CES tips for rookie reporters, 2022 edition

This January will mark my 25th trek to CES and will be my 26th CES overall, counting the 2021 virtual edition of the show. A quarter of a century of CES practice may not have taught me how to escape having this pilgrimage to Las Vegas tear me away from my family right after the holidays, but it has given me some insight into making the gadget gathering produced by the Arlington-based Consumer Technology Association a little more efficient, productive and cheaper.

(You may have read an earlier version of this guide, but I somehow haven’t revisited this topic since 2013.)

Planning

The most annoying part of this event happens weeks before you board a plane to Vegas, when a non-trivial fraction of the tech publicists in the universe start asking if they can book a meeting with you and their client at the show. Be exceedingly conservative in accepting those invitations: You will be late to most CES meetings (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of their own.

(After getting the 50th “are you going to CES?” e-mail, you may also fairly wonder: If the time and attention of tech journalists is really this valuable, when does our compensation better reflect that?)

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung or an LG–when scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars or other shelf-stable sustenance, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a reusable water bottle; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with a generous mobile-hotspot data allocation or a WiFi hotspot); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking; twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger. And tape your business card to it, in case you leave it behind in one of the press rooms.

The West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2022, with the CES logo splashed across its glass facade.

Press conferences and other events 

The first of two media days features a light afternoon lineup of talks, followed by the CES Unveiled reception that may be your first chance in months to say hi to some fellow tech journalists and analysts. The second media day–the day before the show opens, so it’s technically CES Day Zero–consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip.

Unless you get VIP access, you can’t count on getting into every press conference–in the Before Times, the lines outside always stretched on for so long that making it into one press conference required skipping the one before it. And except for Sony’s presser at its show-floor exhibit, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware and may not even allow for Q&A with the people involved.

CES features a long line of keynotes, starting on the evening of press-conference day. They can be entertaining but often don’t get beyond being a live sales pitch for a company; you’re more likely to find news in the even longer lineup of issue-specific panels.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew puts together my trips to IFA in Berlin, subsidized by that German tech show.) Each provides access to a ballroom of vendors showing off their wares, a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both of these essential services can be in pitifully short supply around CES, so it’s good that laptop and phone battery lives have improved greatly in recent years. You should still follow the “always be charging” rule and plug in all your devices anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. The press rooms should have plenty of power strips, but that doesn’t mean one at your table will have an outlet free; if you have a compact travel power strip (my friend Rakesh Agrawal recently shared some useful advice about that in his newsletter), please bring it.

Wireless connectivity, however, hasn’t advanced as much at CES. The show has yet to feature free, event-wide WiFi, and even when individual events and venues offer WiFi you can’t expect it to work all that well. Cell coverage itself may be less than reliable in the middle of large, packed convention-center halls. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–171,268 attendees in 2020–and that you should opt for a wired connection if you can find one in a press room.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to the majority of CES exhibitors, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers, and it’s grown substantially since CES 2020.

The LVCC’s Central Hall, with 623,058 square feet of exhibit space and the home of the big-ticket electronics vendors exhibit, can eat up a day by itself, and the new, 601,960-sf West Hall can be as much of a timesuck with all of the automotive and transportation exhibits there. You shouldn’t need as much time to walk the North Hall (409,177 sf) and South Hall (908,496 sf over two levels), each home to a grab-bag of health-tech, telecom, drone and robotics vendors, among others. And don’t forget the parking lot in front of LVCC Central, which this January featured such once-unlikely CES exhibitors as John Deere and Sierra Space–the product of CTA’s efforts to broaden this show beyond consumer electronics.

Budget at least 10 minutes to get from one of these halls to another, 30 to hustle from one end to the other. The free-for-now Vegas Loop–a narrow tunnel with stops at the South, Central and West Halls traversed by Teslas driven by some of the most sociable people in Vegas–can shorten that end-to-end ride, but I’m not sure it will scale to meet CES-level demand.

