The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

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Getting flamed

You’re never going to please everybody in a job like this.; sometimes you intensely displease somebody. And so Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column unpacking Apple’s WWDC announcements yielded an e-mail Wednesday from a reader with the subject line “Hater.” Here we go, I thought:

You are such an Apple-hater, it’s disgusting. I’m glad the Washington Post fired you. Your tech coverage sucked there. I stumbled across you today on Yahoo. Now I’ll know where to avoid you in the future.

FlamesThat kind of spittle-flecked invective goes by the name of “flaming” (or at least it once did; what do the kids call it these days?). Fortunately, it arrives exceedingly rarely and is vastly outnumbered by non-flame mail. The very next e-mail from a reader Wednesday began: “Glad to have found you on Yahoo Tech. I used to look forward to your Washington Post columns.”

(Note also that my possession of a Y chromosome makes my inbox easier to deal with. As in, I don’t have cretins expressing their disagreement with rape threats.)

And yet. A message like that requires some sort of response, and one of my character flaws is the pleasure I take in crafting a politely snarky reply–one that can withstand publicity if my cranky correspondent thinks posting it online will help his cause. So after reciting a certain line about customers from “Clerks,” I wrote back to note my history of buying and using Apple products (see, I’m a self-loathing hater!) and of complimenting them when warranted. I closed with an observation and a suggestion:

But my overall evaluation of this company’s work—or any other’s—is not a binary state. I am capable of appreciating some things it does while finding fault with others to come up with an assessment that’s neither 0 nor 1 but somewhere in between. I’m sorry you seem to be having trouble with that concept.
BTW, if you’re going to accuse somebody else of being a “hater” you might not want to delight in another person’s unemployment.

Will it persuade my reader? Maybe. About half the time I send back a civil response, the other person realizes they were talking to a fellow human being, not a thumbnail image on a Web page, and apologizes. The other half of the time, there’s no response. We’ll see how this one goes…

Where does the time go?

When I committed myself to writing one post a week recounting where I’d written, spoken or been quoted over the past seven days, an unspoken part of that deal was that I’d find something else to write about here each week–so as to not have this blog look even more transparently self-promotional.

OS X clockNow here it is, well into a Saturday night, and I have yet to blog about anything since last Sunday’s weekly-output post. I had a couple of ideas for more involved items that would have required extra cogitation or illustration more complicated than a quick screenshot, but time ran out.

And when I thought I’d have time earlier this afternoon–wait, Twitter Facebook e-mail, not to mention this whole parenting thing.

Looking beyond this week’s example, I’ve also grown more reluctant to write about a topic if I think I could sell a story on it to somebody else–which is to say that I’m trying to be a better capitalist.

That doesn’t mean I’m packing it in here, but it does suggest I need to call my shots better. Should I discuss a reader query/complaint/suggestion? Should I spotlight a photo I’ve taken in the last few days? Or should I just try to remember that I don’t have to crank out 500 words every time I click the “Add New” button here?

(This sorry-I-have-nothing-to-say post runs under 250 words. Does that represent progress?)

 

The missing “let me be clear” line: No, Google isn’t killing Google Voice

Google did not axe Google Voice today. Sunday’s USA Today column didn’t say it would—it covered Google’s scheduled shutdown, effective today, of a protocol that other Internet-calling apps had used to connect to Google Voice—but many of you thought it did.

Google Voice Play Store iconMy first reaction on getting questions like “Is Google Voice being discontinued?” was to think “Gah! If that was really happening, don’t you think I would have said so right at the top of the story?”

My second: “Google, this is your own damn fault for neglecting the service for so long that people now expect the worst.”

My third reaction was a grudging acceptance that I should have foreseen readers skipping over my description of how Google Voice was shutting down the “XMPP” support that had allowed third-party VoIP clients to connect (admit it, you skimmed past that jargon just now) and instead seeing only the words “Google Voice” and “shutting down.”

That realization could have led me to write the column with fault-tolerance in mind: If there’s a way readers could get the wrong idea, throw in a “let me be clear” graf to disabuse them of that incorrect assumption. A little extra defensive writing then would have saved time since spent answering nervous reader e-mails and story comments.

I should know that by now, but apparently I’m still figuring out this writing thing after some 20 years of doing it for a living.

In other news: The Android Hangouts app still can’t place VoIP calls from your GV number (a capability the iOS version has had since October), officially leaving Android users in the lurch. Heck of a job, Google.

The spam alphabet

Yahoo Mail spam iconI have a lot of words for spammers, but “creative” isn’t one of them. The same subject headers come up every time, such that I have to wonder about the basic life skills of anybody who clicks on one. And at some point, I realized that these recurring lures constituted their own distinct a-to-z lexicon, one that speaks to a certain internationalization of junk e-mail and that must also annoy a few large companies’ brand managers.

AIG Direct Life

Bank Lottery

Credit Score

Debt Consolidation

Expert Annuities

Free [fill in the blank]

Grandes novidades

HARP

International Monetary Fund

JunkCarCash

Know Your Neighbors

lotto.nl

Make Money Online

National Lottery

Online Doctorate

Payment information

Qualicorp Saúde

Refinance Now

SEO

Target Voucher

Updated Notice

Vehicle Protection

Walmart Voucher

xxnoxben

Your Score Check

zphzkzywq

(Okay, the “x” and “z” entries are a stretch. But those gibberish subject headers do keep showing up in my spam folder. If you have a less-nonsensical candidate for each letter, please suggest it in a comment.)

 

 

 

#corrected: Fixing your errors on Twitter

I screwed up on Twitter yesterday morning. In the grip of nerd rage over a story about an Apple patent application–and without sufficient caffeine in my body–I tweeted that the Cupertino, Calif., company had received a patent on a feature that had debuted in a third-party app some three years before its 2012 filing.

