Weekly output: phone encryption, old browsers

I wrapped up this year’s business travel with a run out to the Bay Area for the Demo conference in San Jose, Calif. This year’s edition of that event was a little confusing: Although the quantity and quality of the startups presenting seemed as high as ever, the attendance had dropped significantly, and the catering (warning: first-world journalism problems) had fallen off a cliff. Is that a long-term problem? Don’t ask me, because events like that shouldn’t be all about me.

Yahoo Tech phone-encryption post11/18/2014: Why the Cops Hate the New Apple and Google Phones, Yahoo Tech

This was a column I could have written weeks ago, but instead I kept gathering string at various events in D.C. and elsewhere. I think that worked out okay.

Note that the headline got a rewrite after the first day. Did “Well-Encrypted Phones on Vulnerable Cellular Networks: Anxiety All Around” resonate more or less than the current hed?

11/23/2014: Thanksgiving tech support: Replace aging browsers, USA Today

After I filed this piece–for once, early–Mozilla announced that it would make Yahoo the default search engine in its Firefox browser. Updating the column to note that affiliation seemed like it would call too much attention to my client, as in the problem I try to avoid when I must mention Yahoo services at other sites. If you think I got that wrong, you’re welcome to explain why in a comment.

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My 2014 gardening scorecard

The D.C. area got its first hard freeze this week, and so this year’s outdoor gardening has officially ground to a halt–which also means it’s once again time to assess my attempts to grow my own food in a few spots around a tiny, largely shady backyard.

(See my earlier reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Green beansGreen beans: A

We literally could not eat these fast enough. The funny thing is, the pole beans that took over the larger raised bed did not come from the bush-bean seeds sown this spring; I guess last year’s experiment in growing pole beans had lasting effects.

Arugula: B

This was once again a reliable performer–but my attempt to grow a second crop in the fall ran afoul of a stretch of dry weather in which I was out of town too often to water the garden regularly.

Lettuce: B-

For the second year in a row, we had good results in the spring and nothing in the fall.

Herbs: C+

We never lacked for parsley, mint and rosemary (you can imagine my excitement this spring at seeing that the rosemary bush planted last fall had survived our polar-vortex winter). The sage did okay, and cilantro and basil briefly flourished. But dill, chives, thyme, and oregano all apparently don’t like me anymore.

Cucumbers: D+

After last year’s near-total bust, we were pleased to be able to harvest a few decent-sized cukes in the late summer.

Strawberries: D

Once again, I failed to water the pot on the back patio often enough or shield it adequately from the squirrels.

Blueberries: D-

The one medium-size and one small blueberry bush in the side yard yielded a respectable amount of fruit, which I’m sure the birds enjoyed very much.

Tomatoes: D-

The pole beans that grew so well also effectively blocked the sun for the tomatoes. After the bean plants died, one of the tomato plants mounted a comeback of sorts, and maybe the two puny specimens I grabbed before the first freeze will ripen on the countertop. I need to look into growing tomatoes elsewhere in the yard.

Bell peppers: F

I planted seeds. Nothing came of them. The end.

Weekly output: net neutrality (x2), Nexus 6, connected-car privacy, Nexus lineup, Comcast fees

If only I could look this productive every week… note that all this happened with two travel days and a conference eating up my schedule, and that I filed another piece on Friday that hasn’t run yet.

11/11/2014: 5 Things to Know About Obama’s Net-Neutrality Push, Yahoo Tech

I enjoyed taking the close-up photo of an Ethernet cable that illustrates this post, and then I was pleasantly relieved not to see the comments immediately overrun with denunciations of net neutrality based on it being something President Obama supports.

11/11/2014: Beyond Email: 3 Innovative Communication Tools for Your Team, CyberCoders

My friend Andrea Smith quoted me a few times in this piece about collaborative apps used by geographically distributed workers to coordinate their work; appropriately enough, HipChat is one tab away from her story in my browser as I type this.

