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.

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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.

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.

When a work-from-home type gets a driving commute

One of the many ways I count myself lucky is that I haven’t had to drive to work since high school. No matter where I’ve lived around D.C, I’ve been able to get to my job by bus, Metro or on foot. And since 2011, I’ve only had to step into my home office.

But the past two summers have added a different sort of commute: our daughter’s various day camps. And as the person in the house with the most flexible schedule, it’s fallen to me to drive our kid to one camp or another most mornings. Sometimes it’s easier for me to pick her up in the afternoon as well.

Compared to the commutes most people endure around D.C., that’s left me nothing to complain about. I’m not sitting in traffic on I-66, the Dulles Toll Road or the Beltway; instead, I’m on neighborhood streets lined with trees and not enough big front porches. And the very worst day-camp commute I’ve had only ran some 20 minutes each way.

(The best day-camp commute involved a location barely half a mile away, so I could walk our child there and back–with some crankiness on her part.)

I sometimes feel like I’m engaged in commute cosplay as I sit at a stoplight, sip coffee out of a travel mug, listen to WAMU (of course I do), and then end the morning’s schlep without clocking a highway mile or crossing the Potomac.

I’d anticipated going back to my usual car-light routine with the start of school this week, but my wife’s broken clavicle means I’m the sole driver in the house through sometime in October. It could be worse. I mean, our daughter could go back to demanding that the same two CDs be on heavy rotation all the time. And outside of picking her up from extended-day care at school, I still barely have to drive anywhere.

That makes now a good time to contemplate the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood… as if having the second half of this year’s property tax come due next month didn’t give us reason enough.

What part of “Share the Road” can’t some drivers understand?

My wife has an mercifully short commute to work, which most days she speeds up by biking there. Friday morning, that route led to a detour through an X-ray machine and a CT scanner.

The fault: an idiot driver who attempted to make a left turn from a center, no-turn lane by signaling late and then turning into my wife’s path. She braked hard, fell off the bike and landed on her shoulder. The resulting damage: a fractured clavicle bone and some scrapes, plus a few weeks of having to get through everyday chores with her left arm in a sling.

The driver, meanwhile, continued on. It’s unclear whether passerby will be able to identify this menace.

At one level, I’m angry to see this reckless disregard for any human beyond one’s own windshield, much less my spouse. A driver like that could also threaten me when I’m walking around the neighborhood, or my neighbors, or any of our kids.

At another level, I don’t know why this happened to my wife and not me. She is an exceptionally careful cyclist–she was wearing a reflective vest Friday, just in case–while I have been much more foolish, especially in my younger days. (If I blew by you going the opposite way on the W&OD Trail or the Cap Crescent 15 or 20 years ago, I’m sorry; I was a jackass.) And I’ve clocked several thousand more miles on two wheels. By that statistic alone, I should have taken this hit, not her.

What I do know: If you can’t share the road, do the rest of us a favor and get off the road until you can strap yourself into a self-driving car that, unlike you, will at least be programmed to obey the laws of the U.S. and the laws of physics.

WAS-NYP-WAS: commuting from D.C. to NYC and back

New York is my most frequent travel destination, and my most frequent mode of transportation to there is Amtrak train 2100, the 6 a.m. (lately, 5:55 a.m.) Acela Express.

This train keeps showing up on my calendar despite my fondness for sleeping in past 4:40 a.m. because it works to get me to morning meetings in Manhattan. And because the next few Acela departures get ridiculously expensive unless you book weeks or maybe months in advance.

early-morning-acela(Don’t even talk to me about flying. Transit-starvedtraffic-choked LaGuardia is not an airport I need to see again, I’d get much less work done on the way, and I would save little to no time when I can usually walk from Penn Station to whatever event has me in NYC for the day.)

So I keep getting up in the middle of the night–Thursday being the latest example–and finding myself marveling at the sight of stars from my front porch before heading out.

If I’m taking Metro, I need to catch the first inbound train of the day and not run into any delays of more than a few minutes. Thursday, with Metro’s struggles on my mind, I summoned an Uber and enjoyed the rare spectacle of a 14th Street Bridge free of traffic.

