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.

 

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

 

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

 

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.

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.