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.

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Waiting for Moynihan to arrive at Penn

One of D.C.’s strongest points of civic superiority over New York can be encapsulated in four words: Union Station, Penn Station.

We have a Greek temple of a train station built around a beautiful vaulted hall, with a view of the Capitol dome out one door and Metro out another. (We’d rather not talk about Union Station’s Carter-era years of decay.) They have a dreary, subterranean space that hasn’t seen sunlight in over half a century–courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad tearing down the original Penn Station starting in 1963 to clear room for Madison Square Garden atop what was left of its waiting rooms.

That “monumental act of vandalism,” as the New York Times said in an editorial at the start of demolition, not only didn’t save the Pennsy from financial ruin but soon became a source of lasting civic shame in NYC.

The most straightforward fix possible has been obvious since the 1990s, when then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) championed building a new train hall in the James A. Farley Post Office building across 8th Avenue from Penn. That edifice not only sits atop Penn’s train platforms but was built in the same neoclassical style as the original Penn–and designed by the same architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.

But the deal that seemed done in 1997 died multiple deaths and experienced multiple resurrections over the subsequent years. New York did build a concourse under Farley for Long Island Rail Road passengers–it’s much less bleak than the rest of Penn–but I doubted things would progress further until the state announced a signed deal last June to build a Moynihan Trail Hall in the Farley building.

And the crazy thing is, construction is now, finally, underway. On my way to Penn Friday, I couldn’t miss the construction cranes perched above the Farley building. And after I got home, I read that workers have begun installing gigantic canopies over that structure’s courtyards.

That’s exciting to me, even if Amtrak says I’ll have to wait until 2021 to see the finished product. (And if I’ll have to give up a bit of D.C. snobbery.) It’s also exciting to my mother, who grew up in New York and remembers what the original looked like, even before its pre-demolition decline. When they finally open the new hall, I know what I want to do: take the train into a reborn Penn Station with Mom, then have her tell me if they did the place justice.

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

City of champion: my Caps story

I haven’t been to a Capitals game in over 15 years. And when the Caps won it all Thursday night, I had to run out to our front porch and shout “C! A! P! S! Caps Caps Caps!”

Sports do funny things to you. Sometimes they’re also good things.

D.C.’s last major championship came in 1992, when the sports gene had yet to be switched on in me (aside from Georgetown basketball). The years since have been a tapestry of pain for D.C. sports fans, Caps fans foremost. Our teams have excelled in finding early playoff exits, often in the most gruesome manner imaginable–but no local franchise has gotten bounced from the postseason more often than the Caps.

(I know, D.C. United has won championships, albeit not since 2004–but Major League Soccer hasn’t been around nearly as long as MLB, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL.)

Consider the last decade alone: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 all saw a Caps departure in the first or second round of the playoffs, with the only difference being which team besides Pittsburgh was the instrument of our demise. So I had few expectations when the Caps started the 2018 postseason by blowing consecutive two-goal leads against Columbus–except they then declined to implode as usual and instead won that series in six games.

So I, who had not attended a game in forever for various lame reasons (expensive tickets, plans fell through, busy schedule, blah blah blah) and only occasionally followed a game online (being cord cutters put live viewing out of the question for years), found myself going out of my way to watch this Caps postseason. Over three weeks of travel, I caught games in various bars and restaurants and on one airplane, in between wearing out my phone’s battery to track the score.

That’s how I watched us beat our recurring nemesis Pittsburgh from a United Club in SFO–after asking the bartender if I’d get thrown out for asking them to turn off the Giants game. Another D.C. fan was sitting next to me at the bar, and we high-fived as the Caps blew up their Death Star and slayed the D.C. postseason sports curse.

Belated, renewed recognition: Hockey is a fascinating sport to watch, combining chaotic force and precision to yield the chance that the game can turn around in 15 seconds.

The Caps had to make it interesting one more time against Tampa Bay by losing three games in a row after winning the first two. But we shut them out in the final two games to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1998, when I had watched the Caps get swept by Detroit.

The confusing prospect of a D.C. team playing for a championship got me to attend a Caps event in person, the team’s last pre-finals practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. The place was mobbed when me, my wife and our daughter showed up, and it was great to see so many people give the team one last push on their way to Las Vegas by cheering the players as they walked to their cars.

Five games into the finals, I spent seven and a half of the longer minutes of my life willing the Caps to keep the puck on the other side of the rink from Braden Holtby (whom I couldn’t have picked out of a lineup two months ago) and please get an insurance goal. My city’s team held on, I jumped up and down and hugged my wife–and after my front-porch exultation, we popped open some bubbly to toast the Caps.

Now it’s done. The Caps came home from Vegas with the Cup Friday afternoon. D.C. has a championship. And everybody here has a story to tell to themselves and to their kids about persistence through adversity.

My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.

Peak lawn

It’s the time of the year when I have to mow the lawn once a week. That means it’s also the best time of the year to mow the lawn.

The spring wave of weeds has gone by now while spring’s rains have the grass growing at its fastest pace of the year–so fast that it starts going to seed, which at least lets me tell myself that those seeds will help fill in the bare spots.

It does get hot, but it’s not too humid and the mosquitoes have yet to arrive. So if I inevitably get distracted and start weeding or transplanting flowers, I don’t have to risk being used as a walking blood bank.

So I have no problem dragging my lawnmower and its extension cord up the basement steps once a week. (I have no idea what possesses people with small yards to buy gas-powered lawnmowers; the electric model I bought for $200 or so 14 years ago has been essentially free to use, needing no maintenance beyond blade sharpening.) Soon enough the grass will slow down, a summer drought will set in, ailanthus altissima (aka the Tree of Hell) will make its annual assault on my lawn, and in three months just reading this post will probably make me grumpy.

Playing hooky for home openers

I watched the Nationals lose a winnable baseball game Thursday. I’ve done that a lot since 2005, but this 8-2 defeat wasn’t just any home game. It was the Nats’ home opener–as far as I can figure out, the 13th that I’ve seen in person, starting with our team’s debut at RFK in 2005.

(The exception was 2007. According to an e-mail I sent to my wife, I listened to the game on the radio from home.)

That also makes this spring pastime one of the few consistent examples of me taking advantage of the flexible scheduling that I should theoretically enjoy as a work-from-home freelancer.

As in: When I wandered into this lifestyle, I had delusions of being able to devote the occasional morning or afternoon to a movie or a museum. Nope!

The reality has been one of compressed chores. My schedule affords enough idle time to let me get in some gardening or expedite a Costco run, but tearing myself away from other obligations for a few hours in a row seems impossible… except for this one rite of spring. I should not complain about that, even when the game in question has us getting lit up by the Mets.