Fear, food and the internet of things at SXSW

Unfortunate timing means I’ll miss a huge chunk of this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival happening in my hometown of Austin, Texas this year. I’m both saddened a bit relieved since it is my 14th year attending the festival, and it will be a nice to have a break. And yet … there are always so many chances to see something new and fun and mind-expanding.

This year looks like it will be no exception. As always, I’ve scanned through the list of panels, sessions and random parties hitting my inbox to get a sense of the annual themes. What also emerges is a pretty good picture of how the event and my city has changed since 2001 when I moved back (I think I started attending SXSW again in 2002 if you’re counting).

Most people are aware that the event has shifted from a grubby collection of do-gooder nerds worried about web culture to a glossy, corporate crowd that still celebrates web culture and digs into technology and science in meaningful ways, although the marketing gimmicks and sports coats abound. Some of the sports coats are very fancy, European sports coats with deconstructed stitching that wouldn’t be out of place in the film or music festival.

But whether you’re sporting a hoodie or a Rag and Bone blazer, this year’s festival seems to have taken a somewhat darker turn in the post-Snowden-era. Despite Edward Snowden actually teleporting in (okay he did it via teleconference) for a session last year, many of this year’s panels feature government speakers, concerns about data privacy, surveillance or the implications of our love affair with data in all things. Some examples include:

Even if you aren’t worried about government surveillance, there’s an acute sense of monitoring, and how connectivity changes thing, not necessarily for social good, but perhaps merely for commence. In fact, commerce is a big theme, and maybe even one that should be examined a bit more deeply than it currently is in some of these panels:

And after showing up en masse in 2011, the marriage of technology and food has been a continuing these at SXSW ever since, and I for one welcome the idea that technology and sensors can help monitor consumption and improving growing conditions and perhaps somehow help make food more trackable online. Evidently there are many others who feel the same way because it’s still a common theme at SXSW as these panels show. I’d love to catch Nathan Myrvold speaking on Sunday about modernist cuisine on the Breaking a Few Rules panel.

And where would a post from me be without the internet of things? The connected world and sensors runs through many of the panels mentioned above but also gets plenty of its own dedicated events, especially on Saturday, and many of them are located at the J.W Marriott hotel.

Of course, there are many other themes you can tease out of the hundreds of events associated with SXSW. My advice to anyone attending is always to go with a loose plan in mind and to roll with the day as it unfolds. I will say that for the first time ever for a select amount (less than 5 percent) of general events programming, SXSW is offering pre-registration for some panels and talks.

Some SXSW events held in the new JW Marriott hotel that opened at the end of February will have a pre-registration for attendees. So for many of the IoT events, for example, you’ll have the chance to sign up to attend in advance. This will give you a guaranteed spot, but it also means that you need to pre-plan if you really want to hit up an event.

Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said that last year the festival offered the chance to let people sign up for workshops in advance at the far-away AT&T conference center venue, and this year wanted to try it at the new, JW Marriott venue which has some smaller rooms. He wrote via email:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]People liked the ability to sign up for slots in advance. This was particularly so for the workshops at the AT&T (since the AT&T is about a 10 minute bus ride from downtown Austin and people didn’t want to make that kind of time commitment without knowing they were assured a spot in the given workshop room). … For 2015, we have isolated this program to workshops at the JW Marriott, as well as some of the smaller rooms at the JW Marriott. Since the JW Marriott is a new venue, we wanted to try to control some of the more complicated variables at this space. Smaller rooms definitely mean more complicated venues.

If the pre-registration works out, Forrest and his team may expand it next year. For SXSW 2015, though, you may want to check the schedule and see if any of your panels require (or offer) advanced registration. You’ll still need to arrive early to get a coveted seat near an outlet. After all, Forrest expects that the event will see somewhere in the neighborhood of 33,000 total attendees — a bit of growth from 2014, but not a whole lot.

And that’s the other aspect of SXSW that mirrors Austin as a whole. The city has grown like crazy in the last 15 years or so. In fact recent census data shows the city grew the most of any large U.S. city between 2010 and 2013. You can feel it in the growth of the festival, in the caliber of the hotels going up to serve the visitors to SXSW and the three-year-old Formula 1 track and in the quality of the restaurants and bars that now host the SXSW parties.

I remember attending SXSW events in dive bars with random bands and now I’m being invited to interactive parties being hosted by big-name corporate brands with TI performing. It’s certainly a much bigger scene on all fronts. And yet, underneath the glitter and glitz, the love of tech is still there. So if you’re heading down to Austin, don’t be afraid to push pass the branding to uncover the real reason SXSW is still going strong — the tech.

