NYC recollections

For the past several years I've made a couple trips each year to NYC to see folks and to note trends in the internet business world. I got to visit a bunch of friends and tour the places they worked. Some places I visited and takeaways from each:

  • Buzzfeed – I got to meet Matt Buchanan and John W. Herrman, the writers behind my favorite new tech blog FWD. It's a technology blog unlike every other that came before. Instead of obessively quoting chip speeds from press releases, the guys behind it post one or two meaty essays about tech culture each day, along with a handful of small blurbs about topics of the day. Where Gizmodo and Engadget are giant firehouses of noise, and this is a quiet thoughtful little blog about technology.
  • OKCupid – OKC is a powerhouse in online dating. It's (mostly) free, has a sense of humor, and seems to be a favorite site for all my single friends. It's a huge website doing crazy amounts of traffic but you'd be surprised how small the team was. 
  • Etsy – I got to join the weekly employee-wide lunch, see friends new and old, and talk shop with the brainy bunch behind Etsy. If you haven't heard, they have an incredible technology team at Etsy, featuring many amazing people that were formerly at Yahoo properties like Brickhouse and Flickr. Keep your eyes on Etsy, they're doing a lot of amazing things behind the scenes.
  • CNN – I got to hang out with an old video editor friend that works at the cable news giant and seeing it from behind the scenes was pretty incredible. I saw a director cutting a show live that was very close to a conductor in front of an orchestra, I almost got run over by a CNN anchor late for a live shoot, and I got to see how insanely big every aspect of their operation is. I also got to hear about the insane technology it takes to distribute petabytes of video easily and quickly to any editor in various parts of the country and then on to stations for broadcast. 

I also did some shopping and enjoyed my time at the following places:

  • Worth and Worth Hats – I've always wanted to get an expert hat guy to figure out what shape suits my head best. I got a nice hat that looks dapper without looking dorky, and it was custom fit to my head. Don't miss Put This On's visit that turned me onto this place.
  • CEGO shirts – I've been buying a lot of clothes from Nau and Bonobos online lately and some of the shirts I've bought look good but don't fit my arm length or body quite right. Many of the those online shirt makers sell them for over $100 each and when you get up in that range, it turns out you can go full custom for about the same price. I met with Carl Goldberg, who was hilarious, opinionated, and very knowledgeable about fashion. We figured out what works for me, how to fit it, and I got to pick every last single detail on a few new shirts that I can't wait to see get made and eventually worn. Put This On also visited Carl and if you're wondering if a custom shirt is worth it, watch the first few minutes of this episode from last season of the show.
  • Freeman's Sporting Club – Really expensive, but really nice stuff that they will tailor to you. I visited a bunch of major Menswear shops but most are in this weird "preppy 1985 rugby" asthetic right now, but FSC seems to transcend trends and time and offer up a classic American male look that doesn't feel trendy. 

Oh, I stopped by NikeTown and bought one of their new Fuelband pedometer things (it's like a fitbit but feels more game-like). On my second day I hit my walking/fitness goals and now I understand why Fuelband owners do a little dance when it lights up and commends you for a job well done. It's fun.

When I go to NYC, I try to make every meal count. I got to enjoy the following cuisines:

  • Amazing takeout Indian food, as always
  • Steel Cut Oats from the Ace Hotel's Breslin kitchen
  • Chicken and Rice with White Sauce from a Halal cart on the street, something I try to do every trip (always tasty)
  • Perilla – Harold from season one of Top Chef has a pretty great restaurant in the Village
  • Fedora – My first foray into a NYC bar with a bartender so awesome he had a second cocktail of what I was drinking ready exactly when I finished the first, without even having to ask for it.
  • Paulie Gee's Pizza in Brooklyn – Super good with a surprising variety of pies

General NYC tips I learned on this trip:

Trains Not Cars: Every time I take a cab or car service from the NYC airports to Manhattan, I get very nearly car sick due to the drivers being crazy with the gas pedal and brake, constantly sprinting or slamming on the brakes. This time I stuck to trains from JFK (usually I fly to Newark and take a NJ train into Manhattan). On the trip out, I did the NYC Subway in to the city, but it took over an hour to get me near where I needed to be. There were too many stops in Brooklyn out by the airport. On the way home, I went from Penn Station to JFK via the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and it was fantastic, just 30 minutes or so between the subway station and the Air Trans station outside of JFK. I made it into a security line 40min after I left Manhattan. Both trips were under ten dollars, with an extra $5 for the Air Trans trip, vastly cheaper than a cab or car. Trains rock, especially during rush hour when all the expressways are blocked up.

