Hey, can you be more specific in your Facebook/Google greetings?

What’s a three-letter word for “I want to converse in real-time on a social network, and I will leave it to you to guess what about”?

Hey intro“Hey.”

Somehow, a message consisting only of that vague salutation has become a standard greeting from pals looking to kick off a conversation over Facebook messages or Google+ Hangouts. I wish that were not so.

As conversation-starters go, this is a nonstarter. It tells me nothing about what’s on your mind or the urgency of your request–unless typing it in lower case should be read as indicating a lower priority.

It’s also unoriginal. If you tried to grab my attention with the equally content-free “Ahoy,” at least I’d be thinking “ah, the salutation Alexander Graham Bell wanted us to use on the phone.”

Instead, why not just get to the point and state your question, compliment, complaint or humblebrag? You were going to do that in your next message anyway; why wait? Don’t let me hold you back!

That more direct practice seems to be how we–even those who “hey” me on Facebook or Google–have settled on using Twitter direct messages, like plain old text messaging before them.

At the same time, I have to recognize that these meaningless greetings come from friends who mean well, and that most lead to chats I appreciate. And things could be worse: I could have people trying to get my attention by saying “Yo.”

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PGP and me

If you’ve received an e-mail from me in the past week or so, you may have noticed something extra in the message’s headers: an indication that it was digitally signed with my Pretty Good Privacy key.

GPGTools iconAs yet, no recipient has asked about that, much less complimented my digital hygiene or sent a reply encrypted with my PGP public key. Which is pretty much what I expected: The last time I had a PGP setup in operation, I had to ask Post readers to send me an encrypted message before I got any.

A few weeks later, my inbox once again featured only un-encrypted e-mail.

Then some fumbled corporate transitions and the switch to OS X left the open-source MacGPG as the most appealing option on my Mac–and a slow and slowing pace of updates left it an increasingly awkward fit. Without ever consciously deciding to give up on e-mail encryption, I gave up.

(I should have felt guiltier than I did when I offered a Post colleague a tutorial on crypto that I didn’t bother to operate on my own machine. On that note, if you have a key for robp@washpost.com or rob@twp.com in your own PGP keychain, please delete it.)

I finally returned to the fold two weeks ago, when I ducked into a “crypto party” tutorial at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference. Jon Camfield of Internews explained that things had gotten a lot better and pointed me to a newer, far more elegant open-source implementation called GPGTools. I downloaded it, installed it, and within minutes had a new set of public and private keys plugged into my copy of Mail (no need to copy and paste a message into a separate decryption app as I did in MacGPG), with my public key uploaded to a keyserver for anybody else to use to encrypt mail to me.

My key ID is 03EE085A, my key fingerprint is FD67 6114 46E8 6105 27C3 DD92 673F F960 03EE 085A, and the key itself is after the jump. Do I expect to get a flood of encrypted messages after this post? Not really. But if somebody does want to speak to me with that level of privacy, they now have an option I should have provided all along, and that’s what counts.

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Getting flamed

You’re never going to please everybody in a job like this.; sometimes you intensely displease somebody. And so Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column unpacking Apple’s WWDC announcements yielded an e-mail Wednesday from a reader with the subject line “Hater.” Here we go, I thought:

You are such an Apple-hater, it’s disgusting. I’m glad the Washington Post fired you. Your tech coverage sucked there. I stumbled across you today on Yahoo. Now I’ll know where to avoid you in the future.

FlamesThat kind of spittle-flecked invective goes by the name of “flaming” (or at least it once did; what do the kids call it these days?). Fortunately, it arrives exceedingly rarely and is vastly outnumbered by non-flame mail. The very next e-mail from a reader Wednesday began: “Glad to have found you on Yahoo Tech. I used to look forward to your Washington Post columns.”

(Note also that my possession of a Y chromosome makes my inbox easier to deal with. As in, I don’t have cretins expressing their disagreement with rape threats.)