But wait, there’s more! The Venetian (formerly Sands) Expo about a mile and a half southwest of the LVCC hosts most of the smart-home vendors on its main level, while its lower level hides Eureka Park, a fabulously weird space teeming with startups from around the world. A few companies also set up separate exhibits in restaurants and bars in the Venetian itself.

Many companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

The view from the front passenger seat of a Tesla as it enters the Vegas Loop tunnel from the aboveground LVCC West station.

Getting around

In a word: ugh. CES has a long history of grinding the streets of Vegas to a halt, with the Venetian Expo-LVCC shuttle bus often taking well over half an hour because Clark County apparently has never heard of bus-only lanes. (CES 2022, with attendance depressed by the pandemic to about 44,000, felt blissfully efficient in comparison.) The show shuttle buses also routinely suffered from excruciatingly long lines to board, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show.

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic, but at pre-pandemic CESes I often had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management not tolerating D.C.-level crush loads on board. And the monorail conspicuously fails to stop at the Venetian Expo–a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Linq station and walk north.

Your ride-hailing options are also iffy. Lyft and Uber are no longer the great bargain they used to be, and you may find that the pickup/dropoff zone for them at a CES venue is not as convenient as the taxi stand. Vegas taxis, meanwhile, continue to rip off passengers with a $3 credit-card fee, so have cash handy if you’ll use one.

Walking is definitely an option between places on the Strip, but it’s also your fastest way to get from the LVCC to evening events at the Wynn or the Encore even if that mile-and-change walk may remind you of how little Vegas values pedestrians off the Strip.

Don’t overlook transit. Yes, even in Vegas. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada’s bus network includes frequent service on the Strip that shouldn’t be much slower than any other vehicle stuck in traffic. The RTC’s buses can also work for getting to and from Harry Reid International Airport, provided you time your schedule to match their lengthy headways. The rideRTC app isn’t great, but it does beat waiting for a line at a ticket-vending machine or fumbling with cash.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Moderating from the bullpen

LISBON

My Wednesday got a little more interesting halfway through breakfast when my phone buzzed with an e-mail from my Web Summit speaker coordinator: He’d had a panel moderator drop out after a problem with his flight interrupted his travel to Lisbon, and was there any chance I could cover the session?

Oh, and this “Time to define AI” session was starting in two and a half hours.

I like a challenge, my schedule had room for this panel, and I’ve written at non-trivial length about artificial-intelligence applications, so I said I could do the conference equivalent of pitching out of the bullpen.

Then I learned that the original moderator had not e-mailed an outline for the panel, leaving me with just a short briefing written by the organizers weeks ago.

Fortunately, my new speaking partner–Dataiku CEO Florian Douetteau–had written an essay for VentureBeat about his vision for AI a week ago and then shared it on his LinkedIn profile. As I read that, I thought of a fun question that would work for an opening or closing line (do you put “AI,” “machine learning,” “neural network” or some other buzzword on your pitch deck to investors to get the most money out of them?) and reaffirmed that I could still do this.

We had a quick conversation as we walked to the stage, four large convention-center halls away from the speakers’ lounge, that lodged a few more talking points in my head. I transferred them to a paper notepad as we sat backstage, we got fitted with our microphones–and then the talk went fine.

It helped greatly that Douetteau showed himself to be a practiced speaker, easing my job of panel clock management by holding forth on whatever topic I threw out. To put it in D.C.-radio terms, he spoke in NPR-affiliate WAMU paragraphs instead of commercial news-radio WTOP sentences.

We wrapped up the panel within seconds of the scheduled length, the audience applauded, Douetteau and I shook hands, and I had relearned an old lesson: When in doubt but always when it’s reasonably easy, be the person who solves your client’s problems.

