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.

Things I would like Apple to fix in OS X (please?)

There’s been a minor surplus of blog posts over the last month or so expressing concern about the state of Apple’s software quality. See, for example, this inventory of issues from my friend Glenn Fleishman, Craig Hockenberry’s open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, or the Marco Arment post that got spun completely out of proportion.

Apple logo on iMacI can’t speak to all of the faults people have mentioned; without an iPhone, for example, I don’t see many of the OS X-to-iOS problems folks have been griping about. And I can’t say that this period marks a low in Apple’s software quality: OS X Lion got on my nerves much more than Yosemite has. But look: Yosemite exhibits some baffling and annoying defects that I’d like to see fixed as much as anybody else. Here’s a short list:

AirDrop: This has accomplished the singular feat of making Bluetooth file transfer look elegant and reliable. Because one of my two Macs is a pre-2012 model, I have to tell the MacBook Air to “Search for an Older Mac” for that iMac to get a chance to show up at all. And the advertised ability of AirDrop to send files between OS X and iOS has so far been a bust–and, courtesy of Apple kneecapping Bluetooth in iOS, Bluetooth file transfer isn’t available as a fall-back option.

Mail’s time travel: A round of bug fixes have made Mail much less of a disaster, but the bizarre bug that causes Mail to jump back randomly by months, years or all the way to the oldest messages in a folder when I select it remains intact. Why, Mail, why must you feel compelled to remind me of what people wrote in 2011?

non-transparent volume overlaySemi-transparent toolbars and sidebars: Having Safari’s toolbar turn red when I scroll down a CNet story is one of the dumbest features I’ve seen out of Cupertino. I advised turning that off in my USA Today column but have since reluctantly turned it back on: I couldn’t stand how that change not only rendered the volume overlay opaque but added crude black borders at its rounded corners.

Arrogant autocorrect: The automatic spelling correction in Yosemite seems much more out of control than in prior OS X releases, especially when it interferes with my attempts to write proper names and other capitalized words that a sane autocorrect would know to leave alone.

Non-noteworthy Calendar events: I love how I can mouse over a date or time in an e-mail and have OS X offer to create a new event in the Calendar app based on that information. But at some point (maybe pre-Yosemite?), the events created that way lost an editable Notes field: That part of the event-info window is now locked to a “Show in Mail…” link that opens the message from which you created the event. I can work around this problem by editing the event in Google Calendar, but something tells me that’s Apple’s desired outcome.

Safari tabs with escape velocity: Every now and then, I find that I have somehow launched one of the tabs open in Safari into a new window. I don’t know what the exact sequence of clicks is (it’s not mentioned in Apple’s list of shortcuts) but I would like the browser to not do that.

I’m sure there are other Yosemite issues that have been bugging me, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Remind me in the comments?

The holiday season, as seen by a tech journalist

To those of you with normal jobs, this time of year means things like eating and spending too much, long travel to see far-flung relatives, having to remember where you stashed the ornaments, and wrestling with wrapping paper.

WreathIn my line of work, however, the holiday season includes all of those things and then a few extras:

  • Gift guidance: We’re expected to reel off lists of what computers, phones, tablets, other gadgets and games to buy, even if knowing that CES will offer us a peek at the next year’s crop of consumer electronics discourages gadget purchases at this time of the year. (I have escaped that particular obligation so far this year, but my Yahoo Tech colleagues have been busy offering tech-procurement advice; won’t you please check it out?)
  • Watching people make purchases they’ll regret: You will inevitably see somebody you care for buy the wrong device or app–perhaps because they read somebody else’s misinformed gadget-gift guide–and you can’t get too bent out of shape over that.
  • Holiday tech support: Taking a look at issues on the computers, phones, tablets and other gadgets of the people we see over the holidays is part of the deal. I can’t say I mind, since I can count on getting at least a couple of ideas for my USA Today Q&A column every holiday season.
  • A break from business travel: December is second only to August for its paucity of tech events likely to land on my travel schedule. I’m okay with that!
  • CES is coming: My enjoyment of quality time with friends and family always gets eaten away by the realization that only a few days after New Year’s, I’ll have to leave all that behind and spend five or so hours in a pressurized metal tube on my way to Vegas for this annual gadget gathering. CES is a good and useful event, but I sure would like to see it happen later in January.

