Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for March, 2008

Quick ways to judge a restaurant or cafe

Posted by shannonclark on March 29, 2008

I take food seriously. Professionally I organize large group dinners after conferences and other events on a regular basis, my friends and family often ask for my recommendations for places to eat for a range of occasions. Though in my family I’m the amateur, my sister’s boyfriend of many years is a professional food critic for the New York Times and multiple book author, just sold a major cookbook with one of the hottest chefs in NYC (and thus one of the hotter chefs in the world), that book deal being for enough that he doesn’t have to do much beyond writing that book for many years.

But even in that company, I would like to think I hold my own when it comes to finding and discovering restaurants both where I live and as I travel. In Chicago I was a very active participant on the old Chowhound (before CNET purchased the site) and then later on a site and discussion board my friends set up after being fed up with the slow software of chowhound – lthforum. In San Francisco I have occasionally contributed reviews to Yelp and the occasional post back on lthforum or on my blog, but mostly I haven’t been writing about dining out as often I used to do.

Here, however, are a few of my personal rules of thumb, offered to help you (and to help anyone running a restaurant or cafe) as you choose your next place for a meal or a coffee. These are not all firm or universally true, but most of the time they offer a very useful filter. For the sake of many restaurants I sometimes wish I didn’t always notice these small details – but many times over the past year my instincts have been proven right more often than not – restaurants I walked past and my instincts said “will be closed soon” are now closed and for sale, restaurants I entered with a group (their choice, I tried to convince them otherwise) were indeed horrible meals as I predicted.

Breakfast or Brunch

  1. Coffee from a can or vacuum pack bad, from a local specialty roaster good. Breakfast places start with the coffee, if they take that seriously enough to buy it from a local roaster (and incresingly most states and cities have at least one)  that holds promise for the rest of the menu
  2. Real maple syrup. The best breakfast and brunch spots just offer real maple syrup and don’t offer any alternatives. Some okay to good spots offer real maple syrup as an option. With very very few exceptions spots that don’t offer real maple syrup at all aren’t particularly good (at least don’t take their food very seriously)
  3. Fresh squeezed juices in season. Fresh squeezes seasonal juices squeezed on the premises are another sign of a restaurant that takes what they serve seriously and are rarely found at a bad place.

Note that I didn’t focus on the exact dishes of a breakfast or brunch spot, though I do also tend to find that restaurants with smaller, more focused menus generally speaking have better food that restaurants with pages upon pages of breakfast or brunch options. But these simple elements – coffee, maple syrup, fresh juices are all signs of places that are almost certainly worth trying. Oh and any breakfast spot that names itself after breads (Toast to take one commonly used example) better bake those breads on the premises if they truly want to be worthy of the name.

Lunch

There are many approaches to lunch. When making suggestions for places I differentiate between places for working, professional lunch meetings and places for dining alone or with friends and colleagues. For the former, price is not an issue but speed, quality, quiet and privacy can be key factors. For the later, price is often a factor, quality, suitability for a range of diets, and speed.

In San Francisco there is quite a range of lunch spots. Here are a few that I can recommend highly.

  • Medicine Eatstation – located in the heart of the Financial District of San Francisco in the Crocker Galleria this is one of my favorite places to get lunch in San Francisco. They are known for their vegan and vegetarian cuisine, Japanese Zen temple foods, but they have a range of fantastic fish dishes as well. Lunch will typically run you about $15-20 a person here, so this isn’t a budget place but neither is it overly expensive and the quality of food is amazing. The service is order at a counter and then find a spot at many large communal tables, so this is great when dining alone, or fantastic for informal meals with a group, though not ideal for a private meeting or discussion. However for the quality of food and the ability to provide an amazing meal for vegan or vegetarian friends this is well worth dining at (and more times than not I eat vegan when dining here though I’m a confirmed omnivore)
  • E & O Trading – I generally do not suggest chains, but I make an exception for E&O Trading. Their location in San Francisco which is just off of Union Square makes for an ideal location for a business lunch. The food is quite good, but what makes E&O Trading ideal for business lunches is that the design of their booths is ideal for private business conversations with 2 to 4 people, and they do have larger tables (though generally a bit less private depending on the table location) for larger discussions. Well worth knowing about when meeting with clients in town for a conference and staying near Union Sq.
  • Canton Seafood and Dim Sum – One of my favorite restaurants in all of San Francisco, a restaurant I frequently use for large group dinners, greatly enjoy going to for lunch when near Moscone Center, and which I have also always enjoyed their dim sum weekend brunches. What makes Canton a great restaurant to know about is that they offer very high quality Chinese cuisine, at amazingly reasonable prices, and are very willing to accommodate large groups with a fixed price menu. (Feel free to mention my name if you book for a large group, the managers all know me as I have group meals there on a regular basis). For lunches they have even been known to open up their upstairs banquet hall for large groups.
  • Spork – located at Valencia and Hill in the Mission District of San Francisco Spork has, I think, the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten. Not best in San Francisco or best in a long while, but best burger I’ve eaten in my lifetime. Every ingredient works perfectly, the price is right ($8 for a single, $10 for a double) and the toppings, bun, and sauces as well as the quality of the cooking just combine to make for an amazing meal. They also serve a great dinner but for lunch they are now my go to place when dining in the Mission. They offer a small, very focused menu at lunch highlighted by the burgers which are amazing. A place that takes the food they serve seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously – the result is one of my favorite discoveries of 2008.

