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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Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

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.

The wrong kind of practice with power and bandwidth management

After a week of having to worry about electricity and connectivity, I’ve spent today doing the same thing–but worse.

Tree down on wiresToday’s villains are not Mobile World Congress venues with inconsistent power-outlet placement and WiFi dead zones, but moving air molecules and a tree that wasn’t as solidly rooted as we thought.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the hurricane-force winds that have descended on the Northeast knocked over the large spruce tree in our front yard that had withstood the derecho and Sandy, and which an arborist last August had said only needed fertilizer and some treatment to curb mites.

Things could have been worse. The tree didn’t fall onto the front porch or our car, and it avoided smashing a neighbor’s vehicle on the street–because after its tumbling trunk snapped the power lines, the telecom wires below them held and broke its fall.

But that left me starting the workday with one fully charged laptop and another on its last 22 percent of a charge, a phone that was down to 75% from early-morning checks of the weather and news, an iPad at 20%, a loaner AT&T hotspot (for an upcoming update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide) below half a charge, and a few mostly-drained external chargers.

Windows 10 battery-life gaugeThinking that I should stick around our house to answer any questions from workers restoring power, I made it until around 3 p.m.

First I set the HP laptop that I had fortuitously remembered to plug in last night to the most conservative power settings Windows offered. I turned on the AT&T hotspot and signed the laptop and iPad onto its WiFi. Then I plugged the hotspot and my usual phone charger into the USB ports of the MacBook Air that had been mostly collecting dust since November’s laptop upgrade, but which could still serve as a backup charger.

After running down the Air, I dusted off two higher-capacity Mophie chargers that had shown up unbidden from different PR firms. They had next to no electricity left, because I’d stashed them in my home office’s closet after deciding to give them away to readers someday. But each trickled a little more of a charge into my phone and the hotspot, and the larger of the two also had a power outlet that afforded my laptop a little more time.

All of this let me limp along and get a column researched and partially written by around 3–with the last bit of work done in Google Docs’ offline mode after the hotspot died. By then, three things were apparent: My laptop would not make it another 30 minutes, nobody would show up to restore electricity while the winds were still hitting 50 mph, and I should have thought to recharge all of my gadgets last night at the first reports of a coming storm.

So I retreated to the same still-online neighbor’s house that my wife and our daughter had adjourned to Friday morning. We’ll sleep there tonight as our now-dead tree twists on wires in the wind and our house stays dark and cold. I would like to see all these things change Saturday.

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.

CES 2018 travel-tech report: Ethernet lives!

I survived another CES without having my laptop or phone come close to running out of power during the workday, which is worth a little celebration but may also indicate that I did CES wrong.

One reason for this efficient electrical usage is that I showed up in Vegas for a new laptop for the first time since 2013. The HP Spectre x360 laptop that replaced my MacBook Air couldn’t get through an entire day without a recharge, but plugging it in during lunch and any subsequent writing time freed me from having to think about its battery for the rest of the day.

The Google Pixel phone I bought last summer was thirstier, mainly because I could never really put that down even after dark. But I still never needed to top off the phone with the external charger I bought.

Having both the phone and laptop charge via USB-C delivered an added bonus: Whenever I was sitting near an electrical outlet, I could plug either device into the laptop’s charger.

CES telecom, however, got no such upgrade. The press-room WiFi worked at the Mandalay Bay conference center but often did not in the media center I used at the Las Vegas Convention Center. And having to enter a new password every day–what looked like a misguided episode of IT security theater–did not enhance the experience.

Fortunately, the cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter that my MacBook had inexplicably stopped recognizing a few years back worked without fuss on the HP so I often reverted to using wired connections. The irony of me offering an “it just works!” testimony to a Windows PC is duly noted.

T-Mobile’s LTE, meanwhile, crumpled inside the Sands and often struggled to serve up bandwidth at the LVCC. More than once, this meant I had to trust my luck in CES traffic when Google Maps coudn’t produce any road-congestion data.

I packed two devices I’ve carried for years to CES but only used one. The Belkin travel power strip I’ve brought since 2012 avoided some unpleasantness in a packed press room Monday but wasn’t necessary after then. The Canon point-and-shoot camera I’ve had since 2014, however, never left my bag. The camera in my Pixel is that good for close-up shots, and I didn’t come across any subjects that would have required the Canon’s superior zoom lens.

I also didn’t come across a worthy, pocket-sized successor to that “real” camera at any CES booths. But with some 2.75 million square feet of exhibits at this year’s show, I could have easily missed that and many other solutions to my travel-tech issues.

Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.