Consumer Electronics Show 2006

I arrived in Las Vegas around 11 pm on January 3rd, expecting my colleague Pancrazio to have arrived 20 minutes earlier.In fact his flight was delayed, but this was difficult to figure out, as nothing was being posted about Delta flights on the arrivals board, for reasons mysterious to me (and to the airport information staff). Las Vegas McCarran airport was in absolute chaos, with people arriving for CES, and for the Adult Entertainment Expo being held on exactly the same days. My flight from Austin had also carried a number of University of Texas football fans, on their way to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl (college football championship). I’m such an inattentive alumna (of UT) that I didn’t even have a burnt-orange shirt to wear.

While waiting for my luggage, I got an SMS from Pan that his flight had just landed, 40 minutes late. I stationed myself between Delta’s two baggage carousels, where I waited another hour, bombarded by the soundtracks of video ads for Las Vegas attractions, playing on large screens all over the airport. Pan and his luggage finally arrived, and we went out to stand in line for a taxi – another half hour. All told, I spent over two hours in that airport that night.We finally checked into the Luxor hotel (the world’s 4th largest hotel, it claims) sometime after 1 am. Having made our CES arrangements late, we only had two rooms between the three of us. Fabrizio already occupied one, and I had suggested that Pan share with me so he didn’t have to endure Fabrizio’s smoking. When we entered our room, it was already imbued with a familiar stench: Fabrizio had been assigned the room adjoining ours, with a connecting door – the smoke of his horrible Toscani cigars had already made its way under and around the door frame. I tried wadding a wet towel under the door, but this was only marginally effective.

We got about four hours’ sleep that night, what with our varying conditions of jet lag. In the morning, we began trying to locate the DHL shipment of the equipment we needed to set up for the show. Our best-laid plans to get everything to Las Vegas in good time had been set at naught by a shipping screwup (just like last year), so we were awaiting our boxes on the same day as hundreds of other people. The hotel business center said they wouldn’t guarantee delivery for up to two hours after the boxes actually arrived at the hotel. DHL said the boxes were already in a truck somewhere and couldn’t be intercepted. Calls throughout the day produced no new information; we later learned that the scanner on board the truck was broken, so the driver had been unable to log information about what had been delivered when.

everything in Vegas is an “experience”

We decided to walk to the Sands Convention Center to meet our hosts from VWeb (a company that makes video codec chips), who had our conference badges. This walk turned out longer than we expected: maps of Las Vegas are deceiving, because each of the hotel/casinos covers several city blocks. It took us nearly an hour to reach the Venetian hotel at the other end of the Strip.

We met the VWeb folks for lunch, and actually took the risk of eating pasta at the Valentino Cafe’. The “appetizer” portions which the waiter thoughtfully offered us were exactly the size of our usual dinner portions back home, and the sauces were actually quite good, though my plate with shrimp and bell pepper sauce was rather short on shrimp: only five or six little shrimps in total – our Neapolitan restaurateur back in Milan would have been horrified had his chef been so stingy! (And would still have charged less for the dish.)

We went to the Sands Convention center (a long indoor walk from the Venetian) to get registered; security was tight, with names being checked against passports.

Then, having nothing better to do til our equipment arrived, we went off to Fry’s Electronics to buy a few necessaries – and just for fun: Fry’s is absolute heaven for geeks. It’s a franchise, but each store is “themed,” e.g., in San Jose, one is an Egyptian temple. In Las Vegas, of course, the building is decorated to look like a giant slot machine. Vegas flavor leaks inside as well: I saw a guy in the aisles with a live cockatoo on his shoulder, and one who, judging by his hairstyle and sideburns, must work as an Elvis impersonator.

While at Fry’s, I got on the phone again and learned that our boxes had finally arrived at the Luxor, so we dashed back to pick them up, then on to the convention center to set up one of our two stands. Murphy’s law always rules in these situations; set-up took a while. We then had to detach all the portable stuff and stow it in a locked cabinet, so it wouldn’t walk away during the night. We finally got back to the hotel around 8, had dinner at the Luxor’s fancy steak restaurant (good, though slow), and collapsed.

The next morning I was up bright and early: I had to be back at the VWeb booth to set everything up again by the show’s 8:30 opening. Shuttle buses were supposed to start running at 7:30, but the first did not actually arrive til 7:45. This became a problem the other three days, when the show floor was supposed to open at 8 am.

