Weekly output: Facebook and Twitter transparency (x2), cord cutting, TV technology, Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook

This week was looking super-productive until I had two fillings replaced during Wednesday’s visit to the dentist–and then the anesthetic and what looks like an adverse reaction to it had me out of commission for most of the rest of the day.

8/19/2014: Facebook, Twitter, and What a Social Network Owes Its Members, Yahoo Tech

This column followed up on extensive complaints about a perceived lack of visibility of news from Ferguson, Mo., on Facebook by suggesting how much Facebook and Twitter had to learn about being more transparent and accountable in how they filter and display information. The very day it ran, Twitter changed how it presents tweets to include those that had only been favorited by people you follow, plus others that it might deem interesting. And the sole announcement of this major shift was a revised tech-support note–not a blog post, not a tweet. Very funny, Twitter.

8/19/2014: How to Turn Off Facebook’s Algorithm … Temporarily, Yahoo Tech

This sidebar outlines a few ways to opt out of algorithmic filtering on Facebook and Twitter. With Twitter’s shift Tuesday, the post already looks out of date.

NowU cord-cutting post8/19/2014: How to untie yourself from cable TV, NowU

This long explainer is only about the 10th or 15th piece I’ve written about cord cutting, but it also benefits from a lot more experience with getting TV only via an antenna and various Internet sites, services and apps.

8/19/2014: The big picture: Choosing your next TV, NowU

The tl;dr version of this companion piece: Don’t worry too much, most TV sets are pretty good these days.

8/21/2014: Facebook and Twitter, Alice’s Coffee House With Johnny Molson

Listeners in the Springfield, Ill., market got to hear me talk about the transparency of these two social networks on Thursday morning with host Johnny Molson.

8/24/2014: How to get Google Calendar, Outlook to sync up, USA Today

This column–at least the third I’ve written about the changing state of sync between Google Calendar and third-party calendar apps–started with a message a reader sent to my Facebook page. See, I actually do read that stuff!

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Call me crazy, but I’m warming to the smartwatch concept

From the thumbs-down I handed out to a Microsoft “SPOT Watch” in 2004 to last year’s “try again” dismissal of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, I have not looked too favorably on the idea of wearing a smartwatch with a data stream of its own.

Android Wear watchBut now that I’m wearing yet another one of these devices, the Samsung Gear Live loaned to me at Google I/O, I find myself thinking of reasons why I’ll miss this thing when I have to send it back to Google PR.

Here’s the key thing it does right: provide a no-hands-required external display for my phone’s notifications list. If I’m cooking, gardening, biking or holding my daughter’s hand as we cross the street, I often have no ready way to get at the phone and so can only wonder if the beep or buzz of a notification is something I need to check or not.

Now I can see for myself. In some cases, I can dictate a reply by voice, but I’ve only done that once or twice; just knowing if what’s new on my phone is important enough to require taking it out of my pocket is good enough.

(I have, however, been surprised by how often I’ve leaned on Android Wear’s voice control while grilling: “OK Google, set a timer for five minutes.”)

Android Wear’s unavoidable updates are not always advantageous. As I noted in a Yahoo Tech column, I did not need or appreciate having the watch light up to alert me of a new e-mail (of course, spam) as I was putting our daughter to bed.

And that’s where Google could do a better job. Gmail has multiple ways to prioritize your e-mail–starring messages, marking conversations as important, displaying them in the “Primary” inbox tab–but none of them seem to inform what pops up on an Android Wear watch’s screen.

Should Apple surprise absolutely nobody by introducing an “iWatch” next month, I trust that such a timepiece will have an option to only notify you of new mail from people on your “VIP” list.

I also expect that any Apple smartwatch will be thinner than the Gear Live–which at roughly 3/8th of an inch thick, itself represents a welcome advance over the nearly half-inch thick Galaxy Gear and the 3/4-inch thick Microsoft-powered Suunto I hated in 2004.

That, in turn, should push the next Android Wear–or Pebble smartwatch, another promising contender–to get smarter and sleeker. And with these things costing $200 and change, that may be enough to get me to buy. And then you all can point and laugh at the nerd who decided he had to walk around with not one but two interactive gadgets.

DIY doings: components, cables and code

I’ve been playing with gadgets ever since my dad let me and my brother take apart an old calculator for fun, but until last week I had never wielded a soldering iron to connect electronic components.

Hand-soldered LED flashlightMy chance to remedy that oversight came at the end of a tour of a redone Radio Shack store across the street from the Verizon Center Phone Booth in downtown D.C.

After getting the company pitch about its screen-repair services, inspecting some Kodak camera modules made to clip onto phones, and playing with a littleBits synthesizer kit, I was invited to assemble a tiny LED flashlight by soldering the required parts to a small circuit board.

Dripping the molten flux onto the right contacts revealed itself to be a painstakingly precise, hold-your-breath task. I needed coaching from the rep manning that station, after which he had to redo some of my work–making me think this whole project was perhaps more like when our toddler puts together some arts-and-crafts project “with help.” But a few minutes later, I did have my own tiny, battery-powered flashlight.