Google Fiber coming to four more cities

Update: Google has since confirmed that it will expand to 18 cities within the four metro areas below, with construction to start “within several months,” according to Dennis Kish, the VP of Google Fiber. It also added that it is continuing to explore bringing fiber to Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and San Jose, and will have updates on these potential Google Fiber cities later this year. We may add updates after a press conference held at 11:30 PST.

Google is set to announce its gigabit fiber-to-the-home service in Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina this week according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal quoted sources close to the events and said that local news media in Atlanta and Nashville were invited to events on Tuesday and the North Carolina cities were invited to events on Thursday.

These cities are among the nine that Google named last February as under consideration for fiber service. Other cities include San Jose, California and San Antonio, Texas. Currently [company]Google[/company] has a fiber network in Kansas City, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri; Provo, Utah and Austin, Texas. It has also spurred several of the local incumbents in those and other areas of the country to start laying fiber services.

The Journal article says that the other areas where Google announced interest in building fiber networks should not consider any new network announcements to mean they are out of the running. According to the article:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Google has told some officials in those cities that it hasn’t ruled them out, and has yet to make a final decision.

David Vossbrink, a spokesman for the city of San Jose, said a Google Fiber official told him Monday that Google would be announcing expansion cities beginning Tuesday. “The message was that these announcements should not be considered the end of the road for the other areas,” Mr. Vossbrink said.

As it stands today, Google has every interest in prolonging the threat of its expansion for as long as possible. Even before laying conduit in Austin, it managed to spur AT&T to start upgrading its own network in Austin and pushed a local cable overbuilder to actually start offering gigabit service in limited areas before Google or AT&T actually ever managed to. AT&T actually serves more people I know than Google with gigabit service in Austin, although that’s less a statement of actual homes passed than a measure of where my friends happen to live.

And so when it comes to pushing for faster broadband networks around the country, Google’s best weapon is actually the press release and the threat of action, because it spurs the local government to clear roadblocks and gets incumbents to consider and sometimes actually upgrade their service. That said, I still eagerly await the day the Google truck rolls to my neighborhood in Austin.

How Texas became an unlikely leader in renewable energy

Few people think of Texas as a renewable energy leader. The oil mad state is known for drilling and Enron. So you might be surprised to learn that Texas is actually a major leader in wind power.

The story of the state’s ascent in the 80’s and 90’s to becoming a leader in wind power is recounted in a new book, The Great Texas Wind Rush by Kate Galbraith, formerly of The Texas Tribute and Asher Price of The Austin American-Statesman.

From the Observer’s review:

The story starts where so many quintessentially Texan stories start: in West Texas, where oddball dreamers in the 1970s and ’80s saw the merciless wind as not just the region’s howling soundtrack, but a resource that could be harnessed. These are great characters: a Panhandle hippie who built the first Texas wind farm on his cousin’s ranch; a Lubbock priest who scouted the best locations for church-side turbines by flying a kite Ben Franklin-style; and a father-and-son team out of Burkburnett (“Boomtown, USA!”) who took wrench to turbine in pursuit of something that just worked, dammit.

They were tinkerers and risk-takers, and their failures greatly outnumbered their limited successes. But they blazed the trail, and they are the book’s heroes, can-do Texas types who threw caution and money at the wind hoping to catch it. By 1981, Texas had built its first wind farm, the second in the nation.

The book goes on to recount how George W. Bush included a 2,000 megawatt wind farm mandate as part of a 1999 state bill that would deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. He needed broad support for the bill, and the wind farm language helped woo some environmentalists. Texas’ decision to deregulate has actually created one of the more interesting and innovative electricity markets in the U.S.

Today there are more than 12 gigawatts of wind power installed in Texas, about 10 percent of the state’s demand. Which is not to say that Texas is becoming a leader in renewables or fighting against climate change. Just that some smart folks saw an opening for another energy boom, and nobody likes an energy boom like a Texan.

Today in Cleantech

The deal that Nest struck with Texas energy provider Reliant to have the energy retailer provide a Nest thermostat free in exchange for a two year energy contract says a lot about the potential of deregulated energy markets. In Texas the energy generator is separate from the retailer (the company that sends you your bill). You often have multiple players in each part of the market. The theoretical benefit of all this is that the retailer has an incentive to strike the best deals with transmission companies and generators as well as distinguish itself with its customers. And a free Nest thermostat sounds like a great way to separate yourself from the crowd.

U.S. Cellular launching LTE in March with 2 Samsung gadgets

Next month, consumers in smaller towns and cities across the U.S. will have access to their first LTE network as U.S. Cellular ramps ups its commercial 4G service. The regional CDMA operator will start selling a tablet in March and a Galaxy smartphone in April.

The top 10 trends from the year’s big smart grid show

One of the year’s largest smart grid conferences — DistribuTECH — closes today in San Antonio, Texas. It’s like the CES for utilities, power companies and the vendors that are trying to sell them stuff. Here are the top 10 trends I took away.