An Idler In San Francisco

Gate-fold

You can attempt to divide by zero or take the square root of a negative number. It’s adorable that you’d even try, because it’s impossible, of course.

“Getting from downtown San Francisco to Cupertino without any fuss” is the divide by zero of Bay area logistics. It can’t be done. It’s doubly-frustrating because I’m not battering my head against eternal principles of mathematics but against lousy urban planning.

Why, yes! I am on a southbound Caltrain! How perceptive of you! Continue reading “An Idler In San Francisco”

Photo Dump

Day Three at CocoaConf Yosemite. This is a magnificent conference that inspires a speaker to do his or her very best, both to match the level of the other talks and as an audition for a slot at next year’s.

I enjoyed the wet weather during last year’s conference. Yosemite is rocks and trees and earth, not just sky, and precipitation works wonders on those things. And then there’s the smell! Why does water do such terrible things to the odor of a dog, but does the sort of things to the aroma of a forest that makes you hungry for a thick steak after taking a long walk through it?

That said, we’ve had utterly cloudless skies all week. The park is so pretty that my regret at not packing my tripod for the trip steadily declined into self-hatred. Fortunately, there was a shop a couple of miles away that rents tripods to dopes.

The weather has changed but the Internet situation is still…I can’t bring myself to say anything negative about Yosemite. I’ll put it this way, instead: “Gosh! Yosemite is so beautiful and being here is so peaceful that the park doesn’t want you to be distracted by Facebook! Or Instagram! Or anything that requires transmission of any packet of digital data larger than what one could possibly memorize and then read to someone over the phone!”

I’ve been having loads of fun taking loads of fab photos. But I can’t post them until I check into my next hotel in a day or two.

I did want to post something all the same, so:

“A blue and black bird perched on a branch just outside my balcony, looking into the lens with an expression of weary suspicion.”

“A plate containing one of the tastiest burritos and taco I’ve ever had.”

“A landscape shot from the Ansel Adams vista point, with my Nexus 5X, that turned out so well that it kind of startled me.”

“A tight shot of Yosemite Falls, framed by trees, under a piercing blue sky.”

“A tight shot of another mountain formation, ditto.”

“A phone snapshot of my camera, on my rented tripod, taking that photo, amusingly revealing that this was just the view from the parking lot of the lodge.”

“An impressive display of hundreds of little boxes of raisins, so that arrivals at Fresno International Airport are impressed and humbled by the region’s raisin-production prowess.”

“Andrew Stone, smiling and gesturing delightfully during his Wednesday morning presentation.”

“The title slide from my own talk, entitled ‘Cows Have Had A Positive Impact Upon My Creative Life’.”

I hope you enjoyed this descriptive slideshow. Sorry about the background music. But look, you’re the one who chose to put on that “Ted 2” soundtrack album…not me.

Hotel Innovations

Things that have made hotel stays 10000% better than they were during my first years of business travel:

  • WiFi. Goes without saying. I used to pack a whole little bag of cables to ensure that I could connect my modem to anything I encounter in a hotel room. Once, I connected to Compuserve through an ice machine. (That’s a lie. But yes, a screwdriver and a set of alligator clips was part of my kit and I needed them more than once.)
  • Google Maps. Because it’s trivially easy to look around the neighborhood of the hotel in advance and discover that there’s a pharmacy, a grocery store, and a cleaners within walking distance. This inserts a certain carefree attitude into the packing process.
  • Amazon.com. If there’s something I need and I can’t get it at the CVS or the grocery store near the hotel, I can have it delivered the next day. Even if it’s an inflatable wading pool and 50,000 chopsticks. (Shut up. It’s part of my writing process.)
  • Hulu, Slingbox, and other streaming TV services. I take my day-to-day TV viewing habits with me and don’t have to miss the first ten minutes of something while I figure out where this freakish hotel room cable lineup has hidden PBS.
  • The evolution of the in-room desk from “bigass desk” to “sideboard table that garages a generous worktop on wheels.” I can move that sucker wherever I want it, including over the balcony and into the pool. (Shut up. It’s part of my writing process.)

Scum Class, Now Boarding

I’m flying out for the MacTech conference in LA tomorrow. Today was the first time ever, I think, that I upgraded my seating in advance, explicitly, instead of as a spur-of-the-moment thing at checkin because I was tired or the kiosk offered me a deal.

I don’t care so much about the extra six inches of legroom. I just wanted the Group 1 boarding. Even that isn’t precisely the big Get: I just want to avoid those tiny little cuts when I get my boarding passes and find out that I lost the big lottery. Group 4: scum class. “You may board after every category of desirable passenger has already seated themselves and stowed their luggage.”