And those are just a few of my favorites. There are many, many other great options scattered throughout San Francisco and for that matter most cities.

A few things to look for for a business lunch location:

  • Style of tables and booths – for a private, business lunch an open layout with tables crowded near each other is not good. For serious discussions high booths or private rooms offer the best venues
  • Fixed price menu option – if you are organizing a business lunch or dinner for a large group arranging for a fixed price menu or taking advantage of a regularly offered fixed menu greatly facilitates either splitting the bill, or streamlining the ordering process allowing for more time for business discussions and less distractions around the ordering process. Any good restaurant catering to a professional business crowd will include a range of foods on such a menu, with good options for vegetarians and lighter dining options. Further the foods should be “clean” to eat – i.e. not messy, not finger foods generally speaking.
  • A seasonal menu and specials that actually change from day to day – these are related elements. A very good sign for nearly any meal is a restaurant that prints up new menus each day (implying they take their food and sourcing of that food fairly seriously though you do have to watch out for places that are trying to hard and can’t deliver). Baring a menu that changes frequently at a minimum great places have true daily specials that are, in fact, special to that day and season. If the “daily specials” board or menu in the window look worn and faded that’s probably, generally speaking, a bad sign.
  • A short, focused menu – whether for lunch or dinner my broad, general rule of thumb is that a short, focused menu is a sign of a restaurant that takes the food seriously. Nothing on that menu should be bad or below their standards. In contrast all too many restaurants have pages upon pages of menu both for lunch and dinner and as a result while they have an occasional dish they do exceptionally well, they almost certainly have many other dishes that are rarely ordered, use poor quality (often frozen) ingredients and are often quite disappointing. This rule of thumb holds exceptionally true for lunch.

Cafes

  • Large tables – one of my very simple tests of a cafe is the style of tables they use. Small, tiny tables (“French bistro” tables while looking pretty imply a place that does not have people sitting down, sharing tables and working together. My strong bias is for cafes that are laid out for people to be social and to work, with room at the tables to have a couple of laptops out plus beverages.
  • Coffee source – frequently truly great cafes, if they have the space or the facilities nearby, roast their own beans. I take coffee seriously and in San Francisco we’re blessed with many cafes of different styles who likewise take the coffee they serve quite seriously as well.
  • Small drinks menu – this is a personal preference. As a rule of thumb, though not universally true, I find that cafes that have a very focused drinks menu (often forgoing syrups, frozen drinks and the like) are places that take the coffee they serve very seriously indeed. But this is not always the case, there are exceptions, mostly when I’m selecting a cafe (for the coffee) I look for signs that they take what they make seriously. “Latte art” is almost always a sign that they have highly skilled baristas.
  • Looseleaf teas – not every cafe serves great tea and great coffee, but as a general rule of thumb cafes which have looseleaf teas which they then use to make either pots or individual cups of tea are typically places that are owned by owners who care about the quality of what they are serving. There are many sources for teas today, so I am relatively agnostic about the vendor of the teas a cafe serves, but almost always places that take tea seriously enough to have looseleaf tea take everything else pretty seriously as well (there are, in fact, many cafes where they don’t do a good job on the coffee, but do serve looseleaf teas and otherwise have great spaces so I just order tea there and enjoy them that way)

But a cafe is a highly and deeply personal thing. For me I like places that have wifi, a busy but not overly loud atmosphere, power outlets (though I can forgive a lack of one if the cafe has other redeeming features – Ritual Roasters in SF comes to mind) and which show signs of design and thought having been given to them to make the cafe a place that appeals to adults. A growing trend which I celebrate is cafes which also serve wine and beer, not so much that I partake, but that they tend to serve a more adult clientèle and almost always also have tasty food options to go with the drinks.

My personal preference is also for cafes which stay open late into the evening, but a great cafe that is only open during the day also has its place.