A little Lisbon and Web Summit advice

When I arrived in Lisbon for Web Summit in 2016, I had about the least experience possible with the place for somebody who had visited it once before–because that previous visit happened when I was one year old. But over four more Web Summit trips in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021, I’ve gotten a much deeper sense of the city and the conference.

If you’re coming to both for the first time, I hope you will find this post helpful.

A Web Summit sign in the Praça Dom Pedro IV, as seen during 2021's conference.

Arrival

Expect a terrific view of Lisbon and the Tagus River on your way into Humberto Delgado Airport–and then steel yourself for a long passport line if you don’t have a passport from one of the European Union’s member state. (This is the airport that persuaded me to renew my long-dormant Irish passport.) You can and should pick up your Web Summit badge right after you clear customs.

Getting around

The Lisbon Metro should be your new friend. Although its network is not all that extensive, it connects to the airport and Web Summit’s venue (more on that in a moment) and ensures that most parts of the center city are only a short walk from a stop. Of the various fares, I’ve found that a Zapping prepaid credit–also good on buses and Lisbon’s hill-climbing trams–has worked best for me.

Update, 10/27/2022: A reader pointed out that Web Summit has arranged for discounted multiple-day transit passes, with the best involving buying ahead of time at the Lisbon Metro’s site (for instance, €25 for five days) and then redeem at a ticket-vending machine by punching in the voucher code e-mailed to you.

Like all good European cities, Lisbon is marvelously walkable and worth strolling around aimlessly during any idle time you may have (such as the day you arrive, when you’ll want to get some sun on your face to counteract the time-zone shift). But it’s a lot steeper than most, and its stone-mosaic sidewalks are slippery when wet.

Don’t forget to eat. Portugueuse food is delicious, and eating in Lisbon was a bargain long before the dollar hit parity with the euro.

Conference app and site

Web Summit not only provides but mandates Android and iOS mobile apps that store your ticket, let you manage your schedule, and network and chat with other attendees. Think of the app on your phone as Web Summit’s answer to WeChat–except this “everything app” doesn’t come with constant state surveillance.

Unfortunately, the Web Summit app and the Web Summit site don’t synchronize. And the app somehow does not support copy and paste (judging from its performance on my Pixel 5a and iPad mini 5), so if you want to save the description and participants of a panel for your notes, you’ll need to switch from the app to the site, search for the panel on the site, and then copy the info from there.

Venue

Web Summit takes places at the Altice Arena and, next door to that roughly 20,000-seat arena, the Feira Internacional de Lisboa convention center. These buildings are about a 10-minute walk from the Oriente station on the Red Line (Linha Vermelha) of the Lisbon Metro, but it can take easily twice as long to walk from the arena to the most distant hall of the convention center. It can also take a while to get in on the first couple of days, when the queue backs up into the plaza in front of the FIL and the arena.

You should be able to rely on the conference WiFi, but power outlets may be harder to find. If you’re a speaker, you should also be able to rely on the speaker lounge for all your meals; otherwise, there are numerous food trucks and stands to choose from in the plazas between the FIL’s four halls. You should not expect to get to every panel you had in mind, but there are enough interesting talks going on that–as at one of my other regular talkfests, SXSW–it can make sense to camp out in one spot and let yourself be surprised.

Departure

The security lines at LIS can be gruesome, like 30 minutes gruesome. But if you have Star Alliance Gold status (which for U.S. readers usually means Premier Gold or higher status on United) and are flying on a Star Alliance airline like United, TAP or Lufthansa, you can take this airport’s elite-shortcut “Gold Track” line–just remember that it’s labeled “Green Way” instead of “Gold Track” because reasons.

That status also lets you stop by TAP’s lounge if you’re on a Star Alliance carrier, but with the common premium travel credit card perk of a Priority Pass membership you can also enjoy the ANA lounge (no relation to the Japanese airline) regardless of your flight. Either one is good for a breakfast before a long day above the Atlantic. Remember, though, that a potentially tedious non-EU passport exit line awaits after the lounges unless you’re flying to another Schengen-area country.