I don’t fly enough to rate upgrade rewards and even if a speaking committee offered me First Class tickets, I’d probably ask them to put me in an aisle seat and coach and we could split the price difference in class.

I wish airlines had a sort of Frequent Flier program just for seat upgrades. Like, after I’ve bought $X worth of Group One Boarding privileges, I can spend some of my points and get to board the plane with the soldiers on my next flight.

So why did I do this ahead of time?

Because I’m old and tired. Or, maybe more experienced and wise. Whatever, I’m encouraging myself to look at experiences that I dread and try to identify elements of it in which the awfulness is largely voluntary. So this time, I’m paying for early boarding, and I’m taking an afternoon flight from a regional airport instead of leaving at oh-my-god o’clock to get to an 8 AM flight from a larger airport that everyone’s trying to get to, all at once.

(I am a mental powerhouse. I only have to keep my hand on a hot stove for twenty years before I give oven mitts a try.)

LA, Chapter One: George Clooney Is Handsome And Helpful.

The Hollywood La Brea Gateway. A dramatic steel gazebo in which the four columns are life-sized statues of four legendary screen women.
The Hollywood La Brea Gateway. A dramatic steel gazebo in which the four columns are life-sized statues of four legendary screen women: Mae West, Dolores Del Rio, Anna Mae Wong, and Dorothy Dandridge. With concrete spikes driven through their skulls.

I never seem to get around to blogging about my trips and I don’t really know why. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I try to pack a lot of livin’ into those two to seven days. And when I’m not livin’, I still usually have to do a lot of writin’. Then there’s sleepin’. Bloggin’ seems to land buttered-side down.

Particularly because I sometimes make the mistake of taking it too seriously. So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve set a ten-minute countdown timer here on my iPhone. I can write about as many topics as I want, but I have to abort after ten minutes on each.

Okay? Strap in. Go!!!

Chapter One: George Clooney Is Both Very Handsome And Quite Helpful.

Speaking of experiments: I decided to go full-out and commit to the idea of packing light. $25 for a checked bag? Each way? $15 was my Grumble But Play Along price. For $25, I was willing to modify my behavior.

A five or six day trip is normally the worst packing situation imaginable. I’m right at that margin. Usually, I can fit everything in one carryon if I throw some important things out, or I have to take the larger bag and resign myself to spending all that money for a half-empty piece of luggage.

This time, I was determined: under no circumstances would I take more than my one hardsided rollerbag and my laptop bag. The only non-negotiable items were socks and underpants, of which one really must have one set for every morning. Other than that: if there was any doubt about taking (n) or (n-1) copies of any item, I would favor (n-1).

I also did something that’s always seemed absolutely insane: I rolled up every last article of clothing into tight individual tubes. Even the dress shirt that needed to stay nice. I’ve seen demos of Master Packers who insist that you can travel for two weeks out of one carryon by using this technique. I imagined them spending that whole time looking like their outfits had been designed by someone who’d spent most of his life working with accordions.

Well, gorblimey: it all worked out great. Despite the fact that I needed to pack a tripod in there as well, despite the fact that I had to wear business-formal to a special club later in the week. It all fit in nicely and the lid closed cleanly. I didn’t even need to undo the zipper on my laptop case that doubles its capacity. It was like I was headed out for a weekend, instead of the better part of a week.

So that’s the new mission rule: one bag, period. I think it’s encouraged by the fact that now, it seems less like an inconvenience and more like a logic puzzle. It’s like playing Tetris with your clothing. The big advantage of rolling your clothes, as I see it, is that it allows you to form a dense two-story layer of solid clothing at the bottom of your suitcase which fills every nook and cranny. When you combine this with a motivation to “win the packing game” by asking yourself the hard questions (“How about just two shirts?” “I should wear this v-neck sweater on the plane instead of packing it; it’s thick cotton”), miracles can happen.

Also helpful: seeing “Up In The Air” three or four times on HBO in the past month. George Clooney’s character travels 350 days out of the year and there’s a marvelous scene in which we just see how efficiently he packs. And then there’s a second scene in which he scolds a newbie for her gramma-style American Tourister and mercilessly “edits” her selections to fit into a brand-new rollerbag.

I reiterate that George Clooney is a very handsome man and as such, he can be trusted to know what he’s talking about.

