A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.

Weekly output: OurStreets, ATSC 3.0, innovation in 2020, 5G meets retail, connected-TV privacy, Last Gadget Standing, Korean smart-city tech, best of CES

Yet another CES is in the books. It was a tiring week, but once again I got an enormous amount out of the show. And it is nice to think that less than two weeks into the year, I’ve already finished the year’s toughest business trip.

Earlier this evening, I put together a Flickr album of my pictures from the gadget show; at some point in the next few days, I will write up the more interesting bits from my notes for Patreon subscribers.

1/6/2020: This app helps pedestrians and cyclists wage war on terrible drivers, Fast Company

The second-to-last piece I filed in 2019 ran a week later–a look at an upcoming app that will help pedestrians and cyclists report bad behavior by drivers.

1/8/2020: ATSC 3.0 draws selective, if not scant, support at CES 2020, FierceVideo

Industry support for a long-awaited upgrade to broadcast-TV technology is a somewhat wonky topic compared to, say, robots bearing toilet paper, but that’s why it’s handy to have a trade-pub client that deals in wonky stuff all the time.

1/8/2020: What’s Next for Innovation in 2020?, VentureFuel

I debated fellow tech journalists Eric Savitz and Rick Limpert in a panel discussion hosted by this New York-based consultancy before a small audience of investor and founder types.

1/8/2020: 5G Meets Retail, CES

My contribution to the show’s high-tech retailing track was this talk with Nokia 5G market-development director Jason Elliott and Verizon connected-solutions managing director Arvin Singh about what 5G could do for the retail experience–in a shop and along its supply chain.

Yes, this was my second manel of CES. I should have said something about that when I was asked to join each panel but did not, and feeling strung out by December’s cognitive overload is a weak excuse.

 

1/9/2020: CES: Your smart TV is watching you. Will Samsung, LG, Vizio do more to protect privacy?, USA Today

Think of this column as a sequel to the one I wrote for USAT from Google I/O in May. Where Google showed it could speak in detail–if not as much as I’d like–about adopting such data-minimization techniques as federated learning, TV manufacturers at CES appeared to be grossly unready for that sort of privacy discussion.

1/9/2020: Last Gadget Standing, Living in Digital Times

Once again, I helped judge this competition and then introduced two contenders on stage Thursday: the Octobo connected toy and the Flic 2 programmable smart button.

1/9/2020: A Look At Korea’s Smart-City Ambitions At CES, Ubergizmo

Friends at this gadget blog asked if I could help with their coverage by writing up one set of exhibits in the Eureka Park startup space. They offered a suitable rate, so I said that would be fine.

1/9/2020: CES 2020: Our best of show, USA Today

I contributed a paragraph about Hyundai’s air-taxi venture with Uber that ended with a contrary comment from an aviation-safety professional who’s understandably skeptical about the odds of this and other attempts at urban air mobility. If you’re not in the mood to read that much, you can also hear my spoken-word rendition of this piece (recorded on a Vegas sidewalk Wednesday night) on Jefferson Graham’s Talking Tech podcast.

Updated 1/16/2020 to correct the spelling of Elliott’s last name; updated 1/29/2020 to add a YouTube embed of the panel.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

Weekly output: FOIAing for facial-recognition software

LAS VEGAS–I’m only a few hours into this year’s CES, and I’ve already had to bag one appointment. Not because I was running late, but because I tried to stay on schedule by going direct from the airport. But while the two individual vendor events I’m going to are okay with that, the CES Unveiled reception was not. Whoops.

I If you’d like to know more about my agenda for this week in Vegas, I outlined all that for Patreon subscribers earlier today.

1/4/2020: To learn how police use facial recognition, we must ask the right questions, Fast Company

A presentation a few weeks ago at the Cato Surveillance Conference in D.C. got me interested in this crowdsourcing experiment in surfacing information (do we call that “crowdsurfacing”) about police uses of facial-recognition technology by using state freedom-of-information laws. Then it took me a few more frazzled pre-holiday weeks to quiz one of the people who worked on this project, plus another week to write the thing.

 

It’s not the most wonderful week of the year

It’s after 7 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and I wrapped up my workweek and  checked off the last major Christmas chores barely an hour ago. Unfortunately, this is not a departure from my holiday habits.

I’ve never been one of those people who can have all presents purchased and wrapped by a week before Christmas. Every year, the back half of December has me scrambling to find worthy presents for family members until I’m worrying more than I should about Amazon shipping deadlines–or finding that I’ve slipped past the wrong side of them. The joy of the holidays escapes me too easily.