If even after standing for too long in both the security and passport lines, you still find yourself looking forward to returning to Lisbon–don’t worry, that’s a normal reaction.

I forgot my laptop’s charging cable–and it wasn’t disastrous

NEW YORK

My e travel scenario revealed itself a few minutes after my train pulled out of Union Station Wednesday morning: My gadget-accessories bag was missing the USB-C-to-USB-C cable that I was counting on to connect my compact travel charger to my laptop and phone.

HP Spectre x360 laptop trickle-charging off a USB cable plugged into an aging Palm Pixi charger.

And yet I freaked out less than I would have imagined after realizing I’d forgotten to reclaim the cable that I’d handed to my wife for her Android phone migration–and then deciding to leave my laptop’s heavier charger at home to travel a little lighter.

Fortunately, unlike the could’ve-been-disastrous CES trip that started with me leaving without a proprietary charger for my Washington Post-issued Dell laptop, my HP laptop uses the same charger as most new laptops, Apple’s included. I assumed that would mean I’d have no trouble borrowing chargers after arriviing in NYC, or at least I’d have less trouble than when my old MacBook Air’s power cable fatally frayed at SXSW years ago.

But while I quickly plugged in my computer at my Wednesday-afternoon stop at gadget-reseller Back Market’s Brooklyn offcies–where I led a panel discussion about people’s rights to repair the things they’ve bought–I had to get more creative afterwards.

The front desk at my hotel near Madison Square Park (disclosure: paid for by Qualcomm as part of an event for press and investor types that I attended Thursday) did not have a spare cable, so I tried using the USB-A to USB-C connector that I did have to plug the laptop into the USB charging port next to a nightstand in my room. To my pleasant surprise, that worked, sort of: The computer charged, so slowly that the taskbar icon didn’t even indicate that it was plugged in.

For regular use, this hack of a solution wuold not fly–the trickle of current it provides is so slight that the battery only drains a little more slowly when in active use. But in sleep mode overnight, that slow drip brought the batttery back to full. I repeated this exercise during some idle time Thursday, using the ancient but tiny Palm charger that I had long ago tucked into my gadget-accessories bag on just-in-case grounds.

Once again, it helpd that I’d replaced the battery on this HP last fall, allowing a vastly better battery life than what I would have suffered with a year and a half ago.

Now that I’ve made it through this unplanned exercise in power management and am headed back to home and a full set of chargers and cables, one thing’s for sure: I will not repeat my mistake Wednesday of leaving home without consulting the travel checklist that I’d prepared years ago to avoid this exact situation.

New transit adventures in Berlin

BERLIN

The IFA tech trade show is not like CES in many ways, but transportation tops the list. Unlike the gadget gathering that’s owned my January schedule since 1998, Europe’s biggest electronics event takes place in a city with an immensely more advanced and useful transit network.

I thought I’d figured out Berlin’s expanse of U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram, bus and regional rail lines fairly well, but this week here has taught me a couple of new tricks.

Photo shows a €9 ticket held in front of an arriving S-Bahn train at the Hackescher Markt station.

My first update came from taking advantage of Germany’s move to ease the pain of inflation, the €9 universal transit ticket it introduced in June. While I only had two days to capitalize on that promotion, buying one at a ticket-vending machine at Berlin Brandenburg Airport Tuesday still dramatically cut my trip costs over those last two days of August.

I enjoyed being reacquainted with the things I like about taking trains in Berlin. The rail system reaches almost everywhere (the now-shuttered Tegel Airport being a notable exception), trains come so often that waiting more than 10 minutes (as I had to do on the U5 Tuesday) comes as a shock instead of the usual, and the fare system prices every trip the same regardless of which exact service you take.