When I arrived at the booth alone to reconnect and restart everything, nothing seemed to be working – we were demoing on new machines that I had never actually laid hands on before, with quirks not yet familiar to me. After a half hour or so of panic and a phone call to Pan, I finally got it all running just in time for the first show attendees.

The actual show is a blur to me now. We weren’t even in the main convention halls over by the Hilton, but in the “Innovations” area at a separate, much smaller, convention center. Nonetheless, CES hosted 140,000 people this year, and I feel as if I personally saw most of them. I don’t think the human brain is meant to process so many faces in such a short time. After a while, everyone started to look familiar – and some actually were.

The first morning, a man stopped by the booth to rest for a moment; I had noticed that he was carrying professional sound-recording equipment. The name on his badge was familiar: Andrew McCaskey, author of the Slashdot Review, one of the few podcasts I’ve ever actually listened to. We chatted a bit about podcasting and videoblogging, and I showed him what we’re up to at TVBLOB.

Soon after that, I spotted a very familiar face, though I had to grab his badge to remember the name (I remember faces well, but am terrible at remembering where I know them from). It was an old Adaptec colleague, Andy. It seemed that he had to look at my badge as well, which made me feel a little better about my memory. <grin> He now works for Logitech: Lord of the Mice! Which, as I said to him, are an important part of the user experience.

More people passed. I demoed software, answered questions, and sometimes argued. Some people couldn’t see the point of a set-top box which can transmit as well as receive video. A guy from Fox News sneered at the idea of consumers communicating via video over their television sets. “We’re making it possible for your viewers to compete with you,” I pointed out. “Yeah, right,” he said sarcastically. “We need it,” murmured his colleague from Fox Radio News.

Other visitors, including some who may turn out to be important to the company, were more impressed. Which was a relief – it’s nice to know that at least some people “get it,” and believe that we’re on the right track.

Manning (womaning?) the stand was intellectually demanding work. Because VWeb makes video compression chips, many of the stand’s scheduled visitors were far more technical than I, so I was talking over my own head a lot of the time. I suppose it helped that I am rarely embarassed to admit when I don’t know something – though sometimes this earned me a long lecture from an enthusiastic geek who was only too glad to tell me! (NB: Geek is not a pejorative term from me – I’m a geek myself, and have the profoundest respect for geeks, as well as finding them amusing.)

I made some observations about working a show like this: You can get almost anyone to stop for a demo if you smile, ask how they’re doing, and ask if they’d like to see it. Americans are so polite that they rarely turn down a direct offer. So I tried, most of the time, to radiate friendliness and availability – which meant that I was damned busy doing demos most of the time, to a huge range of people. Not all were potentially profitable customers, but I learned something from most. Just listening to the questions people ask is a good way to spot market trends.

Out of Context

Mid-morning on the third day of the show, I was brain-dead, and asked someone from VWeb to keep an eye on my station while I went for coffee. As I walked out, I passed a short, bald guy who looked familiar; I had a strong sensation of knowing and liking him very much. Since we were at CES, I figured he must be a former colleague from somewhere, but just couldn’t place him. This was embarassing, but I quickly decided that I would feel even worse if I later remembered who he was and regretted not having said hello. I tapped him on the shoulder and said “This will sound rude, but I think I know you.” He stopped willingly, looked me full in the face, and said “I’m Evan.” He looked at me expectantly. I read his badge: Evan Handler, Palm, Inc. The name meant nothing to me, and I couldn’t remember knowing anyone who then or now worked for Palm. I was so flustered and shy that I simply walked away. (Yes, shy – even though I had just spent three days accosting total strangers, I get shy at moments like this.)

A few steps out of the hall, I realized why his face looked familiar. Nah, couldn’t be. What would he be doing here? Working for Palm? Was he doing ads for them? The whole thing made no sense.

I got my coffee and went back to the booth, tormented with doubt. I asked Peggy, the LA actress/model who was doing presentations for VWeb: “Are you a Sex & the City fan?” “I saw him, too!” she said excitedly. “And I yelled, ‘Hey, Charlotte’s husband!'”

Yup. Evan Handler is the actor who played Charlotte’s second husband, Harry, in the series – a character I loved, and one of the few male characters to come out of that series with any dignity. And I had blown the chance to get an autograph for my daughter. Argh! I looked around a bit, but there was no hope of finding him again in the crowd.

I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings by walking away like that. Probably he just thought I was completely insane.

(Ross was both amused and furious, but she got even madder at me when Evan turned up on Lost.)

