Weekly output: SLS explained, skepticism for Warner Bros. Discovery, wireless carrier cell-site location data retention, security-patch severity, Twitter opens Circle feature, Samsung’s 8K pitch at IFA, electronic eccentricities at IFA

This week’s trip to Berlin and back to cover the IFA trade show (reminder, with the event organizers covering most of my travel costs) finally allowed me to experience Berlin Brandenburg Airport as a passenger instead of as a zombie-airport tourist. I can’t say I miss Tegel Airport’s weird system of having separate security screenings at every gate.

Fast Company SLS explainer8/29/2022: NASA’s Space Launch System—whenever it comes—will mark the end of an era for U.S. spaceflight, Fast Company

This post needed a quick rewrite before posting to cover Monday’s scrub of the planned Artemis I launch of the SLS. After a second scrub Saturday, this headline remains current. And it appears that I have a renewed opportunity to see this giant rocket fly in person

8/29/2022: Bloomberg Intelligence raises flags about Warner Bros. Discovery, Fierce Video

I wrote this post during last week’s flurry of filling in at my trade-pub client, but it didn’t get published until Monday.

8/29/2022: Here’s How Long Your Wireless Carrier Holds on to Your Location Data, PCMag

I wrote this from a lounge at Dulles Airport before my departure for Berlin, but it helped that I’ve covered this topic before.

8/31/2022: Security patches for your iPhone come all the time. But should you be told which are important?, USA Today

This isn’t the first time a column for USAT started with a tech-support query from a relative.

9/1/2022: Twitter opens Circle to all users, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel asked if I could cover Twitter’s introduction of this new audience-selection tool. It’s an interesting topic (in part because Twitter has basically reinvented the Circles feature of Google+), but doing this TV hit from IFA required me to find a quiet spot with bandwidth. I found that spot in the landscaped Sommergarten in the middle of the Berlin Messe.

9/2/2022: Samsung Shows Off a Video Unicorn at IFA: A TV Series in 8K, PCMag

The dismal 8K sales stats I reference in the closing paragraphs are really something, and I’m saying that as a longtime skeptic of the 8K value proposition.

9/3/2022: Ovens with eyes, a chameleon of a fridge, and other electronic eccentricities at IFA, Fierce Electronics

I wrote this recap of IFA oddities–a staple of my coverage of the show over the last 10 years–for this sibling publication of Fierce Video.

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.

Checking my linguistic privilege

BERLIN–The past four days have reminded me how often being an American means never having to learn another language.

Departure sign in GermanI’m not proud of that fact, but when almost everybody you meet speaks English and does so well, you can get by with a knowledge of German that goes little further than “danke” and “bitte.”

That’s especially true at the IFA electronics trade show that has me here for the fourth year in a row (once again, with most of my travel costs covered by the show’s organizers). Veterans of the show tell me that IFA press conferences used to be conducted in German, but now everything runs in English. And not only are almost all of the labels on the exhibits here bilingual, most of those are English-first.

But earlier today, I was on a tour conducted entirely in German. I realized I was not quite as dumb in the language as I thought, in the sense of recognizing nouns and developing a sense of the other words around them from their context. If nothing else, that means my pattern-recognition skills haven’t completely atrophied.

It also reminded me of what it felt like when I began to learn French. It was frustrating to feel so lost at interpreting words made by other human beings–and yet I was fluent in the language by the end of college, with a certificate of proficiency to prove it. Sadly, a near-complete lack of practice since then has undone much of that learning. Maybe I should have taken Spanish instead, which I’d have plenty of opportunities to use around D.C.

I can’t undo those things, but I can at least try to knock some of the rust off my French or develop some marginal competency in Spanish. Any suggestions for a language-learning app to put on my phone or tablet?

(Meanwhile, my daughter has magically  progressed in five short years from baby babble to learning to read. This transformation is fascinating, and I’m not sure I could inventory what I’ve done to make that happen.)

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.