It also made me think slightly more favorably about these new baggage restrictions. Before the airlines tacked $50 onto the cost of every ticket, I tended to overpack. Why take just two extra shirts when three would offer me some more alternatives? A big monetary disincentive forced me to be more careful. That’s probably the only real way that we as a country are ever going to move away from oil. Would I drive my car as frequently if there were a 100% surcharge on every gallon of gas? Probably not. I’d rightly say that the added price was insane and and outrage…but ultimately I bet I’d realize how much room there was for me to cut back.

Done! With 30 seconds left on the clock. I like how this is working out.

The Dad Gene

I’m not going to suggest there are no downsides to traveling on 45 minutes’ sleep. There are plenty. In fact, the only two advantages are that nobody will try to take the Amtrak seat next to you if you’re sloppily collapsed with your face pressed against the window and drooling heavily, and when you reach your destination and are expected to act in a rational and professional manner, you can wipe aside all responsibility with the phrase “Sorry, I had an early train; I forgot that you’re not allowed to pee on an escalator.”

I’m using a ridiculous example for comedic effect. This is New York. You can pee on just about anything here and people definitely do.

Well, I don’t know why I can never get a good night’s sleep before an early travel day. All I can say is that I normally work well into the single digits of the AM, and further, there’s an endless list of petty annoyances that I have to address before I can close my office. So 7:15 AM isn’t a departure time that favors great success.

I left the house 45 minutes later than I’d planned. Which meant that I was waiting on the platform just 15 minutes before the train.

“Wow! It was a little close!” you say. No, you don’t understand: this is Amtrak. In airline terms, it was as if I’d shown up at my gate an hour before boarding time. So why was I dressing myself down?

The Dad Gene.

I’m sometimes reminded that I have all of the tools necessary to be a good father. For example, there’s that head-clampy device that’s used to keep the kid at the kitchen table until he finishes all of his green beans. I picked that one up at a yard sale. A good oak one; it even had all of the straps.

But here I speak of the genetic drive to get the kids out of bed way too early and arrive at the airport way too soon for a flight. “Oh, you’re bored?” Dad says, during Hour Two of the airport sit-in. “I suppose you’d rather be excited because I had to fix a flat tire and there was a wreck on the highway and we couldn’t find a place to park at the airport shuttle and the shuttle driver got lost on the way and we got held up at the security screening and there was a problem with our tickets. You’re telling me that you’s like the excitement of hurling ourselves through a closing jetway door at the last second and hoping that we’d still get to go to Disneyworld? Read your Archie comic and keep quiet.”

I would have gotten to the Amtrak station a lot earlier if I hadn’t taken a childish detour. I like to pass by the airport shuttle, stop where there are a couple of dozen people waiting, and be a total dick. “I’m carrying a Swiss Army knife and many ounces of liquids I don’t even necessarily need! Enjoy the TSA strip search, losers!”

And then I laugh and peel out. It’s part of the joy of rail travel.

Why the early departure? A breakfast that got cancelled while I was en route. Well, the good news was that I had a little bit of work to do, anyway. I’d been keeping an eye on an announcement from Logitech on the pricing of the first Google TV set-top box. I’d held on to a review of the Apple TV and the new Roky set-top boxes for hours, waiting, but finally I had to release it to my editor.

The news came late on the West Coast: $300. Holy jumping iguanas. If it were close to the $99 prices of the other network-enabled TV thingies, we’d have had a real horse race. Even if they got it in under $200, it’d have been an interesting development.

But $300? That’s true Whiskey Tango Foxtrot pricing. I wrote and submitted an amendment to the column I’d filed, adding one of the bitchiest few paragraphs I’ve published in quite a while.

It was actually a damned lovely morning. I’ve spent enough time in New York that when I arrived at Penn Station and needed to fine a nice place to set up and work, I could do no better than Bryant Park, just four or five blocks away. The weather was gorgeous, I had a source of phosphoric acid at my elbow, and tapped away on my iPad quite happily before my lunch engagement.

Another busy day lies ahead. Breakfast with someone, then off to the New York Comic-Con floor for a briefing or two, then I engage my military-style plans to try to get on the list for a sketch from one of my favorite artists. Then off to Fox News to be on their Web-only tech show at 2 PM.

I’ll look pretty foolish in my Darth Maul makeup, but it really can’t be helped.

Unfrozen Caveman Restauranteur

Greetings from that sprawling, amorphous place known as “The Road.” My talk at the Southern New Jersey Mac User Group went well and even I learned something new. Specifically: when you’re running a presentation from your iPad and you pick it up to make a point and you dislodge the dock connector in just the right way, you can freeze up the iPad so badly that it takes several minutes to reboot.

(In the middle of the presentation)

(Duriing which you’ve been talking about how good the iPad as a notebook replacement.)