Thursday morning, I bought a 24-hour ticket at a ticket-vending machine. But then I screwed up by not getting a second one earlier than Friday evening, when crowds of IFA attendees lined up at the Messe Süd station’s TVMs. Only then did I think of downloading Deutsche Bahn’s app and using that to buy a ticket and avoid the unlikely embarrassment of having a fare inspector bust me for riding without paying.

Installing this app took only a minute or so, thanks to T-Mobile now offering full-speed roaming in the 11 countries in which its corporate parent Deutsche Telekom provides wireless service. Setting up an account and buying a 24-hour ticket took longer, thanks to the app demanding an account registration that included my street address and then not letting me select a credit card stored in Google Pay. But by the time I was three stops out of Messe Sud–the barrier-free, proof-of-payment regime let me board without paying upfront–I had my ticket.

And I’d learned that DB’s app cuts passengers a tiny break on fares, with a 24-hour ticket in Berlin’s A and B zones costing €8.80 instead of the TVM cost of €9.20. That makes DB Navigator a download I don’t mind having added to my small collection of transit payment apps—a set that now includes software for Austin and Las Vegas, but somehow not the city I’ve called home for more than three decades.

Some Time Machine backup-volume trial and error

The Mac-maintenance task that has taken care of itself for most of the last four years brought itself to my attention Wednesday, and I wish it had not. Two days of troubleshooting later, I think I once again have a working backup routine–but I still don’t know what went wrong here.

My first hint that Apple’s Time Machine backup system had shifted out of its usual orbit was an error message Wednesday night reporting that my backup volume had become read-only, making further backup cycles impossible.

The drive in question, a 2-terabyte Seagate portable drive that I’d bought in 2018, seemed too young to be suffering from disk corruption. Especially since other partitions on this hard drive remained readable and writeable.

So I opened Apple’s Disk Utility, selected the Time Machine backup partition, and clicked “First Aid.” Several minutes later, this app returned an inscrutable, no-can-do result:

The volume Time Machine backups could not be repaired. 

File system check exit code is 8.

Well, then.

Disk Utility’s help was of no help, reporting “No Results Found” when I searched for that error message and shorter versions of it. Googling for “check exit code is 8” yielded nothing at Apple’s support site (a fruitless result confirmed by Apple’s own search) but did surface a data-recovery firm’s explainer that this was “one of the most frustrating file system errors to encounter, and it is difficult to know if you are experiencing a logical or physical fault on the hard drive.”

Trying to repair the volume a few more times with Disk Utility–a suggestion in a Stack Exchange thread that seemed worth testing–didn’t yield a better outcome. An attempt to copy the entire Time Machine volume to the partition that I’d created on this Seagate drive last year to usher my data from my old iMac to my current Mac mini stopped early; Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper app was less informative than usual, saying it “Failed to copy files.”

Then I realized that I was looking right at a short-term answer: wiping that no-longer-needed iMac disk-image partition, then making it my new Time Machine backup volume while leaving the old Time Machine partition alone. After a timeout to unplug the drive and then plug it back in, without which Disk Utility would not reformat the partition, this fix seems to be working. But just in case, I’ve also plugged a 1-terabyte SSD into my Mac mini as a backup to my backup.

It would be great if Apple would provide clearer explanations and more usable fixes to disk errors like this. But considering that Time Machine’s starfield file-restore interface hasn’t changed since it debuted in 2007, I will not stay up late waiting for those updates.

A new adventure in digital imaging

I started my week by concluding a day and a half of not eating any solid food, then getting knocked out and having a camera boldly go where no camera had gone before. By which I mean I finally had a colonoscopy–a medical procedure that was a mystery to me until a few months ago.

I don’t want it to be a mystery to you, so I’ll try to explain it here.

The reason to go through this ritual is because colorectal cancer is both common–the fourth most common kind of cancer in the U.S., and have I mentioned how much I hate cancer?–and relatively easy to prevent with proper screening.

