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.

A broken MacBook power adapter and crowdsourced charging

I spent my last two days and change at SXSW without a working power adapter for my MacBook Air, and remaining productive on my laptop was far easier than I could have imagined.

Frayed MacBook Air chargerThe insulation around the cable on my 2012 model’s MagSafe 2 charger had started fraying just off the power brick months ago. Sometime Sunday afternoon I realized that the wiring underneath had become entirely exposed, and the thing would only charge if it fell away from the brick at the right angle. By that night, it wouldn’t charge at all.

It’s a testament to the enormous popularity of Apple hardware that keeping my laptop charged over the next few days was so little trouble. It was nothing at all like the horrendous experience I had after forgetting to pack the charger for a Dell laptop on my way to CES 2007, when compatible power bricks for this model were a lot harder to find than Dell’s popularity at the time would have suggested.

Instead, my biggest hangup was properly spacing out my “hey, can I borrow your charger” requests so each of my SXSW pals with a MacBook Air wouldn’t feel too put upon. The closest I came to genuine inconvenience was when my Yahoo Tech colleague Jason Gilbert and I, sitting side by side with depleted laptops, had to take turns with his power adapter: We’d plug in one MacBook, charge it long enough to get its battery gauge out of the red, then plug in the other.

It also helps that laptop battery life has advanced enormously since 2007: Even after two and a half years of charge cycles, my MacBook can still last for four hours, then retain most of its remaining charge while asleep.

I didn’t even bother going to the Apple Store in Austin, far north of downtown, or looking up other computer stores downtown. I saved that errand for when I got home, when I paid $83.74 with tax for a replacement charger. Oof.

I’m not a fan of the minimalist, mono-port design of Apple’s new MacBook, but at least its use of the compact and crafty USB-C standard for charging means its users won’t have to pay those kinds of monopoly prices if they wind up in my situation.

In the meantime: Is there anything I could have done to the charger before it failed completely? The guy at the Apple Store who sold me the replacement said he sees plenty of charger cables shrouded with electrical tape, and it appears that I could have patched the cord with sugru–but of course I had neither of those things handy when the charger still worked, sort of. Sigh.

The enduring value of answering somebody’s question

Weekends are a slow time around here, but not last weekend. Credit for that goes to the switch back to Daylight Savings Time… and a post I dashed off on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage last summer that I haven’t tried to promote since.

DST how-to page viewsThat rant about the awful interface of my wife’s Timex sports watch shared my hard-earned knowledge of how to change the time on the thing. And because this watch apparently sold reasonably well, I now get a crazy amount of traffic at each time change. Saturday, for example, this blog racked up 2,079 page views, or about 10 times the typical traffic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that happen, though. The single most popular post here is a how-to about setting up Lotus Notes to forward all your mail to a Gmail account. That, too, has benefited from near-zero promotion on my part since I rewrote the instructions I’d published on the Post’s intranet.

The good news here is that Google can work as intended: If you answer somebody’s question accurately, your work will show up in search queries and get read. You don’t need the post to go viral on social media or be endorsed by some influencer; it gets found pretty much on its own.

The bad news is that this doesn’t happen instantly. And in newsrooms where writers are paid based on the traffic they generate, that kind of slow-burn popularity may not show up in the short-term metrics that can put extra dollars in people’s paychecks or leave those same staffers a little closer to being ushered out the door.

T-Mobile’s free 2G international roaming is not bad at all

BARCELONA–I did something weird when I got off the plane in Brussels Sunday morning after a horrendously-delayed flight out of Dulles: I took the phone out of airplane mode.

T-Mobile 2G roaming

My usual routine on a trip to Europe has been to limp along on WiFi until I can buy a prepaid SIM (which hopefully will work right away but doesn’t always). But after switching my T-Mobile service from an old small-business plan to a slightly more expensive Simple Choice plan with free 2G roaming, I didn’t have to put up with that workaround.

What I didn’t know before this trip here for Mobile World Congress is if I could stand to spend that much time on an EDGE or slower connection. The limits of T-Mobile’s network in rural areas give me that experience more often than I’d like, and it’s not fun.

But when the alternative is either WiFi alone or having to find a store selling prepaid SIMs–sadly, the one in the arrivals area of Barcelona’s airport seemed to have closed when I arrived Sunday afternoon–slow but free can be not bad.

T-Mobile 2G roaming speed testBy “slow” I’m talking a connection that the Speedtest app clocked going no faster than .13 Mbps on a download, .24 on an upload. That’s nowhere near fast enough for sustained use or for work–Monday, I switched to faster bandwidth.

But in the meantime, that EDGE service provided sufficient bandwidth for my e-mail to arrive in the background, to read and write tweets (and even share a picture on Twitter, slowly), to get directions on Google Maps, to check up on Facebook and check in on Foursquare Swarm, and to browse mobile-optimized Web sites with a certain degree of patience.

I’m not alone in that judgment: Ars Technica’s Peter Bright mentioned to me on Monday that he was relying on T-Mobile 2G roaming, and avgeek blogger Seth Miller wrote in 2013 that this free roaming could very well be good enough for short visits.

And even if you’ll still buy a prepaid SIM at your first opportunity overseas, there’s a lot to be said for getting off the plane and not having to freak out over what it will cost you to exit airplane mode before that point.