At the same time, the advent of CES–Evil Advent, if you will–and the usual onslaught of PR pitches for exhibitors at that enormous electronics show steadily destroys my ability to focus on my day job. My inability to learn from prior gift-shopping experience seems to be matched by the tech-PR industry’s inability to learn that flooding journalists’ inboxes with repetitive or irrelevant pitches–often coupled with invitations to CES events scheduled in defiance of that show’s schedule and traffic, and often followed by cold calls that are never a good idea—-does not constitute effective outreach.

Being treated as if I have an infinite amount of time to evaluate and respond to CES pitches that themselves assume I’ll have an infinite amount of time in Las Vegas during the show is especially maddening when I’m already feeling strung out by the holidays and struggling to write and file the year’s last stories so I might have a few days around Christmas to do as much of nothing as possible before getting on a plane to Vegas.

It is easy to slip into both workload paralysis and errand paralysis, feeling too overwhelmed to do anything that isn’t due this hour and then feeling lousy for getting so little done. That’s a cruel little cocktail of stress and shame, and I imagine many of you have mixed it for yourselves this month.

The last workweek before Christmas is the worst for this, since at that point there’s almost no time left for the holiday chores and the CES planning and the year’s last crop of stories. Plus, most of the good holiday parties already happened.

All of this stress boiled over Thursday morning, when call from a 646 number I was sure I didn’t want to take set Google Voice ringing on my phone, tablet and desktop. As I cursed at my computer and reached for my phone to dismiss the call, I answered it instead. Oops. There’s a Toyota publicist who probably thinks I’m some unhinged nutcase… which might not be that far off from my frazzled state this time of year.

How I booked my CES lodging (and did not get ripped off, I hope)

No business-travel lodging decision is trickier than CES. The usual affordability of Las Vegas hotels evaporates as properties on the Strip send their rates into the stratosphere for this massive show, leaving budget-minded CES attendees scrounging for cheap alternatives that won’t be too distant or too sketchy.

Las Vegas Strip from the southHere how I managed that this year. I hope you all don’t need to book CES lodging anytime soon, but applying some of the same shopping practices might make your next non-work trip a little more affordable.

  1. Start at the show site’s list of official hotels. Conference hotels can be a grotesque rip-off, but the enormous scale of CES–175,212 attendees this January–means the endorsed-lodging list has to go beyond a handful of high-end hotels. The best deals left this week are in downtown Las Vegas, which I know from prior trips is an easy Lyft/Uber ride to the Strip and not much slower by bus, which in this case includes the show’s free hotel shuttle service. And by “best deals” I mean $500 to $600 and change for four nights–including resort fees, which the CES site helpfully includes in its nightly-cost estimates. That set an upper bound on what I’d pay.
  2. Check Airbnb. Airbnb is an essential part of my business travel–I don’t think I could do events like MWC or Google I/O without that source of cheap lodging–but in this case it didn’t pan out. Airbnb’s site didn’t show any affordable options near the Strip that either had accumulated enough favorable reviews or were offered by hosts with their own prior crowd-sourced approvals.
  3. Check Kayak. Kayak.com has remained one of my favorite travel-search sites for all the tools it provides to narrow down a search (with Hipmunk a close second) while still showing results from a wide range of booking sites. In this case, Kayak revealed another option in the low $500s near the University of Nevada at Las Vegas–not walking distance from the Strip, but a manageable Lyft/Uber commute. (Vegas taxis are dead to me, thanks to their adding a $3 surcharge for credit-card payments.)
  4.  Check Hotwire. This Expedia Group-owned travel-search site offers mystery deals on hotels that don’t have to be that much of a mystery. The trick is to see what “Hot Rates” look good, then check not just the TripAdvisor rating shown next to each but the number of TripAdvisor reviews. That second data point should allow you to identify the underlying hotel with a high degree of confidence. In this case, Hotwire showed some downtown-Vegas properties at about the same rates as the CES site–but without clarity on whether resort fees were included.
  5. Don’t forget esoteric or expiring discounts. My search ended with an app on my phone, and not one I’ve used to book travel before. The T-Mobile Tuesdays app, which historically hasn’t yielded much more than the occasional free Lyft ride, touted some subscriber-exclusive discounts at Booking.com this week. So I belatedly remembered to take a look Friday, which is how I found a DTLV property with solid TripAdvisor ratings and no resort fees for just over $500.

Will that be my most comfortable CES stay ever? Probably not. Will I care after spending 14 hours a day schlepping around my laptop? Probably not. Now to book my CES flights…

 

 

Weekly output: wireless service, Gmail phishing, social-media disinformation, DNA tests

I spent most of this week in Las Vegas for the Black Hat and first DEF CON security conferences. I knew Black Hat from last year, but covering its sponsor-free, community-run counterpart for the first time left me feeling overwhelmed at how much of it I’d missed after just the first day. The Flickr album I posted earlier today may give you a sense of that fascinating chaos.

