One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.

Installing Windows 10 on an old, slow ThinkPad: success, mostly

I asked for trouble Thursday night and didn’t get it: I installed Windows 10 without first backing up the PC, then I blithely accepted every default setting during the setup, and things pretty much worked out.
Windows 10 desktop with notificationsThe machine in question was the ThinkPad X120e I bought in the spring of 2011. It got me through my first year of freelancing, but I’ve since relegated it to fact-checking duties when I cover a Windows topic. Its cut-rate AMD processor is too slow, and the SSD I put in place of its original hard drive–mostly as a research project–is short on space after I reserved a partition for a Linux install I have yet to undertake.
(I should have spent extra on a more robust configuration. In my defense, I was unemployed at the time.)
But even a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 10 had to be an upgrade over a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 8. So after waiting a day for Microsoft to deliver the free Win 10 upgrade I’d reserved, I used Whitson Gordon’s tip at Lifehacker to download it myself. The Get Windows 10 app had already confirmed my ThinkPad was compatible, leaving my only required pre-install chore clearing out room on the SSD. The disk-cleanup wizard got maybe a quarter of the job done, and I took care of the rest by moving out some old videos.
After the installer checked for and downloaded some updates, I went ahead with the installation at 10:36 p.m. Here’s my log of what happened next:
• Step one: yet another round of checking for updates.
• Actual install, in which I went with the default of keeping personal files and apps, began 10:42.
• 11:16: First reboot.
• 11:18: “Upgrading Windows: Your PC will restart several times. Sit back and relax.”
• After being seemingly stuck at 88% of the copying-files stage, another reboot at 12:04 a.m. put me at 30% complete overall and in the “Installing features and drivers” phase.
• 12:22: One more reboot.
• 12:36: After another reboot, the machine welcomed by name and asked if I wanted to use Microsoft’s “Express Settings.” Sure, why not?
• 12:39: “Hi. We’re setting things up for you. This won’t take long.”
• My one moment of anxiety: “It’s taking a bit longer than usual, but it should be ready soon.” Below it, in smaller type: “Don’t turn off your PC.”
• 12:47: Voila, the computer booted into the Windows 10 desktop!
Windows 10 storage settingsThis was nothing like my nightmarish experiences loading the preview version of Windows 8 and the insanely prolonged installation of the final build–I feel tired just reading my notes about that ordeal. This upgrade also went by faster than Windows 8.1’s installation, which somehow dragged on for two hours and 35 minutes.

Two days later, the ThinkPad seems to be running fine and is unquestionably more pleasant to be around than when it ran Win 8. The only real issue I’ve seen is that Cortana is slow to respond and hasn’t talked me to except when I was adjusting a few of her settings. I don’t know why that is but am not inclined to work too hard to fix it, since this laptop is overdue for an upgrade anyway.

On the other hand, I only see a few Windows 10 laptops with USB-C power inputs. (Have I mentioned I don’t like proprietary AC adapters?) So maybe I’ll be spending a little more seeing how Windows 10 runs on this old thing. I suppose this also means I should finally pick a Linux distribution to put on that spare partition.

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

The fine art of viewing fireworks in D.C.

It’s July 4th, and if you’re in the nation’s capital you (or at least, those of you without small children in tow) have one job: Find a way to see the fireworks that doesn’t involve dealing with the hordes on or near the Mall and the transportation chaos before and after.

Fireworks from rooftopThe single best option I’ve found is either the roof of somebody’s house or the balcony of somebody’s apartment. Either way, you’ve got a maximum of personal space with food, beverages and a bathroom close by–and you’ll be with friends or at least friends of friends. And if you’re really lucky, some pyro a few doors down will be setting off fireworks from his own roof, a sight my wife and I were treated to in 2009 atop one pal’s Logan Circle row house.

Second comes the roof deck of an apartment or office. That was our go-to solution for a few years when friends of ours lived in a high-rise a few blocks away from our abode, and I’m sure people who work in buildings downtown with roof decks become a lot more popular this time of year.

But buildings aren’t the only way to see the fireworks. In 2006, we rented a canoe with two friends of ours from the late, great Jack’s Boathouse, then watched the pyrotechnics from the Potomac as we shared a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese. This required a few compromises (like having no bathroom option short of paddling over to Theodore Roosevelt Island and running into the woods, something nobody had to do) but was pretty great overall.

These days, though, having an almost five-year-old means we have to look for simpler solutions. Like our front porch, from where we can sort of see the fireworks through the trees across the street. Or even falling back to watching them on TV. And that’s okay too; the important thing about America’s birthday is to take a minute to appreciate this good country we live in.

How to survive walking around in D.C. during the summer

There are a lot of things I love about living in the D.C. area, but weather like today’s is not among them. It’s only just now dipped below 90 degrees and the humidity’s been stuck at about 50 percent–and neither number is even that bad compared to how things can get in July and August.

Seersucker fabricBut I have to venture out of the house eventually, and most of the time that does not involve walking a few feet to the air-conditioned confines of my car. These are how I try to make the experience a little less ghastly.

Walk slowly. There is no point to running to catch a bus, a train or a taxi when you’ll wind up sweating through your shirt. Because I am habitually late to everything, this has been hard advice for me to follow.