An overdue physical exam last year reminded me that I was overdue for this check-up. After an unproductive round of phone calls (the first office suggested proved itself incapable of returning a call), I had a screening scheduled. For several months later.

Fortunately, that screening yielded a colonoscopy date just two weeks away. Which, after a health-insurance glitch that briefly saw the insurance company appear to question my existence, led me to boarding the gastrointestinal roller coaster of colonoscopy prep.

“Prep” here means preparing your colon for its close-up: The camera that a doctor will send into your large intestine by the shortest possible path–that’s right, up your butt–works best with a view devoid of any food remnants. Prep routines vary, but the people at this office instructed me to have a light dinner Saturday and then stick to a clear liquid diet Sunday.

The directions for that fasting diet had some inequities: Black coffee, tea without milk, non-red Gatorade and ginger ale were fine, but vodka was not. I made do with a cup of coffee in the morning, a ginger ale in mid-afternoon, and then nothing but water. Somehow, the hunger stopped bothering me as much halfway through the day.

The fun really started in the afternoon, when I had to start drinking the diarrhea-inducing prescription medicine that would leave that part of my innards unobstructed. In my case, the beverage was something called Clenpiq, which made me think of “clean pig,” which made me think of the “cleaning pig” machines used to clean pipelines–as in, the task of this concoction.

The two roughly 6-oz. bottles I got were labeled as “cranberry flavor,” and I think the American Cranberry Growers Association might have grounds for a lawsuit here. A bit under two hours after making my way through the first bottle, I made the first of a great many visits to a bathroom. I won’t get into the details, but I will confirm that the descriptions offered by Anne Helen Petersen and Dave Barry aren’t that far off.

The second bottle was harder to get through, mainly because I knew what was coming. But after additional bathroom time, drinking a lot of water, and much more Sunday-newspaper reading than usual, I finally went to bed.

The rest was easy. After my wife dropped me off at the hospital Monday morning, I got checked in, changed into a dressing gown, had my vitals taken and saline administered to counteract my dehydration, waited a bit, and got wheeled into the room where it would happen. I wondered which beeps I heard corresponded to which of my vital signs, was told to turn on my side, and the anesthesia started.

As I was trying to decide if I felt anything from that drug, I clicked out. I woke up feeling like nothing had happened, then had my first solid food since Saturday night: graham crackers.

The report I got afterward informed me that they’d found and removed one benign polyp–good for coral but not for colons–and removed it for later examination, the important part being the removal ensuring that it could not grow into a tumor. I also got a printout of the images taken inside the tail end of my digestive tract, some of which evoked Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io and others that suggested I was pregnant with some alien life form.

The last chapter of this medical adventure was one I hadn’t quite been read into: not being able to poop for two days, then having trouble doing just that before the plumbing involved gradually resumed its usual operation.

And now I know what to expect the next time I go through this. In addition to hoping the next colonoscopy also finds nothing serious, I hope somebody can come up with a prep drink that’s a little less gag-inducing.

Amazon Fresh first look: Just Walk Out, then wait for the receipt and hope it’s accurate

Friday morning started with me driving to a grocery store in a neighorhood in which I’m sure I’d last bought milk in the 1990s, and it was all Amazon’s fault. The tech giant opened one of its Amazon Fresh stores in Crystal City Thursday–and while technological curiosity alone would have pushed me to try this establishment’s Just Walk Out surveillance-checkout system, the analog lure of a $10-off-$20 coupon mailed to our house sealed the deal.

Plus, that mailing promised an Amazon gift card, from $5 to $50, for the first 50 customers in the store on the first three days. How could I not?

Alas, finding a street parking spot–more of an issue then when I lived in a less lively Crystal City from 1993 to 1994–ate up too much time for me to get that Amazon bonus. But the shopping trip was enlightening in other ways.

After waiting in line to enter the store after its 7 a.m. opening (during which my 11-year-old and I each got a free bag of “chocolate truffle snacks” from a cheerful greeter), I authenticated myself to the store by opening my phone’s Amazon app and showing its QR code to a turnstile scanner that could have fit into any cutting-edge subway system.