Adult Entertainment

Speaking of sex, the Adult Entertainment Expo (“It’s sexy, it’s powerful, it’s business”) was held concurrently with CES, on the lower level of the same Sands Convention Center where I was stationed.

I didn’t see any of it. The two levels were connected by a mezzanine where the bathrooms are located, and on the first day Fabrizio managed to wander from one to the other (“by accident,” he claimed). He was one of the few who got away with it: by the second day of the show, there were security guards watching the exits from the bathroom level – every time I was down there I heard them saying: “Sir, sir – you can’t go down there with that badge. Sir?”

To legally enter the expo, you either had to be an exhibitor or pay a $50 entrance fee. Mere curiosity wasn’t worth that much to me, though it must have been to quite a few people: the juxtaposition of the two events was clearly intentional. I didn’t have much contact with the “pornies” except when standing in line for coffee. The women working those booths looked exactly as tired as I felt; they were just dressed a little differently.

Leaving Las Vegas

My return home became yet another customer service saga. Many people attempted to leave Las Vegas on Sunday when CES closed – we heard it was taking two and a half hours to get through the airport with the crowds, and hoped that the next morning would be better.

For Pancrazio, it was. He woke up (and so did I) at 3:30 am, so as to arrive at the airport at 4:30 am for a 6:40 flight. He was sitting at his gate well before I arrived in the airport at 6 am for my 8:40 flight. I found the American Airlines line stretching halfway down the terminal, and congratulated myself on my paranoia and foresight in arriving so early.

I started out fairly relaxed about the long wait, though I wondered if I might not have done better to arrive just barely in time so I could get pulled out of the line and rushed off to my flight as so many were doing – I was amused and annoyed at the people who had blithely imagined they could make a 7 am flight arriving at the airport at 6:15.

I fell into conversation with a retired super-geek, also going to Chicago, who said confidently, displaying his Treo cellphone/palm computer: “If anything changes on the status of this flight, I’ll get a page about it.” The woman just ahead of us was crouched on the ground, listening on her cellphone and writing things down. When she finished, she said: “The Chicago flight is delayed until 10, and will likely be cancelled, due to mechanical trouble.” Uh oh.

I tried to call American Airlines myself, but they were evidently bombarded – I got cut off as soon as I went into the hold queue. “Try Advantage [American’s frequent-flier program],” suggested the woman (her name was Lee). “I got right through to them.” I tried, got cut off again. Maybe there was something about my cellphone? Lee very kindly dialled the number on her phone and was able to get through; I spent the next 20 minutes on her phone, mostly on hold, as the Advantage agent had to speak to Alitalia, and got put on hold in turn.

The agent finally came back on and said she couldn’t do anything over the phone due to the way the ticket was booked. I would have to get through the line to the desk and have the local American Airlines agent rebook me. If the flight did actually take off by 10, Alitalia would try to hold their connecting flight in Chicago long enough for me to run for it – though, realistically, half an hour would never have been enough.

We were in line for over two hours, crawling along (me with two large bags to haul plus a heavy backpack). American Airlines had a lady walking down the line periodically giving updates and helping where she could – which wasn’t much. She gave out a special emergency number to call about this specific problem, but the people on the other end proved to know nothing about our situation. I suggested to the line lady that customer relations would be much improved by a distribution of coffee (none of us had had breakfast that morning), but she said they couldn’t do that. <sigh> Hell, go to Starbucks and buy it if you have to – that simple gesture might have helped American Airlines gain customers for life, instead of losing them.

When I finally reached the desk, it took the agent about half an hour to find a solution: he rerouted me Chicago-Brussels-Milan. I then had to go stand in line at America West to get a boarding card for the Las Vegas-Chicago leg. When I saw the long line there I could have cried – I was already exhausted, and cranky from lack of caffeine. I asked an agent standing there if I could just go through the first class line (where there was no one waiting). She was very nasty in saying no: “That wouldn’t be fair to our PAYING customers. You’ve only been rerouted from another airline.” As if that was my fault. I didn’t think to say that I had actually arrived from Austin on an America West flight a few days before, and had certainly paid for that one.

“What if I just sit here and cry?” I asked. “I don’t have any tissues,” was her reply. Snide bitch. She probably thought the same of me, but… customers are allowed to act bitchy, especially under duress. For service staff to do so is a HUGE mistake (a mistake the American Airlines staff did NOT make in a far more difficult situation, kudos to them). The customer may not always be right, but you’ve still always got to be nice to her. And I was treating this agent as politely as I could, considering that steam was coming out of my ears.

