2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Things I did not get around to doing in five days of CES

LAS VEGAS–Another CES is in the books for me. I’m departing a day later than most people, and I still did not have time to cross everything off my to-do list. I’m not going to say I missed all these things, but the show still feels a little incomplete without them:

GoPro clusterAttend CES Unveiled: The show’s opening reception is always a total zoo, but it also represents my first chance to say hi to all the tech-nerd friends I haven’t seen in months. Unveiled was never going to happen once my tardy booking of flights (meaning, Oct. 4) left no reasonably priced options that would get me into Vegas in time for the event but not with hours to kill beforehand.

Take a taxi or a shuttle van: With Uber and Lyft finally operating throughout the city and even picking up passengers, I did not have to bother with either McCarran’s horrendous taxi line (with a ripoff $3 credit-card-payment surcharge waiting at the end of the ride) or the long wait for a shuttle van to depart. I did, however, have to learn that there’s a floor 2M between floors 2 and 3 in the T1 parking deck, on which you must meet a ride-hailing service’s vehicle.

See the opening keynote: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynotes have been more substantial than average at CES, but I didn’t finish a few work chores in the Mandalay Bay press room Tuesday to get to the Venetian in time for this year’s presentation. I’ll have to watch it when I get home.

Get to Pepcom’s Digital Experience: This reception is a great way to catch up with a wide variety of smaller exhibitors and get a decent meal, but a Yahoo Tech team dinner had to take priority.

CES security stickerHave my bag searched: This year’s CES was supposed to involve screening of everybody’s bags. But the security-pocalypse we all dreaded never happened. Nobody ever searched my bag on any of the times I entered a CES exhibit, not even when I got a green “Security Approved” sticker placed on it Tuesday morning. I am fine with that; I faced a much bigger risk every time I had to cross six- or 10-lane roads designed with an “Auto über alles” mentality.

Take a show shuttle from the convention center: I only took one of the official show shuttle buses Tuesday morning. The rest of the week, I either walked to the convention center (I found an Airbnb room only 10 minutes’ walk away) or took city buses up and down the Strip.

Ride the monorail: Not staying in a giant hotel on the east side of the Strip made this high-priced but traffic-independent ride irrelevant on most days. I should have taken it Thursday night, though; going from the convention center to the Cosmopolitan by bus took about an hour.

Strip trafficSee VR porn: This is apparently a thing now, and I did not clear time in my schedule–in the interest of science!–to attend the demo my friend Sascha Segan wrote up at PCMag.com.

Test-drive the Chevy Bolt: I had to blow off an appointment to test-drive this compact electric vehicle because I needed to finish writing a couple of stories. Read my Yahoo colleague Daniel Howley’s report to see what I missed.

Gamble: Not staying in a hotel with a casino waiting downstairs severely lowered my odds of getting in any blackjack time. And by the time Friday night’s events were wrapping up, I was too tired anyway. Considering that I had the Terminator for a dealer the last time I gambled here, that may not be the worst thing ever.

Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

Time-zone arbitrage

Spending the past five days in Barcelona, six hours ahead of the East Coast, has me thinking anew about the finer points of having different digits on your clock and those of editors and readers. 

World clockYes, jet lag sucked. I woke up Monday at 4:30 a.m. and then couldn’t get back to sleep, leading to a couple of naps in the press room. (A laptop does not make a good pillow.) But a day later, my eyelids no longer felt like they weighed 200 pounds, and I realized again that the time-zone gap can also be my friend.

Specifically, it turns the morning into—not an accountability-free zone, but at least a self-directed time, thanks to almost nobody in a position to direct my coverage being awake. Then it allows my copy to arrive early in an editor’s day for a change. If my editor is based in the Bay Area, I look even more prompt: The story sent at 5 p.m. arrives at 9 a.m.

At some point, this equation will flip and I’ll have an evening upended when an editor decides my copy needs another run through the typewriter. But so far, the worst that’s happened is me turning into that annoying guy who answers e-mails on his phone during dinner.

Social media also highlights that temporal shift: Twitter and Facebook look a lot quieter than usual until lunchtime, to the point where I question the wisdom of tweeting out observations that will get lost in the timelines of most of my usual audience. But then I  have my phone pinging with notifications until I go to sleep myself.

Back at home, the three-hour gap between the East and West Coast should also benefit me when dealing with editors there. But it’s too easy to waste that advantage until it’s 6 p.m. here and I have a different deadline looming in my own time zone: cooking dinner.

Flying to the West Coast, meanwhile, permits jet lag to work for me: On the first couple of days, I usually snap awake not much later than 5 a.m., and I am never more productive than in those hours before I finally get breakfast. And if the event I’m covering won’t have people committing news after lunch—for example, Google I/O keynotes usually start at 9 a.m. and run until about noon—my workday will also end earlier than usual.

But then I also have to deal with the 7-9 p.m. keynote that opens each CES. Not only does it throw a wrench in my scheduling machinery, it ensures I can’t eat until a time that feels more like 11 p.m. At least I don’t have to write stories about those things anymore.

Travel checklists

Sometime after I made the horrifyingly stupid mistake of going to CES without my laptop’s charger (leading to a couple of days of frantic power management that had me feeling a tiny bit like an Apollo 13 mission controller), I added a “Travel checklists” note to my phone to remind me of things I’d need to pack or do at home before heading out.

Travel itemsAside from “phone and laptop chargers,” it had a short list of other things I could see myself forgetting: business cards, snacks, headphones, earplugs and an eye mask for an overnight flight, a spare flash drive (now that they’re a standard PR giveaway, that’s not so important), turning down the heat or air conditioning at home, stopping delivery of the Post, watering the plants, and so on.

