Three more erased events: SXSW, Google I/O, Collision

Yet another set of travel plans got sucked into a coronavirus-fueled jet engine this week. On Tuesday, Google announced that it would cancel its annual I/O developer conference, Friday morning saw Web Summit pull the plug on the Collision conference in Toronto, after which Friday afternoon brought the cancellation of SXSW

And now my business-travel schedule for the first quarter of the year looks as empty as it did back in Q1 of 2007.

I expected the I/O news. As an event that draws a global audience and is hosted by a large tech company with preexisting image problems, I/O seemed doomed the second Facebook said it would scrub the F8 developer conference that was set to happen a week before I/O. (Those of you still hoping to go to Apple’s WWDC developer conference would be well advised to book fully-refundable airfare and lodging.) 

I was also prepared for the axe to fall on SXSW, just because of the overriding attention to it as one large conference this month that had yet gotten coronavirus-canceled–and all of the tech companies that had already bailed. But it still took an order from Austin’s government banned events of more than 2,500 people to kill this year’s festival and deprive me of my annual overdose of tacos and BBQ.

Collision, however, surprised me. That conference was scheduled for June 22 through 25, which in a strictly medical sense would have left plenty of time to gauge the situation. But I suspect that the organizers were already considering how many speakers had or would pull out after their employers banned employee travel, and so made the decision early to run the conference online instead.

I told them I’m willing to moderate whatever panels they need, but count me as a skeptic of this approach. A “digital conference”–more accurately read as “webinar”–is no substitute for the unexpected in-person connections you make at a good conference.

I would like to see this event-losing streak end. One of the things I treasure as a self-employed professional is the freedom to go to interesting places for work. I also count on conferences to offset all the Me Time that working from home full-time affords me.

But as the past few weeks have made clear, that’s not up to me. The only travel I have booked that isn’t subject to getting scratched by risk-averse tech corporations is a trip in early April to see my in-laws over our kid’s spring break. Taking off from Dulles that morning will feel like a victory.

Home sick instead of homesick

Me at this time last week, after realizing the extent of the gap opened in my schedule by MWC’s cancelation: Oh, great, I can finally take a day off to visit a museum or a gallery!

Life: LOL, nope.

Saturday afternoon, I felt a touch of a cold coming on. By Sunday afternoon, that had arrived in force. I then spent Monday staggering around the house and sneezing in between naps, and then my coughing woke me throughout the night. Tuesday was scarcely better, although I did manage to drag myself to a grocery store–feeling an ache around my body as I walked slower than usual.

(At least I didn’t have a fever, something I verified at least twice a day.)

After a night of generic-Nyquil-aided sleep, I decided to own my home-sick status Wednesday by not bothering to shower or shave. Can’t lie: It felt therapeutically cozy to chill in sweatpants, a t-shirt and my bathrobe.

This slacker sick-day experience reminded me of being home with colds as a kid, when I literally had nothing to do and could curl up with a series of books. But with the Internet and social media having arrived over the subsequent 40 years (and my having to work for a living), this week saw me trying too hard to stay on top of occupational things. As in, tending my e-mail to stay in touch with editors and sources and taking part in the perpetual Twitter dialogue, which in practice led to my reading waaayyy too much Coronavirus Twitter and Democratic-Primary Twitter.

I woke up this morning feeling much better, and Friday should be a fully productive and cough-drop-free day. As recent headlines have reminded me, things could have been a whole lot worse. On that note, please wash your hands.

MWC malaise: why a canceled conference has me feeling crushed

For the first time since 2012, my winter won’t involve me spending a week soaking in the wireless industry at MWC. I wish I weren’t overstating things to say that I feel gutted about this.

GSMA, the organization behind the trade show earlier known as Mobile World Congress, canceled the conference that drew 109,000-plus people last year–a week and a half in advance, and because of fear instead of evidence. The novel coronavirus afflicting China is a real threat, but it’s also remained almost completely confined to that country. And two weeks ago, GSMA announced security measures that essentially blackballed everybody from mainland China who hadn’t already left the country.

FCB logo Camp NouBut then a sequence of companies with the resources to know better decided to pull out of the show anyway: Ericsson, LG, Sony, Cisco, Facebook, Nokia, Amazon, Intel, AT&T… and on and on. After enough bold-face names had self-ejected from MWC, the only suspense left was when GSMA would take the loss and the likely scorn of the Barcelona and Catalan governments that had rightly stated no health emergency existed.