Union Station is not too crowded at 5:40 in the morning, and seeing all the people in suits greet each other on the train reminds me that it could be worse: I could be doing this as often as them. Noticing MARC trains bringing commuters into Union Station that early gives me the same reaction.

Thursday, the sun didn’t rise until we crossed the Susquehanna River. That’s not bad compared to taking this train in the winter, when I’ve had to wait until somewhere in Delaware.

trenton-makes-the-world-takesWith the sun up, seeing familiar scenery like the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River helps the miles go by. So does the right Northeast Corridor-specific soundtrack, which always includes Bob Mould’s “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” and Suzanne Vega’s “Ironbound (Fancy Poultry).”

After years of seeing decades-old infrastructure unchanged, the past couple of years have allowed me to watch the progress of a long-overdue upgrade: replacing 1930s-vintage overhead wires north of Trenton. At Penn Station, meanwhile, I’m waiting on another project: the new concourse and entrances on 8th Avenue, which have to be less grim than Penn’s current setup.

After a day of NYC events, the trip home usually takes place on train 2173, the 8-ish Acela. Again, ticket prices often dictate that scheduling–the earlier Acela departures cost too much.

The upside of this train: If you’ve burned Amtrak points for first-class upgrade coupons or you got some with Select or higher Guest Rewards status, there should be space at the end of the train where they bring the food to you. The downside: The train rolls into Union Station after 11, a time when Metro rebuilding-induced delays may or may not mean I get home after 12:30.

That was the case Thursday, when my day ended almost 21 hours after it began. Friday was not my most productive day ever.

Pros and cons of taking Google I/O outside

My most recent tech event took place in an unusual venue: a concert amphitheater set into the hills of the San Francisco Bay.

Android statueHeading into Google I/O, I was uneasy about Google’s decision–announced in a January 12 tweet from CEO Sundar Pichai–to move its developer conference from Moscone West in San Francisco to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Unlike that convention center three blocks off Market Street, Shoreline promised no meaningful pedestrian, cyclist or transit access.

Fortunately, the traffic dystopia I feared did not quite happen at I/O 16, and this location revealed some redeeming qualities.

Having the analog environment of nature around was foremost among them–especially on Wednesday, when the temperature soared into the ’80s. Typing on my laptop in the shade of the press center brought back pleasant memories of 2012’s Tech Policy Summit, staged at a resort outside of Napa. But even in the concrete surroundings of the seating bowl, the noise of birds chirping offered a healthy reminder that much of the world doesn’t care what we humans do with circuits and code.

(This avian accompaniment was not risk-free. Analyst Jan Dawson almost had a bird poop on his leg.)

Shoreline is surrounded by parking lots, but they looked much better covered by tents and stages for I/O’s various panels and talks. And looking up on walks from one location to another often rewarded me with the sight of 747s and A380s low overhead on their approaches to SFO.

Shoreline stageThe official hotels Google suggested were no cheaper than most San Francisco hotels, but the clean, comfortable Airbnb suite I found in downtown Mountain View was much cheaper than anything I’ve seen listed in the city.

Finally, we did get to experience a concert at this concert venue, Wednesday night’s performance by Charli XCX and Kygo.

But while Google’s shuttle from the Mountain View Caltrain station–not advertised in advance–got me to I/O surprisingly quickly on Wednesday, on Thursday two shuttles in a row left without me because they had no seats left. On Friday, the bus arrived sorely late and then crawled through traffic, finally depositing me at Shoreline after almost as much time as it might have taken to walk the distance.

The weather also got less idyllic after Wednesday, even as the risk of sunburn remained the same. My teeth may have started chattering once or twice Thursday night and Friday afternoon. (Cardinal rule of packing for the Bay Area: Whatever season it is, bring a fleece jacket.)

And while having class outside is usually a great idea, it remains difficult to see a laptop’s screen in sunlight. Brightening the screen was not always a smart response at I/O; power outlets were a lot scarcer than they would have been in a conventional convention facility like Moscone.

All things being equal, I’d rather see I/O move back to San Francisco. But I suspect that Google is content with staging its event at a private space next to its headquarters that it can take over–a sort of Google Island, if you will–and that next May, we’ll have the same battles with traffic and logistics.