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.

Testing positive for Covid requires sending a whole lot of notifications

At the start of last weekend, two negative Covid tests in a row had me thinking that my sore throat was the result of too much conference socializing or maybe a summer cold. But then I self-tested one more time Sunday night, because I was set to fly to Denver the next afternoon for the Stream TV Show–and that positive result has since led to my having to notify more people than I might have imagined.

An Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow Covid-19 rapid antigen test shows the two strips that indicate a positive result.

That list started with the toughest case: my wife and my kid, from whom I’d have to isolate at home until no longer testing positive. Fortunately, in-house quarantine is easier to manage in the spring when you can open every window for maximum ventilation and eat every meal on the front or back porch.

Next I had to e-mail the organizers of my now-foregone conference. I said I’d cancel my flights and keep that trip credit handy for their next event, after which I’d complete my outline for my panel and e-mail those notes to whoever might step in for me. They were okay with that.

Then I e-mailed the people I’d spent the most time talking to at last week’s WithSecure conference in Helsinki. (The organizers had covered my airfare and hotel, but I’m not sure I can call that travel “free” now.) None of them have written back to say that they’ve since tested positive, which makes me wonder if I’d been in the wrong square meter of indoor space for the wrong 15 minutes.

After that, I sent a note to the organizers of Dublin Tech Summit, where I’m supposed to speak next week. I advised them that while I was reasonably optimistic that I’d get past this and resume testing negative by this weekend, I couldn’t guarantee that. They wished me luck.

Screenshot of the COVIDWISE app for Android that shows the screen on which you enter an eight-digit verification code to sumit a positive test result.

My last act of notification didn’t invove conversations with actual humans. After getting an official PCR test Monday and receiving the results early Tuesday along with confirmation that they’d been reported to the Virginia Department of Health, I had to share them anonymously with VDH’s COVIDWISE exposure-notification app. That would allow other people with smartphones running Apple and Google’s privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework to get warnings of their potential exposure if this software concluded they’d been sufficiently close to me for sufficiently long, as judged by algorithms computing randomized Bluetooth beacons.

The e-mail and text I got from the test operator Curative didn’t say how I would do that. But the app itself explained that I had to visit a VDH page and plug in my last name, birth date and test date to get a verification code that I could then type into the app. That’s “type,” not “copy and paste,” because this Android app refused the latter form of input.

My wife reported that her copy of COVIDWISE pushed a notification of the possible exposure nine hours later. But the more important thing is that no other sort of Covid notification has greeted her or our kid since then. Five days after first testing positive and entering my little house arrest–during which my sore throat and nasal congestion have vanished as the positive strip on my recent tests has begun to look notably lighter than on earlier tests–I remain the only person in the family to have exhibited any symptoms this month or tested positive ever.

A long-distance tech-nerd reunion

WAIMEA, Hawaii–One major upside of flying almost 4,800 miles to attend a tech event here was finally catching up with a lot of tech-journalism friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years… many of whom live only 235 miles north of my home.

Two torches lit on a beach, with the ocean and a post-sunset sky in shades of coral beyond it.

But for whatever reason, New York has yet to host any high-profile tech events that would have given all of us an excuse to meet somewhere in NYC. Instead, Qualcomm staged its Snapdragon Tech Summit at a resort here and covered lodging and airfare for invited journalists and analysts (me included, something I discussed in more length in a post for Patreon readers). And so in between keynotes and demos, I’ve had versions of the following conversations:

  • remembering how much work it was to get vaccinated early in this year and the continued frustration of having friends or family members who still refuse to get vaxxed;
  • testimony about surviving COVID-19 infections; one friend recalled being barely able to breathe at the worst moments, something that sounds utterly horrifying;
  • shared sighs over the psychic damage a year of pandemic-enforced isolation has done to our kids (usually followed by me feeling guilty over leaving my wife alone to deal with that);
  • recaps of what it was like reunite with distant family members after months of living a coronavirus-cloistered existence;
  • comparing when we started traveling for work again, to where, and for what purposes;
  • discussions of who will be at CES and MWC, and if those events will happen at all given the rapid spread and unclear risk of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus..