I won’t eat too much of a financial loss. I got half of my Airbnb payment back, while my airfare will be good for a future United flight (spoiler alert: likely). Friends of mine who booked refund-proof flights and lodging are harder up (one’s out at least $2,000). Some of them have already said they’ll proceed with that week in Barcelona and get in meetings with industry types who also stuck with their travel arrangements.

I can’t justify that business proposition but do feel a little jealous of those people after my happy history in Barcelona. MWC 2013 was the first international business trip I self-financed, and that trip cemented BCN as one of my favorite airport codes to have on my calendar. The show provided a sweeping overview of phones, networks and apps around the world that I couldn’t get at CES. And its logistics–from the moving walkways connecting the halls of the Fira Gran Via to Barcelona’s extensive and efficient metro and commuter-rail network–made CES look even more inadequate in that department.

MWC opened my eyes to all the different ways the wireless industry works outside the U.S.–as in, I would have covered the market better at the Post if I’d made this trip sooner, except the paper was too cheap to spring for that. At first, I didn’t sell enough stories from MWC to recoup my own travel costs (granted, I was also getting paid a lot more then), but after a few years of practice I got a better grip on my MWC business model and started clearing a decent profit. Making this a successful business venture ranks as one of my prouder achievements as a full-time freelancer.

I also improved my travel-hacking skills from that first year, in which booking flights in January left me with a seven-hour layover in Brussels on the way there and a two-stop itinerary home with a tight connection in Zurich that shrank to 20 minutes when my flight left BCN late. MWC 2017, in which I was able to leverage a United upgrade certificate to ensconce myself in seat 2A on a Lufthansa A330 home to Dulles, may be my most comfortable business trip ever.

Barcelona sculptureThe time-zone gap between Spain and any possible editor in the States also allowed me to explore my new favorite Spanish city. I carved out hours to visit all of Antonio Gaudí’s landmarks–yes, you should visit Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia–and spent not enough time getting lost in streets that sometimes weren’t wide enough to allow my phone to get a solid GPS location.

Barcelona has its issues, like seemingly annual transit strikes and the elevated risk of pickpocketing. But getting to go there for work has been an immense privilege.

This year was supposed to extend this recent tradition, but instead it will represent an interruption–at best. As my friend and MWC co-conspirator Sascha Segan explains in this essay at PCMag, knifing this year’s installment could easily lead to MWC going to another city in Europe. Or not happening at all again.

That makes me sad. Seeing the world retreat in unreasoning fear makes me angry.

MWC 2020 brings a novel conference concern

I haven’t finished putting together my schedule for MWC Barcelona later this month, but my calendar for that trade show is already getting culled.

Three major tech firms–Ericsson, LG and Nvidia–have pulled out of the wireless industry’s global gathering, citing fears of the novel coronavirus. Nvidia is no key player in the industry, but LG remains significant to smartphones. And Ericsson not only has a major 5G-infrastructure business, its MWC exhibit has been a reliable source of a free lunch.

The rest of the show appears set to go on as usual, although with unusual precautions. ZTE announced last week that it will have senior executives attending the show quarantine themselves in Europe for two weeks beforehand and require all Barcelona-bound employees to have been symptom-free for 14 days prior. GSMA, the organization that runs MWC, said two weeks ago it will disinfect public areas frequently and advise everybody at the show to stick to a no-handshake rule and wash their hands frequently.

My calendar still has MWC on it, and that remains the case with other tech journalists I know–and whose judgment I trust. The show is still on and news and networking will still happen there, while the actual risk appears quite low in the context of MWC’s distance from China and the health screenings now imposed on the dwindling number of passengers from there.

But the risk is not zero, not with that many Chinese companies set to exhibit at MWC. I would like to think that they will all exercise the same care as ZTE. But I suppose prudence may require me to avoid an entire country’s exhibits… which, considering that China’s smartphone industry is already walled off from the West thanks to Google being a non-participant there, was already part of my MWC coverage plans.

And I will, of course, wash my hands frequently and not shake anybody else’s. I’m thinking that bowing slightly to strangers and exchanging fist-bumps with friends will be reasonable alternatives.

CES 2020 travel-tech report: too much rebooting

My 23rd CES in a row featured an accomplishment I may never have pulled off before: I didn’t open my laptop the last day.

I got away with that because I’d filed all of the copy I owed from Las Vegas by Wednesday evening, leaving Thursday writing-free. And because I was starting to worry about having to rely on my laptop for one more day at the gadget show.