Dinner

  • Focused menu and theme – fusion can work, but almost never does a restaurant that tries to combine many cuisines into one, often overly long, menu do justice to any of the dishes. In contrast most restaurants with a tightly focused, often seasonally influenced menu at least start from a place where it is likely they can prepare good, tasty foods. The cooks and ingredients still need to be of high quality however.
  • Busy when restaurants should be busy – not every great restaurant will always be busy, some haven’t yet been “discovered” but, for example, a restaurant which is quiet at 7pm on Valentines Day (one of the busiest dining out nights of the year) is almost certainly a restaurant which is not going to be open much longer and should be kept away from. Now, a busy restaurant is, however, often not a sign of a good one, but an empty restaurant when most places would be busy is typically a major warning sign.
  • Ethnic restaurants with mostly non-ethnic tourists is a very bad sign – sure the restaurant may have been written up by national press and be in all the guide books, but if the restaurant, particularly if in a particular ethnic neighborhood does not also cater to the locals you are almost guaranteed a disappointing meal in my experience. Whether in Little Italy or Chinatown this is not always a completely accurate guide, but more times than not it helps you avoid the truly bad places for places that have a better than average chance of serving great tasting food (though you still have to figure out what to order if you don’t read the menu/speak the language)
  • Attention to the details – this can be hard to judge from outside of restaurant, but look at the tables and the menus in the window or step inside and ask for a menu. Generally speaking restaurants that have paid attention to the details at each table, that haven’t used the cheap, standard issue items from mass restaurant supply stores (cheap napkins, salt & pepper shakers etc) likely are paying attention to the food and the rest of the elements of the restaurant.  In looking over a menu, without being pretentious does the writing of the menu communicate care about the foods being served? Does it show a point of view? Does it make sense as an overall menu?
  • Pricing that is fair but not too cheap – this is a personal preference, but though my pocketbook might at times appreciate cheapness, my stomach almost never does especially if I take it to an extreme. Cheap restaurants or for that matter any place that feels it has to compete almost solely on price is generally speaking a sign of a restaurant that is either owned by someone who doesn’t know the business well or someone who is getting desperate. This is a rule that especially also holds true for cafes and lunch spots, generally speaking great restaurants charge a fair but not cheap price for what they serve counting on the quality of what they serve and the overall experience to bring people back again and again. This is not, however, to suggest that restaurants which appear to be expensive will also be good, generally speaking they are not, these are often restaurants which are catering to people on an expense account or people who do not eat out frequently – so quite often overcharge for foods (and especially for wines) without making up for it by serving great food and wine.

There are many other factors I look for when I look over a menu and decide about a restaurant. A few smaller tips, generally speaking menus where every dish has lots of ingredients and sauces are rarely good. This is bit of a personal preference, but I find that such dishes usually suffer from elements not being of the same quality and of being drowned in the respective sauces. My preference whatever the cuisine is for chefs who start with extremely high quality ingredients and prepare them with extreme skill and restraint, not overwhelming the dish with too many flavors or too much of any one sauce.

If you are looking at dishes of other people who are eating a few other simple signs which can be warning signs of a potentially bad restaurant.

  1. Lots of leftovers – if everyone leaving the restaurant has doggie bags or if most tables have lots of dishes that seem to have been uneaten (especially true of family style restaurants) this is a sign of a restaurant which is likely both serving too large portions and likely a kitchen which is highly uneven. Both tend to be signs of a meal that will almost certainly be a disappointment.
  2. Garnishes – plates with lots of parsley or other garnishes tend to be a sign of a restaurant which is also trying too hard.
  3. People waiting to place orders or pay bills – both are signs of either waitstaff that don’t care or are overworked, and both in turn are signs of a restaurant that is not being managed well (and that usually is reflected in the food as well as the service). A related issue is if people seem to have empty water glasses, or if messy tables are left messy for long periods of time
  4. Messy plates – there are many types of food and dining, not every restaurant is going to serve food that is photographic ready, but if the food is leaving the kitchen sloppy, it is almost always a sign of a kitchen that is lax, that is taking shortcuts.

I hope these tips help please leave comments with your own additional rules of thumbs, suggestions and tips & tricks to selecting a great place to dine – whether by yourself or with a large group.

Posted in customer service, Entrepreneurship, personal, restaurants, reviews, San Francisco | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Who we are is what we follow

Posted by shannonclark on March 26, 2008

Robert Scoble says the secret to Twitter success is who you follow.

And I agree with him (though I only follow a fairly carefully selected ~170 people on twitter at the moment, that is growing every week.

But this post is not about that meaning of “follow”, rather I have a theory that is a bit broader, related to a past post of mine about Time & Attention.

This afternoon as I left my apartment and picked up my mail on my way out the door, I had a new issue of the New Yorker magazine waiting for me, as I took it out to take with me I had the thought “now I’m three weeks behind on my New Yorker reading” in short in the unit of time “unread New Yorker magazines” my count went up one to three (or four if you count an issue I “only” haven’t yet read the fiction story. I have been a New Yorker subscriber since college, reading almost every issue cover to cover, skipping only the event listings and for the most part the poems. And yes, that’s a lot of words and a fairly significant amount of time I’ve invested into appreciating the magazine.

