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.

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Weekly output: Gogo 2Ku, online harassment, Twitter filtering, SXSW

I still haven’t caught up on the sleep deficit and food surplus accumulated at SXSW.

Yahoo Tech Gogo 2Ku post3/15/2016: Taking off soon: Gogo promises in-flight Wi-Fi that you won’t hate, Yahoo Tech

This was the most avgeek-ish post I’ve written since my recap of texting and calling from Gogo’s private jet at SXSW two years ago. For more details about this test of Gogo’s new “2Ku” satellite-based WiFi on that company’s Boeing 737-500, I’ll point you to the writers who sat one row behind me, Gary Leff and Zach Honig.

3/16/2016: At SXSW, talking about online harassment — but is anyone listening?, Yahoo Tech

I found SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit to be a little less depressing, slightly more hopeful and a lot less crowded than I expected.

3/18/2016: Hate it when social networks tinker with your timeline? You’d hate it more if they didn’t, Yahoo Tech

As I type this, the post on my Facebook page linking to this story has been seen by all of 29 people, or barely over 1 percent of the people following my page. So, yeah, I am fully aware that algorithmic filtering of social-media timelines has consequences. Or maybe I just wrote a boring post?

3/20/2016: SXSW 2016: A look back at the highlights, USA Today

After a lot of mental back and forth about how I could so some sort of SXSW recap that wouldn’t duplicate all of USAT’s earlier coverage out of Austin, I realized that I could contrast each highlight of the festival with whatever event I had to skip to attend that panel, Q&A or demo.

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.

Weekly output: Birdly, net neutrality, SXSW’s hot apps, Google moonshots, best LTE hotspot, basic cable on extra TVs

I completed two rites of spring today: editing and uploading my SXSW photos (here’s the Flickr album) and weeding the lawn for the first of many times this year. One of them has left me sore.

Yahoo Tech Birdly recap3/16/2015: This VR Demo Let Me Soar Over San Francisco Like a Bird, Yahoo Tech

My friend and SXSW housemate Dan Pacheco had been telling me about this crazy VR demo/bird flight simulator since at least Saturday, and Monday morning I finally got my introduction. The words practically flew onto the screen as I typed up this recap, which is always a good feeling.

3/16/2015: Take Back Your Internet, Golden Frog

I moderated this Austin secure-Web-services company’s panel about net neutrality. Will all of the panelists–lawyer and activist Marvin Ammori, Data Foundry chief technology officer Edward Henigin, Federal Communications Commission counsel Gigi Sohn, CompTel CEO Chip Pickering, and Computer & Communications Industry Association European vice president James Waterworth–being very much in favor of it, the discussion got a little one-sided. But I did expose a few differences of opinion in issues like the best ways to foster broadband competition.

3/17/2015: Where Are They Now? Hot Apps From Past SXSWs that Didn’t Have Much of a Future, Yahoo Tech

I knew that the apps people had been chattering about at SXSW 2012, my introduction to this festival, hadn’t made much of a dent since. But when I realized that one of them had become the “Nearby Friends” feature on Facebook that has yet to signal the presence of a pal I’m not already talking to, I thought: there’s a column in this.

3/18/2015: Don’t Trust Humans, Wear Fluffy Socks: Wisdom From Google X, Yahoo Tech

I’d seen Google’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller speak once before, at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York last May, and so making time for his keynote was an easy call. In it, he shared some new details about Google’s ventures into self-driving cars and Internet-broadcasting balloons.

3/20/2105: This Is The Best Wifi Hotspot You Can Buy, Forbes

A month or so back, I filed a condensed version of my update to the Wirecutter’s guide to LTE hotspots, and Forbes’ tech section seems to have been the first place to run it. (I only found out about it a week later when a publicist thanked me for mentioning her client’s product in a Forbes post I had no memory of writing.)

3/22/2015: Basic cable switch on extra TVs not so simple, USA Today

This column revisited a subject I seem to cover at least every two years–your dwindling ability to watch cable TV without a separate box with its own monthly fee. This time around, it doubled as a headline-writing refresher course: The hed I wrote the first time around had not one but two techie abbreviations and failed to describe the core problem my reader had complained about in her e-mail.

Updated 3/25 to add the LTE-hotspots post.

 

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

Weekly output: Apple Watch, smartwatch UX, Hillary Clinton’s e-mail, freeing up disk space

AUSTIN–I’ve been here since Friday afternoon for SXSW. Total number of tacos consumed to date in my fourth trip to this festival: seven.

3/9/2015: Apple Watch, WTOP

I shared a few thoughts about the promise and risks of this smartwatch on the day of its debut.

Yahoo Tech smartwatch-UX post3/10/2015: The One Feature that Wil lDetermine the Quality of the Apple Watch, Yahoo Tech

I drew on months of experience wearing one Android Wear smartwatch or another to write this post explaining how the Apple Watch should not just mirror the notifications popping up on an iPhone.

3/12/2015: Emails From Hillary: So Many Mysteries, Yahoo Tech

I worried that this post about the fundamental weirdness of the former Secretary of State’s private e-mail system would draw a round of uninformed, hateful comments, and the commentariat did not disappoint me.

3/15/2015: How to find space hogs on laptop hard drive, USA Today

 This column started with my own experience of having OS X report that it couldn’t install a security update from Apple because my MacBook Air had run out of space. And then I learned about a handy Windows-file search shortcut that had escaped my attention for years.

Weekly output: SXSW, cable modems

Spending the first half of the week out of town for SXSW put more of a dent in my schedule than I realized–as you can see from the unusually late time I’m posting this. Seriously, where did the second half of the week go?

Yahoo Tech SXSW post3/10/2014: The News from SXSW: Technology Will Liberate Us! Unless It Enslaves Us First., Yahoo Tech

I pretty much had to focus my writeup of the conference on the remote interviews of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden–both outspoken critics of the surveillance state, both beset by glitches with their Internet-video links. It’s crazy to think that a year ago, almost nobody at SXSW had any idea of what the NSA had been up to; the mood in Austin seemed a lot cheerier about the prospects of technology back then.

3/16/2014: Buyer beware: ‘Gray market’ cable modem can trip you up, USA Today

A reader had bought a cable modem after reading my recommendation to do so last August. Then Comcast said she couldn’t use her purchase. And things got really weird. A reader has since complained that the column left him “totally confused” about whether he can buy a modem on Comcast’s approved-devices list and have it work; I’m going to have to tell him he has correctly read a confusing situation.