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?

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Ranking U.S. airport rail connections

PORTLAND–The easiest part of my journey here Thursday for this year’s XOXO festival was the last leg: a roughly half-hour ride on the light rail from the airport to downtown.

Many cities do not offer that kind of convenience, leaving visitors to choose between infrequent buses that get stuck in traffic and don’t have enough room for luggage or ride-hailing services that may not even save that much money over taxis (sorry, New Orleans; you’re guilty on both counts here). But not all airports with rail service get the basics right: a quick and obvious route from terminal to train, frequent service, a one-seat ride to downtown, and plenty of connecting service once you get there.

Here’s my sense of how 10 U.S. airport rail connections rate. It could have been an even dozen–I’ve also appreciated MARTA’s one-seat ride to ATL in Atlanta and availed myself of SEPTA’s less-frequent commuter-rail airport service in Philadelphia–but both of those happened in the prior century, and I’d rather refresh my memories of each first.

ORD: You do have to walk what feels like half a mile of underground corridors to get to the Blue Line station, but then you’ve got a traffic-free 45-minute, $5 ride to the Loop that runs 24 hours a day. Bonus: CTA is one of the very few U.S. transit agencies to take NFC phone payments instead of making visitors choose between paying a paper-fare surcharge or buying a smart card that will collect dust in a drawer later on.

PDX airport rail stationPDX: TriMet’s Red Line light rail takes you to the middle of downtown in about half an hour, the station itself is just outside one end of the terminal, and trains offer almost round-the-clock service, even on Sundays. As in Chicago, you can pay your fare via NFC; unlike CTA, Tri-Met also caps your daily fare at $5 if you use that option.

DCA: National Airport’s Metro connection checks off all the boxes, including a walk from the station to the terminal shorter than many of the planes waiting on the other side. And having spent the years before National’s new terminal opened in 1997 taking a shuttle bus to the Interim Terminal makes me appreciate this convenience even more. But: On weekends, Metro opens too late for even 8 a.m. flights.

SEA: Each time I’ve taken the 38-minute ride on the Link light rail from Sea-Tac to downtown Seattle, I think of Steve Dunne from “Singles” and his dreams of a Supertrain for commuters. Having to walk through a parking garage to reach the airport station, however, is not so super.

SFO: Putting SFO’s BART station at the end of a wye was an epic blunder: At best, only one in two southbound trains from San Francisco stop at the airport—at a steep fare of $9.15 from Embarcadero–and taking Caltrain can require separate BART rides from Milbrae north to San Bruno, then south to SFO. I appreciate being able to walk from the BART station to T3, but everybody would be better off if the Airtrain inter-terminal shuttle went across 101 to a single station for BART and Caltrain.

DEN: The RTD’s A line electric commuter rail replaced a bus that only ran every hour or so with service every 15 minutes during the day, and being able to end your trip downtown at beautiful Union Station is a treat. But at $9, this is on the expensive side.

BOS: You have to take a bus to the T’s Blue Line stop (so does this even count as airport rail access?) and then connecting to the T’s other lines is as much of a mess as anything in downtown Boston. And if you don’t already own a CharlieCard, you’ll pay a paper-fare surcharge because the T doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of selling its smartcards in all of its stations.

EWR: Newark’s station on the Northeast Corridor allows Amtrak to serve as a connecting “flight”–United will sell you that routing if you want to travel from Stamford or New Haven to one of its own destinations. But if you’re only going to Manhattan, NJ Transit’s schedule can leave you waiting at off hours, and the $13 fare is the second most I’ve paid to take a train to a U.S. airport.

CLE: Fun fact: Cleveland was the first North American city to institute rapid-transit service to its airport. And if you start your journey to Hopkins from downtown, your commute can begin in the historic confines of the Tower City complex. But Northeast Ohio is not exactly a paradise of rail transit, which cuts down on the utility of this connection.

JFK: Taking the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station to JFK’s Airtrain was easy enough the one time I did that a few years ago, but if I had to make that commute more often I imagine I’d tire of the $15 combined cost of LIRR plus Airtrain–or the slower ride on the subway.

BWI: For passengers coming from D.C., BWI’s rail station takes the basics of Newark’s Amtrak connection and makes them worse: MARC runs less often than NJ Transit, especially on weekends, and instead of a short monorail ride you have a bus that takes longer and runs less often. Also, the BWI rail station itself is a miserable concrete bunker that doubles as a cellular dead zone. If, on the other hand, you’re coming from Baltimore, you can take the light rail direct to the airport—but I wouldn’t know about that.

