A one-man pandemic book club

The past six months have given me exponentially more time at home than I would have thought possible before this pandemic-afflicted year. Normal people would have occupied those hours by catching up on deferred household maintenance or learning a new language, but instead I’ve whiled away many of them by reading two of the denser novels written in English: James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

That was not a quick process. Both doorstop-thick tomes feature their authors free-styling their way through prose as they get lost in the inner worlds of a complex set of characters without any strict reference to time or place, which is a longwinded way of saying they can be intimidating to read.

I tackled Ulysses first, since I’ve had a vintage hardcover copy silently taunting me from a bookshelf for the past 20 years or so. There are deeply poetic moments in Joyce’s Dublin-steeped novel–“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” resonates too well this year–and parts that suggest the author’s profound conviction that he would get paid by the word for every word. Also, I’m impressed that the censors of the 1920s made it all the way through to the really naughty bits towards the end.

After I tweeted out my victory over Joyce’s title and asked “What famously dense novel should I read next?”, one of the first replies suggested Infinite Jest. I finally accepted that logic and put myself on the Arlington library’s waiting list for an e-book copy, but before I could claim that I saw a paperback copy available for all of $2 at a library used-book sale. Buying in print instead of borrowing in pixels meant I’d have all the time I’d need to digest Wallace’s 1,079 words of prose, endnotes, and footnotes to said endnotes.

(Seriously: Wallace’s endnotes eat up almost 100 pages, and a couple count as chapter-length in their own right. I realized early on I’d need to keep two bookmarks in my copy, one to mark my progress in the text itself and the other to preserve my place in the bits at the end–then saw that this book may be best read with three bookmarks. This may be the most hypertext thing I’ve ever read in print.)

Infinite Jest is even more of an atom-smasher of plotlines than Ulysses–it touches on growing up, tennis, drugs, Boston, digital media, addiction, people’s capacity for needless cruelty, crime, more drugs, pop culture, cinematography, Québeçois separatism, and even a smidgen of tech and media policy. And it does so without the standard narrative scaffolding of chapters. I kept having to flip forward to see when the next break in the story might happen, solely to know how late I’d have to stay up before putting the book down at a point that would not leave me too confused the next morning.

I could not help reading Wallace’s tales of Boston types battling depression and inner demons of various kinds without considering how Wallace himself succumbed to his own, because depression lies. Which made me think also of my late, literary-minded friend Mike Musgrove, who I’m sure read this book a long time ago and would have offered some smart or at least smart-aleck commentary about it.

My least-replicable travel hack: an Irish passport

Thursday, I wrapped up another trip to Europe that left me with zero passport stamps. I haven’t gotten any coming home since my Global Entry subscription kicked in five years ago, but I also haven’t picked up any arriving in the European Union since the spring of 2017.

That’s when I started traveling to the EU with an Irish passport. The backstory: As I’ve mentioned here before, my grandmother was born in Ireland, which qualifies me for Irish citizenship–and my parents did the extensive paperwork to secure that so I could work in my dad’s office in Paris in 1991 without getting a work visa.

The passport I got then expired after a few years of my using it only as an ID at bars on St. Patrick’s Day (bouncers were uniformly unimpressed), and I didn’t think further about it until being in Europe in November of 2016.

No, Trump’s election alone didn’t drive me to get a new Irish passport. The dreadful non-EU passport lines I saw at Lisbon’s airport did–on top of the even-worse ones I sweated out in Paris that summer.

Renewing a citizenship document that far out of date took exponentially longer than I expected. The post office somehow lost the certified letter with all the required documents–starting with my birth certificate and Irish foreign birth registration–for a few long weeks, leaving me worried that I’d wind up undocumented in two countries. But that envelope finally made its way to the embassy on Sheridan Circle in D.C., and at the end of April I had a passport in burgundy as well as one in blue.

The time savings since then have been enormous in some places. In Paris and Lisbon, I’ve easily dodged 40-minute waits; at Heathrow last summer, my wife and our daughter got to share this EU-citizenship benefit, avoiding what looked like an hour-plus queue for the “All Passports” desks.

At better-run airports like Barcelona, Brussels, and Munich, this passport has only yielded a few minutes that I could spend in a lounge instead of on a line–plus the robotic experience of having my passport read at an electronic gate instead of by a person–but that’s still quality time. In all cases, my Irish passport has gone unstamped, as per EU policy.

It’s not like I get a choice: I have to use an EU passport when entering and leaving the EU, just as I have to use my American passport when returning to the States.

(Yes, the Feds know about my international alter ego. I stopped by the Global Entry office in the Reagan Building not long after getting this passport to have it added to my file.)

