You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.

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Why yes, I did get your CES PR pitch.

I’ve gotten seriously behind in my e-mail, even by my usual pathetic standards. To save time, I will use this post to answer an entire category of messages: e-mailed requests for my time during CES in Las Vegas next month.

CES 2014 tablet manAre you still going to CES?

Yes. Why should this January be any different from the last 16?

Will we see you at our press conference?

Good question! On one hand, the waits to get into big-ticket press conferences (that are more like lectures, what with the lack of time for Q&R or even hands-on inspection of these products) often preclude going to earlier events. On the other hand, I don’t know what my various editors will want me to do. Sorry, it’s complicated.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. If I haven’t gotten back to you yet, I will soon. Probably.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Tuesday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Wednesday will find me there and then in the North Hall.
  • Thursday will probably be the soonest I can get to the South Hall’s two levels and to the Sands exhibit space.

We’re scheduling meetings at [someplace not at the convention center or walkable distance from it]. 

You do know how much CES logistics suck, right? The odds are not in your favor, not unless some attendance-required event pulls me off the show floor and near your event.

Can we set up a meeting at [ShowStoppers/Pepcom]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom, rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Any interest?

I’d make fun of this follow-up, but I’ve used the same lame line when checking up on freelance pitches to potential clients.

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?

Apple Derangement Syndrome

I thought Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column about stores blocking Apple Pay and other NFC-payment apps would provoke some emotional reactions from angry iPhone users. I was wrong.

IScratched Apple logonstead, the comments thread, Twitter and my inbox lit up with denunciations of me for being an Apple shill. One typical tweet: “Pathetic apple fanboy. You’re not fooling anyone. How much did apple pay you for that trash?” Another Twitter interlocutor suggested I get Ebola, providing me an overdue opportunity to try Twitter’s block function.

In e-mail, where you don’t have to worry about what onlookers think of your foaming at the mouth, things were even less civil. One fellow whose e-mail signature identified him as a technology consultant decried my enabling “Apple Octopus pot culture,” whatever that is. A particularly incensed reader managed to drop seven f-bombs into the first four sentences.

And all of this was about a column that explained how blocking NFC inconveniences Android and Windows Phone users as well as anybody with an iPhone 6 to 6 Plus, and which led off with a photo of my own Android phone getting rejected at a CVS.

But no, basic logic or reading comprehension isn’t necessary when one is in the grip of Apple Derangement Syndrome. And expecting readers to take a minute to learn that I’ve never owned an iPhone and am responsible for gracing the Washington Post’s site with the sarcastic query “why does Steve Jobs hate America?”… man, that’s just crazy talk.

Yahoo Tech Apple Pay comments countApple has always had people who dislike its products and its attitude, but this full-on, frothing hate seems a more recent development. I can only guess that’s because if you think this phenomenally successful company really will take over the world, it must be stopped by any means necessary and you can’t wait a second longer to act.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with Google many times, most recently when a German media exec suggested the gang in Mountain View applied, I kid you not, North Korean media-manipulation techniques. And only a decade ago, Microsoft Derangement Syndrome was much more of a thing than it is now.

But there’s never been such a thing as Palm Derangement Syndrome, Dell Derangement Syndrome or Nokia Derangement Syndrome. Don’t you feel sorry for those companies now?

A grab-bag of #GamerGate responses

Tuesday was a busier day than usual for me on Twitter. Yahoo Tech ran my column decrying the vicious and creepy harassment of a few women in or connected to the gaming industry by what I called a “nutcase fringe” of “GamerGate”–and, more important, Twitter’s failure to take some basic steps to make itself less harassment-friendly–and my Twitter notifications promptly blew up.

Twitter analytics for GamerGate weekThe GamerGaters who showed up there–and in the post’s comments thread and on my Facebook page–were not amused. I spent most of the morning replying to those tweets but then had to turn my attention back to work. So for anybody who’s been waiting for a reply–or would like one exceeding 140 characters–here are my responses to the most common comments on my column.