That last question felt somewhat safe to contemplate on an island that requires either a negative test or proof of vaccination if visitors want to avoid a mandatory quarantine–see, who says a vaccination mandate for air travel is impossible here?–but now we’re going home to uncertain futures.

My next travel will be for Christmas, after which I’ve got flights and lodging booked for Las Vegas and Barcelona, all refundable. I would like to be able to proceed with those plans and see at least some of my tech-nerd friends in those cities, but it’s not up to me.

Speaking on an arena scale

LISBON–My fourth panel at Web Summit here was not like the other three. Or like any other panel I’ve done since what I’ve taken to calling “the performance art of journalism” became part of my repertoire. Because Thursday I spoke in front of the largest audience and in the largest room of my entire public-speaking life.

The interview I did on the stage of the Altice Arena here of Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis was the last addition to my speaking schedule, and the invitation I was fastest to accept. Every other panel I’ve done at this conference since 2016 has taken place on one of the side stages, where crowds can get into the hundreds; this venue, however, is a 20,000-seat facility, and I could not turn that down. As anxious as standing up there might turn out to be…

Photo of the path leading to the stage of the Altice Arena, with its colored backdrop visible at the end of this passage.

Thursday afternoon came, and with half an hour to go I wrote down my panel outline on the last vacant pair of pages in a paper notebook, nervous energy making my penmanship even sloppier than usual. Then a volunteer walked us over to the backstage, where Web Summit’s illuminated backdrop loomed a few stories above and a sound tech fitted us with wireless headphones. I had a last chug of water before we stood and waited in a small passage leading to the stage.

Then it was show time. The emcee called out our names, the entrance music I’ve heard before so many other center-stage Web Summit panels played, and we walked past a camera operator who was there to get video of our entrance–a little bit of rock-star treatment.

I waved hello to the crowd, sat down in my chair, and immediately realized that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn’t see more than a third of the way into the audience, although I could at least confirm that they were mostly on the floor and not in the stands. (The picture I took then came out so ill-exposed that even Google Photos couldn’t do much with it.) And without my glasses, I couldn’t hope to read people’s facial expressions. Hearing the audience was also tricky, with our own amplified voices clanging back at us off the arena’s concrete.

But I had my outline on paper before me and an engaging conversation partner to my right to answer my questions about the gadget startup he co-founded with other veterans of the Android-phone firm OnePlus. The 13 minutes on the countdown clock before us ticked down to 11 and 9 and 7 and 5 as our verbal tennis continued… at which point I realized that with one question left unasked on my notepad, I’d need to improvise. Panel clock management is always trickiest when you have only one other person up there.

That’s when it helped that we’d had sat down yesterday to go over the panel and then had another chat in the speakers’ lounge before heading backstage. We ended up finishing maybe 20 seconds over.

I might as well have had fireworks going off in my head as the audience applauded and Akis and I shook hands before exiting the stage. It was a moment the 2001-vintage me would have struggled to imagine, much less the grade-school version of me who dreaded giving a speech before a classroom. And it’s something I won’t be able to keep out of my mind the next time I’m doing a virtual panel and wishing I had a human audience’s feedback.

More pandemic-recovery milestones: Northeast Corridor travel, a journalism conference

This week brought me back to two things I’ve missed badly since February of 2020: hanging out with other journalists at a conference in another city, and taking the train to and from that destination.

The Online News Assocation’s decision to host its first IRL gathering since 2019 in Philadelphia made those things possible. And by scheduling Insights as a two-day event, it also made it surprisingly affordable compared to this journalism group’s other events–aside from the 2017 conference in D.C., at which even my badge was free courtesy of my panel proposal getting accepted.

Photo shows the footings of the footings railroad bridge in the Susquehanna River as seen from the current bridge, with the sun obscured by fog and part of the overhead catenary visible.

There was no question I was going to take Amtrak to Philly and back, only one of which trains to book. I decided to head up Thursday morning, at the cost of having to wake up early and miss any day-before networking but with the advantage of only needing to take my messenger bag, with a change of clothes stuffed into it alongside my laptop. That then led me to realize that the fees tacked on to every Airbnb reservation nearby would make my usual money-saving business-travel tactic more expensive than just staying at the conference hotel.