There is, however, one country where I’ve yet to derive any benefit from my Irish passport: Ireland. Shamefully enough, I haven’t been back since Web Summit in 2015, and I should do something about that.

A dark pattern at work: the overseas ATM that quotes a price in dollars

Being a user-interface nerd means you can’t stop critiquing everyday objects like signs and doors. Most of the time, the quirks you notice will only waste people’s time, but those that cost money deserve extra attention.

Last week’s trip to Lisbon for the IFA Global Press Conference offered a fine example of the second kind: an ATM that offered to price my withdrawal in dollars instead of euros. Its screen helpfully listed the exact price I’d pay to take out €50: $58.10. The only possible answer to that: nope!

The ATM was offering what’s called “dynamic currency conversion”–best understood, in UI-nerd terms, as a “dark pattern” set up to part the uninformed from their money. This offer amounts to an invitation to pay a premium for knowing upfront exactly how much you paid for that transaction, and you should always decline it. Even if you’re paying with a credit-card that would charge a foreign currency conversion fee.

I pressed the button next to “Accept Without Conversion,” and when I checked my bank account a few days later I saw that my withdrawal amounted to $54.22. My $3.88 in savings isn’t much, but it does represent an exceptional rate of return for a few seconds of work.

If only I’d always been that smart: Two years ago, jet lag caused me to lose situational awareness while buying a transit pass in Dublin’s airport, so I unthinkingly tapped the button to run the transaction in dollars instead of euros. I can only hope Transport For Ireland appreciated my generous donation of a dollar or two.

 

Weekly output: DMCA exemptions, Facebook futurism, Tinder, Web Summit

Back in March, my friend Ron Miller was recounting his experience at Web Summit a few months earlier and suggesting I go. I’m glad (not for the first time!) I heeded his advice. For a sense of those five days in Dublin, see my Flickr slideshow.

I’m now about to spend a couple of days in New York for the Consumer Electronics Association’s Innovate conference, where I can heckle David Pogue get an update on what the gadget industry’s been up to.

11/3/2015: Why Jailbreaking Your iPhone Is Legal But Hacking eBooks is Not, Yahoo Tech

Longtime readers may recall I wrote a post for CEA’s public-policy blog in 2011 about the incoherent policy of granting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban on circumventing DRM. My wait for an opportunity to revisit this topic ended when the government issued this year’s round of exemptions a week and change ago.

Yahoo Tech Facebook Web Summit talk post11/4/2015: Facebook’s Vision for the Future: Drones With Lasers, All-Seeing AI, VR for Real, Yahoo Tech

This post stands as a sequel of sorts to the piece I filed from SXSW about a similar talk from Google’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller about a comparable range of ambitious experiments.

11/4/2015: Tinder’s Sean Rad: We’re Changing the World, One Long-Term Relationship at a Time, Yahoo Tech

I was worried I wouldn’t get into the hall to see Rad’s interview, but the crowds parted and I got a seat. As I asked at the end of this post: If you, unlike me, have ever installed Tinder on your own phone, do you agree with Rad’s take on this dating app?

11/6/2015: Robot sex, drone sheep-herding: what you missed at Web Summit, USA Today

The lede and end of this story popped into my head almost immediately, but the rest took longer to write. As in, I was still working on it while on a bus to meet three of my cousins for dinner. (Dublin FYI: The buses have WiFi that worked well for me after I’d answered a moderately intrusive questionnaire on the “captive portal” sign-in page.)

 

Weekly output: CISA, e-mail “sub-addressing”

Greetings, frustrated owners of Timex sport watches. I’m glad that essay I wrote in a fit of nerd rage continues to draw such interest at each time change, and I hope that at least some of the people who come here looking for help taking their timepiece in and out of Daylight Saving Time stick around and keep reading.

I spent much of this week wrapping up work on a long and long-delayed story. This coming week will see me in Dublin, where I’m covering Web Summit and catching up with some cousins I haven’t seen in over a dozen years. That’ll be my last air travel for work this year, and I am quite okay with that fact.

Yahoo Tech CISA post10/27/2015: CISA: Why Tech Leaders Hate the Latest Cyber-Security Bill, Yahoo Tech

I had meant to write about this cybersecurity bill earlier, but instead this post went up on the day that the Senate approved it by a 74-21 vote. I guess the folks there did not find this piece terribly persuasive. FYI: If you don’t like rants about Obama’s creeping dictatorship, you might want to avoid the comments.

11/1/2015: When a site rejects email “sub-addressing”, USA Today

Want to protect your privacy by giving a site a custom e-mail address that still lands in your inbox? Some won’t let you do that, and their explanations don’t square with the basic specifications of e-mail.