Why didn’t you write about the doxxing and harassment of GamerGate supporters?

That’s the fairest point I’ve seen made. But this was a column about the history of harassment on Twitter–which has seen women take by far the worst abuse, as I noted in my mentions of Kathy Sierra and Adria Richards’ ordeals–and the service’s ineffectual response to it. I could have and should have written it months ago; the attacks on GamerGate opponents represent just another chapter in the story of a part of online culture that needs to die.

Plus, I have seen no credible evidence that harassment of GamerGate supporters has been as prolonged and vicious as that of Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian and other female critics of GamerGate.

(To anybody who’s been hit with death threats on Twitter, I’m sorry. Nobody should be subjected to that crap for speaking their mind. To those sending those threats: What the hell is wrong with you?)

This is about journalism ethics.

Those of you saying this, I believe you. But I also don’t get where you’re coming from. The massive influence AAA game publishers have over the gaming media and the willingness of some writers to suck up to them have been a glaring issue since the 1990s–back when I was writing and editing game reviews at the Post myself–and now you’re up in arms over a game nobody had heard of, Quinn’s Depression Quest, getting a little publicity? You’re saying the real sickness in gaming media, the reason to grab the pitchforks and torches, is the relationships some indie developers have with individual writers?

Oh, and the chat logs showing this meme was cooked up by a bunch of 4chan trolls using sockpuppet Twitter accounts display little concern about journalism ethics.

(Note also that the GamerGate outcry over the phony allegation that sleeping with a game writer got Quinn a favorable review of Depression Quest has led to the game getting about a billion times more mentions than it would have received otherwise.)

Twitter notifications on watchWe just want the politics taken out of game journalism.

Not everything has to be political. But if you take gaming seriously as a creative endeavor–a goal I remember most game-industry types supporting back in the ’90s–it’s delusional and incoherent to declare it exempt from any political scrutiny.

If you don’t appreciate Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of games, you can read somebody else’s–most reviews don’t put games in any social or political context, same as many write-ups of music, movies and books. Or write your own.

We’re tired of SJWs imposing their agenda on the gaming industry.

That’s “SJW,” as in “Social Justice Warrior.” Beyond the silliness of that supposed insult (me, I think it’s good to care whether an industry marginalizes people who could make it better), the idea that feminists are in a position to order around the game industry or any other segment of the technology sector is laughable.

The subtext of some of these objections, that the gaming industry does not need to change, troubles me much more. Historically, the majority culture in America telling a minority culture “can’t you just pipe down and let us keep things the way they are?” has led to some darker chapters in our country’s history.

There is a history of unjustly blaming video games for real-world violence, but that complaint hasn’t been brought up much by GamerGaters. And now that a threat of a school shooting led Sarkeesian to cancel a planned appearance at Utah State University–campus police told her they couldn’t check attendees for weapons under the state’s open concealed-carry laws–it would be awkward to bring up that.

(The game industry hasn’t done itself a favor by shying away from that argument, as game designer Daniel Greenberg—a friend and, years ago, one of my better freelance contributors—argues in this post at The Atlantic.)

The publicity over these attacks is unwarranted; those women should have just ignored the trolls.

The accounts of people who have been hit with repeated, graphic threats of rape and death indicate no such thing is possible. Not having had to endure such a thing, I’m inclined to believe those who have.

Another thought: It would have been an interesting experiment to publish my column under a female byline and a woman’s photo.

You’re advocating for censorship.

If you can’t tell the difference between governments arresting people for their speech and a corporation deciding on the rules of its own social network, you’re an idiot.

We’re not misogynists. We value diversity and welcome women, and there’s no evidence GamerGate is behind any of the attacks.