(Good thing I got my travel expenses in cash, in advance.)

This is a bit of a historic trip: it’s the first one in which I’m using the iPad as my sole computer. It’s working out swimmingly, just as I thought it would. I even had a new iPad doubleplus love moment.

I wrote a column on my iPad using the Elements app. Then I needed to do a little research on the Web, just to double-check on some specs and product names. So I closed down Elements and launched Safari. I had to; the multitasking edition of iOS is coming to the iPad in November. Until then, there’s no quick and easy way to switch between this column and the browser.

Aha! But I didn’t need to! Because Elements is one of those text editors that stores your files on Dropbox, and I had a copy of the app on my iPhone as well!

So I was free to look things up on the iPad while I made the edits on my iPhone. When I was done, I re-launched Elements on the iPad and bingo-presto, all of my changes had been applied. Naturally. There was no syncing and no cutting and pasting: the iPhone had literally been editing the same file I had created on the iPad.

It was even better than an iPad doubleplus love moment. It was also a “Good God, I love living in the 21st century!” moment.

This is a weird, tri-state trip. The talk was in New Jersey but my hotel was in Philadephia. Now I’m in Baltimore, visiting my good pal Barbara.

Last night she picked me up from the train station and we cruised around looking for a good place to eat. We discovered a restaurant that had apparently been entrapped by a glacier in 1949 and had only recently been freed by global warming.

I want to stress that the food was good (I had an excellent beer-battered fish and chips) and the staff was friendly, attentive, and capable. But the decor made it very easy to imagine the room as it might have been in 1952. Full of women, dressed in expensive Chanel gowns, a plate of untouched salad in front of them, chain-smoking elegantly, the way that their comportment teacher instructed them at boarding school. Full of men in grey wool suits, working out the best time to loudly ask a waiter “Could you go out and make sure I didn’t leave my lights on? It’s the brand-new Cadillac Marquis Supreme, with the optional full-calfskin leather interior and limited-edition gold accent package.”

The capper: our check arrived and the waitress handed it — deliberately and specifically — to me.

!

I can’t remember ever dining alone with a woman and being handed the check. Waiters always place the folio on the table at the precise midppoint between the two patrons, with maximum permissible error of about three millimeters in the sexist direction. Four millimeters, and there’s a severe risk of a 5% tip. Six, and a district enforcer from the League of Modern Waitstaffs comes up and shoots the server.

I was amused and cheered by this throwback move. Also, it allowed me to play the “No, I insist, this is on me” card from a position of considerable strength.

Apple Tablet Week: They Broke My Airplane

Bastards. There I was, thinking I was getting away with something by avoiding carryon baggage fees. But the airline got me back by making my plane go broken before anybody boarded and then canceling my flight. Whoof. That mulched the money I spent on shuttle fare to the airport, one day’s parking, and one night’s hotel in San Francisco.

There was a very quick “Damn and blast,” then I launched a litany of punchier comments at the airline’s automated reservations line which, in my estimation, was severely underperforming, and then a Very Nice Lady re-booked me on an early flight tomorrow.

Well.

I truly think that anger and frustration are voluntary choices as often as not. How do we choose not to react that way?

First, we acknowledge that there are things that can’t be changed. Then we move on from there and make a frank assessment of the potential for credible self-pity:

1) If the original rumors had been true, then I would have missed the Apple Event. I’ll still get there the day before.

2) I’ve been rebooked on an early flight. I can still meet my friends for dinner on Tuesday, as planned.

3) I’m even in a window seat. I could have wound up crammed into a middle.

4) If this had happened on my return flight, I’d be scrambling for a hotel room, imposing myself on friends, or sleeping in the airport. As-is, I get to sleep in my own bed. And the last thing I did before I left the house for the airport was load up the fridge with Heritage Dr. Pepper.

5) It was the very first time that I’d packed for San Francisco using nothing but carry-on luggage. So when they canceled the flight, I was able to just grab my things and catch the next shuttle back to my car.

6) I get a “do over” on my packing. I realized on the bus that I’d left my camera at home. Plus, I’ve checked the weather in San Francisco and feel very good about leaving my leather winter coat behind and traveling in my sportcoat. It’ll be a bit nippy when I return home, but sitting through the 45 minute flight delay reminded me that a reproduction vintage leather bomber jacket was not designed for breathability in heated spaces.

7) I suppose it’ll be easy for me to file a column tonight before I go to bed.

Etc.

