Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

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My no-longer-secret Bitcoin shame

Bitcoin has infested tech news lately–the cryptocurrency’s unlikely rise in value, its subsequent and unsurprising fall in value, what complete tools Bitcoin zealots can be in front of a reporter, and so on and on. I’ve watched all of this as an unwitting spectator.

Yes, I’m one of those doofuses who forgot a password to a Bitcoin wallet. At least I have a half-decent excuse: CES.

I didn’t go to the gadget show in 2014 planning on investing in Bitcoin, but one of the first events I attended featured a diverse contingent of BTC startups, one of which had a dollars-to-Bitcoin ATM. How could I not gamble a few bucks to earn an anecdote to throw into a Bitcoin explainer?

I put a $5 bill into this thing and followed an exhibitor’s advice to install the Mycelium wallet app on my phone, scan a QR code off the ATM’s screen, and set a 15-character passcode to protect my stash of .00513 BTC.

Guess what I forgot to do as I headed to my next CES appointment?

I then mostly ignored the app, except for the occasional check to see how my investment had decayed. That habit faded, and when I tried resetting my phone the next fall to fix some touchscreen bugginess, I didn’t even think about the risk of losing access to my tiny Bitcoin hoard.

By which I mean, I didn’t even think to open Mycelium until several months after that unsuccessful phone-troubleshooting exercise. Then I realized that I could no longer remember the 15 characters I’d typed on my phone’s screen two years earlier, without which I could not restore the backup I had made right after my ATM transaction.

That’s where things have remained, even as Bitcoin’s value has soared and then plummeted. It’s annoying, but at least I have two things going for me: The app won’t lock me out as I keep guessing the passcode incorrectly, and at the current exchange rate I’m only out $57 or so. I’ve done much worse gambling in Vegas.

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.