Apple Mail malaise (update)

There’s no program on my Mac that’s annoyed me more over the last year than Mail. Which is funny, because for years I held up that program as an example of Apple working to fix customers’ problems while Microsoft let Outlook Express decay.

Apple Mail about boxBut sometime during the development of OS X Mavericks, Mail went off the rails. It shipped with a bug that made syncing with a Gmail account awkward to implausible. Apple fixed that within weeks, but other problems lingered through many or all of its updates to Mavericks:

  • Searching for old messages was intolerably slow, to the point where it would be faster to grab my iPad, log into the relevant account and start the search… after first running up and down the stairs to find that tablet.
  • Switching back to Mail from other apps would leave the insertion point randomly shifted to a point months or years in the past–which, to be fair, is great for cheap nostalgia.
  • Some mailboxes would be shown sorted by subject instead of date, never mind that sorting by subject is a total waste of time unless a mail client can’t handle search (ahem).
  • More recently, Mail began forgetting the custom app passwords Google generates for mail clients and other apps that can’t process its two-step verification codes.

Apple’s updates fixed some of these issues before OS X Yosemite. I don’t think I’ve seen a mailbox randomly sorted by subject in months, and I haven’t had to open Keychain Access to copy a saved Google app password back into Mail since last month.

Yosemite, to judge from its performance on my MacBook Air, has also returned search in Mail to a state of good repair. I can only hope Apple keeps working on these other issues. Because between Web-mail’s issues with offline access and working with other apps and the lack of a compelling alternative client (understandable, given how many people rely on Web-mail or don’t spend as much time in a mail client as me), firing this app just doesn’t seem too practical.

And at least the prominent mentions of Mail in Apple’s product page for Yosemite suggests the company realizes it can’t leave this app in maintenance mode. If only I could say the same for iPhoto…

Newspaper alumni need the occasional reunion too

CHICAGO–I’m here for the Online News Association’s annual conference, and it’s been pretty great so far. Not necessarily for all the panels and discussions (although they’ve been good too, especially Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile’s explaining how news sites and advertisers need to focus on time spent instead of page views, then Texas Tribune editor Amanda Krauss discussing how changing the “Like” button in their commenting system to a “Respect” button helped elevate the discussion), but for the people.

ONA 14 logo on tote bagThe right and honorable profession of journalism has many virtues, but occupational permanence or even long-term stability isn’t among them. Jobs change, news organizations grow or shrink, and your fellow cubicle farmers may not be there next year. The cubicle farm itself may vanish.

(That lesson is particularly obvious in this city: My walk to the ONA venue takes me past the Tribune Tower, where Sam Zell’s malicious mismanagement sent the newspaper into bankruptcy.)

You can still talk to the people you used to work with on Facebook, Twitter and mailing lists, but sometimes you want to see them in person. Tech events help–I don’t miss going to Apple product launches because of the chance to inspect a new iPhone under tightly-controlled conditions, but because they let me catch up with tech-journalism pals–but ONA is fantastic for reconnecting with old Post colleagues.

We run into each other, we ask what we’re up to now, we share our recollections of horrible CMSes, we trade tips about travel and technology, we talk about our families… and I love realizing that we’ve found happiness in our post-newspaper lives.

I’ve also run into some current Posties here, who seem much more content than many of us were when we left: The Jeff Bezos money has ended a long and seemingly unending cycle of staff cuts and started paying for hiring and travel on a scale unimaginable back then. That’s good to see too.

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.

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…