And yet. A message like that requires some sort of response, and one of my character flaws is the pleasure I take in crafting a politely snarky reply–one that can withstand publicity if my cranky correspondent thinks posting it online will help his cause. So after reciting a certain line about customers from “Clerks,” I wrote back to note my history of buying and using Apple products (see, I’m a self-loathing hater!) and of complimenting them when warranted. I closed with an observation and a suggestion:

But my overall evaluation of this company’s work—or any other’s—is not a binary state. I am capable of appreciating some things it does while finding fault with others to come up with an assessment that’s neither 0 nor 1 but somewhere in between. I’m sorry you seem to be having trouble with that concept.
BTW, if you’re going to accuse somebody else of being a “hater” you might not want to delight in another person’s unemployment.

Will it persuade my reader? Maybe. About half the time I send back a civil response, the other person realizes they were talking to a fellow human being, not a thumbnail image on a Web page, and apologizes. The other half of the time, there’s no response. We’ll see how this one goes…

The missing “let me be clear” line: No, Google isn’t killing Google Voice

Google did not axe Google Voice today. Sunday’s USA Today column didn’t say it would—it covered Google’s scheduled shutdown, effective today, of a protocol that other Internet-calling apps had used to connect to Google Voice—but many of you thought it did.

Google Voice Play Store iconMy first reaction on getting questions like “Is Google Voice being discontinued?” was to think “Gah! If that was really happening, don’t you think I would have said so right at the top of the story?”

My second: “Google, this is your own damn fault for neglecting the service for so long that people now expect the worst.”

My third reaction was a grudging acceptance that I should have foreseen readers skipping over my description of how Google Voice was shutting down the “XMPP” support that had allowed third-party VoIP clients to connect (admit it, you skimmed past that jargon just now) and instead seeing only the words “Google Voice” and “shutting down.”

That realization could have led me to write the column with fault-tolerance in mind: If there’s a way readers could get the wrong idea, throw in a “let me be clear” graf to disabuse them of that incorrect assumption. A little extra defensive writing then would have saved time since spent answering nervous reader e-mails and story comments.

I should know that by now, but apparently I’m still figuring out this writing thing after some 20 years of doing it for a living.

In other news: The Android Hangouts app still can’t place VoIP calls from your GV number (a capability the iOS version has had since October), officially leaving Android users in the lurch. Heck of a job, Google.

Re: Reader mail

I started answering e-mail from readers in the summer of 1994, and I’m still not done.

Close-up of OS X Mail’s interface.People keep sending more messages, true, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever reached Inbox Zero with respect to audience correspondence more than a handful of times, none of which followed the invention of blogging and social media.

The sad thing is that even as the tools I use to report and write keep improving, my options for staying on top of reader feedback haven’t advanced much since IMAP e-mail gave me the ability to flag a message for follow-up and see that annotation everywhere I check my mail.

So aside from those occasions when I have the luxury of writing back almost immediately, I still save too many of my replies for a frantic catch-up session, usually staged when I’m trying to finish a workday or during travel-induced idle time.

(Feature request for e-mail developers: Let me bookmark the point in my inbox at which I set aside reader e-mail and should resume answering it when I next have time.)

The “good job!” messages take the least time to reply–you write “thanks” and that’s about it–while I can’t resist taking the time to craft clever, snarky responses to the angrier feedback. That’s not healthy, and yet my colleagues at the Post and I used to debate the best way to reply to an unhinged reader’s spittle-flecked missive. I recall one more diplomatic reporter saying he’d simply write back “You may be right,” while a crankier co-worker half-jokingly suggested “Thanks for reading, as difficult as it must have been.”

E-mails asking “how do I do this?” or “how do I fix this?” take the longest amount of time to answer but can’t be neglected at all: They feed my USA Today Q&A column, and before that the Q&A I did for the Post.

The easiest way to get me to answer your message quickly is to tell me something I didn’t know. Think things like some breakdown in service or violation of the rules at a company or a government office, an error nobody’s seen before, or one weird trick to get a gadget or an app to do something that’s not in the manual. Otherwise, I can only fall back on the usual guidelines, which happen to overlap with the advice I’ve been giving to PR professionals for years: Use a descriptive subject header (as in, not “Help”) and make your case in the first sentence or two.

