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.

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.

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.

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.

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.



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.