That worked out even better than I expected after my productive ride on the 7:05 a.m. Northeast Regional out of Union Station–in the Quiet Car, of course, with the only distraction being looking at scenery I hadn’t glimpsed in 18 months. I got to the hotel before 9:30 a.m., and it had a room ready when I checked in. So not only could I unpack immediately, the 11 a.m. video podcast that I hadn’t been able to schedule for another day could take place in a quiet spot with good lighting.

The conference itself was great. I learned a bunch of things about my job and how to do it better, and being in the room (even if some speakers were not) allowed me to focus on the talks instead of having every other browser tab and app on my screen ready to divert my attention. I took copious notes–which I wrote up for my Patreon readers, since their contributions covered my conference costs–and live-tweeted panels like in the Before Times. And Insights had enough breaks for me to file two stories, one that I’d mostly finished on the train up and another I banged out in an hour.

And yes, it was lovely if at times weird to commune with fellow journalists. The organizers had color-coded wristbands at the registration table that we could wear to signal our openness to face-to-face interaction: the green one I picked meant I was okay with handshakes and hugs, red would signal no touching, and yellow would mean no more than elbow bumps, if I remember correctly.

Insights required everybody to submit proof of vaccination and wear masks anyway… except that the reception Friday evening took place indoors, and quite a few attendees visited one bar or another Thursday night. I think my risk was about as low as imaginable for any gathering–certainly lower than at other events I’ve attended over the last few months–but it does exist.

The conference ended with enough free time for me to wander around Center City for a bit before boarding the 7:10 p.m. Acela back to D.C. I had to look up how long it had been since I’d last taken the Amtrak train that’s become a label for a certain Northeast Corridor demographic, and the answer was 616 days.

At last, a little taste of Conference Life

This week featured a number of items that last all figured in my routine in early February of 2020: a hotel key, a conference badge, a wireless microphone, a stage, and other people’s business cards.

My brief stay in Miami Beach to moderate two panels at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference–one on the shipboard potential of connected gadgets, the other on risks of ransomware–was one of my shorter business trips ever. But as the first work travel I’d done to speak at a conference since an equally short visit to New York two winters ago, it was still a big deal.

After more than a year of speaking only through my webcam and seeing fellow panelists only as moving pixels on a screen, I loved having a live audience to read. I loved being able to interact like a normal human being with another person on the same stage–even if both panels also featured at least one remote panelist who was only visible as moving pixels on the monitors placed in front of us.

(I had not done a hybrid panel before at all, and I quickly realized that in a discussion with two remote participants, they could not tell which one I had in mind when I gestured to one of their feeds on that screen below me.)

And after each panel, having my fellow in-person speaker shake my hand and offer their congratulations on my job as moderator felt so much better than hearing congrats via Zoom or seeing them in a conference’s Slack channel. Likewise, networking IRL was so much more engaging than the stilted experience you get in well-meaning apps like Remo.

That said, as much as I appreciated getting this speaking invitation and having it include the conference covering my travel costs, I did not accept the offer lightly. I watched the pandemic numbers in Miami-Dade County intently and was relieved to see them drop dramatically in recent weeks. I was much more more relieved to see Seatrade require participants to upload either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 24 hours prior to arrival–not that I’d expect to find many vaccine skeptics among travel-industry professionals.

And then I saw that almost everybody on the lightly-populated trade-show floor wore a mask–except at the various receptions there Wednesday afternoon. All of the other social events I enjoyed took place outdoors at one venue or another, such as the rooftop bar at which I took the photo above. Having that option be as pleasant as it was in the evenings (as opposed to what outdoor gatherings would have been like at Black Hat in the blast-furnace heat of August in Las Vegas) represented a big point in Miami Beach’s favor.

(If you were going to ask: Although I came home Thursday exceptionally tired from sleeping so badly in a strange bed, I never felt any symptoms. And I just self-administered the BinaxNow antigen test left over from the pair I bought after coming home from Estonia in August; the result was once again negative.)

So I think I found a good excuse to get out of town for a couple of days. One with a small extra bit of personal significance: My American Airlines DCA-MIA flight Tuesday finally introduced me to Miami International Airport exactly 20 years after that was supposed to happen on a Sept. 28, 2001 DCA-MIA flight on American that got cancelled within days after 9/11. Thanks for not minding my late arrival, Miami.

Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.