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.

The enduring value of answering somebody’s question

Weekends are a slow time around here, but not last weekend. Credit for that goes to the switch back to Daylight Savings Time… and a post I dashed off on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage last summer that I haven’t tried to promote since.

DST how-to page viewsThat rant about the awful interface of my wife’s Timex sports watch shared my hard-earned knowledge of how to change the time on the thing. And because this watch apparently sold reasonably well, I now get a crazy amount of traffic at each time change. Saturday, for example, this blog racked up 2,079 page views, or about 10 times the typical traffic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that happen, though. The single most popular post here is a how-to about setting up Lotus Notes to forward all your mail to a Gmail account. That, too, has benefited from near-zero promotion on my part since I rewrote the instructions I’d published on the Post’s intranet.

The good news here is that Google can work as intended: If you answer somebody’s question accurately, your work will show up in search queries and get read. You don’t need the post to go viral on social media or be endorsed by some influencer; it gets found pretty much on its own.

The bad news is that this doesn’t happen instantly. And in newsrooms where writers are paid based on the traffic they generate, that kind of slow-burn popularity may not show up in the short-term metrics that can put extra dollars in people’s paychecks or leave those same staffers a little closer to being ushered out the door.

Apple Derangement Syndrome

I thought Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column about stores blocking Apple Pay and other NFC-payment apps would provoke some emotional reactions from angry iPhone users. I was wrong.

IScratched Apple logonstead, the comments thread, Twitter and my inbox lit up with denunciations of me for being an Apple shill. One typical tweet: “Pathetic apple fanboy. You’re not fooling anyone. How much did apple pay you for that trash?” Another Twitter interlocutor suggested I get Ebola, providing me an overdue opportunity to try Twitter’s block function.

In e-mail, where you don’t have to worry about what onlookers think of your foaming at the mouth, things were even less civil. One fellow whose e-mail signature identified him as a technology consultant decried my enabling “Apple Octopus pot culture,” whatever that is. A particularly incensed reader managed to drop seven f-bombs into the first four sentences.

And all of this was about a column that explained how blocking NFC inconveniences Android and Windows Phone users as well as anybody with an iPhone 6 to 6 Plus, and which led off with a photo of my own Android phone getting rejected at a CVS.

But no, basic logic or reading comprehension isn’t necessary when one is in the grip of Apple Derangement Syndrome. And expecting readers to take a minute to learn that I’ve never owned an iPhone and am responsible for gracing the Washington Post’s site with the sarcastic query “why does Steve Jobs hate America?”… man, that’s just crazy talk.

Yahoo Tech Apple Pay comments countApple has always had people who dislike its products and its attitude, but this full-on, frothing hate seems a more recent development. I can only guess that’s because if you think this phenomenally successful company really will take over the world, it must be stopped by any means necessary and you can’t wait a second longer to act.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with Google many times, most recently when a German media exec suggested the gang in Mountain View applied, I kid you not, North Korean media-manipulation techniques. And only a decade ago, Microsoft Derangement Syndrome was much more of a thing than it is now.

But there’s never been such a thing as Palm Derangement Syndrome, Dell Derangement Syndrome or Nokia Derangement Syndrome. Don’t you feel sorry for those companies now?

A grab-bag of #GamerGate responses

Tuesday was a busier day than usual for me on Twitter. Yahoo Tech ran my column decrying the vicious and creepy harassment of a few women in or connected to the gaming industry by what I called a “nutcase fringe” of “GamerGate”–and, more important, Twitter’s failure to take some basic steps to make itself less harassment-friendly–and my Twitter notifications promptly blew up.

Twitter analytics for GamerGate weekThe GamerGaters who showed up there–and in the post’s comments thread and on my Facebook page–were not amused. I spent most of the morning replying to those tweets but then had to turn my attention back to work. So for anybody who’s been waiting for a reply–or would like one exceeding 140 characters–here are my responses to the most common comments on my column.

Why didn’t you write about the doxxing and harassment of GamerGate supporters?

That’s the fairest point I’ve seen made. But this was a column about the history of harassment on Twitter–which has seen women take by far the worst abuse, as I noted in my mentions of Kathy Sierra and Adria Richards’ ordeals–and the service’s ineffectual response to it. I could have and should have written it months ago; the attacks on GamerGate opponents represent just another chapter in the story of a part of online culture that needs to die.

Plus, I have seen no credible evidence that harassment of GamerGate supporters has been as prolonged and vicious as that of Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian and other female critics of GamerGate.