Which got me to thinking – there is a group of fellow subscribers and readers of the magazine with whom the unit of measure “how many weeks worth of the New Yorker you haven’t yet read” would be a common bond. A bond of a unit of measure which in turn, is a bond that reflects something important about us – namely one shared aspect of what we pay attention to, what we follow.

At the moment March Madness is in full swing here in the US, a few days ago my friends were buzzing about setting up their “brackets” today my friends at times are complaining about their partner’s obsessions with the games (or about the wins and losses of the teams they selected). In contrast, however, I have paid almost no attention at all to March Madness, I don’t know who is winning or losing, who made it in, who was favored, or what has been happening in the first series of games. Here is a place where I am not following what a large number of my friends are following – either directly or indirectly as a result of their partners (I use partners to be gender neutral here).

But I am deeply aware of the political calendar, in the past few months I’ve been paying active and close attention to each primary election, and likewise a fairly large portion of my circle of friends has been doing the same – some of us working directly for a campaign, some following actively via Huffington Post, some via DailyKos, some like myself via Andrew Sullivan and some by more mainstream news sources. All of us also using various social mediums – twitter, facebook, email, our own blogs and podcasts, to help raise awareness and share stories and bits of news or speculation which we find compelling. In short with the US presidential election there is a strong and common thing many of my friends and I are following. And yes, some of us at least are long time political junkies, we did much the same things the past few election cycles.

For many people in the US and more broadly in the “Western” world this past weekend was Easter and one set of my friends and family was paying attention to that, preparing for the Holy Week celebrations, buying hams for Easter Sunday dinner, painting eggs and hiding them for their children etc.

For another set of my family and friends last week was Purim, a Jewish holiday and occasion for fun and drinking and the baking of Hamentashen.

I’m not religious so I was caught a bit unaware this year by Easter and by Purim. Made aware of Easter in fact by the signs in my neighborhood butchers shop that they would be open on Easter Sunday. Shopping at a local Safeway (large supermarket chain) I also noticed that Safeway had set up as they do each year a section of kosher for Passover products and across the way had their Easter candies and products. So naturally I assumed that Passover was also soon to happen.

In a call last week to my business partner, who is also Jewish but more practicing than I am, he informed me however that Passover this year is not until April due to the once every seven years additional month which is added to the Jewish Calendar to keep the lunar calendar generally in sync with the seasons so major holidays don’t fall in the wrong seasons.

I suspect, however, that someone at Safeway had some fairly simple set of rules for the buyers – when you start putting out the Easter products also start stocking Kosher for Passover items.

Via Twitter, though also via my friends blogs, Facebook statuses, personal emails and other communications I am noting even more acutely what (and at times specifically who) they are following, what Holidays they are celebrating, what conferences they are preparing for, speaking at, planning, what albums they are waiting to be released, what performances musical or otherwise they are attending or at times what they have just bought tickets to in advance. In short I can see the many ways in which what we are paying attention to overlaps and as interestingly more and more I can see some of the multitude of ways in which it does not overlap.

And via tools such as Facebook, Upcoming.org, and yes, Twitter, I can choose to start to follow, start to pay attention to some of the same things as my friends and I can signal out to them what I am following.

My shared stories on Google Reader, I suspect, paint a different picture of me than many people might assume. Via Google Reader for the past year I have, perhaps, mostly been signaling my political views – sharing a lot of stories from Andrew Sullivan, sprinkled with an occasional tech story. I do not, however, share everything that I am paying attention to, for instance, I don’t always share every story about advertising which I am reading and following – those instead I star for my own future reference, those I might share in a more manual fashion with my business partner or some trusted advisors.

At present I am a part of, following and paying attention to many different yet sometimes overlapping worlds. Professionally I am entering into the advertising world, so I am spending more and more time and attention following that world – and I need to find more and richer sources, subscribe to more print magazines and blogs, attend even more industry related events. I continue to be interested in the wider world of the Internet and “Web 2.0” and that too is a professional as well as personal interest, so I am aware of many of the upcoming conferences, read and subscribe to many related blogs, and frequently attend events. I’m also quite interested in the future of music and more broadly in the future of media and to that end I follow and participate in some industry discussions, attend events, read blogs, etc.

I’m also a science fiction fan of select TV shows, occasional movies but mostly of novels. So I’m also paying some attention to when various authors I like have books published, I attend a small set of science fiction conventions each year, and I am a fan of a few select TV shows (mostly Doctor Who and Torchwood). I am not, however, as tied into this world as many of my friends, friends who subscribe to monthly magazines (which in many cases they also publish and write for), friends who attend not the one or two conferences I attend but far more, friends who aren’t just fans of but are professionally engaged in the world of science fiction and fantasy.

