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.

“Damn you OS X autocorrect,” corporate-brands edition

I know, I know: Making fun of autocorrect fails is not new. But the automatic spelling correction in OS X is something else, courtesy of its apparent inability to figure out that my starting a word with a capital letter suggests I might be typing a proper name–say, a reasonably well-known online brand’s name–and that a little more deference would therefore be in order.

OS X autocorrect preferenceYou can argue that autocorrecting “Glympse” to “Glimpse” is fair game. But what about the following replacements I’ve seen OS X make?

“Etsy” to “Easy”

“Roku” to “Rook”

“Waze” to “Was”

“Ooma” to “Roma”

Meanwhile, it took a long time for Apple’s desktop operating system to stop auto-correcting Dulles Airport’s “IAD” code to “iAd,” as in the advertisement-serving system in iOS.

People’s names are, of course, just as much fair game to OS X’s autocorrect. When I was live-tweeting the Federal Communications Commission’s net-neutrality vote, OS X kept trying to change FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s last name to “Cleburne.” Perhaps it has an undocumented fetish for that Texas town of 29,377.

I have to ask: Isn’t this the sort of bossy intrusiveness that an earlier Apple justifiably mocked during Microsoft Word’s Clippy era? And then I must wonder: Why haven’t I shut off autocorrect already–in System Preferences’ Keyboard category, click “Text” and uncheck the “Correct spelling automatically” box–instead of whining about it yet again?

I survived doing our own taxes (I think)

Over the last few weeks, I did the one thing I was sure I’d never do after leaving the Post: prepare my own taxes instead of paying a tax professional to do the work.

I’d outsourced my tax prep over the last three years with generally satisfactory results. But this time around my tax guy had raised his rates while my own financial situation had not gotten more complex; I felt like I had finally disciplined my once moronic, then merely slovenly accounting; it seemed wrong to go four years without even looking at a category of software millions of Americans do battle with every spring.

1099s and TurboTaxAnd so I renewed my acquaintance with Intuit’s TurboTax for the first time since 2011–not as a reviewer, but as a paying customer. It went better than I’d feared.

The biggest upgrade from my earlier agonies was effective record-keeping: I’d entered every cash expense last year into a Google spreadsheet on my phone within hours or, at worst, days, then imported business credit-card transactions into the same sheet every quarter. Between that and being able to consult last year’s return for guidance on what should go where, I had the outlines of my Schedule C knocked out in shockingly little time.

That’s a great reason to go to a tax pro in the first place: If you don’t know to do this stuff, you need somebody who can coach you. The results don’t just help at tax time, but throughout the year.

TurboTax’s ability to import tax forms for all of our mutual funds–something I’ve complimented in earlier reviews–was a great time-saver. And seeing each investment firm’s numbers flow into our return meant I got a direct look at the tax hit inflicted by some actively-traded mutual funds versus index funds. Ouch.

I was relieved to see that the stupid date-validation bugs I’d complained about in 2011 were gone–well, in most of the app.

Did I play this unnecessary game of tax-code-optimization as well as I could? I believe I did, but I won’t know for sure until after we actually file. Yes, although the 1040 and our assorted alphabetical schedules are done, I opted to file an extension. I will be dropping a sizable chunk of money into my SEP IRA to chisel down our tax bill, and I’d rather not completely clean out my account in the process.

I also did our Virginia taxes in TurboTax. Then I deleted that return after writing down the total it had calculated and the two numbers I’d need to put down on my state return. Intuit may have convinced a gullible General Assembly to scrap the state’s free iFile site in 2010, but that doesn’t mean I need to reward its successful regulatory capture with my own business when state taxes aren’t that hard and I can always file on paper.

 

 

Cert-ifiable: How my Mac didn’t trust a new secure site from the Feds

For about three minutes on Monday, I thought I’d uncovered a gigantic security flaw in a new government site set up to push other .gov sites towards secure browsing: When I tried visiting The HTTPS-Only Standard, my iMac’s copy of Safari reported that it couldn’t verify that site’s identity and its copy of Chrome said my connection wasn’t private.

https.cio.gov cert errorBut when you think you’ve uncovered an obvious error in a site that’s been out for over a week, it’s usually your own setup at fault. And within minutes of my tweeting about those warnings, I got a reply from the guy who configured the site saying he couldn’t reproduce the problem.

After some quick testing on this computer, my MacBook Air, my iPad and my phone (during which I silently congratulated myself for editing some accusatory sarcasm out of that tweet before posting it), I realized this fault was confined to Safari and Chrome on my two Macs. Every other browser, including Firefox on my iMac, got through to that HTTPS-Only site normally.

Further Twitter conversations pointed me to each Mac’s store of saved site certificates, accessible in the Keychain Access app. For Safari and Chrome to encrypt a connection to that government site, OS X needed to match its digital certificate against a sort of master key, a “root certificate” stored in the system.

old Comodo certificate(For a better description of how the mathematical magic of encrypted browsing happens, consult my friend Glenn Fleishman’s 2011 explainer for the Economist.)

Both Macs had an old copy of Comodo Group’s root certificate, one not listed on Apple’s inventory of trusted root certs. I tried deleting that certificate, figuring it probably wouldn’t make things worse–and that was all it took for the HTTPS-Only site to work as advertised and for one or two other sites to stop coughing up security warnings.

With my encrypted browsing back to normal, I’m left to wonder how my system keychains got tangled up like that. Any theories? Before you ask: Yes, I’ve done a full scan with the ClamXav malware scanner and haven’t found any issues.