2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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The other shocking secret about my latest laptop purchase

To judge from the 840 comments on Monday’s Yahoo Finance post about my first laptop purchase in a few years, the fact that this computer runs Windows 10 surprised many readers.

Another aspect of this acquisition may be even more shocking: I bought this computer in person, not remotely.

HP laptop keyboard

Over some 28 years of computer use, I had somehow avoided procuring every prior laptop or desktop in a store. My first two Macs came via Georgetown’s student-discount ordering, I bought a Power Computing Mac clone either over the phone or at the company’s site (too long ago for me to remember for sure), and I’d purchased three iMacs, one MacBook Air and a Lenovo ThinkPad online.

I had planned on ordering an HP Spectre x360 through my iMac’s browser, but HP’s site listed the new version as back-ordered. Finding a reseller at Amazon that had the 2017 model, not last year’s, quickly got me lost. Best Buy listed the latest version online–with the lure of credit towards a future purchase through its rewards program–but the profusion of different model numbers made me want to inspect the hardware in person to make sure I’d get the features I had in mind.

At about that time, I recalled that D.C.’s sales tax is fractionally lower than the rate in Northern Virginia, 5.75 percent versus 6 percent. And since that retailer’s site said this computer was on display at its Columbia Heights location on a day when I already had to be in D.C. for a conference and would be departing for Web Summit the next evening, why not stop by?

The exact set of options I wanted came in a configuration with more memory and storage than I’d normally buy, of which the store only had one unit in stock. But after taking a moment to contemplate the time I spend on laptops, I rationalized the added expense and handed over a credit card. So it was done: I walked out with a box in a bag that I lugged around that afternoon, and then I began a trip the next night with a newly-purchased laptop for the first time in five years.

One part of my work, however, remains incomplete: finding a home for a 2012 MacBook Air with a broken T key and a “Service Battery” alert. Any ideas?

The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

Porting out a Verizon landline number, part 2: my Fios account survives, my Vz mail moves

When I last wrote about my experience porting out a land-line phone number to Ooma’s Internet-calling service, I was still a little antsy that Verizon would cancel our Fios Internet service.

I need not have. A few weeks later–without any further action on my part–Verizon’s online account page no longer listed ours as being disconnected, my next automatic payment had gone through as usual, and I could cash in some accumulated My Rewards+ points for a $10 Amazon gift card. And then I finally got my invitation to migrate my Verizon e-mail to AOL–almost two months after I’d written about that change for USA Today.

I opted to keep my verizon.net account, less because I plan to use it anytime soon and more because I had to experience this switchover firsthand after getting so many reader questions about it.

Verdict: fine. AOL’s site asked me to create a new password, choose from one of four preset (and not all that secure) security questions, and add a mobile number, presumably to confirm any strange logins in the future. AOL suggested I might have to wait a few hours for the messages to appear in my new inbox, but all 7,000-plus spam messages and the 50 or so legitimate e-mails accompanying them were waiting for me moments later.

Two weeks later, the single best part of having AOL manage my mail is having a spam filter that works. When I logged in today, I only had four messages waiting in my inbox, all legit, with 33 junk messages tucked away in the spam folder instead of littering my inbox the way they did on Verizon’s mail system.

The downside is a much tackier login experience, since AOL defaults to showing you its clickbait-stuffed “Today on AOL” page. To fix that and go directly to your inbox, click the Options menu at the top right corner of the page below your e-mail address, choose “Mail Settings,” and uncheck “Show me Today on AOL when signing in.” And for a recurring dose of 1990s nostalgia, check “Play ‘You’ve Got Mail’ alert at login if there are new messages.”

I still need to figure out why Verizon’s site thinks I should pay $127.99 for gigabit Fios, well above its advertised new-customer rates. But solving that (and finding a use case for that  much speed, versus a measly 50 or 100 Mbps) will have to wait for yet another post.

A dark pattern at work: the overseas ATM that quotes a price in dollars

Being a user-interface nerd means you can’t stop critiquing everyday objects like signs and doors. Most of the time, the quirks you notice will only waste people’s time, but those that cost money deserve extra attention.