I’d like to tell you that from now on, I will do better, but I would be either lying or foolishly optimistic. This is a most honest statement: Please hold, and your e-mail will be answered in the order it was received.

Tax-time thoughts: now with slightly less incompetent accounting!

I have survived, I think, another tax season as a self-employed individual, and I’m increasingly convinced that if I keep doing this I will someday know what I’m doing.

Misc. incomeOnce again, my worst enemy was my inattentive and sloppy accounting. I was still forgetting to tag some expenses as business transactions in Mint until last spring, and It took me until mid-September to lock in the habit of logging every cash expense within minutes of it happening. Memo to Google: This would be easier if the Google Drive app could edit spreadsheets offline.

For cash transactions not properly noted at the time, I had to recreate records months after the fact. That involved the tedious, time-consuming routine of cross-referencing my calendar, e-mail and Foursquare check-ins.

Importing the credit-card purchases that Mint had recorded automatically was the same as ever, which is not good: Intuit’s site still provides no way to limit a transaction search to a date range short of hand-editing a Web address. Intuit, this is idiotic. Try spending some of the money you sink into astroturfed lobbying into adding this most basic of features.

Last year also saw client income (Sulia and WordAds) arrive via PayPal deposits, a first for me. I liked the invoice-free convenience of those payments, but I made two rookie accounting mistakes. The big one was not identifying all of the subsequent PayPal transfers to my bank as freelance income; the little one was using some of a freelancing-inflated PayPal balance to reimburse my share of an Airbnb apartment rented for Mobile World Congress instead of first moving the sum of those freelance payments to my bank, then covering the lodging expense with a separate withdrawal from my bank.

The fact that I realized most of these errors in late March by itself represented my single biggest accounting failure–I spent too much of 2013 in a financial fog, which is stupid. So after cleaning up last year’s records, I set aside a couple of hours last weekend to do the same for those from the first quarter of this year. Like I said: I do learn, just not quickly.

Reader suggestions for fixing an iMessage mess

Sunday’s USA Today Q&A about getting one’s mobile number untangled from Apple’s iMessage service looks to be one of the most-read columns I’ve done there. It’s also drawn more than the usual amount of reader feedback–including two reports of remedies that I had not discovered during the week or so I spent digging into this issue.

iPhone Messages settingsOne came from an AT&T subscriber in Minnesota:

A few days before the article I had the same problem and called AT&T.  They had me text the word ‘stop’ to 48369, to which I got the response: “FREE MSG: Apple iCloud ID Verification: You have been unsubscribed and will no longer receive messages. 1-800-275-2273″

I’ve since found one confirmation of that fix in a Reddit comment and a posting on Apple’s tech-support forum. There’s also an Apple tech support notice… which only describes this procedure as a way to stop Apple from sending AppleCare identity-verification messages to a wrong number.

A reader in Washington who said he works “at a major phone retailer” sent in a different suggestion that he said “always” works: Reset your Apple ID password.

Go to https://iforgot.apple.com/password/verify/appleid Enter your Apple ID in the space and just reset your Apple ID password. Even if you don’t have access to that email or security questions, it will remove all Apple registered devices from iMessage instantly.

In case you were wondering: Neither suggestion came up in the background conversations I had with Apple PR, even though one is allegedly endorsed by Apple support.
But that’s not nearly as important as whether either cure can earn an endorsement from you. If you’ve found either one successfully exfiltrated a number from iMessage–or if you have a different fix to share–please leave a comment with the details.

I don’t like sketchy ads either

Almost two years ago, I got invited to join WordPress.com’s WordAds program, and for the most part it’s worked well–aside from these advertisements failing to earn me truckloads of money, as opposed to enough for a nice dinner every now and then.

Walmart voucher adBut a week or so ago, a few of the ads sent here by this program started looking distinctly sketchier. One made diet claims unlikely to survive scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, while another made the economically implausible offer of a free $1,000 Walmart voucher. And sometimes the appearance of these ads was followed by one of those spammy pop-up ads for the MacKeeper app–also served by the same Tribal Fusion ad network.

