The NFL is so hard to like these days

There’s a football game happening tomorrow night, and like many of you I plan to watch it mainly for the commercials.

Part of that is my scant emotional investment in either team (that said, I’m unquestionably more tired of reading about the Patriots). But the real reason is that the National Football League has become such a difficult corporate entity to support.

I’m not talking about the sport of football overall. It’s a fun game to watch on TV, and I’ve enjoyed the few games I’ve seen in person–some here, courtesy of tickets the Post would occasionally hand out, a few in Charlottesville on pre-parenthood trips with my wife to her alma mater.

NFL ball and ticketBut the NFL itself, that’s another thing. Even by the standards of pro sports in America, there’s so much not to like.

It would be easy to start with the league’s lax responses to the domestic violence committed by some players. Or I could lead off with the player concussions and the league’s decades-long denial of that problem; the more I mull over that, the more I start wondering if (as Tim Carmody wrote persuasively on Friday) football might be the new boxing and on the same path out of the mainstream.

I could begin with the hapless local franchise and everything wrong there: the name, the crummy stadium, the losing records, the abysmal personnel decisions, the deepening despair among a beaten-down fan base, the owner who seems convinced that his own actions bear no relation to all these problems… but that would be too easy.

The NFL’s vaingloriousness also irritates me. We’ll get no end of it tomorrow, but I also see this inflated sense of self-worth on display in things like security-theater rules about what you can bring into an NFL stadium that are to ballpark-access rules what TSA airport security is to boarding Amtrak.

But what really sticks in my craw is how the NFL is the gift that keeps on taking.

Its teams play in enormous stadiums funded at colossal taxpayer expense–$4.7 billion on the 20 new facilities opened since 1997–that usually sit empty except when these largely car-centric properties create massive traffic jams on game day.

On those days, it’s to the NFL’s credit that you can watch on free broadcast TV. But then the league insists on blackout rules that keep games off the air if the team doesn’t sell enough of what are on average the most expensive tickets in pro sports. And it wants the government to back up this business model. A decade ago, the NFL wanted veto power over a new TiVo sharing feature to protect its blackouts, and it only recently lost the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of them.

The runup to the Super Bowl has once again shown the effectiveness of the NFL’s control-freak trademark enforcement. Even though it’s legal for advertisers to refer to the Super Bowl in an ad in the same way they might name-check the local franchise, they all call it the “Big Game” lest the NFL’s lawyers send a nastygram. Good thing the NFL gave on trying to trademark the term “Big Game”!

And as the NFL continues to print money, it benefits from non-profit status and the modest tax breaks that entails–something MLB gave up in 2007 and the NBA has never claimed.

So, sure, I’ll watch tomorrow night if for no other reason than maintaining my cultural literacy. But I’ll also be thinking that 18 days later, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Weekly output: community broadband, worst Windows, talking to startups, Google apps on Gogo WiFi

Another weekend in which I did not get as much down time as I’d hoped, courtesy of some additional work coming my way. So goes freelance life sometimes… although I remember the same thing happening, without any extra income, when I was a full-time employee.

1/20/2015: Obama’s Community-Broadband Plan: 4 Ways to Understand His State of the Union Pitch, Yahoo Tech

When we posted this story, we all thought municipal broadband would get at least as much of a mention in the State of the Union address as space exploration. Then that didn’t happen. Oops.

1/21/2015: The Worst Version of Windows Is…, Yahoo Tech

Sometimes, I struggle with columns. Not this time: I wrote the whole thing in basically one take, and I had fun doing it.

1/23/2015-1/24/2015: Media Match, Collaborate

I spent about 45 minutes Friday and Saturday hearing a parade of startup founders take three minutes to explain their idea, answer my questions and ask some of their own. As in prior years when I’ve participated in this part of the D.C.-area “entrepreneurship community” Fosterly’s conferences, I came away reminded of how impressive it can be to watch somebody excel at in-person sales, and how often that doesn’t happen.