Foursquare Explore is better than Yelp in major cities (Matt Buchanan is right): Yelp is great for strange cities and small towns, it never disappoints but in major city centers I've started to have some hit-and-miss results. Foursquare use in NYC is off the charts and everyone leaves tons of tips, photos, and details about almost every business in the area. Their explore feature showed me dozens of options in neighborhoods I didn't know too well and though I still think Yelp is the king of finding good eats while traveling, if you're NYC, try Foursquare instead.

Foursquare was also just simply amazing to use in a vibrant place like NYC where I have dozens of friends constantly checking in. It was also fun to see after a year of me not using the app, people really started to use the commenting feature and many check-ins garnered tips and questions from friends. I also ran into friends because I saw them on foursquare and could message them and track them down.

Maps: The iPhone app iTrans NYC was  godsend for getting around on subways. offering train maps overlaying Google Maps as well as the offline standard MTA map with info on all the lines. A perfect way to never get lost in NYC.

Overall, it was a great trip and I can't wait to get back there again. Thanks to everyone that let me stop by, shoot the shit, and share their time in the big apple.

Working with a pay-as-you-go SIM in the USA

In the last month I've had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belgium and New Zealand, and one of the small aspects I envied was the way everyone had a cheap phone plan with a simple pay-as-you-go card. People I talked to didn't complain about their $80/month base plan rates like I am forced to get on test phones here in the US. Instead they could toss ten Euros or 30 NZ dollars on a card whenever they run low on data, voice, or messaging. I wrote up how great my unlocked iPhone was in those situations and how I wished for such a thing in the US.

A reader named Tom left a comment this morning on the post pointing out an amazing resource: a wiki written by travelers about options and pricing for many countries around the world and curiously, I found the US listed there. I scanned the options and decided the AT&T deal sounded pretty close to the Euro-style SIM pricing I found in Belgium, so today I stopped in a store and try it out.


You will need an unlocked phone for this to work. I have a new Nokia Lumia 800 Windows 7.5 Mango phone purchased off eBay and it appeared to be from Italy when I first charged it up. You can also use old jailbroken/unlocked iPhones or newer fully unlocked (unsubsidized, priced starting at $899 or so) iPhones.

Go into an AT&T store and ask for a GoPhone data SIM (microSIM for my phone, they had both sizes). Put $15 credit on it and you will get a receipt with your phone number on it (save this) and 100Mb of data usage good for 30 days. They also offer 500Mb of data for $25 and you can top up online using the website. You just need your number and they can text you a PIN to get you all logged in.

From there, you can buy talk time at $0.10/minute which isn't bad at all. I put a bunch of credit on it just to test things out and they also offer messaging at 200/$5, 1000/$10, or unlimited/$20 good for 30 days.

About the only tricky thing was getting the APN settings right to enable data. I searched online at several forums and eventually got this to work with the Lumia:

APN: wap.cingular
username: (blank)
password: (blank)
proxy server/URL:
proxy port: 80

So far voice calling works ok (after an annoying 15sec message saying what URL to refill your account at) and I can get data to work but only edge, not 3G at the moment. I think it's due to my location which has a weak signal anyway but it could be my settings which I'll continue to tweak.

Still, I was kind of surprised to see a very European style SIM pricing scheme can work in the US and is available today if you have the right phone for it. You could put $100 of phone talk time credit on it (1,000 minutes good for a year), buy 100Mb or 500Mb of 3G data and add $5 worth of texting (both good for 30 days) and have a fairly cheap smartphone plan that would only run you about $30-40/month depending on use instead of the standard $60-80/month plans most US telecoms require for smartphones. 


World travel with the unlocked US Verizon iPhone 4S

I've had the Verizon iPhone 4S since it launched last Fall, and I've now taken trips to three countries to use it. I've spent extensive time in Belgium and New Zealand using local micro SIM cards to great effect, and due to a Verizon snafu I've had to use their international service in Belgium as well and I can report it indeed is grossly overpriced. I figure I would share a couple tips and do a quick review after a few weeks abroad.

Step 1: Call Verizon after 60 days and ask for an "International Unlock"

The key step before you go abroad is to make sure you own your Verizon 4S for at least two months and then call customer service to request an International Unlock (I found out about that at ZDnet). They will try to pitch you their international calling plan but refuse it or say you will consider it if the unlock doesn't pan out. 

You have to do this over the phone, the reps I talked to inside a Verizon store couldn't do the procedure. Also, make sure the person on the phone knows how to do this, because the first time I called it was the person's first attempt at ever doing it and it turned out they didn't complete the task properly, causing problems later on.

