The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

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Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.

 

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

I left my conference badge in San Francisco

If business travel has helped ruin Las Vegas for me (downtown LV excluded), it’s had the opposite effect with San Francisco. With this week’s trek to Google I/O in the books, I’ve now had at least one work trip a year there for the past dozen years–and the only part of the experience I dread is being reminded that the days of quality $100-a-night hotels near Union Square are gone.

Departing SFOAs a city, San Francisco has many of the qualities I look for: walkability, history, beautiful architectural and natural scenery, diverse dining from food trucks to white-tablecloth establishments, a pleasant climate, and a subway that goes direct to the airport.

Even the flights are good: The approach up the Bay to SFO offers one of the best arrival vistas around even when your plane isn’t landing in parallel with another. (Bonus: When I fly United’s nonstop home to National I have a 50-50 chance of getting the River Visual approach’s even-better rooftop views of the District or Arlington.)

As a journalistic destination, San Francisco allows me the chance to see job-relevant people I otherwise only meet on social media or e-mail.

On the other hand, those job-relevant folks aren’t all newly-wealthy founders or long-wealthy investors. Some are fellow tech reporters who, unlike me, must cope with a frighteningly expensive real-estate market that keeps getting more toxic, courtesy of deranged housing policies founded on entitlement and denial. One unsurprising result: In May, a friend and his family were served with an eviction notice after their landlord elected to cash out by selling their place.

So while I enjoy going to the Bay Area as much as ever, I don’t feel so bad about my home being some 2,400 miles east. I do, however, feel bad about judging one of my favorite travel destinations with a version of “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

Demo versus Disrupt

SANTA CLARA, CALIF.–I’ve attended TechCrunch Disrupt SF twice and DEMO Fall once, which doesn’t give me much background to judge these two pitch conferences. (The two used to happen on the same days, forcing potential attendees to pick one or the other.) Fortunately, I have no editor on this site to stop me from handing down judgments anyway.

Format: Both events take the same American-Idol-for-startups approach, in which each company gets a limited time on stage to make its pitch to the audience and a set of judges. But Demo (let’s ditch the all-caps) crams in 78 six-minute presentations by startups, while Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield only admits 30 contenders. That made for a grueling pace at Demo. But Disrupt also invites other startups to demo their products offstage–and since it’s a different lineup each day, I didn’t get to see many of them.

Another notable difference: At Disrupt, the judges quiz each startup directly, but at Demo the “sages” have their say after the presenters have left the stage. I prefer the former setup.

Selection: Disrupt seems to invite a bubblier set of startups than its older rival, put on by IDG Enterprise and the tech-news site VentureBeat. Last year’s winner at Disrupt, for instance, was an Israeli startup called Shaker that essentially provides a Facebook-confined version of Second Life–and since seems to have stalled out. Demo had less fluff but was also more boring sometimes; as a consumer-tech guy, I tuned out of most of the enterprise-IT and business-CRM presentations. (I though four interesting enough to write about in a little more detail in this Discovery News post.)

The extra wrinkle with Disrupt is the role of the CrunchFund, the investment vehicle set up by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. Although Arrington no longer runs TechCrunch–AOL kicked him out after he said he’d go back to financing startups with CrunchFund–he still spends a lot of time onstage at Disrupt. And CrunchFund companies somehow won Disrupt’s $50,000 prize this year and last year in San Francisco.

Talks: With fewer startups competing, Disrupt had a lot more time for panels and speeches. The highlight of this year’s event was Arrington’s grilling of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; the lowlight was his cringe-inducing interview of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, which featured such challenging inquiries as “Are you enjoying life, other than the Fiji trips?” and “I kind of want you to buy an island, that would be kind of neat.” At Demo, we were treated to a mind-expanding talk by artificial-intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil; Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’s substance-starved answers to VentureBeat editor Matt Marshall’s questions were less rewarding.

Location: Disrupt takes place at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center, a renovated warehouse in the South of Market neighborhood. Demo happens at the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency. So at Disrupt, all the nightlife is offsite, while at Demo I didn’t need to leave the hotel grounds until the last night’s party, half a block away at Citrix’s offices. The Hyatt’s neighborhood is far less interesting, but it is a short ride on the VTA light rail (plus a shuttle bus) from San Jose’s airport.

Internet access: The WiFi at Disrupt was horrible last year and only barely usable for much of this year’s conference (during the Zuckerberg interview, it pretty much cratered). At Demo, the WiFi worked almost all the time. But with 1,000 attendees versus Disrupt’s 4,000 or so (if I remember that correctly), there weren’t as many laptops and tablets to congest the airwaves.

Food and drink: No question, Demo wins this–we had three hot meals a day there, compared to Disrupt’s menu of pastries and yogurt for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and go-find-your-own dinner. It’s a push in terms of booze.

Soundtrack: Both conferences don’t exactly burnish their indie cred with their choice of music played between presentations, but Disrupt occupies its own level of hell by endlessly playing a set of techno songs commissioned for the event. Sadly, typing the previous sentence put those tunes in my head again.

Weekly output: TechShop, iPhone 5, WiFi routers, speed tests

Like last week, this week was cut up by travel–in this case, the Online News Association’s conference in San Francisco. (As in, the same city I went to last week for TechCrunch Disrupt.)

9/20/2012: TechShop: Laser Cutters For The People, Discovery News

My last stop before heading home from the Disrupt trip was a two-hour tour of this fascinating workshop–which itself followed a shorter stop when I was in the Bay Area in early June. There are a lot of interesting story angles to TechShop’s story (like the legality of cloning real-world objects using 3-D printing, something I discussed on a panel this summer) that I could only briefly mention in passing in this post. So I will have to find other uses for all the material in my notes.

Speaking of leaving things in one’s notebook, I had to update the post to correct a few errors I let escape into the copy. I hate it when that happens.

9/22/2012: IPhone 5 journal: So about that Maps app…, CNNMoney.com

Perhaps you, too, have heard that Apple began selling a new smartphone this week? My coverage of the new iPhone 5 kicked off with this first post in a series for CNNMoney.com; updates over the next few days will reflect my tests of its camera, performance, battery life and other issues. (I’ll also have a shorter writeup for Discovery.)

Note that this review didn’t involve the usual product loan. After getting the inconclusive responses to my review request from Apple PR that I’ve begun to expect, I bought a new iPhone 5 from a Verizon Wireless store in San Francisco. (Don’t buy a new iPhone on launch day from an Apple Store; the lines are vastly shorter at carriers’ retail outlets.) The downside is that I have to return the thing before VzW’s 14-day trial period ends, lest I get stuck with a two-year contract when I’m already under contract with another carrier; the upside is being able to go ahead and do my job as a reviewer. Which is, you know, kind of liberating.

9/23/2012: Tip: Reconnect your Wi-Fi and test its speed, USA Today

This Q&A item has more abbreviations than I usually want to inflict on readers, but it’s hard to discuss technical networking issues without throwing a few around. The balance of the column shares tips about third-party tools that can assess your Internet connection’s speed; some of that dates to last winter’s reporting on Sonic.net’s gigabit fiber-optic service.