So what about my own favorite Washington-area infrastructure project, phase 2 of Metro’s Silver Line? That will offer a one-seat ride from Dulles to downtown at what I’m guessing will cost $6 and change at peak hours, $4 off-peak and should take about 50 minutes, going by a published 43-minute estimate of travel from Rosslyn to Dulles.

(Having the station be across the hourly parking lot from the terminal doesn’t bother me a bit; the added walking over the rejected station option closer to the terminal, factoring out moving walkways, is 260 feet, and if that’s too much pedestrian locomotion then Dulles isn’t the airport for you anyway.)

They can’t finish that thing soon enough, and when they do I anticipate it will occupy a spot on this list right after National.

CTIA ROI: Did I need to go Vegas for this?

LAS VEGAS–My stay here only ran about 38 hours, but even if my itinerary hadn’t gotten upended by flight delays Tuesday I would have only spent 42 hours here. That was by design: I didn’t choose to go to CTIA’s Super Mobility Week until I’d already committed to going to Portland for the XOXO conference.

CTIA logoThat way, I didn’t risk much on the news value of an event that hasn’t exactly padded out Vegas taxi lines the last two years–selling one story should cover my additional travel costs.

But even by those low standards, the show organized by this D.C. trade group underperformed. The floor was a vast expanse of peripheral players hawking cables, cases, chargers or the industrial hardware that keep our phones online, from cell towers to backup generators to drones to inspect cell towers.

Among companies most wireless customers might know well, only Verizon, Samsung, AT&T and Tracfone had a notable presence on the floor. None committed any real news. (A Tracfone staffer said that prepaid carrier didn’t have any publicists around when I stopped by. PR tip: Not helpful!)

The opening keynote Wednesday featured appearances by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, but neither yielded enough material for a story for my usual outlets. If you missed my tweeting Wednesday morning: Wales is helping to launch the U.S. branch of a U.K. wireless reseller called The People’s Operator that lets you direct some of your spend to charity, and Wheeler said he’s confident that next March’s auction of some broadcast-TV spectrum to wireless carriers will succeed and that the FCC’s net-neutrality rules won’t stop wireless carriers from investing in their networks.

And then I spent the next two hours watching Apple’s event. This is the second year in a row that Apple has elected to introduce a round of new products on the opening day of what’s supposedly the wireless industry’s leading domestic event. The people at CTIA must be so pleased by that.

Many tech journalists were in San Francisco for Apple’s event. Others sat out CTIA because they’d gone to IFA the week before and didn’t want to deal with that much travel.

I’m not writing this to trash-talk CTIA’s efforts, although their decision to stage this show right after the electronics extravaganza in Berlin now looks a huge unforced error. Wireless is one of the most interesting and important parts of the tech business today, and you’d think it needs and could easily support an annual gathering like any other industry’s.

But one that’s marked by an absence of news and exhibitors, which happens only a day or two after a larger event that involves 9,000 miles of travel, and which takes place in a city that’s not quite my favorite place to go, is not something I need on my travel budget again. Sorry, CTIA.

Weekly output: mobile device management, XOXO, iOS 7 visual effects, Android permissions

After a week out of town, I have seriously enjoyed waking up in my own bed and cooking my own meals.

9/24/2013: Mobile Device Management, IDG Enterprise

My sideline as an occasional Twitter-chat host led me to this discussion of ways to secure large numbers of smartphones and tablets–a business-focused topic with more than a little relevance to the consumer.

DisCo XOXO post9/26/2013: There’s More Than One Way To Do It, And Other XOXO Lessons On Indie Creativity, Disruptive Competition Project

This recap of the XOXO conference was written from about the same perspective as July’s  DisCo post about developments of online journalism: You’re better off judging the health of a market by its compatibility with middle-class business models than by how many superstars it spawns.

9/27/2013: How to adjust visual effects in iOS 7, USA Today

I set aside another column idea to write about user complaints about the sometimes shifty visual effects in iOS 7. The tip part of the column, about one way to decide if an Android developer is being upfront with you, came out of a discussion I had at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference two weeks ago.

The week’s Sulia topics ranged from the official debut of a CableCard bill that I’d previewed for Ars Technica in August, surprising sales figures for Chromebooks, RealNetworks’ re-emergnce with an interesting cloud-based video service that may suffer from being saddled with the RealPlayer name, how many people pay for ad-free versions of mobile apps, and a time when paying with a credit card entailed more hassle than paying with my phone’s NFC wireless might have been.

