Weekly output: encrypted DNS in Firefox (x2), expanding rural broadband, business turnarounds, optimizing business travel, travel tips

My calendar this week is much less cluttered than it was a week ago, between SXSW’s cancellation clearing out Friday and (also coronavirus-related) postponement of the DC Blockchain Summit freeing up Wednesday and Thursday.

3/2/2020: Your internet provider knows where you’ve been. How to keep your browsing more private, USA Today

I tackled a fairly esoteric topic–encrypted domain name service–in this column. I don’t know how many people read it to the end, but at least my tweet about the piece seems to have done well

3/3/2020: Why ‘rural broadband’ may no longer be an oxymoron, Fast Company

I wrote up a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts that offers reasons for hope about expanding rural broadband, plus useful lessons learned from states that have managed to make progress on that front.

3/3/2020: This Morning with Gordon Deal March 03, 2020, This Morning with Gordon Deal

This business radio show had me on talk about the Firefox browsing-privacy news in my column. My bit starts at the 12:45 mark.

3/4/2020: Four companies that reinvented themselves the right way… and won, Signal 360

A friend edits a newsletter Procter & Gamble publishes and asked if I could write about a few examples of companies turning themselves around. That’s not a genre of story I usually do, so I thought it would be fun to write. The results: this look at how Lego, T-Mobile, Yelp and Best Buy managed to dig themselves out of various holes.

3/8/2020: From Bookings to Bandwidth, How to Supercharge Your Business Travel, Frequent Traveler University

I did this talk with travel blogger Tess Zhao twice: a more beginner-oriented version in the morning for attendees of the Travel & Adventure Show at the Washington Convention Center, and then an expert-mode version in the afternoon for FTU DC ticket holders.

3/8/2020: Closing panel, Frequent Traveler University

This gathering for miles-and-points travel enthusiasts wrapped up with almost all of the FTU DC speakers fielding questions from the audience about various flight and lodging hacks and tips.

Updated 3/9/2020 to add a link the Signal 360 post I didn’t find when I did my usual Google News search for pages featuring my name over the last week. 

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.

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.

Six weeks in a row of travel

When I unlocked the front door on our darkened porch Thursday night–and, as if by magic, the power came back on–six consecutive weeks of travel went into the books.

View of Toronto from a departing airplaneIt all seemed like a reasonable idea upfront, not least when it appeared I’d have a couple of weeks at home over that period.

In an alternate universe, a spring break trip to see Bay Area and Boston relatives and then the IFA Global Press Conference in Spain would have been followed by week at home, then more than a week of additional downtime would have separated Google I/O in Mountain View and Collision in Toronto.

But then I got invited to moderate a panel at the Pay TV Show in Denver, with the conference organizers covering my travel expenses, and my Uncle Jim died. The results: 4/13-4/21 spring break, 4/24-4/28 IFA GPC, 4/29-4/30 in Ohio for my uncle’s funeral (I had about nine hours at home between returning from Spain and departing for Cleveland), 5/6-5/9 Google I/O, 5/13-5/16 Pay TV Show, 5/20-5/23 Collision.

I’d thought having the last three trips only run four days, with three days at home between each, would make things easier. That didn’t really happen, although I did appreciate having time to do all the laundry, bake bread and cook a bunch of food during each stay home, then be able to check the status of my flight home the morning after arriving at each destination.

In particular, my ability to focus on longer-term work and try to develop new business took a hit during all this time in airports, airplanes and conference venues. And because Yahoo Finance elected to have staff writers cover I/O and Collision remotely, so did my income.

Meanwhile, I can’t pretend that I’ve been following the healthiest lifestyle, thanks to all of the eating and drinking at various receptions. Consecutive days of walking around with my laptop in a messenger bag left a softball-sized knot in my left shoulder to complement my sore feet. And I’ve woken up in the middle of the night too many times wondering where I was–including once or twice in my own bed at home.

So while the past six weeks have taken me to some neat places and connected me to some interesting people, I don’t need to repeat the experience.

My MWC mileage, as quantified by a Jawbone Up

For years, I’ve wondered how many miles I walk through convention-center halls when I’m attending one conference or another. Now I have a much more accurate sense of that, courtesy of the Jawbone Up wristband that I took to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress trade show after reviewing it for Discovery News.

Jawbone Up MWC dataMy feet got their most intense workout on Monday the 25th, when the sensor-laden wristband recorded me taking 20,475 steps–10.63 miles, in its estimation. As you can see in the screengrab, the Up app’s interface doesn’t scale for those kind of figures; should I file a bug report, or would that be an obnoxious form of bragging?

(Timestamps to the contrary, I was not stumbling around in the pre-dawn hours. I just forgot to switch the Up to Central European Time, six hours ahead of Eastern.)

On Tuesday, the Up indicates I took 17,882 steps and traveled 9.25 miles. I eased up a bit on Wednesday by clocking 14,694 steps and 7.61 miles–most likely because I blew off MWC for a couple of hours to visit Antoni Gaudí’s dreamlike Casa Milà apartments. Like you wouldn’t do the same thing!

I apparently slept poorly on the nights I remembered to switch the Up to sleep mode: three hours and 48 minutes on Monday, 5:09 on Wednesday.

Sadly, even with all that exercise I came home a few pounds heavier. Large quantities of free food provided on an unpredictable schedule lead one to treat each press-room snack, hospitality spread and reception as if it will be your last for the next eight hours.

After the jump: my Flickr set from the show and the trip.

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