Weekly output: NSA surveillance, Tech Night Owl

It’s a short list of stories this week, because USA Today elected to run this weekend’s column on Monday instead of today (they figure it will get more readers then than today, which seems fair enough to me). Next week will be busier: I’ll be in San Francisco from Wednesday through Saturday for Google’s I/O conference.

Yahoo Tech NSA-surveillance post5/19/2015: The NSA’s Bulk Surveillance is Nearing its Expiration Date, Yahoo Tech

This column was a hairball to write–between recapping two years’ worth of breaking news about the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance and then trying to summarize the key differences between possible reforms of that, I had a draft balloon to about 1.5 times my usual word count.

5/23/2015: May 23, 2015 — Josh Centers and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

My conversation with Gene Steinberg about Comcast’s customer-service initiatives, NSA reform, EMV credit-card security and more was repeatedly interrupted by my coughing fits. I feel bad about the extra editing work I inflicted on my host, and I wish I knew what could escalate a slight scratchiness in my throat so badly.

My ongoing struggle to make comments suck less

One of the most common four-word phrases in journalism (after “the CMS from hell”) must be “don’t read the comments.” A lot of newsrooms treat reader comments as the equivalent of the town dump: They’re something you need to have, and you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Comments formI, however, am one of those weirdos who reads the comments–and not just when I see a bunch, but on almost every story I write. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves while attempting to argue. But most of it is because I don’t mind seeing what people think and usually enjoy answering a reader’s question–if not to their satisfaction, in a way that sane readers of the comments thread will regard as astute.

(That’s also why you can usually find me showing up in reddit comments about my stories, much as I used to watch Slashdot to see if any of my work was getting picked apart there.)

Last year, I heard some advice about comments that’s stayed with me: At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, the Texas Tribune’s Amanda `Krauss said that having a story’s author open the discussion by posting the first comment helped make the resulting conversation more civil. She had other advice that journalists can’t easily follow without major CMS tinkering (for instance, changing the “Like” button to a “Respect” one), but this first-comment thing is something any writer can do.

Question is, what should that first comment be? Here’s how I’ve handled that at recent Yahoo Tech columns:

• Sharing a how-to recipe that would have been too involved to cram into the story itself. Example: my review of the KnowRoaming SIM sticker, in which I used that first comment to explain how to stop a “SIM Toolkit” app from taking up full-time residence in your phone’s notifications.

• Using that space to revise and extend my remarks by describing the philosophical underpinnings of my outlook on the subject, as I did in Tuesday’s column about the impending expiration of some USA Patriot Act provisions that enable the NSA’s bulk surveillance. Reader replies to that: zero.

• The old standby of posing a question to readers about a key issue of the story, most recently seen in the column about Apple Watch app rules where I opened the comments by asking readers if they’re bothered at all by them or basically trust Apple to look out for them. Reader replies: three.

Explaining a story’s sourcing or just naming the people I talked to on the record who didn’t get a quote in the story seems like an obvious move, but I haven’t done that yet. Maybe next week?

I’m not sure I’m making a huge difference–I’m sure it won’t for readers who have already sworn off comments–but this practice only takes a few minutes and it helps ensure I won’t ignore the comments later on, or at least until a post gets featured on the Yahoo home page and promptly gets overrun with 2,000 comments. That seems a worthwhile use of my time.

Weekly output: Web-radio royalties, Nexus 7 bricked

This week had me wearing badges for four different events: 1776’s Challenge Festival, the Ashoka Future Forum, Mashable’s Digital Beltway, and Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Future Is Here” festival (the last of which gave me the chance to see a hoverboard in action). Is “conferenceful” a word? Maybe it should be.

5/12/2015: Why Pandora Pays Much More for the Music You Hear Than Radio Stations, Yahoo Tech

I returned to the subject of Web-radio royalties for the first time in a few years. It’s maddening that I’ve been writing about this situation since 2002–as in, about half of my post-college life–and the basic unfairness of shafting Webcasters with much higher royalty rates than other forms of radio hasn’t changed in all that time.

USAT Nexus 7 bricked column5/17/2015: Sour Lollipop update bricks some Nexus 7 tablets, USA Today

A journalist pal of mine e-mailed me last month to ask if I’d heard anything about 2013-model Nexus 7 tablets getting bricked by Google’s Lollipop update to Android. I had not, but a little research revealed that my friend was not alone in running into this issue–and that Google and Asus were being remarkably vague and unhelpful about fixing this problem.

Event-space review (first in a series): the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center

I just spent three days in a row at the same event venue–at two different conferences, which strikes me as a particularly pathological level of Washingtonality.

That also made me think: Why not review the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center? I’ve spent enough time there over the years–much like some of the news organizations chronicled in its exhibits, this museum seems increasingly reliant on the events business–so sharing the accumulated knowledge I’ve picked up along with an assortment of event badges seems the least I can do.

(The two conferences: the Ashoka Future Forum and Mashable’s Digital Beltway.)