Last week’s trip to Lisbon for the IFA Global Press Conference offered a fine example of the second kind: an ATM that offered to price my withdrawal in dollars instead of euros. Its screen helpfully listed the exact price I’d pay to take out €50: $58.10. The only possible answer to that: nope!

The ATM was offering what’s called “dynamic currency conversion”–best understood, in UI-nerd terms, as a “dark pattern” set up to part the uninformed from their money. This offer amounts to an invitation to pay a premium for knowing upfront exactly how much you paid for that transaction, and you should always decline it. Even if you’re paying with a credit-card that would charge a foreign currency conversion fee.

I pressed the button next to “Accept Without Conversion,” and when I checked my bank account a few days later I saw that my withdrawal amounted to $54.22. My $3.88 in savings isn’t much, but it does represent an exceptional rate of return for a few seconds of work.

If only I’d always been that smart: Two years ago, jet lag caused me to lose situational awareness while buying a transit pass in Dublin’s airport, so I unthinkingly tapped the button to run the transaction in dollars instead of euros. I can only hope Transport For Ireland appreciated my generous donation of a dollar or two.

 

Keeping Fios while porting out a landline phone number can be tricky

For years, my secret shame has been that we still have a landline phone at home. Why? The number dates to 1997, so all my relatives know it and some of them still call it. Besides, I find the robocalls it attracts in campaign seasons weirdly fascinating.

Those things, however, weren’t worth the $15 Verizon charged us for the most minimal level of phone service. The obvious fix, one I endorsed in a 2015 USA Today column, was to port our number to an Internet-calling service. But months after third-party reviews and some testing of my own led me to pick Ooma‘s free service as that VoIP alternative, we were still wasting $15 a month–because I am sometimes slow and always easily distracted.

Finally, a Costco sale on a bundle of Ooma’s Telo VoIP adapter, a WiFi/Bluetooth module for it, and Ooma’s cordless handset got me to get moving on this transition.

After I put in the order on March 18 to port out our number (for which Ooma charges $40), it was active in Ooma’s system on the 22nd, allowing us to place and receive calls through the Telo. The next day I logged into our Verizon account to confirm the transfer.

That’s where things got interesting, as that site said our account had been disconnected.

Prior reports from Ooma users in various forums as well as Verizon PR’s own statements had led me to expect an industry-standard porting experience: You start the port with the new service, and there’s no need to talk to the old one until your number’s out of their grasp.

Perhaps I was wrong? I called Verizon to find out. That March 23 call was a model of how phone customer-support should work–I only had to provide my account number once, I wasn’t left on hold, and the rep said my Internet service should be fine.

Alas, other parts of Verizon had other ideas. A day later, a recorded message advised us to contact Verizon by April 14 to discuss new service options or risk disconnection a second robocall a week later cited the same April 14 deadline.

On April 4, our Internet went out.

The error page that interrupted my Web browsing told me to set up automatic payments to reactivate my service, but each attempt (using the same credit card as before) yielded a generic error message. It was time to call Verizon again.

Thirty-one minutes later, another pleasant rep was as confused as me, saying she couldn’t get the auto-pay setup to go through either. She said she’d get a specialist to work on my case and would call back with an update.

In the meantime, I enjoyed the unfair advantage of having two LTE hotspots in the house–required research to update a Wirecutter guide–that I could lean on for free in place of our inert Internet connection.

By the next evening, our Fios connection was back online, in keeping with the second rep’s “you should be all set” voicemail that afternoon. But Verizon’s site still listed our account as disconnected.

A third call Friday deepened the mystery. This rep said she saw two account numbers–and the one she could access listed our service as pending disconnection. Then I took another look at the e-mail Verizon sent after the second phone rep had pushed through my auto-pay enrollment: It cited an account number ending with seven digits that did not match my old one.

My best guess here, based only on my dealing with Verizon since it was Bell Atlantic, is that Verizon’s system has created a new account for me because the old one was somehow too intertwined with the phone number to keep around.

If so, I should be getting a letter with the new account number in the next day or so, after which I may or may not need to set up a new account online. Sound right? Or am I in for another long phone call?

Either way, I suspect I have not written my last post here on this subject.

2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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