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?

2014 in review: old and new clients

Somewhere there must exist freelance writers who keep the same core group of clients for many years in a row, but I’m not one of them. This year, like last, saw the Web addresses and the names on checks and direct-deposit transfers change yet again.

2014 calendarRealizing the transient nature of freelance work makes me appreciate the third anniversary of my contract-columnist gig with USA Today that much more. They continue to be one of my favorite clients, and this year that association led to some enjoyable extra work at Gannett’s NowU site.

Then there’s Yahoo Tech. This year kicked off with the moderately mind-bending experience of seeing my photo and those of my fellow columnists on a giant slide during Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote; since then I’ve discovered that I work with a fun bunch of people, that moderating comments gets difficult after the first few hundred, and that I enjoy taking my own stock-photo shots more than I’d realized.

And selling extra stories to Yahoo Tech beyond my weekly column has generated some much-appreciated extra income… while allowing me to cross “fly in a private jet” off the bucket list.

After those two, the client that’s occupied the bulk of my time has been the Wirecutter. Writing its guide to wireless service–already updated once, with a second revision in the works–has involved an enormous amount of time and math, but it’s made me a better student of the wireless industry. And I appreciate how my friends there not only run a good comment system and participate in it regularly but will send me quick notes about noteworthy input there.

I’ll also give a shout out to VentureBeat, which has neatly filled a gap in my current lineup by allowing me to review gadgets and apps that I should check out but which already have reviewers assigned at Yahoo and USAT.

Most of this outside work stepped up in the last third of the year. That plus a few payment hiccups earlier that inconveniently coincided with quarterly-tax deadlines provided me with the humbling experience of developing an intense interest in each invoice’s progress. Things are fine now, but the experience left me more sympathetic to startup types who have to obsess over cash flow.

I traveled almost as much as I did last year but with a much less even distribution of trips. As in, I didn’t go anywhere for work in August but then spent over half of September away from home. Ugh. Can the conference-scheduling cabal space things out better in 2015?

Although I upgraded the security of my accounts this year, I didn’t make any serious hardware upgrades–the first time I’ve gone 12 months without any major computer or gadget purchases since I started freelancing. I hope the industry can forgive me.

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you all in 2015.

Technology from a toddler’s perspective: “What’s an iPod?”

As I was working in my office earlier today, our almost four-and-a-half-year-old walked over  and picked up a worn old pair of white headphones from my desk drawer. “These are for travel,” she said. “They’re for my iPod,” I corrected.

Old iPodI should have predicted my daughter’s response: “What’s an iPod?”

Of course she wouldn’t know what one was. My iPod nano stopped working before she arrived, and my wife’s did not survive a trip through the washing machine a few months after our daughter’s birth (see also, parent brain).

My iPod was still collecting dust on my desk (don’t ask), so I handed it to my daughter. She picked it up, spun the click wheel a few times and said she’d written me a note. Somewhere, an Apple engineer reading this is laughing, because that was an interface possibility the company considered when it was designing the iPhone.

Seeing my daughter’s expectations of technology play out amounts to a constant source of amusement. While I’ve yet to see her swiping a printed page as if it were an iPad’s screen, she does assume that any computer’s display will respond to touch–resulting in a Microsoft-commercial moment when she tapped my MacBook Air’s screen and nothing happened.

My digital kid also treats streaming video as a given, which led to some upset moments on a plane when we had to explain that no, the Netflix app on mommy’s iPad wouldn’t be able to play Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I imagine that having to wait for a Christmas special to air on broadcast TV can be confusing for her as well: why can’t we just watch now?

And because our daughter has never known our living room to have a stereo system separate from the TV, I should have expected her to insist on playing her CDs through my mom’s DVD player and TV over Thanksgiving. The CD player and the better speakers one room away? No interest.

It all takes me back to the wonderful essay Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong wrote for TidBITS in 1995 about how his five-year-old had internalized the day’s computing possibilities well enough to pretend to be a help system: “If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here.” For all I know, DeLong’s son now writes some of the code that has been programming my daughter’s perspective on technology.

And yet: I must admit that our little one also knows what VHS is like. We had neglected to rid of one old VCR collecting dust under a TV upstairs–because who wants one these days?–and then a friend of my wife’s offered a set of kid-friendly movies on videotape. That’s how in 2014, I have become reacquainted with the joys of rewinding and fast-forwarding.

