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Tech Trek: Long Beach, California

A coastal city on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Long Beach is a unique combination of grit, beauty, and tech.

I have a confession to make at the outset: I used to live in Long Beach. Many readers expect travel columns to reflect the writer's experience as a visitor to a new place every time. Because I've lived in a lot of places--nearly two dozen different cities--the chances of my returning to a place where I used to live is a little higher than for most people. Anyway, I lived in the LBC for less than a year, so I'm hardly a native of the place.

More important, I returned to Long Beach to attend the buzzworthy, polarizing TED conference. Imagine a gritty, eclectic second city to a gigantic metropolis (in this case, Los Angeles); then toss 1400 Silicon Valley-focused millionaires, billionaires, and celebrities into an area with a three-block radius, and keep them there for five days. Visiting Long Beach for TED is like visiting Louisiana for New Orleans: The experience at your destination is very different from what it would be anywhere else in the surrounding area.

Actually, Long Beach reminds me a bit of New Orleans. A coastal city on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Long Beach is a unique combination of grit and beauty. Like NoLa, Long Beach can be a rough city (it shares a border with the dicey, mythologized city of Compton), but the conditions also produce beautiful art, eclectic music, and some great food. It may be the last major SoCal city where beach property remains affordable--and the only place south of L.A. where you can get authentic Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles.

Hoboing to the LBC

Planes will get you there, but trains help you enjoy the journey. It's a rare treat for me to live close enough to a destination that I can consider taking the Amtrak there, but my trip from San Diego to Long Beach was relatively short: 3 hours or so by train; a brief layover; and then a cushy, one-stop, 45-minute bus trip. I had certainly done worse--like flying into a city at dawn and flying out at sunset of the same day (see "Tech Trek: Las Vegas"). However, I didn't look forward to reengaging with the inflexible, old-school ticketing system and the awful hours-long delays that plagued my many train trips of yesteryear.

I bought my ticket online well in advance, but then, on a nerdy hunch, I searched for an Amtrak app. It had one--with versions for iOS and Android! And it was highly rated! I halfheartedly downloaded the free app, suspecting that the Amtrak ratings were part of some system-gaming scheme.

The app opened smoothly and gave me links for train status, ticket purchasing, and pretty much every other option a traveler might need. I tapped the log-in icon, punched in my username and password for Amtrak.com, and it had my entire profile up in seconds. I think I may have gasped out loud. Bear in mind that, about a decade ago, this same company kept me stranded in Chicago for several hours without providing any updates.

When I got to the station, I walked past the ticket-dispensing kiosks and loaded my QR-code-marked virtual ticket, just as if the trip were an airline flight. The conductor, an older gentleman, asked for my ticket and I pulled out my smartphone. He quickly drew out his own scanner and swiped the code. I'm sure I had a stunned look on my face. I was half expecting to have to get off at the next stop and print a physical ticket. Instead, I breathed a sigh of relief and watched the Pacific rolling in gently, off to my left.

Putting life on hold

On the subject of antiquated systems, I hadn't thought about putting a hold on my regular mail delivery until I was well on my way up the Pacific Coast. Again, on a whim, I looked for an official United States Postal Service app--and this time I found USPS Mobile for iOS and Android. Not only is USPS Mobile a clean app, but it offers a better experience than the Postal Service's jumbled, confusing official website does. Perhaps that's because creating a good app often requires rebuilding everything from the ground up.

The process was ridiculously simple: I tapped hold mail, typed in my address, highlighted the calendar days for the hold, confirmed my email, and promptly closed the app. This kind of service from the same people who can't afford to deliver mail on Saturdays anymore?! Whoever developed USPS Mobile deserves a raise--if not a full weekend off.

Any hiccups I had with the Postal Service's app involved getting online in a moving vehicle. It's worse right along the coast, since all of the cell towers tend to be on one side.

Faced with competition from air travel that's more affordable than it used to be, Amtrak has added new airline-style accouterments such QR code tickets, reclinable seats, and (most notably) Wi-Fi. Hotspot trains have a little Wi-Fi sticker on them--shades of Virgin America.

Like its automated ticketing, Amtrak's Wi-Fi setup was very convenient. I found the Wi-Fi network, opened the Web browser, accepted the simple terms and conditions, and was online seconds later.

Unfortunately, I was offline more of the time than I was online--not because of a weak signal to Amtrak, but because of Amtrak's weak signal to the rest of the world. As this excellent article from The Atlantic notes, Verizon and AT&T deliver Amtrak's Wi-Fi, which means that the "fast" Wi-Fi connection is using the same channels as my cell phone; it may even be worse for me, since they introduce additional proxies.

The bad news was that, aside from putting my USPS mail on hold, I got virtually nothing done online during my trip. The good news was that all I could do on my train ride to Long Beach was relax.

My own private TED

One great thing about Long Beach is that the center of the city, downtown on Pine Street, is incredibly walkable. The major haunts--such as the Long Beach Aquarium, the TED-holding Long Beach Convention Center, and the tasty, yet affordable King's Fish House (no connection to the aquarium)--are all within a 2-mile radius. Though I had a car when I lived in Long Beach, it was a relic from my days of living in nearby L.A. Most of the time, my vehicle sat in a (hard-to-find) parking space, and I rambled around Long Beach on foot.

Back at the hotel, I combined my physical TED experience (connecting with the speakers and socializing with friends and acquaintances at the hotel bar) with my virtual TED experience (watching the talks via streaming video on the TED site while texting with other viewers from the comfort of my room). It was the best of both worlds. I even set up a live stream of TED, so I could watch everything that people in the theater were seeing.

Since the sound was important, I decided to audition the $50 X-mini UNO Capsule Speaker from Xmi Pte. The speaker's sound quality was good, but even more impressive was its diminutive size--only slightly larger than a golf ball. I travel light, especially when taking the train, and the ball speaker took up so little room that initially I thought I had forgotten it at home. The little guy weighs less than a pound, but packs a decent punch.

Earlier in the week, Amtrak had delivered me to Long Beach on time--in fact, a little ahead of time--which gave me enough of a window to drop off my bags, grab a drink with friends from previous TED conferences, and later renew my acquaintance with Roscoe's renowned chicken and waffles.

I used to live down the street from Roscoe's, so this was home cooking to me in more ways than one. Initially I adopted the traditionalist strategy of eating the crispy fried chicken first and then prepping and noshing on the waffles as if they were a separate meal. Here's a secret, though: Roscoe's savory waffles have diametric indentations, much like the perforated edges of a coupon, that let you divide them neatly into quadrants. Years ago, for no apparent reason, my wife started tearing the waffles quarter by quarter, dipping each piece into the fresh-made syrup, and devouring them along with bites of chicken. In my opinion, that's the perfect way to eat Roscoe's. On this trip to Long Beach, the combo tasted better than I remembered.

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