USAT column on free Google apps on Gogo1/25/2015: Use Google apps over Gogo Wi-Fi for free, USA Today

I got the idea for this on a flight last October, but I held off on writing it up until I’d had enough conversations with enough people at Gogo to be reasonably confident that publicizing this loophole wouldn’t ruin it for everybody. The tip at the end of this avgeek-oriented column about using an Android phone’s GPS on a plane should be familiar to those of you who followed my microblogging experiment at Sulia. But since that startup’s shutdown last October wiped those posts off the Web, I’ve felt no guilt about recycling the ideas behind them.

Tales from the software-CD crypt

Wednesday’s “worst version of Windows” column for Yahoo Tech was a fun stumble down memory lane, and not just because it allowed me to re-read reviews of Windows Me and Windows XP: I also got to dig out some of my semi-treasured collection of software CDs.

Old and obscure software CDsI started collecting them once I had a desk of my own at the Post, and these things soon became a core part of my cubicle decor there. Beyond the Windows CDs you saw in the photo atop that column, I have:

  • a BeOS CD that I then tried out on my Mac clone and thought was a revelation compared to the Mac OS of 1997;
  • a CD for the Snap online service CNet launched with EarthLink in 1997, and which I’m sure nobody else remembers today;
  • a system CD from the Power Mac Cube I reviewed for the Post;
  • a rectangular CD for Windows Media Player 7 that was supposed to portray that awful music app’s interface, and which would be unusable on any computer with a slot-loading optical drive;
  • a CD of Insignia Software’s SoftWindows, an emulation app that shipped for the first Power Macs.

These obscurities don’t function as any sort of decor now that they’re stashed in an interoffice envelope. But they do help remind me of where the industry’s come (remember when the only way the Mac was going to survive is if you could run Windows programs miserably slowly on it?) and of reviews that I perhaps could have done better.

And they’re also a type of keepsake that’s been rendered obsolete by the online delivery of almost all software. What am I going to do, take a screengrab of the .zip file that contained my beta download of Windows 10?

Weekly output: CES vaporware, wireless carriers, Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, removing iTunes DRM

This was what I did over the seven days I define as “CES recovery week.”

Yahoo Tech CES vaporware1/13/2015: 5 CES Innovations That Completely Flopped, Yahoo Tech

Putting together this look back at products that got high-profile debuts at CES and then didn’t ship (anybody remember Panasonic’s Comcast-compatible AnyPlay portable DVR?) made me realize two things: I should have started taking my CES notes in Evernote years earlier, and some of the cameras I took to the show were pretty weak. The photo atop the story, in case you’re curious, is one I took a few minutes before the 2012 CES keynote.

1/14/2015: The Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

I updated this guide yet again to account for T-Mobile and then AT&T adding data-rollover policies and to call out Verizon Wireless for its creepy and arrogant insertion of ad-tracking headers in subscribers’ unencrypted Web traffic. Next on the to-do list: Rearranging the presentation of Sprint’s mix of phone-procurement options to cut down on confusion.

1/15/2015:  Der Allesverkäufer, Wiener Zeitung

Adrian Lobe, a writer for Vienna’s oldest newspaper, asked me for comment about Jeff Bezos’s influence on my former employer. If you, like me, are hopeless in German and don’t want to rely on Google Translate (it reads the headline as “The all sellers,” which I’m pretty sure should end with a singular noun), the original English version of the first quote from me is “I know my former colleagues take pride on beating the NYT as often as they can.” The second, about any shifts in the Post’s op-ed section: “Not much, and that’s an area where many people were hoping for a change. It’s still populated by too many neocons with a questionable grasp on the facts.”

1/18/2015: How to free iTunes purchases from DRM, USA Today

You can’t pay 30 cents to upgrade a song from DRMed “iTunes Minus” to higher-fidelity, DRM-free iTunes Plus, but you can pay $24.99 for an iTunes Match subscription that will bulk-convert those files. Or you can try your luck with the song-matching feature in Google’s free Google Play Music.

Things I would like Apple to fix in OS X (please?)

