CES 2019 travel-tech report: overcoming oversights

I’ve survived another CES, this time after committing two of the dumber unforced errors possible at an enormous tech trade show.

One was not arranging an update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide to coincide with CES, such that I’d have to bring a couple of new hotspots to the show. Instead, I was left to cope with intermittently available press-room and press-conference WiFi.

It confounds me that in 2019, anybody would think it okay to host a press event and not provide bandwidth to the press. But that’s CES for you, when either PR professionals or their clients seem to shove common sense into the shredder.

Fortunately, the show press rooms offered wired Internet, so I could fish out my USB-to-Ethernet adapter and get online as I would have 20 years ago. A couple of other times, I tethered off my phone.

On its second CES, my HP Spectre x360 laptop worked fine except for the one morning it blue-screened, then rebooted without a working touchpad. I had to open Device Manager and delete that driver to get it working once again. I also couldn’t help think this doesn’t charge as fast as my old MacBook Air, but I’m still happier with a touchscreen laptop that I can fold up to use as a tablet–and which didn’t gouge me on storage.

My other big CES error was leaving the laptop’s charger in the press room at the Sands. I looked up and realized I had only 30 minutes to get to an appointment at the Las Vegas Convention Center, hurriedly unplugged what I thought was everything, and only realized my oversight an hour later. Fortunately, a call to the Sands press room led to the people there spotting the charger and safeguarding it until I retrieved it the next morning.

Meanwhile, my first-gen Google Pixel declined to act its age. It never froze up or crashed on me, took good pictures and recharged quickly over both its own power adapter and the laptop’s. I am never again buying a phone and laptop that don’t share a charging-cable standard.

I also carried around a brick of an external charger, an 8,000 milliamp-hours battery included in the swag at a security conference in D.C. I covered in October. This helped when I was walking around but didn’t charge the Pixel as quickly, and leaving the charger and phone in my bag usually led to the cable getting jostled out of the Pixel.

The other new tech accessory I brought on this trip made no difference on the show floor but greatly improved my travel to Vegas: a pair of Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones that I bought at a steep discount during Amazon’s Prime Day promotion. These things are great, and now I totally get why so many frequent flyers swear by them.

Weekly output: privacy-law prospects, switching wireless carriers, cable and broadband fee inflation, Android messages on your computer

ces 2019 badgeOnce again, a Sunday in January finds me in Las Vegas for CES. It’s like I’ve been doing this since 1998 or something…

12/31/2018: Why 2019 might finally bring a national privacy law for the US, Yahoo Finance

Writing a story optimistic about the prospects for a national privacy bill makes me feel like Charlie Brown lining up to the kick the football, so if the year ends with Congress having yanked the ball away I’ll be disappointed but not enormously surprised.

12/31/2018: How to Switch Cell Phone Carriers, Wirecutter

This how-to post started with some banter on Wirecutter’s Slack about the mechanics of switching carriers.

1/1/2019: How your TV or broadband bill might creep up in the new year, Yahoo Finance

Just as I predicted a year ago, cable and broadband companies marked the new year with a round of rate hikes. This time around, I focused on increases to the add-on fees that are usually confined to the fine print of ads.

1/4/2019: You can read your Android phone’s texts on your Mac or PC. Here’s how, USA Today

A couple of readers complained that this column didn’t address third-party solutions for reading your texts on your Mac or PC–for example, MightyText, Pushbullet, Pulse SMS. That, I have to admit, is a fair point.

Updated 1/15/2019 to add a link to the Wirecutter how-to post that I’d missed at the time. 

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

My no-longer-secret Bitcoin shame

Bitcoin has infested tech news lately–the cryptocurrency’s unlikely rise in value, its subsequent and unsurprising fall in value, what complete tools Bitcoin zealots can be in front of a reporter, and so on and on. I’ve watched all of this as an unwitting spectator.