Or don’t walk and take Bikeshare. Capital Bikeshare is better than walking for many short trips in the summer heat, because even lazy cycling generates a slight breeze.

Nix no-iron shirts. I usually pack no-iron shirts when I’ve traveling to someplace where the summer weather is actually nice, like San Francisco. At home, they stay in the closet most days between Memorial Day and Labor Day, because that fabric breathes so poorly. Until they start making business-casual long-sleeve shirts out of Dri-Fit, I’m going to be wearing a lot of seersucker and (when I let myself forget about all the required ironing) linen.

Carry a handkerchief. As if walking slowly and wearing seersucker shirts doesn’t make me look like enough of a fake Southern gentleman, I’ve also taken to carrying around a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off my face.

Stash the phone in a pocket screen-side out. I don’t quite know how this works–maybe it’s just my phone’s age showing?–but when it’s humid and I drop my phone in a pants pocket with its screen facing in, the touchscreen sensors seem more likely to think my leg is my fingertip, then register random bumps of the phone as me drawing the unlock pattern. Only my dumb luck can explain why that has not resulted in me posting complete gibberish on Facebook or Twitter, so I have to remember to stow the phone with the screen facing out until it cools off.

Why do I keep seeing journalists take notes on paper?

I was at a lunch briefing today, and of about 10 people around the table–some Visa executives, some PR minders, most journalists–I was the only person taking notes in an app instead of on paper.

Paper notepadThat’s a typical situation. And I don’t get it.

I started jotting down notes on mobile devices in 1995–anybody else remember the Sony MagicLink?–and by the turn of the century I’d switched to pixels over paper as my primary medium for that task. Back then, the Palm OS memo-pad app left much to be desired but still had two features absent from any paper notepad: a “find” function and the ability to back everything up.

Those two abilities alone made it worth my while to learn Graffiti and a series of other onscreen text-input systems–then have to explain to people that no, I wasn’t texting somebody else while they were talking to me.

It’s now 2015, and Evernote not only does those two core tasks but syncs automatically over the air, lets me embed everything from audio recordings to lists and tables, and runs on about every desktop and mobile platform ever made. And its eminently-usable basic version is free, although I finally started paying for the premium version this year to get extra features like scanning business cards.

Don’t like Evernote for whatever reason? You could use Microsoft’s OneNote. Or Google Keep. Or Apple’s Notes apps for OS X and iOS. Or any of dozens of third-party apps. I realize that you need to be able to type reasonably fast on a phone’s screen–but hasn’t that skill pretty much become a job prerequisite anyway, between texts, e-mail and Twitter?

I’m not saying paper notepads are useless–I keep one in my bag, just in case. But I haven’t brought that out for any reporting in years. Its most recent use: I handed it to my daughter to play with, and she drew me a picture of a flower.

My ongoing struggle to make comments suck less

One of the most common four-word phrases in journalism (after “the CMS from hell”) must be “don’t read the comments.” A lot of newsrooms treat reader comments as the equivalent of the town dump: They’re something you need to have, and you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Comments formI, however, am one of those weirdos who reads the comments–and not just when I see a bunch, but on almost every story I write. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves while attempting to argue. But most of it is because I don’t mind seeing what people think and usually enjoy answering a reader’s question–if not to their satisfaction, in a way that sane readers of the comments thread will regard as astute.

(That’s also why you can usually find me showing up in reddit comments about my stories, much as I used to watch Slashdot to see if any of my work was getting picked apart there.)

Last year, I heard some advice about comments that’s stayed with me: At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, the Texas Tribune’s Amanda `Krauss said that having a story’s author open the discussion by posting the first comment helped make the resulting conversation more civil. She had other advice that journalists can’t easily follow without major CMS tinkering (for instance, changing the “Like” button to a “Respect” one), but this first-comment thing is something any writer can do.

Question is, what should that first comment be? Here’s how I’ve handled that at recent Yahoo Tech columns:

• Sharing a how-to recipe that would have been too involved to cram into the story itself. Example: my review of the KnowRoaming SIM sticker, in which I used that first comment to explain how to stop a “SIM Toolkit” app from taking up full-time residence in your phone’s notifications.

• Using that space to revise and extend my remarks by describing the philosophical underpinnings of my outlook on the subject, as I did in Tuesday’s column about the impending expiration of some USA Patriot Act provisions that enable the NSA’s bulk surveillance. Reader replies to that: zero.

• The old standby of posing a question to readers about a key issue of the story, most recently seen in the column about Apple Watch app rules where I opened the comments by asking readers if they’re bothered at all by them or basically trust Apple to look out for them. Reader replies: three.

Explaining a story’s sourcing or just naming the people I talked to on the record who didn’t get a quote in the story seems like an obvious move, but I haven’t done that yet. Maybe next week?

I’m not sure I’m making a huge difference–I’m sure it won’t for readers who have already sworn off comments–but this practice only takes a few minutes and it helps ensure I won’t ignore the comments later on, or at least until a post gets featured on the Yahoo home page and promptly gets overrun with 2,000 comments. That seems a worthwhile use of my time.