There’s been a minor surplus of blog posts over the last month or so expressing concern about the state of Apple’s software quality. See, for example, this inventory of issues from my friend Glenn Fleishman, Craig Hockenberry’s open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, or the Marco Arment post that got spun completely out of proportion.

Apple logo on iMacI can’t speak to all of the faults people have mentioned; without an iPhone, for example, I don’t see many of the OS X-to-iOS problems folks have been griping about. And I can’t say that this period marks a low in Apple’s software quality: OS X Lion got on my nerves much more than Yosemite has. But look: Yosemite exhibits some baffling and annoying defects that I’d like to see fixed as much as anybody else. Here’s a short list:

AirDrop: This has accomplished the singular feat of making Bluetooth file transfer look elegant and reliable. Because one of my two Macs is a pre-2012 model, I have to tell the MacBook Air to “Search for an Older Mac” for that iMac to get a chance to show up at all. And the advertised ability of AirDrop to send files between OS X and iOS has so far been a bust–and, courtesy of Apple kneecapping Bluetooth in iOS, Bluetooth file transfer isn’t available as a fall-back option.

Mail’s time travel: A round of bug fixes have made Mail much less of a disaster, but the bizarre bug that causes Mail to jump back randomly by months, years or all the way to the oldest messages in a folder when I select it remains intact. Why, Mail, why must you feel compelled to remind me of what people wrote in 2011?

non-transparent volume overlaySemi-transparent toolbars and sidebars: Having Safari’s toolbar turn red when I scroll down a CNet story is one of the dumbest features I’ve seen out of Cupertino. I advised turning that off in my USA Today column but have since reluctantly turned it back on: I couldn’t stand how that change not only rendered the volume overlay opaque but added crude black borders at its rounded corners.

Arrogant autocorrect: The automatic spelling correction in Yosemite seems much more out of control than in prior OS X releases, especially when it interferes with my attempts to write proper names and other capitalized words that a sane autocorrect would know to leave alone.

Non-noteworthy Calendar events: I love how I can mouse over a date or time in an e-mail and have OS X offer to create a new event in the Calendar app based on that information. But at some point (maybe pre-Yosemite?), the events created that way lost an editable Notes field: That part of the event-info window is now locked to a “Show in Mail…” link that opens the message from which you created the event. I can work around this problem by editing the event in Google Calendar, but something tells me that’s Apple’s desired outcome.

Safari tabs with escape velocity: Every now and then, I find that I have somehow launched one of the tabs open in Safari into a new window. I don’t know what the exact sequence of clicks is (it’s not mentioned in Apple’s list of shortcuts) but I would like the browser to not do that.

I’m sure there are other Yosemite issues that have been bugging me, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Remind me in the comments?

Weekly output: Sling TV, 4K TV, net neutrality, future of search, i.amPuls, TiVo-to-TiVo migration

I’m back from CES and feeling a little tired–as well as confused to see no work events on my calendar this week that will require me to leave the house.

1/5/2015: Hey, Cord Cutters: Dish Network Wants You, Yahoo Tech

Dish Network’s $20/month Sling TV is the CES 2015 product I am most likely to purchase with my own money. I thought I’d be waiting years longer to get a chance to pay for online viewing of ESPN without a cable or satellite subscription attached.

1/6/2015: 4K TVs Are Coming for You, Even if You Don’t Want Them, Yahoo Tech

4K UHD TVs, meanwhile, remain the CES product I’m least likely to spend my own dollars on. But I’m getting resigned to the fact that the industry is moving this way regardless of what I think.

1/7/2015: FCC Chair: Strong Net-Neutrality Rules Are Coming, and Soon, Yahoo Tech

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission would vote on “Title II” reclassification of Internet providers as common carriers, the thing I and many others have been suggesting for years as a solid foundation for net-neutrality regulations. This is an amazing comeback story.