Delete tweetThe problem was, Apple had only applied for a patent on a text-while-you-walk system that would overlay message conversations on your phone camera’s view of your surroundings. Oops.

So I tweeted something, um, transparently wrong. Now what? I’ve attended more than one panel discussion on this, and the answers usually get stuck on one of two conflicting imperatives: Don’t let the error go unfixed, but don’t look like you’re hiding the mistake either.

(See my earlier post about documenting changes to your story, if necessary in comments you leave yourself.)

Since you can’t edit the incorrect tweet or even flag it as wrong in the way you could amend a flawed story or blog post, letting it stand risks perpetuating the mistake. But if you delete it, then the evidence of your error vanishes.

What I decided to do was to delete the tweet, follow up by saying what I’d gotten wrong, and then redo the original tweet with a reasonably obvious hashtag, #corrected, to indicate that it was a “CX” for an earlier version:

Does that routine work for you all? Or am I once again seriously overthinking something that people with real jobs don’t worry about at all?

In other news, earlier this afternoon I was glad to see that the Ask Patents clearinghouse for prior art will include this Apple filing in an upcoming call for submissions:

 

So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–”ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

I don’t like sketchy ads either

Almost two years ago, I got invited to join WordPress.com’s WordAds program, and for the most part it’s worked well–aside from these advertisements failing to earn me truckloads of money, as opposed to enough for a nice dinner every now and then.

Walmart voucher adBut a week or so ago, a few of the ads sent here by this program started looking distinctly sketchier. One made diet claims unlikely to survive scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, while another made the economically implausible offer of a free $1,000 Walmart voucher. And sometimes the appearance of these ads was followed by one of those spammy pop-up ads for the MacKeeper app–also served by the same Tribal Fusion ad network.

That’s not the “high quality” content WordPress promised when it launched this partnership with Federated Media. So I posted a cranky tweet about it and then followed up with a complaint sent through the appropriate form, saying that “If you don’t kick these garbage advertisers out of WordAds, I’ll drop out of the program.” (That was an easy threat to make, since I don’t have that much money at stake.)

I got a quick acknowledgment saying that my gripe was legitimate, followed the next day by a report that the advertiser had removed the offending items and pledged to clean up its act.

I haven’t seen any objectionable ads since; it appears the system worked. But if you see ads making a pitch that looks dodgy, let me know about it. Bad ads are a Web-wide problem, and the least I can do is not have my little corner of the Web contribute to it.

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

A love letter to XOXO

PORTLAND–If you write for a living, hope and fear are part of the deal. Hope, because you believe your ability to make words appear on a screen in a pleasing sequence will lead other people to give you money. Fear, because you worry that other people will realize you are not all that good at that work, and that other writers can do it for less anyway.

XOXO badgeI spent three days here last weekend at XOXO, a conference staged to lend hope to independent creativity. That was a fairly abstract concept to me three years ago; I was approaching my 17th year at the same employer and had (fraying) ambitions of retiring there.

Then other things happened, I didn’t get another job as I’d expected, and after two and a half years of freelancing full time, my indie existence no longer feels like a fluke.

But it can still feel lonely. So it was tremendously empowering to commune with smart, talented, hard-working people who had taken a similar course, then see some of them testify about it. I kept finding myself nodding vigorously at things I could have said, or wished somebody would have told me a couple of years ago.

Co-organizer Andy Baio opened the event with an introduction that was part release notes explaining how he and co-conspirator Andy McMillan had designed XOXO to function unlike the average corporate conference, part pep talk for those assembled. “It’s about making new things and putting them out in the world,” he said. “That takes a unique kind of bravery.”

Cartoonist Erika Moen evocatively recalled her own I-think-I’ve-gotten-somewhere moment: “I’m self-employed. I’m creating. I’m in love. I’m happy.” In my notes, those sentences are set off with one all-caps prefix: THIS.

Musician Jack Conte provided a succinct description of the basic business problem for any freelancer–or, for that matter, any newspaper: “You have to make good stuff and convert it into money.”

One of my favorite talks came from musician Jonathan Coulton (longtime readers may recall his guest spot on my Post podcast, the audio of which has apparently gone down the bit bucket). He spoke bluntly about his moments of self-doubt–”there are times when I say to myself, I wonder if I have ever done anything that’s really good?”–but also showed a cheery defiance of standard-issue career advice.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that there’s A Thing you have to do to make this work,” he said before a slide reading “Be a Snuggie,” “You’re doing it right,” and “Fuck ‘em.” Instead: “Here is the only metric you need to care about…. Is what you’re doing making you more happy or less happy?”

And Cabel Sasser, co-founder of the Mac software firm Panic, Inc., gave a wonderfully human recounting–who among us has not sometimes thought, “I needed to file a bug report on myself”?–about what it meant to keep his company independent.

What if it fails spectacularly after he’d passed up a lucrative exit? What if it slowly sputters out? I liked his answer: “You won’t know the end until it ends, so let’s fill the middle with as many amazing plot twists as we can.”

The other part of XOXO that lit up my brain was the other people I was able to meet there. Baio and McMillan’s attempts to limit the audience to people who made things, their  exhortations to say hi to whoever’s next to you, and the inevitable random conversations while waiting in line at the food trucks outside the Yale Union building all made this one of the more welcoming spaces I’ve occupied.

Many Internet-famous individuals are jerks, but I did not meet any jerks at XOXO. I was particularly delighted to meet people I hadn’t seen in months or years, or had only known as usernames in Twitter, e-mail addresses in my inbox or a remote voice on the same radio show. You know who you are; hope to see you again soon.