Final tally: oh, stop whining and grow a pair, for God’s sake. You lost a hundred bucks but things could have turned out far, far worse. Look here: you’re watching tonight’s “House” and “Big Bang Theory,” too! We’re admittedly far from a blessing in disguise but there’s no need to deploy the left-paren emoticon.

Plus, I’m sure that my luggage enjoyed the little day trip to the airport.

So far, incidentally, I’m a complete convert to the carry-on style of travel. At least 20% of the hassles of airports were eliminated by virtue of the fact that I had a very light laptop bag on my shoulder and a single wheely case. No paperwork or procedures for checking my bags, no delays…and the Pelican 1510 LOC case makes one hell of a comfortable footstool when you’re stuck in Terminal B for an unknown, but profoundly nonzero, length of time.

Okay. That’s a wrap, folks. Let’s pick it up from here tomorrow. See Gene or Stu for your callsheet.

I Hereby Put Apple On Notice

Okay. So I closed my eyes, put my hand on my heart, commended my soul to God, and booked a flight to San Francisco in three weeks.

“Oh, dear,” was my frontmost thought after my credit card had been charged.

I’m not used to gambling like this. Apple hasn’t announced any sort of event for the last week in January. If there’s an event, there’s no assurance that I’ll be invited to it. If I’m invited to it, there’s no assurance that it’ll be the world’s first look at an Apple tablet device. If it’s a Tablet announcement, there’s no assurance that I’ll get a private briefing and a little one-on-one fondling time with the thing. And that’s what would put this trip squarely in the “It’s my job to attend this event” category.

If none of this happens? I can certainly get some work done in the city. And it’d be nice to record a MacBreak live in the massive steel-and-glass TWiT Towers Studio And Resort Complex. I’m still surprised that Leo convinced the San Francisco Board Of Supervisors to tear down the Transamerica Pyramid and its adjoining block to make way, but hey, more power to him.

Time was ticking. We’re nearing the crucial day when the burden of desperation shifts and airlines stop sweating about selling all of these unsold seats and begin salivating over how much they can stick it to a business traveler who clearly will pay almost anything to be somewhere in four days.

I think I timed it almost just right. $239 (including taxes and fees) is certainly the lowest airfare I’ve ever found from Boston to San Francisco. They’re nonstops, they’re on the carrier that has almost all of my miles, and the plane was so underbooked that I got aisle and window seats without any trouble.

Still, it was an expensive morning. I also booked my flights for the Conference On World Affairs in April.

My annual Denver travel is always a Big Lose. Traditionally I arrive in Boulder with barely enough time to change clothes and make it to a mandatory reception, and my flight home on Saturday requires me to be on my way to the airport at an hour of the morning normally associated with the full half-hour extended director’s cut of the Magic Bullet infomercial.

I got off a little light this time: nonstops in both directions and an early-ish arrival on Sunday. I’m on the redeye flying home, but that comes with a payoff. The Boston Comic-Con is that weekend, and landing in Boston at 11 AM allows me to catch a few hours of the show and then get dinner with an artist friend who’s coming into town.

It’s a little scary to witness how easy it is to spend money these days. Just last night I was tempted to just go to Chipotle and grab a burrito for dinner. Simple math kept me home with a can of Chicken With Dumplings soup. Yes, $1.65 is a lower number than $6.70. I ended the day up $5.05 and feeling slightly proud of myself.

But after 45 minutes with this blasted computer I’m down more than a hundred times that!

Why stop there? I could buy a couple of TVs! An X-Box! Once I’ve maxed out my credit card, I can hit my bank’s site, move more money around, and keep spending until I haven’t a penny left! Hey, doesn’t eBay sell cars?

(Whew.)

Boy, am I glad that my reckless spending is generally limited to an occasional book or DVD. Being a compulsive spender these days is as big a problem as being a compulsive gambler who lives next to a casino. Complete financial ruin is available to you at any hour of the day or night.

So my flight to San Francisco has been confirmed. The money’s gone. The ball is now in Apple’s court.

If they don’t hold an event in San Francisco during the last week of January on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, well, I gambled and lost. Fair enough.

If they hold an event and it has nothing to do with the tablet (“The iPod Shuffle: Now Two Grams Lighter”) I will be Miffed.

If they hold an event and it’s about the Tablet and it takes place on Monday or Friday…

…Well, I’ll probably have to take the Steve Jobsbruin and Steve Wozbearnak that I made at “Build-A-Bear Workshop” off of my dresser, that’s what. Let that weigh on your heads, Apple.

In any event. I will very likely have plenty of free time during my visit (Jan. 26-27-28) and a San Francisco Tweetup will almost definitely happen. Venue suggestions are welcome.