And I could go on, I’m a foodie so I pay some attention to the weekly farmer’s markets, to restaurant openings and closings, to special events related to food, but I don’t follow it as closely as I might like. I missed, for example, that a major restaurant I had been told about a few months ago was finally opening this month in NYC, had I been paying closer attention I would have timed a trip to NYC in time to get to be there for the “friends and family” previews (my sister’s boyfriend is writing a cookbook with the chef so I’m fairly sure had I known to ask I could have gotten in, along with the “VIPs” for as one food blog called it the hottest ticket in town). Now I’ll have to try for a reservation along with everyone else each time I’m in NYC or might be.

My point with this post is to suggest that what and who we follow shapes us, it helps to define us in a very deep and powerful manner. Whether it is the calendar of events of our religion, or the publishing schedule of our favorite magazine, the rhythms of our lives are set by what we follow.

And in turn when our rhythm is in sync with that of another person the chance of our also being friends goes up. 

I would prefer, strongly prefer, to date a woman (and if you are reading this via a feed etc, I’m a man and yes, I’m single at the moment) with whom I had many overlapping rhythms. Though as well I would hope that we were not entirely in sync, that she would follow and pay attention to some things which would be new for me, and likewise that I might follow and introduce her to new events and sources. For that, I think, would be ideal – ongoing new discovery and mutual sharing of passions and interests. Over time we likely would overlap more and more – would schedule ourselves to do things together – but hopefully as well we would constantly be discovering the new as well – new people to suggest new ideas to us, new sources of information, even entire new fields of study.

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, personal, politics, reading, time, working | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Evaluating a new laptop vs refreshing old – MacBook Air vs ThinkPad X60

Posted by shannonclark on March 13, 2008

If you have been reading my blog for a while you may know that I have a ThinkPad X60 as my current laptop and that I have been seriously unhappy with the laptop and Vista (as well as Office 2007 and related software). At the recent SXSW conference where I mostly went without using my laptop at all (as a bit of an experiment in being highly mobile and not carrying a bag at all) when I did try to use my laptop I was seriously frustrated – in one instance it almost literally took 15+ minutes of work before I was able to actually start doing anything – and I had to shut down 5 minutes later.

While at SXSW I was also emailed an opportunity to purchase a friend of a friend’s MacBook Air – he’s decided to buy the MacBook Pro instead. Buying it from him would save me sales tax and would include the external superdrive. But it is the lower end, 80GB edition. And there are more than a few things I would have to add to the system package (AppleCare more crucially).

So in this post I am going to look at the pros and cons of my current options – and most likely won’t reach a clear conclusion. Please add a comment if you have solutions to any of my issues/concerns or if you have suggestions for alternatives I should be considering.

First note, my laptop is an extension of me – I’ve had a laptop as my primary computer since about 1994. Historically I kept most of my machines until they almost literally fell apart – driving them hard though I also have tended to buy very close to the peak at the time I could buy (not as ‘full desktop replacement” but as best weight-to-performance-to-battery-life. So each time I’ve replaced my laptop I have spent up to about $3000 – that said, I don’t really have the spare money to buy a new computer at the moment – but then neither can I afford to be unproductive or to continue to have serious issues on a daily basis.