Each prior morning in Vegas, I awoke to find that my late-2017 HP Spectre x360 had crashed overnight and then failed to reboot, instead landing on a black-and-white error screen reporting that a boot device could not be found. Rebooting the laptop–sometimes more than once–allowed this computer to rediscover its solid-state drive, but I kept worrying that the condition would become terminal.

And then Friday morning, I dared to open the HP’s screen after my red-eye flight out of Vegas and had it awake normally, as it’s done every time since. I need to figure this out before I head out for MWC next month.

My HP is showings its age in other ways. The two rubber pads on the bottom have peeled off (this seems to happen a lot), and the battery life could be better.

My Google Pixel 3a, on the other hand, worked like a champ throughout my long work week as I took pictures and notes, stayed mostly on top of e-mail and tweeted out my usual snarky CES commentary. This phone didn’t crash once, and its battery lasted long enough for me not to get anxious about it–though having it recharge so quickly also helped with that.

But my Pixel 3a also briefly hijacked my Twitter account when I apparently didn’t press the phone’s power button before shoving it in my pocket after I’d tweeted my congratulations to a friend on his new job. And then I didn’t even realize this storm of pocket-tweeting had erupted until a few minutes later. Ugh.

Unlike last year, I benefited from the fortuitous overlap of an update to Wirecutter’s WiFi-hotspot guide. This let me borrow the bandwidth of the top two devices in this review, a Verizon Jetpack 8800L and an AT&T Nighthawk LTE, while also subjecting them to the harshest use possible. The 8800L also doubled as a battery pack for my phone; the Nighthawk also offers that function, but not via its USB-C port–and I forgot to pack a USB-A-to-C cable.

The Belkin travel power strip that I’ve been packing since 2012 also proved instrumental in keeping my devices charged, because there are never enough power outlets in CES press rooms. This gadget had the added advantage of not needing any firmware updates or reboots. So did the handheld storage device I used to access my notes for a panel I led Wednesday: a Field Notes notebook.

2019 in review: rerouting through adversity

I spent much of this year dealing with two issues that I haven’t talked much about here until now.

One was the quiet end of my work at The Parallax after the sole sponsor of that information-security site, the security-software vendor Avast, ended this relationship in January. I knew that was a risk factor going in–as I admitted in last December’s year-in-review post–but I also thought The Parallax would find new sponsors quickly enough. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen.

2019 calendarThe other was the shrinking of my role at Yahoo Finance. Starting in the spring, I went from regularly writing six or more posts a month to just two or one… the most recent being in October.

Why that’s happened isn’t totally clear to me, but I know that the folks at Yahoo Finance have increasingly emphasized live video coverage from their NYC studios while leaning more on such other Verizon Media properties as Engadget for tech coverage. Meanwhile, my own story pitches this year didn’t feature any topics quite as captivating as self-driving Cadillacs or giant rocket launches.

Whatever the causes, seeing a high-paying gig expire and a high-profile gig diminish–after USA Today cut my column back to a twice-monthly frequency–made this my first year of full-time freelancing without real anchor clients. Meaning, I’ve started most months of the year without being able to count on the same set of companies for the majority of my income. And then I took too long to work the problem instead of hoping that my batting average at Yahoo would improve.

In that context, it ranks as a minor miracle that my income for 2019 only fell by about 15 percent compared to 2018. 

I made up the difference by writing for a batch of new places–the Columbia Journalism Review, Fast Company, TechCrunch, The Atlantic, and Tom’s Guide–and becoming more of a regular at some of these new clients as well as some older ones, in particular Fast Company and the trade publication FierceVideo.

Among all those stories that ran in all of those places, these stand out months later:

I also launched a Patreon page that’s contributed a modest amount of income and might do more were I less apathetic about promoting it. And I had more of my travel this year covered by conference organizers in return for my moderating panels at their events; see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2019.

The series of sponsored (read: well-compensated) feature-length explainers about 5G that I did for Ars Technica in December have me ending 2019 in better shape than I’d thought possible a few months earlier. I can also feel a grim sort of pride at remaining in this profession at all after a brutal decade for the journalism industry.

But I know what I need to do in 2020: Find more ways to make money that don’t rest on the brittle business of online programmatic advertising.

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Notes from getting to Tokyo the hard way

When I woke up before 5 a.m. a week ago, I hoped that the main problem with my itinerary to Japan would be a long wait in San Francisco for my already-delayed Tokyo flight. At least I could watch the Nats game at SFO, I naively thought.