Newseum conference center interiorLocation

The worst I can say about the Newseum’s 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW address is that it’s a tad inconvenient for people coming in on Metro’s Orange, Blue or Silver Lines. In that situation, you’re looking at either a 10- to 12-minute hike from Metro Center or Federal Triangle (if you’re coming from Virginia, exit at Metro Center to avoid a long wait to cross Pennsylvania) or changing trains twice to get to the closest stop, Archives.

Otherwise, it’s an easy walk from Capitol Hill and a reasonable stroll from much of downtown. The closest Capital Bikeshare station is at 6th and Indiana, barely two blocks away.

The real payoff awaits upstairs, the $450 million view from the outdoor terraces on the seventh and eighth floors. I like that scenery so much I used it as a backdrop for my Twitter profile pic. (My thanks to Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin for taking the photo.)

Bandwidth and Power

The “Newseum Guest” WiFi is routinely swamped by demand (and has a history of not providing a working IP address to my phone), and yet T-Mobile’s signal fades out once I get too far from the windows. It’s depressing. Bonus feature Friday: I couldn’t get the Newseum’s own site to show up over its WiFi, even as my phone was able to display it.

Outlets are also pretty scarce around here. Tip: In the main auditorium, get a seat all the way at the back and look for the outlets in the floor concealed by metal flip-up panels. If you’re going to a breakout session in one of the smaller conference rooms on the eighth floor, they’re harder to find. I’m not sure any exist in rooms 806 and 807 except behind the speakers’ table.

(You’ll note that I’m using some of the same criteria that I use to judge airport lounges, another specialized space in which I spend a fair amount of time.)

Newseum city view with beverageCatering

I have yet to get a bad meal here. Breakfast usually isn’t hot but always features a good variety of pastries, the boxed lunches show some creativity (though like most, they include far too much food), and the hors d’oeuvres are world-class. If an event includes dinner, you should be in luck–especially if it’s at The Source restaurant on the ground floor.

Plus, you can usually count on mid-afternoon snacks that include such shelf-stable fare as Kind bars and little packages of trail mix. Stash them in your bag for future travel sustenance.

Extras

The restrooms are not only spotless but feature a form of decor that could only exist in a museum of journalism: flubbed headlines and captions from the Columbia Journalism Review’s archives such as this April 24, 2000 gem from the San Francisco Chronicle, “State Governments Are Sold on EBay for Surplus Auctions.”

The check-in swag has included a free Newseum ticket at least half the time I’m here. That’s nice, given that I’d rather not pay to attend a museum devoted to my profession–and which still has a 2010 interview of me about the publishing possibilities of tablets playing on a screen on the second or third floor. And on the way out, there’s the chance that scanning the newspaper front pages on display at street level will reveal the byline of a high-school-newspaper colleague.

Weekly output: KnowRoaming, Apple Watch app rules, wireless spectrum, Comcast (x2), cable unbundling, wireless broadband

I didn’t decide to attend the cable industry’s INTX trade show until late March. But seeing that convention would take place in one of my favorite cities, Chicago, made it an easy call. And I’m glad I went to the cable confab for the first time since 2012. I picked up a lot and wrote a lot, as you can see below. For more about the event, see my Flickr album.

All this work did catch up with me on Friday, in the form of my filing my USAT column ridiculously late. A contributing factor to that tardiness: I stepped out for an hour or so to watch the WW2 flyover down the Potomac. There’s a Flickr album for that, too.

5/4/2015: Hands-on with the KnowRoaming Sticker that Cuts Smarphone Costs for International Travelers, Yahoo Tech

This review concludes my coverage of Mobile World Congress–yes, I probably could have written it weeks earlier. Speaking of overdue tasks, I only just now noticed the typo in the headline; I’ll ping the editors to get that fixed.

5/5/2015: Apple’s Rules Tell Developers Precisely Whose Time It Is, Yahoo Tech

It had been a while since I’d last written about Apple’s App Store rules. As you can see, I still don’t like them but can no longer pretend the company hasn’t made them scale in a way that I thought impossible five years ago.

5/52015: Across the Spectrum: Strategies for a Changing Wireless Marketplace, INTX 2015

At this panel, I discussed the coming arrival of higher-performing wireless spectrum with Liberty Global’s Timothy Burke, Arris’s Charles Cheevers, Comcast’s Evan Koch, and T-Mobile’s Tony Silveira. I’d like to see cable companies use some of this to reach new customers–maybe people who find themselves a couple of thousand feet from the closest Comcast line?–but I don’t know that cable’s ready to take that step.

Yahoo Tech Comcast-service post5/6/2015: Comcast Really, Really Wants You to Like It, Yahoo Tech

Most reader reactions to this description of Comcast’s moves to upgrade its customer service ranged from “yeah right” to “screw them.” The company has its work cut out for it.

5/7/2015: Big Cable CEOs Insist Viewers Like Their Bundles, but the Tide Is Turning, Yahoo Tech

When I started writing this answer to a question many friends asked after learning I was headed to the cable industry’s annual gathering, I was a little more pessimistic about the future than I was by the time I’d finished it.