My use of a laptop

  • heavy and frequent web browsing and research. I am “online” for many hours every day, much of which is spent with many tabs open in my browser (typically Firefox) in which I am researching, writing, and monitoring
  • syncing my iPhone. Most critically with my full contacts database which is, in turn, also synced up to Plaxo. Slightly less critically (since I rarely use Outlook these days) syncing my iPhone with my calendar (this is an area I hope to improve). And I do sync about 6gbs+ of music and the occasional tv episode or short film to my iPhone for later viewing. Most crucially this must include my most recent podcast subscriptions
  • syncing my iPod, especially when traveling. I have 100gb+ of my music (and a few tv shows I’ve bought) on an external HD, I have about 30gb of podcasts on my local disk, I synch about 30gb of my library to my 30gb iPod Video (3gb of new content such as recent podcasts, 16+gb of content I haven’t played recently, and a careful collection of my favorite content I want to have with me)
  • preparing and giving presentations. I speak at conferences, I pitch to investors, advertisers and partners. While I don’t love PowerPoint, I do have to present on a regular and increasingly frequent basis. I do not, however, do much in my presentations which couldn’t easily be done with Keynote (perhaps even could be done better)
  • manage my digital photos. I don’t take enough digital photos (or videos) but I am trying to increase the frequency with which I take photos – and I have a growing collection of photos I’ve taken. I don’t yet have a Flickr Pro account (probably should do that soon) but even with one, I would still want to retain the full resolution, local copies of every photo I’ve ever taken (perhaps stored on an external drive but everything – or at least the stuff that is good enough I might use it – should be at my fingertips at any time
  • manage my contacts. I have something close to 6000 contacts in multiple Outlook contacts files. While this is far too many and many are generated contacts from the testing of various systems (which analyzed my email traffic looking for people I should have as a contact) I really do know a ton of people. My contacts data about them is one of my most precious resources, in many cases complete with photo, bio, notes on when/how we met etc – and in many cases updated via sync with Plaxo (and in some cases LinkedIn as well)
  • manage my email archives and search them. I currently have email going back at least to 2005 and I think with archives back to 2000 on my current laptop (in a collection of Outlook files). Like my contacts data, my email archives are key data for me – data about when I met someone, what our past interactions have been on etc. Overtime I am slowly weeding and culling my archives of the cruft (old mailing lists, commercial solicitations, spam, updates from various websites etc) but even with that process done (which it is far, far from being so) my email past holds much of my memory.
  • keep up with my current email. I mostly use gmail these days, and almost entirely viw the web or my iPhone. I have multiple gmail addresses I watch (my personal address and various emails aliased or forwarded to it, and my professional email address given to only a very few people at the moment but those numbers will rapidly increase) For this as present I use Thunderbird as Outlook is far, far too flaky for me to rely on it
  • Read PDFs. Mostly as part of my ongoing research and product development, I end up with a lot of PDF files to download and read. With more arriving every day. My preference these days is to “print to PDF” rather than to paper for about the past 2+ years I have almost gone without printing anything – just occasionally a travel document or contract needing a physical signature. On my ThinkPad I have a useful but not great “print to PDF” application, Macs have this feature built into the OS.
  • MindMapping and notetaking. Historically I have used MindManager a great deal (but almost not at all for the past year+). More and more I have just taken notes down in simple text files when offline or when online in various applications (including as draft posts for this blog). This is far from ideal, especially as my needs will be growing exponentially in coming weeks and months. Whether I stay on Vista or migrate to a Mac laptop, I will need to get a great note taking, brainstorming, and task management/project management tool or tools.
  • Offline HTML writing. I occasionally blog for other sites than this blog, when I do that I tend to write my posts in an offline HTML editor and then send the editor an HTML file instead of retyping the post or trying to compose the post online (since many conferences where I might be writing from have poor to non-existent and flaky internet access even for the press). Currently I use Microsoft Expression for this, though mostly out of inertia and from having a full copy (actually multiple copies) given to me by Microsoft at various conferences I have attended over the past few years.
  • Very rarely but likely to increase spreadsheet analysis. I can crunch numbers with the best of them, but I’ve never been a spreadsheet junky. My tools of choice start with text and flow out from there – but as I grow my company I will have to make more and more use of spreadsheets over time. And likely web based alternatives won’t fully do everything (currently at least) which I need to do, though for basic collaborative tasks they are great). At least once a quarter, if not more often, I will, however have to present numbers to my board (currently small but as we close our first round of funding likely to grow). On my ThinkPad I have Microsoft Office, on a Mac I’d likely start with iWork Numbers (which I already have on my iMac) and will only buy Excel if I truly need it.
  • and that is about it really. I don’t have games installed on this ThinkPad (just the basics which come with Vista but haven’t used them in years). I have other software installed but almost never run it (Visual Studio for example). Running at boot I have Skype and Google Chat – but actually rarely use either (and for that matter they are both available for the Mac as well). I have Microsoft OneNote (my laptop is a tablet) but I actually almost never use the tablet functionality – silly I know and a bit of a shame, but also very much the truth. I kinda wish I did use it more often, but in actuality I don’t (and apparently I’m far from alone). I also almost never use video playback on my ThinkPad – I think mostly because the experience even with a local file is quite poor. Instead I watch any videos (including video podcasts) on my iPhone or on my iMac desktop – which is also the machine I’ll use mostly when I buy any video content or when I test/use a service like Joost or Hulu.com or another video service.

So with all that said, how can I decide between my various options.

Scenario One – keep ThinkPad but try refresh/reinstallations

At SXSW I spoke with friends who work for Microsoft. One suggestion was that the OEM installation of Vista, especially on ThinkPads unfortunately, is not very clean or well functioning. His suggestion was to get a full install disk of Vista and do a complete wipe and reinstall everything from scratch.

This would require I backed up all my data. That I made a very complete list of all of the software I have installed (antivirus software, firefox, thunderbird, MSFT Office 2007, MindManager, etc) and made sure I had all the relevant license keys for each product as well as the current installer (or at least how to get the latest versions – or in some cases the versions for which I have a license). Then I would have to reformat my disk completely (likely wiping the IBM special partition as well) and reinstall Vista. Then install MSFT Office 2007, FireFox, Microsoft Expression, Thunderbird, anti-virus software, Skype, Google Pack, some of the key pieces of IBM software (password manager using my fingerprint scanner perhaps, power management software etc) and then migrate back my key data (iTunes, Outlook files, recourses/research, writings, photos etc.