1/8/2015: The Future of Search, CES

My hour-long panel with Samsung senior director Ryan Bidan, Yelp product manager Travis Brooks, and Moz CTO Anthony Skinner wasn’t as wide-ranging as that title would suggest: We were trying to focus on how increasingly self-aware mobile devices and “Internet of Things” smart-home gadgets could further chip away at our privacy, provide more useful information or do both.

Yahoo Tech Puls hands-on report1/8/2015: I Tried Will.i.am’s PULS Band, the Most Unusual Smartwatch at CES, Yahoo Tech

Sitting down to talk shop about wearables with will.i.am was not on my calendar that morning. Instead, I saw the Puls logo outside a meeting room, asked if I could take a look at the hardware, and was somewhat confused to be told to stand and wait while inquiries were made. Then they ushered me in, the gentleman in question emerged, and I got a first-hand look at a “smart cuff” that has little in common with smartwatches as we know them. I have an interesting job.

1/11/2015: How to transfer shows to new TiVo, USA Today

This column started with yet another round of holiday tech support for my relatives. When I saw that much of the scant documentation for a migration from one TiVo to another existed on other sites, I thought there might be a story in that. When I saw up close how tedious the process got, I was sure I had something to write about.

If you still somehow haven’t had enough CES coverage, please have a look at my Flickr album from the show.

1/12 update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention my own panel. 

CES 2015 travel-tech report: less battery angst, more about bandwidth

One of my post-CES traditions, besides waiting for the din of slot machines to fade from my head, is critiquing how various gadgets and apps helped me cover the show. See, for instance, my 2012, 2013 and 2014 recaps.

CES 2015 gadgetsThis year, I once again leaned on my 2012 MacBook Air, paired with the Nexus 4 I bought last spring. I took all my notes on each in Evernote, and for once I didn’t have any sync conflicts; maybe the app was happy that I finally signed up for Evernote Premium?

Battery life on both the laptop and the phone has declined a bit as they’ve aged, but I had much less angst over that than I’d feared. Some credit for that goes to my having to step away from the show floor for an hour or so each day to write, which gave me a chance to plug in everything. Some also goes to the compact external phone charger WAMU gave me when I was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show in December. I have no idea who made that device, but it’s a great piece of hardware, including a micro-USB cable long enough to allow you to easily tuck it and a charging phone into a jacket pocket.

I remembered to pack my Belkin travel power strip this time; the two USB ports on the top helped charge devices overnight, while the extra outlets allowed me to not be a jerk when taking the last available wall outlet. See that flat contraption to the right of the power strip? It’s a Charge Card, a USB cable that’s been designed to fold flat and fit in a wallet. I picked up one from the vendor at CES a few years ago and remembered to bring it this time.

My primary source of bandwidth was not hotel or convention WiFi but LTE from the AT&T and Verizon mobile hotspots I’ve been reviewing for a future story. Most of the time, they worked great (their battery life makes them a much better choice than a phone for extended tethering), but the overwhelming amount of WiFi traffic sometimes prevented my Mac from connecting to either.

I shot a decent amount of pictures and video clips on my phone for quick sharing from the show floor, but for anything I wanted to publish I switched to the compact Canon 330 HS model I bought just before last year’s show. I’d picked out that model in particular for its ability to geotag photos using a companion phone app–but I never used that feature during the show. Why? I spent almost all of my time in only a few locations, while that Android app does too much damage to my phone’s battery if left running full-time.

I took a new gadget to the show, the Moto 360 smartwatch I reviewed in September. The experience strengthened my conviction that the idea here is sound–it really does help to have an external, wearable display for the most important notifications coming up on your phone–but the implementation needs work. In particular, charging should neither have to be a nightly routine nor require an ungainly cradle like the 360’s.

The other good reason to bring a smartwatch to a trade show: having its step counter inform you of how many miles you’ve walked. I peaked on Thursday with 25,308 steps.

The other new item I brought doesn’t count as a gadget, owing to its complete lack of electronics: a caliper that I bought after reading too many Apple Watch stories that offered only vague guesses about the device’s thickness. I used that cheap Home Depot purchase to check the thickness of a few smart watches and one absurdly thin HDTV.