11/12/2014: Net neutrality, The Bill Press Show

An 8:30 am. East Coast radio interview was no problem the day after I flew to San Francisco, since jet lag had me awake around 4:30 a.m. local time. (Time-zone disruption was a bigger problem than usual on this trip; even Saturday morning, when I was thoroughly worn down from the week, I still found myself awake before 7 a.m. Ugh.)

11/12/2014: Nexus 6 review: Stop the screen-specs madness, VentureBeat

This phone bothered me more than I thought it would. Both the enormous screen and its beyond-human-vision pixel density strike me as the tech industry at its worst, chasing specs with inadequate attention to their real-world benefits.

11/12/2014: Privacy on the Road: A Conversation about Connected Cars, Privacy Identity Innovation

My interview with Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, was scheduled for one of the trickier timeslots at a conference: immediately before the reception. I think we did okay; when they post video of this, you can judge for yourself.

Boing Boing Nexus 2014 review11/13/2014: The new Nexus lineup is weak, Boing Boing

I enjoyed getting a chance to review the same devices for a different site and a different audience. Check out the comments for some detailed back-and-forth about this year’s crop of Nexus devices.

11/16/2014: Comcast changes tune on ‘change of service’ fee, USA Today

I was scrounging around for a suitable column topic when a reader’s tweet about getting hit with a fee by Comcast for the privilege of canceling his service solved that problem for me. I hope, in turn, that my spotlighting this issue helps solve my reader’s problem.

Updated 11:57 p.m. to include Andrea Smith’s piece about collaboration tools. I knew I was leaving something out the first time around…

Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

Weekly output: Nexus Player, Nexus 9, Verizon Wireless and AT&T’s user tracking, exposed images, Facebook and Flash video

It’s been 11 whole days since I last ventured beyond the Beltway, but Tuesday morning I get back on a plane: I’m headed to the Bay Area for the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, where I’ll be conducting an onstage interview about connected cars.

11/3/2014: Google’s Nexus Player is no Apple TV; it’s not even a Chromecast, VentureBeat

Where exactly is Google going with this streaming-media player that costs almost three times a Chromecast but doesn’t do all that much more? I’m confused. (To the commenters saying “Apple fanboy”: I gladly paid my own money for a Chromecast but have never done so for an Apple TV. Also, try to show some originality in your insults.)

VentureBeat Nexus 9 review11/3/2014: Nexus 9 tablet shows Google is thinking bigger — but not big enough (review), VentureBeat

I was more conflicted about this device. If it had shipped with more memory, sold for a lower price or not retreated on the feature set of last year’s Nexus 7, I probably would have been kinder to it in this review.

11/4/2014: How Verizon Wireless Is Tracking You All Around the Web, Yahoo Tech

It’s amazing to me that VzW executives seriously think they can tamper with their subscribers’ online activity to insert a personally-identifiable tracking header and not let anybody opt out. In what universe does that not lead to a class-action lawsuit, an FTC investigation, a hostile Congressional hearing or all of the above?

11/6/2014: Jennifer Lawrence’s Hacked Photos: A “Sex Crime?” The Legal Underpinnings of Digitally Exposed Private Images and What Congress Needs to Know, Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee

I discussed the hacking of many celebrities’ iCloud photo backups, plus the broader problem of “revenge porn,” with University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Emma Llansó, recently-retired law prof David Post and Politico cybersecurity reporter Tal Kopan. You can watch the proceedings on C-SPAN.

11/9/2014: Facebook won’t unfriend Flash, but it should, USA Today

Months after I uninstalled Adobe Flash from this Mac’s copy of Safari, the only time I really notice its absence as a problem is when I click on a video some friend has posted to Facebook and can’t watch it. This column sheds some light on this needless compatibility problem and offers a tip about watching Amazon instant video without Microsoft’s even-less-useful Silverlight plug-in.

The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?