5/8/2015: Comcast customer service, WBAL

I talked about Comcast’s customer-service initiative with the Baltimore news station’s Mary Beth Marsden. I did not get to hear the story but assume they used some part of my interview; if you did, please let me know in the comments if I sounded coherent.

5/10/2015: Unlimited wireless broadband possible, just not beyond phone, USA Today

A reader’s question about replacing her Clear unlimited residential wireless broadband gave me an invitation to update readers about the impending retirement of Sprint’s WiMax broadband (it’s kind of awful that some WiMax resellers still offer WiMax devices that will go defunct in six months without clearly warning potential customers of the network’s coming demise) and note the continued inability of wireless broadband to compete with the wired kind for residential use.

Nexus 4 update: a little more life with Lollipop

One of the key reasons why I bought my Nexus 4 a little over two years ago was knowing that I wouldn’t have to wait for Google’s software updates. And then I waited weeks to install Google’s Android 5.0 Lollipop update after its first appearance on my phone in late November–the slight risk of the update bricking my phone was not something I wished to run during the combined insanity of the holidays and CES.

Nexus 4 with LollipopI should have waited longer. That 5.0 release and the subsequent 5.0.1 update exhibited a freakish and annoying bug: I could hear the other person in a phone call, but they couldn’t hear me.

The workaround suggested in a reddit thread about changing a developer-level setting made the problem go away most of the time, and it’s yet to resurface in Android 5.1. But I’m still completely puzzled as to how a flaw this widespread could have escaped QA testing

I don’t regret installing this update overall, though–not least since Google does appear to have fixed the problem it created.

The best feature so far has been battery life that seems notably longer than under Android 4.4. And seeing a current estimate of how many more hours the phone’s good for–combined with having its Battery Saver option prolong its runtime for a good hour or so–leaves me feeling a little more in control of this Nexus 4’s useful time away from a charger.

After that I’d rank the updated Quick Settings panel you access by swiping down from the top of the screen. This puts my phone’s hotspot feature one tap away–before, it was multiple levels deep in the Settings app–and finally adds the flashlight feature that previously required adding somebody else’s app.

Android Lollipop Quick SettingsThe rest of the Material Design interface Google made so much of a big deal about at last year’s I/O developer conference hasn’t made as much of a difference as I expected. I’ve quickly gotten used to the idea that different apps will turn the menu bar different colors–except when some of these hues get a little too close to Battery Saver’s bright orange.

And I feel like I can zip through open apps much faster in Lollipop’s recent-apps list, or at least I do since telling Android to show Chrome only once in this list instead of including a preview of every page open in that browser.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Smart Lock, the option to bypass the lock screen based on your phone’s proximity to a trusted component of one sort or another. But so far, I’ve only set it to trust my desktop computer via Bluetooth–and because that iMac can be iffy about connecting automatically to the phone, I can’t count on this working.

I should explore the other unlock options available. For instance, I happen to have a spare NFC tag or two around that I could stick in our car’s dashboard for an automatic unlock when I tap the phone to it. But haven’t gotten around to that yet.

The important bit about this update is this: Lollipop has breathed a little more life into a two-year-old phone. And that, in turn, means I don’t yet have to choose between continuing with the Nexus line in the form of the unacceptably huge Nexus 6 or going with another Android phone or even (it could happen…) switching to an iPhone.

Weekly output: post-TWC Comcast, airport lounges, Windows 7 PCs

I’m off to Chicago Tuesday morning for the cable-industry conference formerly known as just the Cable Show and now branded as the Internet & Television Expo, “INTX” for short. It’ll be my first visit to this gathering since the 2012 edition in Boston, and recent news developments in the pay-TV business should make it an interesting event.

4/28/2015: What Comcast Giving Up on Time Warner Cable Could Mean for You, Yahoo Tech

Comcast giving up on its ambitions of buying Time Warner Cable gave me an excuse to suggest a few things it might want to do now that it won’t spend the next year in a post-merger food coma.

redesign Amex lounge post4/29/2015: redesign | travel: Amex tries to reinvent the airport lounge, redesign | mobile

My pal Rocky Agrawal launched this site this week as a marketplace to connect professionals with potential clients (see VentureBeat’s writeup). A few months back, he’d asked if I’d like to write about American Express’s attempt to get into the airport-lounge business; as a fan of making travel more comfortable, I had no problem taking on that gig and cashing that check. And if, in keeping with redesign’s ambitions, this post connects me to more travel writing, that would be okay.

I had meant to do my usual social-media marketing for this post when it appeared, but Wednesday ran away from me as the days sometimes do, and Thursday and Friday were just as bad.

5/3/2015: Windows 7 still a safe alternative to Windows 8, USA Today

It had been two years and change since I’d answered about the same question in my USAT column. But since then, Windows 7 has exited “mainstream support,” which gave me a chance to explain Microsoft’s support-lifecycle policy. Big surprise: How many commenters have testified that they’d rather use Windows 8 than Win 7.