She did me a further disservice, I later realized, by not pointing out that there were two America West lines. I got into the wrong one, of course – Murphy reigning supreme that day – but fortunately I figured this out before it made much difference to my wait time.

Along came a gorgeous young Polish woman in the same fix, who worried that we wouldn’t make it through this line and security fast enough to make the flight – two years before, she had missed a flight due to Las Vegas’ legendarily slow security. After 30 or 40 minutes, growing increasingly nervous, we asked another agent if we could be pulled out of the line and sent ahead. He refused, and claimed that the 25 minutes remaining before the flight would be sufficient to get through the rest of the line AND security.

On the suggestion of two guys waiting ahead of us for a later flight, we cut to the front of the line, asking permission as we went. Most people were kind enough to agree, though some attempted to ignore us. One man sniped: “You should have gotten here earlier.” I explained, with far less heat than I might have, that we had gotten there in plenty of time – 6 am for a 10 am flight?!? – and vowed to myself never again to leap to conclusions about others’ travel planning.

Having checked in and put our suitcases through the scanners, of course we were both singled out for special security treatment – in a separate line, shoes off, everything out of our hand luggage, then pass through a monstrous machine which puffed jets of air at us. I think it sucks up the debris and checks it for bomb-making chemicals; in my case, all it got was dandruff.

I don’t know if the Polish woman made the flight in the end; we got separated at security. I arrived at the gate as the flight was boarding, and still hadn’t had any coffee. The gate agents promised me there would be some on the flight and, mercifully, there was.

I was cramped up in a middle seat for the 3 1/2 hours to Chicago, often inadvertently elbowing (and irritating) the woman to my left, who was reading a book about “Toxic Bachelors.” At least the flight staff were pleasant, though the only food available was a $5 “snack pack”: tortilla chips and salsa (that’s a vegetable, right?), breadsticks (“authentic from Torino!”) and processed cheese, a fruit cup, candy, and a packet of raisins.

During the Chicago layover I had time for a nice spinach salad, and even nicer gin and tonic, at Wolfgang Puck’s. My trans-Atlantic flight was now with American Airlines, whose staff were very kind, making up for some of the day’s woes. My seatmate was pleasant, an Oracle employee on her first trip to Europe, for a business meeting. She asked my advice on how to get over jet lag (I wish I knew). We were in an emergency row seat, which didn’t have the legroom I’d anticipated as it was at a bulkhead – and I could have used it, because after all the standing around, my knees were aching, and my right leg hurt all the way up to the hip (yes, I have inherited my dad’s arthritis, and it gets pretty bad sometimes even though I’m only 43).

Emergency exit seats are cold, I suppose because there’s less insulation around the emergency doors. The stewardess brought us little bottles of cognac, so I made a toddy with hot water, lemon, and sugar – worked a treat. I fell asleep listening to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” on my iPod.

Brussels airport was quiet. I had coffee and a pastry, got on my flight to Milan, and fell asleep, waking only as the descent into Malpensa began to hurt my ears. My buddy Antonello the taxi driver was there to meet me (Enrico was teaching), for which I was very thankful. I finally reached home at 1:30 pm local time – just about 24 hours since I’d woken up in Las Vegas.

Full Suitcases

Jan 17, 2006

In response to my travelogue, Faisal made some excellent suggestions, including “travel light!” Words to live by, truly. But there was a reason for my carrying so much: I needed clothes. Even before the dollar nosedived against the euro, clothing was cheaper in the US than Europe. I could expect to pay 300-350 euros for a new (much-needed) winter coat of decent quality. A coat as good or better could be got from Lands’ End in the US for $150. By having it shipped to my friend in Tulsa and picking it up from her, I also saved myself international shipping costs and 35% customs duty. Ironically, I did not need this coat at all during my stay in the US: everywhere I went was unseasonably warm, so much so that in Austin I ended up buying and borrowing t-shirts.

It’s also easier to find clothing to fit me in the US: as I’ve said before, I don’t seem to have the standard Italian body shape, so have a hard time finding clothing in Italy that fits me well. And it’s difficult to find colors that I like. Naturally, Italian shops carry colors (orange, lime and olive green, yellow) that suit Italian skin tones. No blue or purple, little pink or bright red. Colors that look good on me don’t look good on Italians, and vice-versa. So I end up buying black, white, beige, and grey – boring!

My new coat is “orchid” pink. It certainly stands out in the crowd of dull colors in Milan. And I certainly need it – we’re due for snow again today.

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