(Amazon also offers Amazon One palm scanning as a store check-in method. But while I accept the inevitability of governments collecting my biometrics at national borders, I don’t have to help every for-profit company build its own biometric database.)

At about 16,000 square feet, this Amazon Fresh location was even smaller than the compact Safeway in the Crystal City Underground that I relied on in a previous century. Its selection made me think of a miniaturized Whole Foods that had gone to the dark side by stocking such forbidden-at-WF items as various flavors of Coke–a more useful Whole Foods, if you will.

The place also soundly beat Whole Foods in some categories by stocking Amazon house-brand “Happy Belly” items. For example, while a gallon of 2% milk at Whole Foods now goes for $4.99, Amazon Fresh matched the Trader Joe’s price of $3.69.

After checking the prices of everything I’d deposited in a reusable shopping bag to verify that I’d cleared $20, I checked out. By which I mean I did not “Just Walk Out” but instead scanned the QR code in that paper coupon and then scanned the QR code in the Amazon app for a second time at an exit faregate of sorts.

And then I waited for a receipt to arrive. That documentation did not land until more than five hours later, when it reported a total about $10 more than I’d expected. Somehow, the cameras and machine vision that drive Just Walk Out had decided that my picking up four individual kiwi fruits really represented me picking up one of what people once called a Chinese gooseberry, followed by two bundles or packages of those fruits.

Amazon’s app provides a “Request item refund” option for Fresh shoppers that lets you select “item not taken” as the reason why. But selecting that on my phone–and then in the Amazon app on my iPad–yielded a “We’re sorry” dialog. It apologized: “An error has occurred, but rest assured, we’re working to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

I resorted to a common coping mechanism when dealing with indifference from a giant multinational corporation: tweeting about the problem, then diverting my attention to other things. And then about four hours later, I got an e-mail from Amazon saying (“Reason for refund: Item billing error”) that they would refund the sum in question.

Will I return to that store? Absolutely! There’s a $20-off-$40 offer for Amazon Prime subscribers who shop there Tuesday and Wednesday. I may, however, use an old-school checkout on my next visit.

The bureaucratic burden of telling clients “pay me”

It’s the first day of a new month, and that can only mean one thing for my e-mail: more .pdf attachments than usual in my outgoing messages, in the form of invoices for one freelance client or another.

Close-up of the 4 / $ key on a Mac keyboard, without which I would struggle to invoice anybody.

Instructing these companies to pay me for work done over the previous month should be easy after 11-plus years of not having a real job, but there’s still some struggle attached to this chore during and after the invoicing process.

The easiest part of it involves longer-running clients, where I just need to open the invoice document from the previous month, change the invoice number and the date, update the work done and the sum due, and attach the new file to an email.

But with less-frequent clients, I need to remember if there’s some wonkiness with a P.O. number or payment instructions that I may or may not have remembered to save in a previous version of the invoice file.

Others require their own format, usually a Google document or form or an Excel spreadsheet. Not knowing what kind of file a company will want me to produce before it will send me money is one of the things that’s kept me from following advice to use a professional accounting app like QuickBooks… another thing being my own apathy.

This routine can get more complicated if I’m away from home, since all of these invoice templates live on my Mac and since my Windows laptop doesn’t have a PDF-editing app equivalent to Apple’s Preview (sorry, Drawboard PDF). But keeping these financial documents in one folder on one computer allows for a simple accounting system: Right before I e-mail an invoice, I save it to an “Invoices – owed” folder, and once it gets paid I move it to an “Invoices – paid” folder.

It’s not the most sophisticated system, but it still seems to work after 11 years and change. At least when I remember to prepare and send the invoice in the first place. Which reminds me that I still have one invoice to finish for one client and a second to create for another, and of course they’re not in the same format.