not the vine.co site archiving our clips–said nothing about that. Twitter’s struggles to monetize Vine had to have been an issue, but I’d like to think that the Vine below may also help explain what went wrong.