Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

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How I screwed up a Strava story

A story I wrote weeks ago started to go bad last Saturday, before it had even been published and posted.

That’s when an Australian student named Nathan Ruser tweeted out an interesting discovery: The Global Heatmap provided by the activity-tracking social network Strava revealed the locations of both documented and secret foreign military bases, as outlined by the running and walking paths of service members that Strava’s apps had recorded.

The feature I had filed for the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s Trajectory Magazine–posted Wednesday and landing in print subscribers’ mailboxes this week–also covered Strava, but in a different light.

As part of an overview of interesting applications of “geoint,” I wrote about Strava Metro, the database of activities over time available to local governments and cyclist-advocacy organizations (but not commercial buyers). In that part of the story, I quoted Strava executive Brian Devaney explaining the company’s efforts to keep its users anonymous in both Metro and the heatmap.

Looking at Strava from the perspective of “will this show where people live?”, I didn’t even think about how Strava users might unwittingly map temporary workplaces abroad. I had my chance to clue in on Strava’s military user base from looking around D.C.–that’s Joint Base Andrews precisely outlined southeast of the District in the screengrab above–but I failed to draw any conclusions from that.

Apparently, so did everybody else in the months after the Nov. 1 debut of the heatmap, heralded in a post by Strava engineer Drew Robb that touted how “our platform has numerous privacy rules that must be respected.”

You can blame Strava for making it difficult to set a geofence around a sensitive area. But it’s less fair to hound a privately-run service built to share workout data–remember, it calls itself “the social network for athletes”–for not maintaining a database of classified military locations to be blacked out on its heatmap.

After Ruser’s first tweets, however, developer Steve Loughran poked around Strava’s system and found that he could correlate the heatmap with the records of individual people by uploading a fabricated GPS file of a workout to spoof the site into thinking he’d jogged along the same path. That’s a deeper problem, and one that appears to be Strava’s fault.

After I asked Strava to explain these new findings, spokesman Andrew Vontz pointed me to a Jan. 29 post by CEO James Quarles pledging action to make privacy a simpler choice in its system.

I hope that they do so forthwith. Meanwhile, a fourth of a magazine feature with my name on it (at least it’s the last fourth!) looks dumb. It’s true that every other journalist to write about Strava between November and last week also missed these angles–but I may be unique in having a positive piece about Strava land this week. That’s not a great feeling.

For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.

The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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I can stop trying to keep up with Walt Mossberg

After 23 years or so of writing about consumer technology, it’s time to slack off a little: Walt Mossberg’s last column ran today, so I don’t have to keep up with him anymore.

That was never easy, starting the day the Post somehow gave me my own tech column. I can only recall two times when I beat or tied Walt to a story about Apple, then as now Topic A among tech writers. Once was a review of the first shipping version of Mac OS X, when a guy at a local user group handed me a copy of that release before Apple PR would. The other was a writeup of iDVD that benefited from my willingness to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. a couple of nights in a row.

In the summer of 2000, the Post ran a front-page profile of Walt; being a guy in his late 20s with more ego than circumstances warranted, I took it poorly. But I always liked talking shop with my competitor at tech events around D.C., the Bay Area and elsewhere. (Does anybody have video of the 2006 panel featuring myself, Walt, the late Steve Wildstrom, Kevin Maney and Stephanie Stahl in which we shared an airing of grievances about tech-PR nonsense?) And when I announced my exit from the Post in 2011, the guy with one of the busier inboxes in all of tech journalism took a moment to e-mail his condolences and wish me good luck.

Since then, Walt has remained a must-read writer, provided the occasional column idea, and been one of the people I enjoy running into at conferences. He’s a mensch–or, to translate that from the Yiddish I know almost nothing of to my native Jersey-speak, a stand-up guy.

Enjoy your retirement, Walt. But please try not to taunt the rest of us too much when we’re off to yet another CES and you can finally spend that week in January as normal human beings do.

Mike Musgrove

This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.

Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.

Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.

Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.

His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.

He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.

Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.

As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.

Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.

He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.

I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.

Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “