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.


Weekly output: Android Go edition, wireless charging

AUSTIN–Although Mobile World Congress happened two weeks ago, my coverage of it continued this week with a couple of posts that I wrote before coming here Friday for my seventh SXSW in a row.

3/8/2018: If $100 is your limit for smartphones, good news is coming with Android Go, USA Today

I used my USAT column to note a positive development in Android: a version of Google’s operating system built to run well on cheap smartphones that would otherwise likely get stuck with an obsolete Android release.

3/11/2018: These companies want to create truly wireless charging, Yahoo Finance

This post about two wireless-charging companies that I met at Mobile World Congress two weeks ago should have been written sooner. But then I had a tree snap the wires bringing power to our house–the irony is duly noted–and needed a few more days than I expected to get an analyst’s take on the company. Note that we had to correct the story after publication to correct the job titles of not one but two executives I quoted, making it one of the more snakebit things I’ve written lately.




Weekly output: headphone jack, 5G wireless, unlocked smartphones, broadband maps, wireless plans, MWC’s weirdest gadgets, Twitter spam

I had a terrific but exhausting week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress and looked forward to a relaxing weekend at home–until Friday’s windstorm toppled the tree in our front yard and deprived our home of power until Sunday afternoon. As a result, most of the pictures in my Flickr MWC album haven’t seen any editing yet. And they may not until next week, since I have another short week: Friday, I head out of town again as SXSW brings me to Austin.

2/26/2018: The headphone jack isn’t dead yet, Yahoo Finance

I revisited a theme of last year’s MWC coverage to note that most phone vendors are not following Apple and Google’s foolish removal of the headphone jack. But with Sony, Huawei and Nokia introducing at least some models without that old but perfectly functional audio output, I’m not feeling too confident about the industry’s direction.

2/28/2018: How 5G wireless will soon supercharge the internet, Yahoo Finance

After years of hype about 5G, the next wireless standard is starting to look less vaporous–and some key industry figures are dialing back that hype.

2/28/2018: Don’t buy these smartphones through your carrier, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been arguing for years that you shouldn’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier, but at MWC three of the big four made that point for me by pricing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus at least $70 over what you’d pay–with interest-free installment payments available–at Samsung’s own site.

CityLab broadband-map post2/28/2018: The Problem With America’s New National Broadband Map, CityLab

The Federal Communications Commission relaunched its broadband map, but the much better-looking version suffers from the same information gaps as ever. So does a privately-run site that draws on the same FCC filings as the map.

2/28/2018: The best cell phone plans, Wirecutter

I updated this guide to reflect more generous plans at many prepaid and resold services. But within a day of the revised guide’s publication, AT&T reworked its pricing for unlimited data, so we’ll have to update the guide yet again to account for that.

3/2/2018: The 6 strangest gadgets from Mobile World Congress 2018, Yahoo Finance

I had fun writing this look at the weirder hardware I saw at MWC–the last piece I filed from the show, shortly before they shut down the press room Wednesday night.

3/3/2018: Twitter spam, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on (overdubbed live into Arabic) to talk about an outbreak of Twitter spam in Saudi Arabia. The point I made: Going back to Usenet, every popular social platform has inevitably been abused by spammers and con artists.

Weekly output: locked phones, tax-return fraud

BARCELONA–Mobile World Congress officially starts tomorrow, but I’ve been here since Saturday morning and have already attended five vendor events here. The one you’ve read most about, Samsung’s unveiling of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones, is also the one MWC event I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t have to cover–my regular clients all got pre-briefed before the show and had copy ready when Samsung’s embargo expired. That freed me to take notes and play with the S9’s AR Emoji feature at my relative leisure instead of hunkering down with my laptop to file a report.

2/22/2018: Verizon’s decision to stop selling unlocked phones means travelers need to plan ahead, USA Today

Verizon’s impending move to lock phones it sells for some period after subscribers activate them won’t be as strict as its competitors’ policies, but it also reinforces the argument I’ve been making for years: Don’t buy your phone from your wireless carrier. So does the $70-above-list prices three of the big four carriers announced tonight for Samsung’s new phones.

Yahoo tax-return-fraud post2/23/2018: Tax return scammers are taking a big hit, Yahoo Finance

A year and a half ago, I’d started gathering string for a post about the problem of tax-return identity-theft fraud–sparked by my seeing a Facebook post from a friend who is both a privacy professional and a serial victim of that problem. For various lame reasons, I failed to turn those notes into a story at the time. But tax time inevitably rolled around again–and then the IRS served up a novel and more interesting news peg by making serious progress in reducing this problem.

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.

Weekly output: forced-redirect ads, broadband infrastructure, Russian indictments

After a workweek that I interrupted for an overdue reunion with my skis, I have another abbreviated week coming up. On top of Monday being a holiday, early Friday evening I depart for Barcelona to cover my sixth Mobile World Congress show. If you have any questions about the state of the smartphone–especially outside the U.S. market–the next five days would be a great time to get them to me.

2/12/2018: Surfing the web can leave you open to ad hijackings. A browser fix has been slow, USA Today

I revised earlier coverage of “forced-redirect” ads that hijack your Web reading to note that Google had wound up not activating an advertised defense against this scam in January’s update to Chrome.

2/16/2018: Trump needs to do more to get more Americans online, Yahoo Finance

A year ago, even some skeptics of President Trump voiced cautious optimism that his vaunted infrastructure plan would include a broadband component. This week’s release of that plan–yes, over a year after he took office pledging to rebuild America’s roads, rails, airports and waterways–pretty much crushed those hopes. This post outlines some ways that this plan could have done better.

2/17/2018: Russian social-media indictments, Al Jazeera

For once, I was able to chase down a link to one of my appearances on the news network’s Arabic-language channel. If you can speak Arabic, skip to the 11:15 mark in this evening-news roundup and please let me know how intelligent (or not) the live translation made me sound about the Justice Department’s indictment of 13 Russians and the St. Petersburg troll factory that calls itself the “Internet Research Agency.”

The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?