MLB playoffs > NFL, NBA and NHL playoffs

It’s 0-0 in the bottom of the second inning of the Nationals’ division series against the Giants. I am excited to see my city’s team playing in October. And a little nervous. Nats 2014 postseason tickets

The 2014 postseason–the second the Nats have reached since coming to D.C. nine years ago, also the second for a Washington baseball team since 1933–may end with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or it may end in the kind of soul-crushing loss that leaves one staring blankly into space until 4 a.m. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that baseball’s postseason–the difficulty of reaching it, the unpredictable outcomes allowed by a quick schedule and five-game division series, and the overall beauty of the national pastime–beats football’s, basketball’s and hockey’s. Let’s inventory what those other prime-time pro sports get wrong:

NFL: The impossibility of multiple-game playoff rounds in a sport as injury-prone/dangerous as football keeps the postseason relatively brief. But teams with a regular-season losing record can get in. And the hype about the Super Bowl–should I call it the “Big Game” to avoid annoying the NFL’s control freaks?–irks me to no end. Get over yourselves already.

(I have other issues with the NFL, but I’ll save those for later.)

NBA: By bloating the postseason to four best-of-seven rounds and then further padding out the schedule with a travel-dense 2-2-1-1-1 format, the NBA ensures that its playoffs regularly welcome teams with losing records and then grind on for almost two months. Wrong. And then the same handful of teams dominate the Finals. Boring.

NHL: Hockey, too, lets losing teams into its postseason. But my major gripe with the Stanley Cup playoffs–aside from the Caps’ helplessness in them–is the nearly two-month duration that ends with the absurdity of a sport born on frozen bodies of water being played in June.

(As for soccer: MLS, your postseason is fine by me, especially with D.C. United in it.)

The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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A post-Graham Post

The spectacle of experienced, often cynical journalists getting a little weepy over the prospect of their paper’s ownership changing from a group of rich people to one exceptionally rich person might seem strange.

But it really happened this week when the Washington Post stunned nearly everybody, myself included, by announcing its impending sale for $250 million to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Post in winterWhat was so special about the Graham family owning the newspaper and the Washington Post Company behind it?

This: To us, their stewardship was our rock.

The family had shown it would take punches for the paper. Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, when it was the fifth newspaper in a four-newspaper town, then subsidized its losses into the 1950s. His daughter Katharine Graham took over after his son-in-law Phil Graham’s suicide and stood up to Richard Nixon and much of the military-industrial complexher memoirs show she was an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the title.

And even as the newspaper industry started to slide, the Post’s two-tier stock structure locked Wall Street out of voting control and, we thought, ensured the paper could be managed for the duration while others made cruel and stupid staff cuts to meet short-term earnings goals.

For me and many other under-40 Posties, the family’s role was personified by Don Graham, the paper’s publisher from 1979 to 2000, chairman from 2000 to 2008 and still chief executive of its parent firm. “Mrs. Graham” had her well-earned perch in the 9th floor executive suite, but Don was a constant presence in the newsroom who could be counted on to read every story in the paper.

If you did a good job, you might get a handwritten compliment via interoffice mail, later on an appreciative e-mail. And if you screwed up, Don could understand. In January of 2000, stressed over my aunt’s death the day before, I completely blew up at a cranky caller and hung up on him in a stream of curses, something I’d never done before and never have since; the guy promptly called Don, who heard him out, apparently talked him off the ledge and refrained from having me canned.

In and outside the newsroom, Don declined to play the part of a media mogul. He’d followed Harvard by serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then in D.C.’s streets as a patrolman with the Metropolitan Police Department. He insisted he be compensated far less than his peers, with his salary frozen since 1991. It seemed normal that I’d have the occasional brief chat with him on the walk to Metro at the end of the day.

Up until maybe five years ago, working for the Post seemed one of the surest bets in journalism. But we weren’t doing as well as we thought–even as the apparent security of having the Grahams in our corner probably kept us from taking chances we should have. Circulation figures and ad revenues kept sinking, one round of buyouts begat another and another, and the newsroom leadership turned over more than once. Don Graham’s successors as publisher–Bo Jones from 2000 to 2008, his niece Katharine Weymouth from 2008 on–didn’t have the same newsroom presence.

I’ve wondered what the family members in charge thought about the steady erosion of their legacy. Now we know: Late last year, they began to explore the implausible: If we can’t escape a seemingly endless cycle of cuts and can’t find answers for the questions the newspaper business keeps throwing at us, maybe it’s time for somebody else to take over, somebody with new ideas and enough resources to fund the paper’s reinvention entirely free of the stock market’s concerns.

Since Monday’s news, I’ve been hearing anxiety from current and former Posties over what Bezos might have in store–from his history with unions to what Amazon’s done to independent bookstores. I don’t think you can overlook a deeper angst: that the Post is being wrenched off the foundation that had endured for over 80 years.

Accepting that change had to have been a crushing realization to the Graham family too–that you essentially must fire yourself from your life’s work. But it seems in keeping with the history I’ve read and the publisher I got to know. As my friend and fellow ex-Postie Frank Ahrens wrote in an eloquent note shared on Facebook: “After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.”

Don Graham’s work at the Washington Post may be near its close, but he remains one of the most decent, honorable people I have met. Thanks, Don.