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?

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An unwanted weekend of Web-mail

I’ve written before how I’m not too fond of Web-mail versus desktop clients, but last weekend didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Gmail offline UI detailAbout an hour after my flight took off, my MacBook Air coughed up an error message from the Mail program that its index had gotten scrambled (not the exact phrasing; I inexplicably forgot to take a screengrab) and needed to be rebuilt. Fine, I said, and clicked the appropriate button.

Less than an hour later, my aging laptop complained that it was out of space. After a couple of fruitless attempts to weed out larger files, I gave up on mail for the rest of the way to LAX, then resigned myself to using the Webmail interface to the Google Apps account I use for work.

In the two years since Apple’s Mail app last couldn’t connect me to my work account, Gmail hasn’t changed much but Apple’s Mail app has. It’s become a clumsy, clanky, sluggish part of my workflow that usually has me grumbling in complaint before I’m halfway through the first cup of coffee.

Sadly enough, I still missed Mail. Gmail’s regular view only shows 15 messages on my MacBook’s screen, and its in-browser offline mode–a non-negotiable item given the horrible state of the ONA conference WiFi–only showed eight at a time.

Mail unsuccessful setupMy usual method of policing my inbox, block-selecting non-essential messages and moving them to folders like “PR” or “Administrivia,” broke down when Gmail Offline showed that few messages and required me to select each one individually before any moves to sub-folders.

Gmail’s automatic classification of messages under tabs like “Promotions” and “Social” didn’t help aside from correctly shunting most of the PR correspondence to the former tab.

At no point over that weekend did I get WiFi fast enough to let me even think about re-syncing over a dozen gigabytes of mail back down to my laptop–at one point, Mail couldn’t even crawl through its first setup screen. So I limped along in Web-mail, steadily fell behind, and have since caught up slowly in my iMac’s copy of Mail.

As I type this, Apple’s OS X El Capitan just finished installing on that MacBook. Will Mail behave a little better in that new release? I can only hope…

Weekly output: ads and the consequences of blocking them, misplaced places on Facebook

I’m back from a few days in Los Angeles for the Online News Association’s conference. In addition to getting some wheels turning in my head about the state of my profession and doubling as a Post reunion, my first trip to L.A. for work since 2012 gave me my belated intro to the subway there. (The Red Line’s stops feature some magnificent architecture.)

9/22/2015: Will Ad Blockers Kill the Internet as We Know It?, Yahoo Tech

I’d had a version of this column in mind for a while; originally, it was going to stop at explaining why you see so many crummy ads, even on this very blog. Then Apple’s move to make it App Store-easy to block ads in iOS 9, followed by the quick withdrawal of the leading ad blocker from the store, provided a timely angle.

USAT Facebook places column9/27/2015: How Facebook places you where you’ve never been, USA Today

My weekly column took a food-centric turn this week when I got a question about Facebook magically placing a user at a restaurant she’d never visited and that wasn’t even open yet. The answer revealed some interesting wrinkles to Facebook’s rules for local businesses marketing themselves on the site.

Weekly output: vacation mode for phones, whither unlimited-data plans

The next few weeks will involve a lot of airplanes, starting tomorrow when I fly to Berlin for my fourth annual trip to the IFA electronics show there. I’m back on the 6th, then depart two days later for the CTIA wireless-industry gathering in Las Vegas. That will be a brief stay, as I move on to Portland on the 10th for the XOXO conference. A week and a half later, I’m off to L.A. for the Online News Association conference.

At least this travel schedule isn’t as insane as last September’s (when, for example, less than 24 hours separated the IFA and CTIA trips). But still: Conference organizers, maybe you could find other months to host your events?

Yahoo Tech vacation-mode post8/25/2015: The One Feature Every Smartphone Needs: Vacation Mode, Yahoo Tech

I wrote this essay, sadly enough, while on vacation. But I did leave time that day for a nap! Of course, half the comments were along the lines of “just turn off your phone.” Thanks, dude, that’s a really practical bit of advice.

8/30/2015: New math hurts case for old unlimited data plans, USA Today

Speaking of comments, something weird happened with them on this post tonight–the previous 16 comments, including some replies of my own, vanished, and now there’s just one. (It’s from a guy who says his phone is his only Internet device, and he therefore burns through 40 gigabytes of data. I am pained thinking of spending that much time online on any phone.) I’m not sure what happened. Never mind–I was reading a syndicated copy of the story on the site of the St. Louis TV station KSDK but completely ignored the different header atop the story. Duh.

Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

Report: Journalism not completely doomed

I spent four days in San Francisco with a crowd of journalists, and this meeting did not require the services of psychoanalysts or grief counselors.

This was my first trip to the Online News Association’s annual conference, and I’m glad I went. (I joined ONA in 2009, didn’t think to go to the 2009 event in San Francisco, blew off the 2010 conference even though it was right in D.C. and I should have been busy networking then, and wistfully read tweets from the 2011 gathering in Boston.) Three reasons stand out.

One was the chance to re-connect with old friends from the Post and newer acquaintances that, until then, I had known mainly as Twitter handles and e-mail addresses. As a full-time freelancer who works from the same desk at home almost every day, renewing those bonds means a lot. (And I won’t mind if some of these conversations yield future business.)

Another was why I’d go to any gathering of interesting people engaged in the same work: learning from those more informed, intelligent, experienced or connected than me. The lineup of panels and ONA’s awards ceremony reminded me of how much creativity goes into telling the truth to strangers, and how much of this we’re still figuring out.

ONA speakers shared such practical advice as the importance of a good business-card design if you freelance; different ways to clean up the mess when you tweet out an error; effective tools for mobile reporting; and reminders that story comments aren’t all bad (“my commenters were my mentors” said Twitter’s Mark Luckie of his early blogging). And some committed actual news: In an onstage interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said we’d be able to download all of our tweets “before the end of the year”–although he then walked that back slightly by noting his engineers’ reluctance to get so specific.

But the thing about ONA that sticks most in my mind is its absence of pessimism. This could have been a consequence of going to a deliberately post-print organization’s conference, but it was still heartening to see that much enthusiasm for the bold, persistent experimentation this industry needs, both on an individual and organizational level. To steal a line from Lauren Orsini‘s account of how she had wormed her way into writing about online communities through freelance work: “What do you when the job you really, really want does not exist? You make that job.”

Is that foolish optimism? Maybe, but not nearly as crazy as a 20-year-old guy thinking that a part-time newsroom job sorting mail and answering phones could ever lead to a front-page byline.