Yes, I’m one of those doofuses who forgot a password to a Bitcoin wallet. At least I have a half-decent excuse: CES.

I didn’t go to the gadget show in 2014 planning on investing in Bitcoin, but one of the first events I attended featured a diverse contingent of BTC startups, one of which had a dollars-to-Bitcoin ATM. How could I not gamble a few bucks to earn an anecdote to throw into a Bitcoin explainer?

I put a $5 bill into this thing and followed an exhibitor’s advice to install the Mycelium wallet app on my phone, scan a QR code off the ATM’s screen, and set a 15-character passcode to protect my stash of .00513 BTC.

Guess what I forgot to do as I headed to my next CES appointment?

I then mostly ignored the app, except for the occasional check to see how my investment had decayed. That habit faded, and when I tried resetting my phone the next fall to fix some touchscreen bugginess, I didn’t even think about the risk of losing access to my tiny Bitcoin hoard.

By which I mean, I didn’t even think to open Mycelium until several months after that unsuccessful phone-troubleshooting exercise. Then I realized that I could no longer remember the 15 characters I’d typed on my phone’s screen two years earlier, without which I could not restore the backup I had made right after my ATM transaction.

That’s where things have remained, even as Bitcoin’s value has soared and then plummeted. It’s annoying, but at least I have two things going for me: The app won’t lock me out as I keep guessing the passcode incorrectly, and at the current exchange rate I’m only out $57 or so. I’ve done much worse gambling in Vegas.

Weekly output: a bum Bitcoin deal, CES recap, Facebook and trusted news

The week after CES is always among my less productive ones–but this year, I can’t blame that on coming down with a CES-transmitted cold. Fortunately, I have the Dealmaker-in-Chief’s accomplishments of the past few days to put my own in a more positive context.

1/15/2018: Kodak bitcoin miner: What this dubious scheme says about technology’s misdirection, USA Today

My last post about CES unpacked a dubious Bitcoin-mining proposition on display in Kodak’s booth.

1/16/2018: Techdirt Podcast Episode 150: The CES 2018 Post-Mortem, Techdirt

I spent an hour or so talking with Techdirt’s Mike Masnick about what we saw at CES and what that suggests about the state of technology. Once again, I was struck by how more than two decades of practice at CES did not stop me from missing some interesting things at the show.

1/20/2018: Facebook and trusted news sources, Al-Jazeera

The news channel had me on to talk–as usual, overdubbed live into Arabic–about Facebook’s announcement that it will survey its users to see which news sites they trust, then prioritize those sources in the News Feed accordingly. I expressed my doubts about that idea, noting that a survey done last summer by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute found that ranked Buzzfeed less trustworthy than Brietbart News–and that the conspiracy-theory outlet Infowars outranked both.

Weekly output: Meltdown and Spectre, CES 2017 revisited, CES 2018 (x3), TV technology, IoT security, Last Gadget Standing, Volocopter, Facebook News Feed

CES 2018 is done, but I’m nowhere near done recovering from the sleep deficit I ran up during my 21st consecutive trip (!) to the Consumer Technology Association’s gargantuan gadget show. While I try to catch up with that, why not have a look at my Flickr album from the convention?

1/8/2018: That big computer security flaw has one hidden value, USA Today

Not long after this post about the Meltdown and Spectre processor bugs went up Monday, we updated it to note that Apple had since posted a second batch of updates.

1/8/2018: How the hottest gadgets from CES 2017 panned out, Yahoo Finance

This exercise in self-accountability journalism is something I should do before every return to CES… and Mobile World Congress and SXSW and Google I/O and Web Summit, etc. etc.

1/9/2018: CES report, WTOP

I did a live radio interview without having had any coffee, which is always a risk. At least Washington’s news station quizzed me on-air early in CES week, when my voice was still mostly intact.