I believe you when you say that. But a non-trivial proportion of the pro-GamerGate testimony I’ve seen has exhibited sexism of varying levels of toxicity, from saying Quinn reached “the top” (as if she’s now EA) “on her back” to calling complaints about GamerGate “stupid feminist BS.”

And some of the most public supporters of GamerGate are outright cretins, from actor Adam Baldwin (who earlier wondered if President Obama wanted to bring Ebola to America) to writer and professional jerk Milo Yiannopoulos (last year, his mockery of complaints about female underrepresentation at tech conferences ran under the headline “Put a sock in it, you dickless wonders”).

And all the way at the nutcase fringe, you have the creeps on 8chan plotting these attacks. This is the problem with calling a hashtag a movement: How do you kick people out of GamerGate when they say they support it too?

As for people who actually make games, an increasing number of them don’t want anything to do with this mess.

We’re tired of being demeaned and stereotyped in the media.

I get it: You don’t appreciate stories like Leigh Alexander’s “‘Gamers are over” post at Gamasutra questioning whether there is a “gamer” identity and whether it has anything redeeming to offer. But having spent most of the last decade reading about the demise of my own occupation, I have to say: If you want to call yourself an oppressed class, get in line.

Meanwhile, what has GamerGate itself done to the image of gamers? Does the rest of the world think you’re a saner lot with a more secure grasp on reality now? Do they think you’re a more pleasant bunch to hang out with? I will bet that they don’t. And that GamerGate will wind up as one of the most counterproductive attempts at a PR campaign since the Iraqi Information Minister.

An individual customer rep is not a reliable source

Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten into debates with readers about whether an option I’ve written about exists. Each time, my source has been a company PR contact, against which the reader has cited a sales or support representative who told them otherwise.

Verizon support chatThe first case came up in my Wirecutter guide to wireless carriers (updated today for the iPhone 6!) when I warned readers that Verizon’s otherwise appealing “Single Line Smartphone” plans exclude tethering.

I noted that I’d seen Verizon reps say otherwise (as in the screenshot here), but that I’d gotten the official word from a Verizon spokeswoman and the @VzWSupport Twitter account.

Then I had a commenter on the story report that two different reps had said  tethering was included. Even though that would make zero business sense for VzW–why offer a plan with the same features as one that costs $30 extra?

Next came last weekend’s USA Today column about buying an unlocked iPhone 6. In it, I cited reports from iPhone 6 purchasers and a confirmation from an Apple publicist as proof that the “no-contract” T-Mobile iPhone 6 for sale at Apple’s site is unlocked and can be used with any carrier.

Big surprise: I’ve since had readers saying Apple and T-Mobile reps told them that this phone is locked to T-Mobile. One particularly anxious shopper wrote that he’d gotten that answer from nine different people at Apple and T-Mobile.

Look: I am not the biggest fan of Apple PR, but they have been honest when I ask a yes-or-no question about an Apple product such as “is this phone unlocked?” (That’s going back many years; the staffer who gave me this answer is somebody I’ve dealt with since at least 2008.) Remember, too, that you’ve got firsthand reports from iPhone customers, including several who commented on the USAT piece.

(T-Mobile’s @TMobileHelp Twitter account did chime in, but its reply only mentions the carrier’s own warranty and “premium handset protection”–neither of which should concern you if you’ll use another carrier–and doesn’t actually say the phone sold by Apple comes locked. Apple said nothing in response because it’s apparently allergic to social-media conversations.)

Meanwhile, customer-service and support reps get the story wrong all the time. They think an old policy still applies, they try to make the customer happy, their boss told them something else, they just guess. This happens so often in travel that FlyerTalkers have an acronym for their preferred workaround for getting reps to do something allowed by policy: HUACA, short for “hang up and call again.”

None of this back-and-forth is necessary when companies post the correct answer on their sites. But I shouldn’t complain too much; their failure to do so opens an information inefficiency that I can exploit for profit… and subsequent reader e-mails explaining how they know I got it wrong.

 

Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?