All in all that would likely require 1 to 2 full days between the full backups, reformats and very significant post-installation patching efforts.

But as a result I also quite likely have a much cleaner installation, less cruft, likely a much better performing laptop, and might take the opportunity to structure the laptop to also dual boot with a linux installation (Ubuntu?). If I can use the full license to Vista Microsoft gave me a while back the cost for this would be minimal – but the time and effort could be considerable. And almost certainly there would be one or more issues around licenses with something I want to install.

Scenario Two – I buy the MacBook Air (used) from a friend of a friend 

This would cost me about $1800 for a MacBook Air + external superdrive. On top of that I would probably buy additional AppleCare (another $250 or so) so as to have support into the future.

It would have to be shipped from the east coast to here on the west coast – or I might pick it up in person on my next trip to the east coast in a few weeks.

To make the MacBook Air functional for me I would have to install an office suite (iWork? – which I do have a copy of for my iMac have to check on the licensing for whether I can also use that on a laptop). I would likely buy a small bit of software to help migrate my data from Outlook to formats importable into the Mac built-in applications (though I’m not sure if I want to use those apps or not – haven’t ever used them so don’t fully know if I would like them or not).

I would then have to migrate my iTunes library (always painful) and connect an external drive with my music library to the Air, probably connect via a USB Hub so I can also connect my iPhone and/or my iPod. For the iPhone I owuld have to do this AFTER contacts have been synced and I would have to set up the new connections for data for the iPhone (not sure if I also have to reformat it to work smoothly with  the Mac).

If my iTunes data import works smoothly I should have everything set up, but it not I’ll have to spend a lot of time getting iTunes set up for my use (rebuilding smart playlists etc) and I may lose a lot of key data such as timestamps of when I added data to iTunes, playcounts of files, ratings of songs, podcast subscriptions.

Likely I’ll also need to replace my current, 120gb external portable drive with a much larger but still very small external drive. Ideally at least 300+gb but very lightweight. I’d expect the cost for that will be at least $100, likely closer to $150 but I’d be happy to find that’s high. In setting up my podcast subscriptions as well as my subscriptions to tv shows via iTunes I’ll have to decide where those files come from and are stored (ideally I can do this is in a way usable via my iMac as well – but that might be tricky and some files likely should be local to the Air so I can use them when not online)

Very likely I’ll also have to spend $99 a year to get a .mac account so I can use the “back to my mac” feature to reach my desktop iMac and perhaps use the .mac account to do some data synching (though Plaxo may be sufficient for much of what I actually need done.

I’ll also then need to install a variety of useful Mac software – Skitch for example is a big draw for moving to the Mac laptop, a tool I’d expect to use fairly frequently. I knwo there are dozens of other applications which friends would suggest I use and which I would test out and decide amongst over time – apps for productivity, apps for business/brainstorming/notetaking etc. All told I would like spend a fair chunk of change on new software for the Mac laptop – whether I get an Air or another model. But, for the most part, these would also be tools which pretty clearly would be helping me get more done and be more effienct.

In the case of the Air however I almost certainly won’t install VM Fusion or Parallels as there likely simply isn’t the diskspace to use either effectively. In my current home network configuration this means that I have to give up entirely on using my current printer (for which there are not OSX or Linux drivers). So though I don’t print a lot, likely I’ll have to also plan on investing in a new printer.

Scenario Three – another model of a Mac portable 

I do like the Air’s multi-touch trackpad, I can see myself using gestures frequently. So that rules out (for now) the lower end MacBooks or a used/refurbished MacBook Pro. But I would have to give the other MacBook Pro models serious consideration. The 15″ laptop has nearly the same resolution as my current ThinkPad (one of my major concerns with the MacBook Air is that the resolution there is lower than on my ThinkPad – and my ThinkPad’s resolution isn’t high enough for me – I really like be able to have a lot of information on the screen at once. That said the clarity of the Air’s screen is fantastic and the performance of the graphics is better than my ThinkPad so video etc likely will look much better (be playable in fact).

A 15″ MacBook also weighs around the same as my ThinkPad does with the extended life batteries which I have. However the battery life is a bit lower (3 hours or is what I’ve heard but I’ll be checking with people on that). But overall it would be a great machine and would cost not a lot more than the MacBook Air (less perhaps if I can get a discount from a friend who works at Apple which is a serious possibility).

Scenario Four – another model of PC laptop – running Vista 

Least likely, as there are aren’t many other models I might want to buy but this is a consideration.