Step 2: When you get off the plane and through customs, look around the airport for SIM card kiosks

In Belgium after I got my bags and before I left the airport, there was just one little booth selling cards from, a local mobile provider. They were fantastic, offering 500Mb of data plus 15 Euro of talk time and texting for only 15 Euro. I also set up topping up the card via SMS, so after a few phone calls and some heavy downloading on my laptop (you can tether the connection) I could simply send a text to get more credit. 

In New Zealand's Auckland international airport, there were two options, Vodafone or Telecom and I selected Vodafone since I'd heard of them before (seen them on soccer jerseys). They offered 250Mb of data plus a bunch of texting and calls for $45NZ. I used up all the bandwidth halfway through my week and topped it up again via SMS.

My local Verizon rep said the USA is the only country in the world that requires you to have an expensive phone plan with hundreds to thousands of minutes of talk time plus data plus texting. Every other country does fine with these cheap pay-as-you-go cards. I would LOVE to have the same setup I had in Belgium, where 10 Euro could last me weeks of heavy phone use instead of the $70/month plan I have with Verizon.

Step 3: Carry a paperclip and a holder to keep your old Verizon SIM in when you're not using it

I have an old SD card case (pictured above) I carry in my travel backpack with all my old micro SIMs and a paperclip. It's really easy to pop the paperclip into the side of your iPhone, slide out the tray, and drop another card in. Every card has its own unlock code and you have to be sure to remember them because they can get locked out from use if you fail on four attempts. It's also fun to feel like a character in The Wire as you can jump from SIM to cheap SIM, switching to a new number each time. Be sure to keep your original Verizon SIM for when you get back home to the US, otherwise you'll have problems.

Warning: don't use Verizon for international use

Since my first attempt at unlocking didn't work, my first use of an International SIM in Belgium didn't quite work out. I could get onto the new network, but I couldn't make calls or get any data. I eventually had to pop in my Verizon card and call Verizion to have them double check (and I also enabled an international plan in case that didn't work out). Data cost me $20.54/Mb in Belgium as I checked the site for a contact number, then I had to wait on hold at several dollars per minute. When they fixed my unlock, new SIMs worked fine, and in the meantime I tried out another local provider and it seemed to work too. I also had no trouble using my Verizon phone in roaming mode in Canada while at the airport, using data from Verizon's own plan.

Verizon's top international plan costs $125 for only 300Mb of data (On AT&T last summer, I used their $200 800Mb plan for two weeks in Australia without going over) and thankfully Verizon counted my international call/data time before I enabled it into my $125 option (I didn't have to pay the $20.54/Mb price). 

Bonus: crazy local numbers aren't all bad

You might want to keep your phone's local US number when abroad (especially when traveling with other Americans that want to call you easily), but I'm more of a texting person and thanks to Apple's iMessage feature, I could text any other American I knew while traveling using data instead of my SMS allocation. Getting a local number proved handy for having a way for local people to contact me without them having to use international talk time as well.

Beware of international data hogs

One last tip: in my experience and talking with friends, it seems like Google Maps is the worst culprit when it comes to data use. It is super useful for getting around, but all those map tiles quickly add up. I was lost in Sydney my first afternoon in Australia last summer and by the end of my first 24hrs, I had amazingly used up 200Mb of my 800Mb allocated for the 2 weeks. After that I took the advice of friends and moved to using OffMaps as much as I could, which uses OpenStreetMaps along with your GPS location to give you a good idea of where you are without tons of network use (you download your maps on wifi, then use them in an offline way). 

It's also a good idea to take advantage of free/cheap WiFi in cafes, hotels, and at business offices as much as possible.

Conclusion: international unlock rocks

Considering that in Belgium I got more than Verizon's top plan for the equivalent of $13, it's a no brainer: get your Verizon 4S unlocked and always go with the cheap local SIM option. It's quick and easy to get a local SIM at the airport, and pop it in. The first time I did this, I had to be on WiFi and connected to iTunes to "activate" my SIM slot, but my last trip to New Zealand didn't require that and a new SIM worked fine after popping it in.

National Writers Workshop in Wichita

I’m in Kansas for the National Writers Workshop put on by the Poynter people. They asked me last summer if I wanted to come talk about online stuff and I said yes, but to give you an idea of how much of a lightweight I am at this conference, I bumped into another speaker on the hotel shuttle and he modestly said he had to give a talk as well, so I looked it up (a keynote!) and this is him:

As a journalist for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis and the Baltimore Afro-American newspapers, Moses Newson covered almost every major event of the civil rights era. His stories included the 1955 Emmett Till murder trial in Mississippi; school desegregations in Hoxie, Ark. (1955), Clinton, Tenn. (1956) and at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (1957); and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962. Newson was one of only two reporters aboard the CORE Freedom Ride bus that was fire bombed in Anniston, Ala., on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961.

And I’m a guy with a blog that has comments. Can’t wait for my session!