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.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

How I turn notes into quotes

Since the issue of how journalists take notes during interviews has come up this week–courtesy of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s cringe-inducing declaration that “I’ve never recorded“–here’s how I capture quotes from an interview, a speech or a panel.

The usual answer involves a keyboard. For everyday note-taking, I type the most interesting sentences I hear into an Evernote file. That demands a certain amount of parallel processing, as one part of my brain decides if a sentence-like string of words is worth memorializing and another sends my fingers skittering across the keys, but it generally works for stories that don’t center on one person’s quotes.

I know that real-time transcription involves a risk of transposing a word here or there–it’s amazing how many places an adverb can land in a sentence–so I quote conservatively when writing.

If, however, I’m writing a story around an interview or a speech, I’ll record the whole thing while also taking notes in real-time. That’s a two-device proposition: While I type on my laptop, my phone is on the table or otherwise far enough away not to pick up my keystrokes.

(The one time I tried recording in Evernote on my laptop as I typed was a disaster, with the soundtrack of my keystrokes sounding like a herd of small animals running back and forth over the keyboard.)

If I’m covering a public speech or panel, I usually get the additional backup of streaming video of the event that I can replay afterwards.

I’ll also record instead of trying to jot down notes if I’m having a conversation with somebody while we both walk, as if we were in an Aaron Sorkin drama. Trying to take notes on my phone in that scenario invites typo-ridden notes at best, bumping into somebody at worst.

But while recording an interview ensures that I won’t miss a turn of phrase, it also at least doubles my writing time, since I need to play back the entire thing, usually more than once, to ensure I got the quotes correct. Automated transcription services–my friend Ron Miller is a huge fan of Otter, so I’ve now signed up for that–can speed the process, but I doubt I’d copy and paste from a machine-learning model’s transcript without a reality-check replay of the recording.

In all of these scenarios, the speaker in question can make the job easier or harder. Practiced orators who elocute in precisely-formed sentences are a pleasure to transcribe, while fast talkers and people who interleave their dependent and independent clauses escalate the difficulty level.

Or I can just do the interview via e-mail and not have to worry about any of this stuff.

How to pick a panel out of a lineup

AUSTIN–Once again, ONA is bringing some serious FOMO. Like any conference with multiple panel tracks, the Online News Association’s gathering here requires me to choose between as many as 13 talks happening in the same timeslot.

ONA 18 badge backThe past five ONA conferences I’ve attended have featured few lackluster panels, so this choice is not easy unless I think I can sell a story from the talk.

Setting aside that mercenary motivation, when I’m looking at two or three panels of equal interest to me, I have to ask myself a series of questions. Does the talk feature people I’ve heard before and liked? Or would I rather hear from speakers I’ve never seen? Do I want to say hi to the people on the panel afterwards? Will the conversation make me uncomfortable? (That’s usually a good thing.) And will the panel I skip have audio or video posted that I can check out later on?

At least all of ONA’s panels occupy a few floors of the J.W. Marriott here, so it’s not like SXSW and its archipelago of venues. There, the panel choice is often made for you by your location.

As a last resort, I may pick my spot for the next hour on a simpler metric: Does the room have a power outlet open near a chair?

The conference that got away: Viva Tech 2018

In an alternate universe, Sunday’s recap of my last week’s work would have included a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, the growing tech gathering that’s now in its third year. In 2016 and 2017, I moderated a round of discussions and got my travel covered, which was an excellent way to go to one of my favorite cities.

That didn’t happen this year, and I’m the reason why. I didn’t think to e-mail anybody involved with the conference until a third of the way through April, which in retrospect was absurdly late for an event of this size. I got a reply a few days later, saying they were “quite advanced” in assigning panels but wanted to know if there were particular topics I could handle.

My response emphasized my flexibility, which may have been a mistake in that it didn’t say “give me everything open on this topic.” In any case, I didn’t get another e-mail back and then ensured I wouldn’t be going to Viva Tech by not sending any more myself.

(If you listen closely, you may now be able to pick out the sound of a rather small violin playing for me.)

The lesson here is nothing new: Sitting back and waiting for good things to happen is more likely to result in nothing happening. Which in this case not only foreclosed any chance of organizer-paid airfare and lodging but also meant I didn’t get to cover Viva Tech talks by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

I did, however, avoid having four weeks in a row of business travel, and being around this weekend meant I could catch up with an old friend from my college paper at a gathering on the roof of his apartment building. That wasn’t so bad.

I will try to be more assertive for next year’s Viva Tech… although its mid-May scheduling may overlap with Google I/O. In which case: le sigh.

Conference-app feature request: block out my schedule as I pick panels

NEW ORLEANS–My calendar includes a lot of conferences (especially this month), and as a result my phone features a lot of conference apps.

Collision app schedulingThe conference that has me here, Collision, has one such app. As these things go–meaning, let’s set aside how many of their features could be done just as well by Web apps–it’s not bad. But the personalization tool that lets you cobble together a schedule of talks that appeal to you is deeply broken.

The schedule at Collision, as at other conferences with multiple stages and venues, is packed with events that happen at the same time. The app should clear up that clutter by not letting me be in two places at once–meaning, when I add a talk to my schedule, it should gray out every other talk overlapping with that timeslot.

That way, I’d immediately see the opportunity cost of going to one talk versus another. But the Collision app does not do that. And although it is smart enough to stick an orange “Priority” label next to my own panels, it doesn’t even block out talks overlapping with the most important items on my agenda.

This is a common failing with conference apps. I don’t recall the SXSW app doing this kind of schedule triage, even though that’s even more vital at an event with so many more overlapping tracks. The app for Google I/O, my destination next week, definitely omits this function. And since the Web Summit app is built from the same template as the Collision app, it will repeat this omission… unless somebody in management is sufficiently moved by this post. Can y’all hear me out on this?

 

 

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.

Weekly output: Roku pauses live TV, Twitter’s focus, Facebook’s real-names policy

LISBON–For the second year in a row, Web Summit has me far from home in early November. But unlike last year, I’m moderating four panels instead of watching everybody else’s, this conference’s move to Portugal deprives me of a reunion with my Irish relatives, and more is at stake in the election I’m missing than in any other I’ve seen.

That’s why I voted absentee Sept. 23, the first day possible in Arlington. Given the past presidential choices listed on my disclosures page and my general wish to live in the reality-based community, I trust you will not be surprised that I voted for Hillary Clinton.

11/3/2016: Roku’s new pause button turns your TV into a poor man’s DVR, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been wondering for years when the flattening price of flash memory would let even basic TVs ship with enough storage to pause a live broadcast–and now Roku is doing just that with an update to the software for Roku TVs.

yahoo-finance-twitter-features-post11/5/2016: Twitter keeps innovating but isn’t fixing these core problems, Yahoo Finance

This was originally going to be a rant about Twitter’s unexplained decision to opt some users, myself included, into an experiment in which its iOS apps open links in Safari’s Reader Mode. My editors suggested I take a broader look at where Twitter seems to be devoting its attention.

11/6/2016: Facebook’s real-name policy draws line at titles, USA Today

It’s the rare column that lets me reference both Usenet and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Pop quiz: How many of you can still name any of your regular newsgroups?

An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.