An occupational risk of freelancing: zero words on topic A

The European Commission socked Google with a €4.34 billion fine Wednesday over its treatment of Android device vendors, and I have had zero words published to my name about that blockbuster ruling.

It happens. When you’re not on staff and not in the newsroom as a major story breaks, you can get left aside as staff writers jump on that topic and editors scurry to get their copy posted. That collective rush to publish–and the glut of hot takes about whatever tech issue tops a day’s headlines–may then result in you not being able to sell anything about said storyline before everybody’s moved on to the next breaking topic.

So, yes, I have not opined at length over the EC’s judgment that Google abused its market power in requiring Android vendors to ship its Chrome browser and set its own search as the default if they wanted to bundle the Play Store. I haven’t even gone on radio or TV to spout off on Google getting this roughly $5 billion haircut, leaving only my initial, skeptical tweets as my comments.

I feel like I’ve put my tech-pundit status in jeopardy, especially considering the shameful lack of even unpaid broadcast exposure.

On the other hand, I should appreciate being able to think through this matter instead of having to file 800 words of first-few-hours analysis.

On the other other hand, my self-employed status also means I don’t have to crank out four posts in a day every time Apple commits news. And not being beholden to a single newsroom lets me self-assign less-obvious coverage, as long as I can find a willing client. That occupational flexibility may yet allow me to get back to Topic A in tech news this week, if I can just find the right angle to pitch to the right editor…

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Another part of the world where I need to use a VPN

I spent last week in London with my family–yes, actual vacation-esque time! It was great, except for when I was trying to keep up with news from back home.

My first stay across the Atlantic since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into force May 25 brought home the unpleasant reality of some U.S. sites’ continued struggles with this privacy law. And instead of experiencing this only briefly in a Virtual Private Network session on my iPad, I got a full-time dose of it.

The biggest problem is sites such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times that have blocked all European access instead of providing the privacy controls required by the GDPR.

That’s not the fault of the GDPR–its provisions were set two years ago–but is the fault of Tronc, the long-mismanaged news firm formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Tronc could afford to pay $15 million to former chairman Michael Ferro after he quit facing charges of sexual abuse but apparently couldn’t afford to hire any GDPR-qualified developers. I hope the LAT can fix that now that Tronc has sold the paper, but it may be a while before I can link to any Tribune stories without annoying European readers.

With my client USA Today, the issue isn’t as bad: It provides EU readers with a stripped-down, ad- and tracking-free version of the site, which you can see at right in the screenshot above. What’s not to like about such a fast, simple version? Well, I can’t see comments on my own columns, and simply searching for stories requires switching to Google… by which I mean, Bing, since right-clicking a Google search result doesn’t let you copy the target address, and clicking through to a Google result will yield an EU-specific USAT address.

The simplest fix for these and other GDPR-compliance glitches was to fire up Private Internet Access on my laptop and connect to one of that VPN service’s U.S. locations–yes, as if I were in China. It seems a violation of the Web’s founding principles to have to teleport my browser to another continent for a task as simple as reading the news, but here we are.

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.

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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