That’s not the “high quality” content WordPress promised when it launched this partnership with Federated Media. So I posted a cranky tweet about it and then followed up with a complaint sent through the appropriate form, saying that “If you don’t kick these garbage advertisers out of WordAds, I’ll drop out of the program.” (That was an easy threat to make, since I don’t have that much money at stake.)

I got a quick acknowledgment saying that my gripe was legitimate, followed the next day by a report that the advertiser had removed the offending items and pledged to clean up its act.

I haven’t seen any objectionable ads since; it appears the system worked. But if you see ads making a pitch that looks dodgy, let me know about it. Bad ads are a Web-wide problem, and the least I can do is not have my little corner of the Web contribute to it.

More questions answered about my role at Yahoo Tech

LAS VEGAS–My involvement with the new Yahoo Tech site hasn’t been a secret since the holiday preview posted in December, but with yesterday’s launch at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote it’s a lot more public. Following, answers to some of the questions I’ve gotten since then.

Yahoo Tech languageQ. Is this your new job?

A. No. Writing a weekly “The Rules of Tech” column is my new freelance gig. I will continue to have the pleasure of making four large estimated-tax payments to the IRS a year.

Q. What about your other work?

A. My assignment at Yahoo is to cover tech policy (not just laws and regulations, but the boundaries and limits set by corporations and each other). So don’t expect to see me getting into that area of technology elsewhere–that’s why I had to bid farewell to my tech-policy blogging at the Disruptive Competition Project.

But outside of that, I can continue to write elsewhere. Further, I should continue to write elsewhere–staying current with people’s tech frustrations in my USA Today column and reviewing gadgets elsewhere will make me a more informed tech-policy writer. That outside work can also let me indulge my wonkier instincts instead of plunging into the weeds in every single Yahoo post.

I may, however, have a little less bandwidth in the near term for other assignments as I work my way from “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” in this new role.

Q. Where are the comments? Why no RSS feed?

A. Shocking but true: Sometimes sites launch without every intended feature. I’m told those things are coming, so please keep clicking refresh at least once a day.

Q. Are they hiring? Taking on other freelancers?

A. Too soon to say, and those questions are also kind of above my pay grade. I can say that it’s been a busy few weeks; right now, I think we’re all dreading the fact that we only have [checks watch] maybe another hour to sit and admire our handiwork before getting back to it.

Q. Are you worried about being associated with a Web property that’s made so many technological missteps in the past?

A. That’s not a very nice way to talk about the Washington Post. (I kid, I kid! Just judge me by my work, okay?)

2013 blogging stats: You still hate Lotus Notes, and I guess I should still miss Google Reader

At the end of every year, WordPress.com automatically generates a nifty presentation about this blog’s readership statistics. To view it, click the fireworks graphics below; for some of my own takes on these numbers and others not included in that infographic, scroll past it.

To start, I had slightly fewer readers than in 2012, at 84,411 versus 89,639. That’s mainly because I didn’t have any one post blow up from a link at a widely-read blog. Instead, the most-read post was my 2011 rewrite of a cheat sheet I wrote on the Post intranet about forwarding Lotus Notes e-mail to Gmail–followed by two other how-to posts, one on my cure for a runaway OS X “CalendarAgent” process and another about places where T-Mobile can provide 3G service for older iPhones.

(I’m going to ping T-Mo PR for an update on that data; if people are relying on me for help, I might as well deliver something current.)

As for what sites sent traffic here, “Search Engines”–by which I mean “Google and then trace elements of Bing and Yahoo”–led the list. WordPress.com set them aside to highlight human-curated sites: first Twitter, then Facebook, then USA Today.

The dearly-departed Google Reader also got a shout-out in my blog host’s presentation. Its sort-of replacement Google+ did not; by WordPress.com’s count, Google’s social network sent less traffic than a single reader comment at the Post’s site. Will my activating the new option to have posts automatically shared on G+ change that? Look for an answer in the 2014 version of this post, coming in about 365 days.