I had also completed my first hardware tinkering in a while.

The last time I’d cracked a computer’s case was two years ago, when I doubled the memory in my iMac (Apple has since made that at-home upgrade impossible on newer models) and then swapped out my ThinkPad’s hard drive for a solid state drive. Either chore involved less work and anxiety than the multiple transplants I performed on my old Power Computing Mac clone in the ’90s, including two processor upgrades and a cooling fan replacement.

Crimping tool

While we’re keeping score, I last seriously messed with wiring when I strung some Ethernet cable from the basement to an outlet behind our TV to prepare for our Fios install in 2010. Going to that trouble, including terminating the bulk cable and attaching plugs myself, allowed me to use my choice of routers on our Internet-only setup.

The crimping tool I used for that task hasn’t seen much use since, but I’d like to think I’m still capable of moving a phone, power, or coax cable outlet. Especially if given a spare length of cable on which to practice first.

My DIY credentials are weakest when it comes to code. I learned entry-level BASIC in grade school but now recall little of the syntax beyond IF/THEN and GOTO. I used to lean on AppleScript to ease my Mac workflow, but now Automator lets me create shortcuts without having to remember the precise phrasing required after AppleScript statements like “tell application ‘Finder’.” My HTML skills now stretch little further than writing out the “<a href=” hypertext link.

I do, however, still grasp such important basics as the importance of valid input and proper syntax, how easy errors can crop up and how much time it can take to step through functions to figure out what threw the error. For anything more complicated, the usual reporting technique comes into play: Ask as many dumb questions as needed to get a little smarter on the subject.

Weekly output: Facebook Messenger, Evernote business-card scanning, right to be forgotten, Miracast

This week allowed me to cross one tech-related item off my bucket list: operate a soldering iron without injury to myself or anybody else. More on that later…

8/5/2014:Facebook May Be Addicted to Apps, but You Don’t Have to Be, Yahoo Tech

Facebook’s decision to make Android and iPhone users of its regular app install a separate Messenger app to continue chatting with their pals is not earning many Likes. This post compared that move by Facebook to Foursquare moving check-ins to Swarm–but now that Foursquare has shipped a complete rewrite of its core app that reinvents its privacy model, I don’t mind that split as much.

8/5/2014: 3 Flops from Facebook (and 1 from Twitter), Yahoo Tech

Remember when Facebook was going to reinvent e-mail? Yeah, that was awesome. Consider this post my own penance for all the words I wrote about Facebook Messages back in 2010.

VentureBeat Evernote review8/6/2014: Here’s how Evernote’s business card scanning feature tackled 1,333 cards, VentureBeat

I had planned to use Evernote’s card-scanning feature to dispatch all the cards cluttering my desk, then decided I might as well try to sell a review of the experience. If you were wondering about the creature with the oversized eyes shown up close in the app in my photo, it’s a tarsier on the card of O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly.

8/8/2014: Can Europe Force Search Engines to Censor Information You’re Looking for on the Internet? Assessing the Right to be Forgotten, Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee

I enjoyed debating the European Union’s dubious doctrine with Internews’ Mike Godwin, Future of Privacy Forum policy counsel Joe JeromeEmma Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Intel global privacy officer David Hoffman, and moderator Michael Kubayanda. Courtesy of Congress being on recess, this was broadcast on C-SPAN–C-SPAN 1, even.

8/10/2014: Windows can do wireless displays, but watch for glitches, USA Today

Only five days after a reader asked me about this on Twitter, my column answering that query ran. Not unrelated: I’m still awaiting answers on the other topic I’d pitched to my editor, so it was this topic or nothing.

A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

Weekly output: smartwatch etiquette, Kojo Nnamdi Show, Android tips, finding an ISP

With the arrival of August, I’m supposed to be able to slack off now that everybody with more sense temporarily flees D.C. Somehow I doubt things will work out that easily. 7/29/2014: Smartwatch Etiquette: We’re Making It Up as We Go, Yahoo Tech

Does wearing a smartwatch mean I no longer have to be the annoying person who’s always checking his phone, or does it turn me into the annoying person who’s always checking his smartwatch?

7/29/2014: A Short History of Gadget Hate, Yahoo Tech

I enjoyed putting together this sidebar listing past denunciations of wearable technology, from the watch itself to the Sony Walkman.

Kojo Nnamdi travel-tech show7/29/2014: Travel Tech for a Great Vacation, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

I talked about airfare- and hotel-search sites, out-of-town bandwidth, navigation apps and other travel-tech topics with National Geographic Traveler editor Keith Bellows and Washington Post travel writer Andrea Sachs.

8/1/2014: 9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Android, Yahoo Tech

The little Android crash-test-dummy toy in the picture atop this post was a giveaway at last year’s Google I/O conference. More interesting than yet another screen shot, don’t you think?

8/3/2014: How to find the best Internet service provider, USA Today

A friend’s question about replacing his wretched EarthLink DSL led me to realize how the lack of competition in broadband seems to have dried up the market for find-an-ISP sites. (Not that I miss the insane amount of work I sank into compiling directories of local ISPs for the Post.)