Posted in digital bedouin, geeks, internet, iTunes, mac, microsoft, mobile, personal, reviews, tablet pc, working | Tagged: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Heading to SXSWi – parties, networking and hallway chats

Posted by shannonclark on March 6, 2008

I fly out very, very early tomorrow morning (flight at 6am, leaving house before 4am). Like many of my travels, I have made the arrangements for this trip at the very last minute – I haven’t yet, in fact, registered, I’ll do that onsite when I get there tomorrow.

But then I’m not going to Austin for the SXSWi sessions – sure, I may stop by a few friend’s panels (or may not) and assuming I do get a pass I’ll spend some time in the exhibit halls and at the official parties.

However the reason I am going back to SXSWi is not for the formal conference. Rather I am returning for the chance to spend an intense 4+ days and nights with my peers across the geek/tech world. Friends have described SXSWi as “geek spring break” and there is certainly an element of that. If you want to spend the next four plus days seriously abusing your liver, that is certainly an easy (and popular) option.

For me, however, I am most looking forward to long conversations in hallways, conversations which start with one or two friends and quickly blossom into small groups. Last year powered in part by effective twittering groups of us roved from party to party or, at times, created our own parties when that evenings more official gatherings had ended, were full, or deemed not worth trying to get into. Most evenings (and many afternoons) this year I have parties to attend which friends of mine are organizing and hosting, but I expect to spend some part of most evenins in small group conversation.

My focus all weekend will be on discussing how new forms of advertising could work on the web – how the advertising that I want to deliver via my new company, Nearness Function, should work to offer the best value for individual users and for the developers at our partner companies. I’ll likely also be talking with a few investors over the course of the weekend, with many potential clients, and hopefully with a few potential advertising partners – there certainly will be some people at SXSWi who are at digital agencies.

SXSWi is an intense, jam packed conference. Covering all things interactive and running alongside a film conference and just before one of the biggest and most important music conferences and festivals in the US. In short for this weekend and next week Austin is where much of the creative “class” in the US (and indeed from outside the US) will be found. Friends are flying in from Scotland, Miami and most part of the US and Canada.

This year the weather reports are not entirely pleasant – quite cool and a chance of rain on a few days. So I’ll be packing accordingly, lots of layers and my first purchase after checking into my hotel is likely going to be an umbrella (all my other umbrellas have been destroyed by San Francisco wind gusts this year).

There are countless communities and guides to SXSW, I won’t try to duplicate their advice here but a few reminders – as much as for myself as for you the reader.

  1. Have fun. Should go without saying but though a big, long conference is work, don’t forget this should also be fun.
  2. Introduce people to each other and don’t be shy about approaching people you don’t know – or people you don’t see often enough. If you get in the habit of introducing people – even people you just recently met, it encourages others to do the same.
  3. Try not to eat any meal alone. If you find yourself in danger of doing so, ask some strangers to join you – one plus of a big conference, very likely there are others who likewise don’t yet have dinner or lunch plans (or for that matter breakfast – though you’ll find at SXSW many people sleep in).
  4. At the same time if you aren’t an extrovert, give yourself some time alone, some time to regroup and mentally review the activities of the past day. If you are a runner go for a run (though you might do this with fellow attendees as well). I hope that my hotel has a pool and my current plan is to try to get in a short swim each morning – exercise plus a chance to mentally regroup. I also found that at times I might be leaving one party and meeting people at another – instead of taking the fastest path there (a cab) at times walking, even if it is a mile+ away would give me a great chance to refresh and relax.
  5. Perhaps it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Get enough to drink (water) and try to eat as healthily as possible. Yes, I plan on eating a lot of BBQ. However I will try to vary my diet, be sure to get some fruits & veggies along with my smoked meats, and I’ll be sure to drink a lot of water. This is especially important if, unlike me, you plan on drinking a great deal of the free/cheap booze that flows freely.
  6. Have something to give people to be remembered by – but in turn when you get something from someone whom you want to stay in touch with try to quickly get back to them digitally. At any convention it is far too easy to end up with a large pile of stuff and have little memory of who you need to send what to. My plan is to carve out a part of each day (probably in the mornings) to process my notes and contacts from the past day and at least send people my contact info. Jotting a quick note on the back of someone’s card (and/or in a small notebook you carry with you – I’ll be using my Creative Commons Moleskin) can also be a good starting point.
  7. Travel as lightly as possible. I am lucky, the hotel room I’ll be sharing is across from the conference center. As such I plan on dropping off my bags there frequently, as much as possible I hope to carry with me as little as possible (sometimes just pocket planner, notebook, iPhone, may even leave the laptop behind)

And above all keep in mind my first point.

Hope to see many of you in Austin tomorrow!

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, meshwalk, networks, personal, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »