Why I don’t and (probably) won’t use an ad blocker

It will cost me a few hundred dollars to try iOS 9’s new support for ad-blocking tools, courtesy of that feature not working on my vintage iPad mini. (Thanks for not documenting that and other incompatibilities, Apple.) But even after I upgrade to an iPad mini 4, I probably still won’t treat myself to an ad-reduced mobile Web by paying for such popular content blockers as Crystal or Purify.

IiOS 9 ad blockers mentioned the reasons why in a comment on my Yahoo Tech post Tuesday, but the answer deserves a little more space.

It’s not about a sense of professional loyalty, although I would feel more than a little dirty undercutting the advertising revenue that helps news sites pay me and my friends in the business.

(Ars Technica founder Ken Fisher made that argument well in this March 2010 post.)

This is more a case of me trying to keep a little of the common touch online. In general, I stick with default settings so I will experience the same issues as the average Web user (also, I’m lazy). I will depart from defaults to keep my devices secure–that’s why Flash isn’t on this laptop–but installing extra apps to get a cleaner Web experience gets me too far from that ideal.

In particular, relying on ad blocking invites me to recommend sites without realizing their annoyance factor. If a site’s going to throw a sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog before you can read every story, I don’t want to learn about that behavior afterwards from grumpy readers.

(My occasional client PCMag.com often presents that kind of newsletter dialog. And yet I gladly refer people there, because their journalists do good work. See, it’s complicated!)

I also need to know if my regular clients are getting obnoxious with the ads–remember, I was at the Post when an overload of ads and social-media widgets began to bog down everybody’s reading–on the chance that my complaint to management improves matters. You’ll tell me about that kind of problem, right?

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

Dealing with your work disappearing

If you were going to look up any of the tech-guide stories I wrote for Gannett’s NowU last year, don’t. NowU has become more like NotForU: Gannett stopped updating the site in the spring and shut it down a few weeks ago.

NowU closing noticeThis wasn’t the first time I’ve had my work vanish from the Web. My blog posts for the Consumer Electronics Association evaporated after a CMS switch, and all of the short updates I wrote for Sulia disappeared when that site closed. This time around, however, was better in one important way: My editor e-mailed me in late April to give me a heads-up about the impending closure of the site.

That note gave me more than enough time to save my stories as PDFs. At CEA, I had to rely on Internet Archive copies when management there let me repost some of those pieces here. At Sulia, I had neither a backup elsewhere on the Web nor advance notice of its demise, not that I was going to try to reproduce a few hundred microblog entries.

(The Internet Archive couldn’t preserve my stories at Gannett’s would-be hub for 45-and-over empty-nesters because NowU’s site was apparently coded to block it. That’s not how I would have run things, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.)

What I’m left with, then, is the enjoyment I derived from researching and writing those stories, the new sources I discovered in the process, the (generous!) payments that arrived on time–and, not least, the chance to sell stories about those topics all over again. If you’ve got a freelance budget and could use a how-to about WiFi and travel, international smartphone roaming, TV technology, or cutting the cord, please get in touch.

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.

Event-space review (first in a series): the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center

I just spent three days in a row at the same event venue–at two different conferences, which strikes me as a particularly pathological level of Washingtonality.

That also made me think: Why not review the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center? I’ve spent enough time there over the years–much like some of the news organizations chronicled in its exhibits, this museum seems increasingly reliant on the events business–so sharing the accumulated knowledge I’ve picked up along with an assortment of event badges seems the least I can do.

(The two conferences: the Ashoka Future Forum and Mashable’s Digital Beltway.)

Newseum conference center interiorLocation

The worst I can say about the Newseum’s 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW address is that it’s a tad inconvenient for people coming in on Metro’s Orange, Blue or Silver Lines. In that situation, you’re looking at either a 10- to 12-minute hike from Metro Center or Federal Triangle (if you’re coming from Virginia, exit at Metro Center to avoid a long wait to cross Pennsylvania) or changing trains twice to get to the closest stop, Archives.

Otherwise, it’s an easy walk from Capitol Hill and a reasonable stroll from much of downtown. The closest Capital Bikeshare station is at 6th and Indiana, barely two blocks away.

The real payoff awaits upstairs, the $450 million view from the outdoor terraces on the seventh and eighth floors. I like that scenery so much I used it as a backdrop for my Twitter profile pic. (My thanks to Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin for taking the photo.)

Bandwidth and Power

The “Newseum Guest” WiFi is routinely swamped by demand (and has a history of not providing a working IP address to my phone), and yet T-Mobile’s signal fades out once I get too far from the windows. It’s depressing. Bonus feature Friday: I couldn’t get the Newseum’s own site to show up over its WiFi, even as my phone was able to display it.

Outlets are also pretty scarce around here. Tip: In the main auditorium, get a seat all the way at the back and look for the outlets in the floor concealed by metal flip-up panels. If you’re going to a breakout session in one of the smaller conference rooms on the eighth floor, they’re harder to find. I’m not sure any exist in rooms 806 and 807 except behind the speakers’ table.

(You’ll note that I’m using some of the same criteria that I use to judge airport lounges, another specialized space in which I spend a fair amount of time.)

Newseum city view with beverageCatering

I have yet to get a bad meal here. Breakfast usually isn’t hot but always features a good variety of pastries, the boxed lunches show some creativity (though like most, they include far too much food), and the hors d’oeuvres are world-class. If an event includes dinner, you should be in luck–especially if it’s at The Source restaurant on the ground floor.

Plus, you can usually count on mid-afternoon snacks that include such shelf-stable fare as Kind bars and little packages of trail mix. Stash them in your bag for future travel sustenance.


The restrooms are not only spotless but feature a form of decor that could only exist in a museum of journalism: flubbed headlines and captions from the Columbia Journalism Review’s archives such as this April 24, 2000 gem from the San Francisco Chronicle, “State Governments Are Sold on EBay for Surplus Auctions.”

The check-in swag has included a free Newseum ticket at least half the time I’m here. That’s nice, given that I’d rather not pay to attend a museum devoted to my profession–and which still has a 2010 interview of me about the publishing possibilities of tablets playing on a screen on the second or third floor. And on the way out, there’s the chance that scanning the newspaper front pages on display at street level will reveal the byline of a high-school-newspaper colleague.

Apple Watch coverage as a spectator sport

I didn’t see or touch an Apple Watch until yesterday–when I played with a couple in an Apple Store, just like anybody else could.

Apple Watch close-upThat was a somewhat unavoidable consequence of my freelancer status intersecting with Apple PR’s choosy habits (as seen in 9to5mac’s fascinating chart of which places did and did not get review hardware before earlier iOS device launches): An outlet big enough to merit early Apple Watch access will already have a full-time staffer ready to review the thing.

It happens and doesn’t really bother me, although it did when I was at the Post and felt that One of America’s Most Important Newspapers was being snubbed. To the Apple reps I yelled at over decisions made by their bosses: I’m sorry.

Anyway, it’s been positively relaxing to sit out this round of the new-Apple-gadget media circus and instead read everybody else’s reviews at my leisure. I started with those from my regular clients–David Pogue’s at Yahoo Tech, Ed Baig’s at USA Today–and then proceeded to check out John Gruber’s reviewJoanna Stern’s critique at the Wall Street Journal, Nilay Patel’s lengthy assessment for The Verge, and Farhad Manjoo’s evaluation in the New York Times.

Apple Watch reviewsAs ever, it was fascinating to see what issues each reviewer focused on and which ones didn’t merit a mention. Fun fact: None cited the watch’s thickness (at 10.5 mm, or .413 inches, it’s thinner than the Moto 360 I did not like enough to buy). Maybe I’m an oddball to be so persnickety about smartwatch thickness?

I also enjoyed seeing the Verge’s designers get to play with the layout of that piece, and I thought the day-in-the-life-of construction of that review and the WSJ’s was a good way to unpack the Apple Watch’s utility–and the limits of its battery life.

So now that I’ve played with the Apple Watch up close, am I tempted to buy it? Of course not: I have an Android phone. And even if I’d broken my streak of never owning an iPhone, this entire category of product still looks at least one update cycle away from earning a spot on my shopping list.