(To anybody who’s been hit with death threats on Twitter, I’m sorry. Nobody should be subjected to that crap for speaking their mind. To those sending those threats: What the hell is wrong with you?)

This is about journalism ethics.

Those of you saying this, I believe you. But I also don’t get where you’re coming from. The massive influence AAA game publishers have over the gaming media and the willingness of some writers to suck up to them have been a glaring issue since the 1990s–back when I was writing and editing game reviews at the Post myself–and now you’re up in arms over a game nobody had heard of, Quinn’s Depression Quest, getting a little publicity? You’re saying the real sickness in gaming media, the reason to grab the pitchforks and torches, is the relationships some indie developers have with individual writers?

Oh, and the chat logs showing this meme was cooked up by a bunch of 4chan trolls using sockpuppet Twitter accounts display little concern about journalism ethics.

(Note also that the GamerGate outcry over the phony allegation that sleeping with a game writer got Quinn a favorable review of Depression Quest has led to the game getting about a billion times more mentions than it would have received otherwise.)

Twitter notifications on watchWe just want the politics taken out of game journalism.

Not everything has to be political. But if you take gaming seriously as a creative endeavor–a goal I remember most game-industry types supporting back in the ’90s–it’s delusional and incoherent to declare it exempt from any political scrutiny.

If you don’t appreciate Sarkeesian’s feminist critique of games, you can read somebody else’s–most reviews don’t put games in any social or political context, same as many write-ups of music, movies and books. Or write your own.

We’re tired of SJWs imposing their agenda on the gaming industry.

That’s “SJW,” as in “Social Justice Warrior.” Beyond the silliness of that supposed insult (me, I think it’s good to care whether an industry marginalizes people who could make it better), the idea that feminists are in a position to order around the game industry or any other segment of the technology sector is laughable.

The subtext of some of these objections, that the gaming industry does not need to change, troubles me much more. Historically, the majority culture in America telling a minority culture “can’t you just pipe down and let us keep things the way they are?” has led to some darker chapters in our country’s history.

There is a history of unjustly blaming video games for real-world violence, but that complaint hasn’t been brought up much by GamerGaters. And now that a threat of a school shooting led Sarkeesian to cancel a planned appearance at Utah State University–campus police told her they couldn’t check attendees for weapons under the state’s open concealed-carry laws–it would be awkward to bring up that.

(The game industry hasn’t done itself a favor by shying away from that argument, as game designer Daniel Greenberg—a friend and, years ago, one of my better freelance contributors—argues in this post at The Atlantic.)

The publicity over these attacks is unwarranted; those women should have just ignored the trolls.

The accounts of people who have been hit with repeated, graphic threats of rape and death indicate no such thing is possible. Not having had to endure such a thing, I’m inclined to believe those who have.

Another thought: It would have been an interesting experiment to publish my column under a female byline and a woman’s photo.

You’re advocating for censorship.

If you can’t tell the difference between governments arresting people for their speech and a corporation deciding on the rules of its own social network, you’re an idiot.

We’re not misogynists. We value diversity and welcome women, and there’s no evidence GamerGate is behind any of the attacks.

I believe you when you say that. But a non-trivial proportion of the pro-GamerGate testimony I’ve seen has exhibited sexism of varying levels of toxicity, from saying Quinn reached “the top” (as if she’s now EA) “on her back” to calling complaints about GamerGate “stupid feminist BS.”

And some of the most public supporters of GamerGate are outright cretins, from actor Adam Baldwin (who earlier wondered if President Obama wanted to bring Ebola to America) to writer and professional jerk Milo Yiannopoulos (last year, his mockery of complaints about female underrepresentation at tech conferences ran under the headline “Put a sock in it, you dickless wonders”).

And all the way at the nutcase fringe, you have the creeps on 8chan plotting these attacks. This is the problem with calling a hashtag a movement: How do you kick people out of GamerGate when they say they support it too?

As for people who actually make games, an increasing number of them don’t want anything to do with this mess.

We’re tired of being demeaned and stereotyped in the media.

I get it: You don’t appreciate stories like Leigh Alexander’s “‘Gamers are over” post at Gamasutra questioning whether there is a “gamer” identity and whether it has anything redeeming to offer. But having spent most of the last decade reading about the demise of my own occupation, I have to say: If you want to call yourself an oppressed class, get in line.

Meanwhile, what has GamerGate itself done to the image of gamers? Does the rest of the world think you’re a saner lot with a more secure grasp on reality now? Do they think you’re a more pleasant bunch to hang out with? I will bet that they don’t. And that GamerGate will wind up as one of the most counterproductive attempts at a PR campaign since the Iraqi Information Minister.