The stuff-to-take list has grown increasingly specialized in recent years: a microfiber cloth to clean dirt and fingerprints off gadgets I’m going to photograph, a travel power strip, an external battery pack for my phone, a short ruler to check the dimensions of devices, transit-payment cards for other cities, and Ethernet and HDMI adapters for my MacBook Air. For an international itinerary like tonight’s departure for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, add in a power-plug converter, the tiny tool I need to pop out my phone’s SIM-card tray, a couple of roaming SIMs and any leftover currency from my last trip to the same part of the world.

My ability to stay on top of all those items got a huge upgrade a few years ago when my wife got me this great messenger bag: It may not be as professional-looking as the black Lands’ End canvas attache I carry around town (along with a large fraction of other working Washingtonians), but it’s a lot more comfortable to wear all day. So it’s become my go bag for any travel; almost all of the things itemized above live in it full-time, freeing me from having to think much about them.

The things-to-do-before-departure list, however, has grown more involved since our daughter’s arrival. I try to ease the single-parenting duty that falls to my wife by ensuring the fridge is full of leftovers, preferably ones our little one will eat (good thing she loves risotto too), the laundry basket is nearly empty, and no bills are left waiting to be paid. I hope that helps, but I always think there’s some chore I’m forgetting–just like I always think there’s something I’ve forgotten to pack.

Weekly output: enterprise apps, airfare search (x2), Sphero

It’s been a quiet week, but next week won’t be. Tomorrow evening, I depart for Berlin for the IFA electronics trade show, where it looks like I’ll see a Samsung smart watch as well as a lot of gadgetry that won’t make it over to the States.

8/27/2013: Enterprise apps, IDG Enterprise

My latest turn as a Twitter chat host involved shepherding a discussion about what mobile apps businesses use. I was surprised to see so few mentions of Office-document compatibility.

C-SPAN online plane tickets8/28/2013: Buying Your Next Plane Ticket Online: How Can the Internet Make Travel More Efficient?, Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus

I discussed the “New Distribution Capability” initiative to modernize airfare search and sales–which should allow travel-search sites to offer more details about airlines’ add-on services but might also allow for personalized offers that would make airfare shopping even more complex–with Matthew Jennings (International Air Transport Association), Charlie Leocha (Consumer Travel Alliance), Sharon Pinkerton (Airlines for America) and Andrew Weinstein (Open Allies for Airfare Transparency). C-SPAN elected to air our debate on C-SPAN 2–hello, slow news week!–which seems to have led everybody else on the panel to show up in suits.

8/29/2013: A Better Airfare-Booking Model Remains Up In The Air, Disruptive Competition Project

That conversation was interesting enough that I decided to get into the weeds about this issue for DisCo. I think the airlines have a decent case on the merits, but have non-trivial consumer-trust issues in the way. For much more detail, please see Cranky Flier blogger Brett Snyder’s coverage.

8/31/2013: Gyroscope-Guided Gigglefest By Sphero, Discovery News

How I suggested reviewing Orbotix’s robotic ball to my editors at Discovery: “A gyroscopically stabilized rolling ball, lit from within by an array of multicolor LEDs, that you can control with your smartphone. I don’t need to finish this pitch, right?” The post’s headline isn’t displaying on the page, thanks to some CMS malfunction I don’t want to know about.

This week’s USAT Q&A will run tomorrow instead of today, if you were wondering where it went.

At Sulia, I noted the parallel between a hijacking of the New York Times’s nytimes.com domain and one of the Stop Online Piracy Act’s proposed attacks against allegedly infringing sites (which got a nice shout-out at Techdirt), gave a tentative thumbs-up to Twitter’s new conversation view, wondered how in the world Apple picks new Apple TV channels, said “there’s an app for that” is a poor fix for balky transit ticket-vending machines, and just about begged Apple to make iPhoto suck less.

The trade-off of travel

I’m in the middle of an unprecedented amount of travel. Two weeks ago, I flew out to L.A. to give a talk at an Edmunds.com conference; tonight, I’m flying to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer-electronics show there; two Sundays from now, I’m off to San Francisco for TechCrunch Disrupt; a week and a half after that, the Online News Association’s annual conference takes place in the same city; one week later, the Demo conference happens in Santa Clara.

I feel tired just reading the preceding sentence. In a normal month, I might have one trip out of town, certainly none requiring my passport.

I have business reasons for all this flying back and forth. I’ve never gone to some of these events before and would like to learn what I’ve missed; I expect to see interesting products debuted and demoed at them; they should represent good networking opportunities for me; at least for this year, I can afford the expense.

(The IFA trip is largely subsidized: The organizers have a pot of money set aside to bring some U.S. journalists there, with no requirement that I can discern to cover a particular vendor or technology. My regular editors were okay with that.)

But I have seriously mixed emotions every time I start to pack.

I hate the part of travel where I have to tear myself away from my lovely wife and our bubbly two-year-old. That dread often sets in not one but two nights before a departure, and it hasn’t gotten that much easier since my first business trip as a dad.

But I like travel itself–seeing the ground fall away from the wing at takeoff and then draw near again as we settle onto the runway, then finding my way around some new part of the world–and that allows the gloom to lift once I reach the airport. (Especially if it’s my beloved National Airport instead of, say, United’s grim C/D concourse at Dulles.)

The other part of traveling as a parent is the spouse debt I run up every time my lovely wife has to care for our bubbly two-year-old solo–something I have done for all of maybe four nights myself. I try to even the balance by setting aside a few nights’ worth of dinner in the fridge and freezer before I head out, but I know I couldn’t do this without the support of my family. And I know how fantastic it will be to come home to them this Sunday afternoon.