1/9/2018: CES 2018: The TV set will not be revolutionized, Yahoo Finance

The headline “The television will not be revolutionized” popped into my head as I was sitting in a CES press room Tuesday, and I knew it was the obvious headline for a post about the state of the TV even if there was no way I was the first to think of it. (Indeed, I wasn’t.) And then the copy desk tweaked the hed slightly anyway.

1/11/2018: CES 2018 Day 4 roundup: Self-driving cars and insanely big screens, Yahoo Finance

I shot this video recap with my Yahoo colleagues Dan Howley and JP Mangalindan after a few false starts that would make a great bloopers reel (one of us kept bursting into a stream of curses after flubbing a line, and that person wasn’t me). Looking at the video now, it’s clear that I didn’t tuck in my shirt properly or talk with my hands sufficiently.

1/11/2018: What a security expert thought of a few new smart-home devices at CES 2018, Yahoo Finance

In case people think that all CES pitches are a waste of time, this post started when I got an e-mail from a publicist for a local cybersecurity company that I’d talked to in October. I answered that offer of security insight by saying that what I could really use was a chance to follow the company founder around the CES floor to see him quiz various smart-home companies.

1/11/2018: Last Gadget Standing, Living in Digital Times

For the second year in a row, I helped judge this contest and introduced one contestant. (As you can see from that Facebook Live clip, I momentarily blanked on the name of one of the company founders.) The gadget in question, the Play Impossible Gameball, won the in-person vote–not because of anything I said, but because the founders put on a great presentation and had a fun, reasonably priced product.

1/11/2018: Intel wants this drone to fly you around, Yahoo Finance

Wednesday morning, I got to the Las Vegas Convention Center by 8 a.m.–it was the one traffic-free ride to there I had all week–for an up-close look at the passenger-carrying drone that Intel had shown off at Monday evening’s CES keynote.

1/12/2018: The weirdest tech of CES 2018, Yahoo Finance

I started writing this Thursday night at McCarran Airport before a sequence of flights that brought me to Dulles around 7 a.m. Friday, then finished the post at home that afternoon in a haze of sleep deprivation.

1/13/2018: Facebook’s new News Feed, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had wanted me to talk Friday about Facebook’s coming de-prioritization of public pages in the News Feed. Fortunately, I had a schedule conflict more specific than “I’m so tired I need to sound out my words,” so they pushed this hit to Saturday.

CES 2018 travel-tech report: Ethernet lives!

I survived another CES without having my laptop or phone come close to running out of power during the workday, which is worth a little celebration but may also indicate that I did CES wrong.

One reason for this efficient electrical usage is that I showed up in Vegas for a new laptop for the first time since 2013. The HP Spectre x360 laptop that replaced my MacBook Air couldn’t get through an entire day without a recharge, but plugging it in during lunch and any subsequent writing time freed me from having to think about its battery for the rest of the day.

The Google Pixel phone I bought last summer was thirstier, mainly because I could never really put that down even after dark. But I still never needed to top off the phone with the external charger I bought.

Having both the phone and laptop charge via USB-C delivered an added bonus: Whenever I was sitting near an electrical outlet, I could plug either device into the laptop’s charger.

CES telecom, however, got no such upgrade. The press-room WiFi worked at the Mandalay Bay conference center but often did not in the media center I used at the Las Vegas Convention Center. And having to enter a new password every day–what looked like a misguided episode of IT security theater–did not enhance the experience.

Fortunately, the cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter that my MacBook had inexplicably stopped recognizing a few years back worked without fuss on the HP so I often reverted to using wired connections. The irony of me offering an “it just works!” testimony to a Windows PC is duly noted.

T-Mobile’s LTE, meanwhile, crumpled inside the Sands and often struggled to serve up bandwidth at the LVCC. More than once, this meant I had to trust my luck in CES traffic when Google Maps coudn’t produce any road-congestion data.