8/7/2019: The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

This update took longer than I thought it would, but it now benefits from a simpler set of usage estimates that better align with how much data most people use. This guide also features new recommendations for value-priced service and shared-usage plans.

Fast Company Gmail-phishing post8/8/2019: We keep falling for phishing emails, and Google just revealed why, Fast Company

I wrote up a Black Hat talk that revealed new insights about why people fall for phishing e-mails and reinforced old advice about the importance of securing essential accounts with the right kind of two-step verification.

8/9/2019: Fake calculations… an electronic weapon in the hands of autocratic government, Al Jazeera

I took part in an episode of AJ’s “From Washington” show with Ryan Grim of the Intercept and my former congressman Jim Moran (D.-Va.), discussing disinformation campaigns on social media. At one point, Moran paused to say “Ryan and Rob are extremely intelligent and informative,” which I trust was equally effusive overdubbed into Arabic. The conversation later pivoted to the political scenario in Sudan, a topic I am maybe as prepared to discuss as any regular reader of the Washington Post’s A section.

8/10/2019: DNA Test Kits: Everything You Need to Know, Tom’s Guide

In this first post for a new client, I went about 2,000 words into the weeds on the privacy, legal and mental-health risks of taking DNA tests that may create facts you’d wish you could uncreate. That’s not my last post on DNA testing for Tom’s Guide, so if you have questions I didn’t get to in this feature, please ask away.

This is the most interesting conference badge I’ve worn

LAS VEGAS–I’ve spent the last two days wearing a circular circuit board topped with a slab of quartz, which is not just normal but required behavior to attend the DEF CON security conference here.

DEF CON 27 badgeI had heard upfront that DEF CON badges–available only for $300 in cash, no comped press admission available–were not like other conference badges. But I didn’t realize how much they differed until I popped the provided watch battery into my badge (of course, I put it in wrong side up on the first try), threaded the lanyard through the badge, and soon had other attendees asking if they could tap their badges against mine.

These badges designed by veteran hacker Joe Grand include their own wireless circuitry and embedded software that causes them to light up when held next to or close to other badges. As you do this with other attendees of various classes–from what I gathered, regular attendees have badges with white quartz, press with green, vendors with purple, and speakers with red–you will unlock other functions of the badge.

What other functions, I don’t know and won’t find out, as I’m now headed back from the event. That’s one way in which I’m a DEF CON n00b, the other being that I didn’t wear any other badges soldered together from circuit boards, LEDs and other electronic innards.

(Update: Saturday evening, Grand, aka “Kingpin,” posted detailed specifics about his creation, including source code and slides from a talk I’d missed.)

You might expect me to critique the unlabeled DEF CON badge for flunking at the core task of announcing your name to others, but forced disclosure is not what this event is about–hence the restriction to cash-only registration. And since I have mini business cards, this badge met another key conference-credential task quite well: The gap between the circuit board and the lanyard was just the right size to hold a stash of my own cards.

Weekly output: Facebook customer dissatisfaction, Facebook meddling in the Middle East (x3)

Tuesday has me departing for Las Vegas for the Black Hat and DEF CON information-security conferences, aka Hacker Summer Camp. In addition to the usual risk of getting pwned, this year I and other attendees will also have to deal with a plague of grasshoppers.

Yahoo Facebook ACSI post7/30/2019: Study shows Facebook’s customer-satisfaction scores plunging, Yahoo Finance

A new survey from the American Customer Satisfaction Index showed people’s contentment with Facebook plummeting to depths you could call Comcastic–except the cable company still rated lower in ACSI research earlier this year. If this post seems somewhat familiar, you may remember me writing up a similar set of ASCI findings in 2010. The issue of what we’ve learned about Facebook in the intervening years is left as an exercise for the reader.

8/1/2019: Facebook catches meddling from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on air live–twice in this day–to talk about Facebook’s announcement that it had booted hundreds of accounts and pages run out of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” its phrase for disinformation campaigns.

8/2/2019: Facebook catches meddling from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Al Jazeera

Saudi Arabia misbehaving on social media put the Qatari network into flood-the-zone mode–not difficult to understand, given the enmity between the kingdom and Qatar–and so AJ had me on for a second day in a row to talk about this story. If you don’t care about Gulf politics, please consider that the Facebook-meddling move here of impersonating local news sources could work in the many U.S cities and towns now starved for local news coverage.