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.

A tweet got a little more attention than usual

As I was struggling to finish and fact-check my Yahoo column Monday evening, I stumbled across an enraging story: The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery had been charged in St. Louis County, Mo., for “trespassing and interfering with a police officer” while covering the Ferguson unrest a year ago.

Having read Lowery’s account of his arrest and brief incarceration–his alleged crime was not clearing out of a McDonald’s in which he’d been charging his phone as fast as a cop wanted–I thought that charge was bullshit. And then I remembered another place where a Post reporter has been wrongfully detained: Tehran, where Jason Rezaian has spent more than 365 times as much time in jail on a trumped-up charge of espionage.

I noted the parallel in a tweet:

Twitter analytics screengrabThen I got back to work, or tried to as my phone began constantly buzzing with Twitter notifications. Within a few hours, my comment had been retweeted about 500 times, which would easily make it the most-read thing I’d ever shared on Twitter, and it’s now past 700 RTs. For the first time ever, I found it helpful to use Twitter’s option of showing only interactions from other verified users.

That’s flattering. But I’d rather that Lowery (whom I was pleased to meet briefly at last year’s Online News Association conference) and the two other journalists similarly charged not have to deal with this nonsense. And I can’t help noticing how few people clicked on the Post link I’d shared: when I started writing this post, 2,014 out of 111,591 total “impressions.”

And then there were the minority of ignorant replies that suggested the problem was reporters acting “disrespectful” (should I read that as “uppity”) or merely attempting to document the workings of law enforcement, among other bits of right-wing nuttery. That’s a downside of outsized attention on Twitter or any other social network: You will bring out the crazies.

It’s a good thing I retain a sense of humor about such things. I guess I owe the Post some credit for developing that over the days when the crazies would call the city or national desks, and it was my job to pick up the phone.

What posting a Facebook Offer taught me about Facebook’s privacy rules

Some months ago, a PR person for Gogo handed me a few freebies I probably couldn’t use: three free passes for that company’s inflight WiFi service. (Ethics aside, almost all of my transcon flights are on planes that don’t employ its connectivity, while on shorter flights Gogo’s unintentional free access to Google apps suffices.) Many weeks later, I finally remembered that I could try giving the passes to readers with the Offers function on my Facebook page.

Gogo WiFi passesIt seemed simple enough: You create a special post on your page with the image and brief description of your choice, you set an expiration date and limit how many people can claim the deal, and you watch the audience love roll in.

But I didn’t realize, by virtue of not reading the documentation before, that readers would have to take an extra step to collect this freebie. The lucky winners got an e-mail with this instruction: “To use the offer, visit Rob Pegoraro and show this email.”

As the page owner, meanwhile, I only got a notification that the offer had been claimed–without a hint of who had won it. As Facebook’s help explains: “To protect the privacy of the individuals who claimed your offer, you will not be able to see any of their personal information.” They’d have to get back to me somehow.

I wasn’t planning on any face-to-face interaction, but I didn’t get much of the digital sort either. One longtime reader left a comment saying he’d redeemed the offer–I took him at his word and e-mailed one of the three Gogo alphanumeric codes–and nobody else responded, even after I posted comments imploring them to e-mail me.

That’s bad in the sense that I have some readers wondering why they never received the free inflight WiFi they sought. But it’s good in the sense that Facebook seems to have defaulted to privacy at the expense of marketing convenience.

That, in turn, matches up with such Page limits as my not being able to send messages to fans unless they’ve sent me one first. So if you were holding off on Liking my page because you didn’t want your name in lights–go ahead, since even I probably won’t know unless I spend a lot of time scrolling through Graph Search results for “people who like Rob Pegoraro.”

(Whoever can see your profile will, however, see your new Like. If they already mock you for your taste in tech news, you might want to hold off on the appreciation.)

In the meantime, I have two Gogo passes left. Let’s do this instead: E-mail me about how you’ll make great use of them, and the first two people to send a persuasive story will have the codes in their inboxes soon after.

When I will delete your e-mail

I’ve been making one of my periodic attempts to catch up on my e-mail (read: if you wrote me three weeks ago, your odds of getting a reply sometime this coming week are less worse than usual). That process has required me to think about something I normally avoid: deleting e-mail.

Paper in trash canMy usual habit is to keep everything that’s not outright spam, just in case I might need to look it up later on. Messages from friends and family are of obvious importance, reader e-mail may provide early evidence of a problem that becomes widespread months later, and correspondence from co-workers can have documentary value about a company’s progress or decline. Even PR pitches can have lingering usefulness, by providing the contact info that too many companies can’t think to post on their own sites.

And yet if a search will yield hundreds of messages including the same keyword, I’m going to have a hard time locating the one or few messages I had in mind. Something’s got to go.

The easiest items to delete are the automated notifications and reminders I get from various services I’ve signed up–Twitter, Eventbrite and Meetup, I’m looking at you. The utility of those messages to me usually expires within 24 hours, tops. When those notifications duplicate the ones that already pop up on my phone. my tablet or OS X’s Notification Center, they’re pointless from the moment of their arrival.

(You may have seem this kind of requested, not-spam mail labeled bacn. Not long after that term came about, I wrote that “dryer lint” would be more descriptive and less cutesy, but everybody seems to have ignored that suggestion.)

 

Then come newsletters that attempt to recap headlines in various categories. Even if I read these almost every day–the American Press Institute’s Need to Know and Morning Consult’s tech newsletter come to mind–they’re little help to me the day after, much less six months down the road. I look for day- or months-old news headlines on the Web, not in my inbox.

Ideally, I could set a filter in my mail client to delete designated notifications and newsletters 24 or 48 hours after their arrival. But although Gmail will let you construct a search like that using its “older_than” operator to scrub stale Groupon offers from your inbox, its filters don’t seem to include that option. And the filters in Apple’s Mail, which don’t seem to have been touched by any developers in the last five years, are of no use in this case either.

Do any other mail clients offer this capability? If not, any interested mail developers are welcome to consider this post a formal feature request.

 

Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

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.