I packed two devices I’ve carried for years to CES but only used one. The Belkin travel power strip I’ve brought since 2012 avoided some unpleasantness in a packed press room Monday but wasn’t necessary after then. The Canon point-and-shoot camera I’ve had since 2014, however, never left my bag. The camera in my Pixel is that good for close-up shots, and I didn’t come across any subjects that would have required the Canon’s superior zoom lens.

I also didn’t come across a worthy, pocket-sized successor to that “real” camera at any CES booths. But with some 2.75 million square feet of exhibits at this year’s show, I could have easily missed that and many other solutions to my travel-tech issues.

Weekly output: online-privacy tips, Meltdown and Spectre bug fixes, CES

LAS VEGAS–My 21st CES in a row hasn’t even officially started, and I already feel tired. (That probably has something to do with getting up at 6 a.m. for an 8:20 flight out of Dulles.) I’m here through Thursday night to see where the electronics industry is headed. If you’re here too, you can heckle me when I help emcee the Last Gadget Standing competition Thursday.

USA Today privacy-tips post1/3/2018: Limit how Facebook, Google and Amazon use your private info, USA Today

You’ve seen me offer some of these privacy principles in other stories before, but this time around I could put all of them in one post.

1/4/2018: How Big Tech has left you in the dark about massive CPU flaws, Yahoo Finance

Not long after this got posted, Apple finally put up a simple, coherent explanation of the Meltdown and Spectre CPU bugs and what iOS and macOS users should do about them. If only I could take any credit for forcing their hand like that… but no, I can’t.

1/7/2018: What to expect at CES 2018, the biggest gadget show of the year, Yahoo Finance

One thing that’s never changed over the last two decades of my attending CES: seeing companies offer new reasons why I should think my current TV is inadequate.

How to get a CES PR pitch wrong

2018 is only six days old, and I have already received 725 e-mails mentioning “CES” somewhere–and that’s excluding those from colleagues at various clients.

Something about this gargantuan electronics show makes tech-PR types needier and thirstier than at any other time of the year–which, in turn, makes tech-journalism types crankier than at any other time of the year. It’s not a good look for any of us.

With that volume of pitches, any one CES PR e-mail faces dire odds. Those odds get a lot worse if the message gets some basic stuff wrong.

Undisclosed location: Proximity drives scheduling at CES, because the traffic is so awful, so I need to know where an event is at before I decide if it’s worth my time. If you don’t say where your event is at, am I supposed to think it’s at some venue miles from the Strip?

While I’m on the subject, a five-digit booth number is not that much of a help, since that could be anywhere in several square miles of convention-center space.

Unannounced time: More CES pitches than you’d think forget another Invitation 101 thing, telling me when an event is happening. Please remember to put that in the message–by which I mean in the message’s text, so mail clients can detect it and offer to add it to my calendar.

Micromanaged scheduling: The Pepcom and ShowStoppers receptions are an efficient way for smaller companies to get exposure to the press and for journalists to get dinner and a drink or three to numb the pain. I always attend them. (Disclosure: The ShowStoppers people put together my annual trip to the IFA trade show in Berlin.) I don’t mind PR pitches saying that a client will be at one of these events. I really hate requests to book an appointment at them; please don’t waste my time with them.

Breaking the laws of CES physics: Press-conference day and opening day of CES–this time around, Monday and Tuesday–are the two busiest days of the show. Coaxing journalists to some event that isn’t at the primary venue for each day (Mandalay Bay for press conferences, the Las Vegas Convention Center for opening day) is generally a doomed endeavor. PR folks reading this: I wish you good luck in convincing your clients to not try this next year.

Some of these event invitations come with an offer of a free ride to or from the LVCC. On opening day, that car will have to be of the flying variety.

Standard-issue mail #fail. CES is no better than any other time to forget about the BCC line in your e-mail and instead send a pitch to 258 people on the To: line. Somebody did that this time around, and it worked about as well as you’d expect. One recipient took the time to techsplain to the sender how he should check out the BCC option–“I heard it was rolled out at CES 1977”–and of course did so by hitting reply-all himself.

For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.