But more than halfway through my IAD-SFO leg, United succumbed to the meteorological reality of Typhoon Hagibis and cancelled my SFO-NRT flight, just as it had already scrubbed every other departure to Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports that day.

That was not the end of my trip, and I made it to Tokyo for the CEATEC trade show only a day after my scheduled arrival. (In case you missed this disclosure the first time: CEATEC paid my airfare.) But I did need to resort to some moderately advanced travel hacking. Should you find your own international itinerary going sideways, the following advice may help.

Research alternate connecting points. After getting that flight-cancellation notice and seeing the United app list no open flights to Tokyo, the next resource I checked was the route map in the inflight mag. I wanted to see where on the other side of the Pacific UA could get me from SFO–the idea being that once I was within a thousand or so miles of Japan, my travel options would expand. The closest such places: Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei.

At SFO, an exceptionally resourceful United Club agent–airline lounge agents are among your best options during irregular operations–quickly determined that the Seoul flights had no seats open Saturday or Sunday. Taipei could have worked, but then the only routing she saw would have had me fly to Bangkok to chance a one-hour connection to Narita; no thanks. An itinerary from San Francisco to Honolulu to Guam was open, but that showed no seats available from Guam to Tokyo until Tuesday morning.

Be flexible. This agent did, however, see that UA 857 to Shanghai, departing in an hour and change, had a seat free in Economy Plus. From there, she had me booked on an ANA red-eye to Haneda Tuesday morning–“morning” as in a 1:45 a.m. departure–with a chance that I could standby on the Monday-a.m. PVG-HND flight.

This did mean I’d lose the premium-economy seat I’d had on the original SFO-NRT leg. And my odds of an upgrade clearing on a route that sees Apple buy up most of the forward cabin would be exceedingly low, in reality zero. Oh well… the only way I could have held on to my original PE seat was to hope it would reappear on Sunday’s SFO-NRT flight, which did not seem like a winning move then.

Note that all of this rebooking was made immensely easier by the fact that I didn’t check a bag. Always carry on your luggage when traveling internationally.

Keep checking. Over the next 12 hours I spent in seat 23B, I thought to check a few other options for a Monday departure from Shanghai. (Remember, you should be able to use your airline’s app and site for free even if you don’t pay for its inflight WiFi). I was pleasantly surprised that United’s app listed a few one-stop itineraries from Shanghai to Haneda; it didn’t let me change to them, but at least I could ask United to rebook me on one.

I also remembered to see if any flights were available on miles. Another pleasant surprise: The app listed multiple connecting flights at just 15,000 miles, a miles-to-dollars rate I never see on domestic booking and worth breaking my rule about not burning miles on work travel. Lesson re-learned: partner redemptions can be much cheaper than anything an airline offers on its own metal.

I couldn’t get the most direct ones to complete booking, but I did secure a reservation that would have me fly from Shanghai to Sapporo Monday morning, then spend six hours in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido before flying to Haneda that night. Not great, but better than a 1:45 a.m. departure.

On arrival at Shanghai–meaning after the lengthy wait to clear immigration and customs–I discovered that the ANA desk didn’t open for another two hours and change. I decided to bag the idea of trying to standby on a 1:45 a.m. red-eye after 20 hours of travel and instead got in touch with United. The easiest way to do that in my bandwidth-choked environment (a hotspot with a terrible connection made still slower by the virtual-private-network tunneling mandatory in China) was via Twitter direct messages.

And, to UA’s immense credit, that worked. I passed on the flight numbers for my shortest connection–Shanghai to Fukuoka, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, then Fukuoka to Haneda–and, after an anxiety-inducing wait, got a response that ended: “currently working on the ticket change.” Fifty-one minutes later, a DM confirmed my rebooking. I undid the mileage reservation within the 24-hour free-cancel window and booked a hotel. That was shockingly cheap: $70 and change for an upscale, well-placed property.

Try to appreciate the adventure. Going to Japan via China was not ideal in many ways–literally any other connection would have given me a normal level of bandwidth–but it did have its moments. I got to take the Shanghai Maglev from the airport and back, something I’d last experienced in 2007. I was able to cross another two airports off my list (because I am sometimes 12 years old, I appreciated how one carries the IATA code of “FUK”). And on arrival at HND, I was able to incorporate yet another mode of travel into my itinerary, the Tokyo Monorail. That and two other trains got me to my hotel in time for dinner, which was more than I’d thought likely at SFO two days before.

Plus, this little travel saga reminded me that I could bounce around the Pacific Rim with zero advance planning and not get lost. That’s worth something in itself.