A love letter to XOXO

PORTLAND–If you write for a living, hope and fear are part of the deal. Hope, because you believe your ability to make words appear on a screen in a pleasing sequence will lead other people to give you money. Fear, because you worry that other people will realize you are not all that good at that work, and that other writers can do it for less anyway.

XOXO badgeI spent three days here last weekend at XOXO, a conference staged to lend hope to independent creativity. That was a fairly abstract concept to me three years ago; I was approaching my 17th year at the same employer and had (fraying) ambitions of retiring there.

Then other things happened, I didn’t get another job as I’d expected, and after two and a half years of freelancing full time, my indie existence no longer feels like a fluke.

But it can still feel lonely. So it was tremendously empowering to commune with smart, talented, hard-working people who had taken a similar course, then see some of them testify about it. I kept finding myself nodding vigorously at things I could have said, or wished somebody would have told me a couple of years ago.

Co-organizer Andy Baio opened the event with an introduction that was part release notes explaining how he and co-conspirator Andy McMillan had designed XOXO to function unlike the average corporate conference, part pep talk for those assembled. “It’s about making new things and putting them out in the world,” he said. “That takes a unique kind of bravery.”

Cartoonist Erika Moen evocatively recalled her own I-think-I’ve-gotten-somewhere moment: “I’m self-employed. I’m creating. I’m in love. I’m happy.” In my notes, those sentences are set off with one all-caps prefix: THIS.

Musician Jack Conte provided a succinct description of the basic business problem for any freelancer–or, for that matter, any newspaper: “You have to make good stuff and convert it into money.”

One of my favorite talks came from musician Jonathan Coulton (longtime readers may recall his guest spot on my Post podcast, the audio of which has apparently gone down the bit bucket). He spoke bluntly about his moments of self-doubt–“there are times when I say to myself, I wonder if I have ever done anything that’s really good?”–but also showed a cheery defiance of standard-issue career advice.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that there’s A Thing you have to do to make this work,” he said before a slide reading “Be a Snuggie,” “You’re doing it right,” and “Fuck ’em.” Instead: “Here is the only metric you need to care about…. Is what you’re doing making you more happy or less happy?”

And Cabel Sasser, co-founder of the Mac software firm Panic, Inc., gave a wonderfully human recounting–who among us has not sometimes thought, “I needed to file a bug report on myself”?–about what it meant to keep his company independent.

What if it fails spectacularly after he’d passed up a lucrative exit? What if it slowly sputters out? I liked his answer: “You won’t know the end until it ends, so let’s fill the middle with as many amazing plot twists as we can.”

The other part of XOXO that lit up my brain was the other people I was able to meet there. Baio and McMillan’s attempts to limit the audience to people who made things, their  exhortations to say hi to whoever’s next to you, and the inevitable random conversations while waiting in line at the food trucks outside the Yale Union building all made this one of the more welcoming spaces I’ve occupied.

Many Internet-famous individuals are jerks, but I did not meet any jerks at XOXO. I was particularly delighted to meet people I hadn’t seen in months or years, or had only known as usernames in Twitter, e-mail addresses in my inbox or a remote voice on the same radio show. You know who you are; hope to see you again soon.

Sorry, no iPhone review this week

PORTLAND–This may not be the kind of thing I should admit in public, but I am, uh, not reviewing the iPhone 5s or even the 5c for anybody. Things just didn’t work out: One client felt the new models would be covered to death everywhere else, another was holding out hope that Apple would loan a review unit to one of their staff writers, and then I ran out of time to conjure up other options in a week loaded with two conferences in two states.

PDX Apple Store iPhone sign

So that’s how my ambitions of repeating last year’s strategy–where I bought an iPhone 5 and wrote up my findings for two sites before returning it two weeks later–did not pan out. (Fellow tech journalists: Buying and then returning review hardware can be a wonderfully liberating workaround for slow or unresponsive PR departments. Try it sometime!)

I can’t say that I minded not having to run over to some PDX-area AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store yesterday morning–and possibly find them already out of stock of the 5s–or wait hours at the Apple Store downtown. Even at 9:30 this morning, there was a line waiting outside that shop.

And it’s been pleasant to be able to focus on the XOXO conference here instead of mentally unplugging from it to crank out a review or two.

But beyond the feeling that I’m committing a tech-journalism foul by not holding forth on a new iPhone, I’m personally curious about the 5s. I want to see how the Touch ID fingerprint sensor works, and if the camera represents that big of an improvement over the iPhone 5 camera’s output. Fortunately, a friend on Facebook already made the mistake of bragging about how great Touch ID has been on his new iPhone. He’ll be hearing from me not long after I return to D.C.