WeChat, but I can’t

SHANGHAI–It wasn’t until shortly before I left for CES Asia that I realized showing up here without a WeChat account would mark me as some kind of hick. I’m now about to head home, still bereft of a WeChat account. But I tried!

WeChat, for those as uninitiated as I once was, is the service AOL Instant Messenger became in an alternate universe. Tencent’s messaging app not only connects almost one billion users in real time, it functions as a wallet, a business card, a news feed and a great many other things.

So I downloaded the Android app, plugged in my Google Voice number–as the work number on my business card, it’s what I ordinarily use without a problem on phone-linked messaging systems.

But what worked in WhatsApp and Signal did not in WeChat. After creating an account and entering the security code texted to my number, I got this error message:

“This WeChat account has been confirmed of suspicious registration in batch or using plugins and is blocked. Continue to use this account by tapping OK and applying for an account unblock.”

Whoops. I tapped through to a “Self-service unblock allowed” screen, tapped its  “Read and accept” button. That presented me with CAPTCHA prove-you’re-not-a-robot interface that had me tap the letters in one graphic that matched those in another.

But after going through that, I still couldn’t log in. Instead, the app told me to get another WeChat user to verify my existence on their phone. I’ve now tried that a few times with both U.S.-based and local users, and after each try the app has offered a vague error message about the other person not being eligible to vouch for me.

After some further research, I think the problem is my using a Google Voice number. That possibility goes unmentioned in WeChat’s English-language online help, but a Quora post reports that Tencent quashed that option years ago.

And thinking about it, it does make sense: I can’t imagine that the Chinese government would look fondly on any communications service that allows people to use a number likely to be untethered from a billable address.

When I get back to the States, I will see if I can’t get WeChat to work with some kind of a burner number still attached to a real account–maybe from a loaner phone. Otherwise, I guess I’ll have to set up WeChat with my “real” phone number. I can’t stay illiterate in this service forever, right?

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An avgeek treat: experiencing a takeoff from the cockpit jumpseat

I’ve flown out of Newark International Airport dozens of times, but Tuesday’s departure wasn’t like any of the others. Instead of flying United (or, years ago, Continental), I was on Gogo’s 737-500 testbed with other journalists to try out the company’s latest inflight WiFi system.

And instead of occupying one of the 58 generously-spaced seats on that 1982-vintage airframe, I took the jumpseat up front, just behind the pilot and co-pilot.

That was all Zach Honig’s fault. When I was on another Gogo WiFi flight last March, the editor of The Points Guy travel blog thought to ask if he could take the jumpseat for landing–allowable because FAA air-carrier rules didn’t apply to this private flight. That sent me into an immediate fit of jealousy.

So Tuesday afternoon, I had to ask–politely, while acknowledging the pilot’s discretion. He considered it for a moment and then said okay, and I promised to keep my mouth shut and not touch anything. A flight attendant unfolded the jumpseat, and of course I needed help buckling myself into the five-point harness.

My eyes got a little wider as the pilot explained that if we had to get out of the plane in a hurry, we’d bail out the side window, using the rope stashed above it. Then he and the co-pilot busied themselves with their checklists as I gawked at the switches, knobs and gauges covering most of the available surfaces.

I’ve had the privilege of flying up front a couple of times before–a biplane ride out of College Park’s tiny airport in 1996, and a floatplane tour of Seattle out of Lake Union in 2010. This involved a lot more metal.

EWR being EWR, we had to wait an extra 10 minutes or so to get our clearance. We taxied to the runway–it felt like we took each turn too late, on account of my sitting forward of the nose landing gear–and lined up. The pilot pushed the thrust levers forward, the engines roared, and after a very short takeoff roll our lightly loaded Boeing cranked into the sky.

I had to resist the impulse to yell “holy shit! holy shit!” as we banked left and then right, the altimeter spiraled upward, the trim wheels on each side of the throttles spun, and Manhattan’s skyline unfolded across all three of the windows on the right side. Flying is a more visceral experience when you can watch the pilot turn the yoke, then see the plane respond a moment later–and when sitting at the front of the jet lets you feel it shake more than you would seated by the wing.

Then we popped through a layer of clouds to see them spread out before us, an impossible sight from any seat in the back. Looking at that office view, it became much clearer why people do this for a living.

I will admit that the seat itself–with no recline and vanishingly little legroom–was among the least comfortable I’ve sat in on any airplane. That did not matter Tuesday afternoon.

For more pictures (plus a shaky, poorly exposed video of the takeoff), see this Flickr album.

A dark pattern at work: the overseas ATM that quotes a price in dollars

Being a user-interface nerd means you can’t stop critiquing everyday objects like signs and doors. Most of the time, the quirks you notice will only waste people’s time, but those that cost money deserve extra attention.

Last week’s trip to Lisbon for the IFA Global Press Conference offered a fine example of the second kind: an ATM that offered to price my withdrawal in dollars instead of euros. Its screen helpfully listed the exact price I’d pay to take out €50: $58.10. The only possible answer to that: nope!

The ATM was offering what’s called “dynamic currency conversion”–best understood, in UI-nerd terms, as a “dark pattern” set up to part the uninformed from their money. This offer amounts to an invitation to pay a premium for knowing upfront exactly how much you paid for that transaction, and you should always decline it. Even if you’re paying with a credit-card that would charge a foreign currency conversion fee.

I pressed the button next to “Accept Without Conversion,” and when I checked my bank account a few days later I saw that my withdrawal amounted to $54.22. My $3.88 in savings isn’t much, but it does represent an exceptional rate of return for a few seconds of work.

If only I’d always been that smart: Two years ago, jet lag caused me to lose situational awareness while buying a transit pass in Dublin’s airport, so I unthinkingly tapped the button to run the transaction in dollars instead of euros. I can only hope Transport For Ireland appreciated my generous donation of a dollar or two.

 

Bonus of an unwinter: a spring surplus of parsley and spinach

I really did think that the 2016 gardening season had ended in December with the first hard frost. But then the parsley and the spinach refused to die. Even the few inches of snow we got in March wasn’t enough to kill them, as I found out when I removed some chunks of hard-packed snow two days after I got home from SXSW to expose intact spinach leaves that promptly wound up in a creamy pasta sauce.

Now that the ground has warmed up and the arugula and lettuce seeds have germinated and gone to work, I suddenly have more parsley and spinach than I know what to do with–although I’m trying by throwing some into every stir-fry, stew and sauce I can put together.

I guess I’ll also be making a lot of tabbouleh and parsley-walnut pesto weeks earlier than my usual gardening schedule would suggest.

(The sage also kept going through the winter in less robust form, although there aren’t as many obvious applications for that herb.)

As much as I appreciate living in a place with actual seasons, this does look like a pleasant bonus for having a fake winter. Now if I could just get basil to be half as productive, or at least to stop taunting me with a lack of productivity…

 

Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.

Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.