Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?

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Halfway around the world in less than two weeks

I racked up 13,686 miles in the air over the last two weeks–with about 21 hours on the ground between each trip–and yet the experience didn’t physically destroy me as I expected. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Thinking of homeThe stage for this exercise in propping up the airline industry was set last January, when the wireless-industry group CTIA announced that it would consolidate its two annual conventions into one and run “Super Mobility Week” in Las Vegas right after IFA.

I tried not to think about the scheduling until this summer, and then I gulped and booked my tickets: Dulles to Berlin via Munich and returning through Heathrow, then National to Houston to Vegas and back.

The flying was actually pretty good. The perhaps embarrassing amount of time and money I’ve spent on United paid off when I could use an upgrade certificate to fly across the Atlantic in business class on a flight going as far east into Europe as feasible.

Not to sound like every other travel blogger, but the lie-flat seat really is one of commercial aviation’s better inventions. I slept sufficiently well on the way to Munich that on waking, I momentarily wondered where I was. That rest, followed by being able to shower and change out of slept-in clothes at Lufthansa’s lounge in Munich, helped me feel human again sooner than usual; instead of napping that afternoon in Berlin, I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about Apple’s iCloud security breach.

I almost fell asleep at dinner that evening and then had one obnoxious night when I woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another hour or two, but that was about the end of my adaptation to Central European Time. And then an exceedingly rare, free “operational upgrade” at the gate bumped me from an oversold economy section into business class for the return. (Thanks, United!)

Even with a great nap on the way home, I could barely type a sentence in one try by the time I fell asleep in my own bed after 11 p.m. that night–5 a.m. CET. But I zonked out for seven hours straight, woke up feeling fine, walked our daughter to her pre-school (a big reason why I didn’t book a direct but early flight to Vegas), did a few chores and then headed off to the airport.

I was a bit of a zombie on the first flight, but from then on the jet lag was only slightly worse than on any other trip to the West Coast.

Flying home on Sept. 11So apparently I can function on that kind of schedule.

But over the last two weeks, no amount of frequent-flyer travel hacking could stop a lot of things from slipping. Back at home, the lawn grew untidy and the vegetable garden became a mess. I couldn’t use my ticket to an exciting Nats game.

On my own screen, I gave up keeping up with my RSS feed after a week; it’s probably now groaning under the weight of 2,000 unread Apple-related items.

Even without companies committing any major news in Vegas, my ability to fulfill my regular obligations decayed to the point that I filed today’s USA Today column on Friday evening. That should never happen with a non-breaking story, especially not when that haste apparently results in an avoidable error in a piece.

This post, in turn, was something I’d meant to write Saturday.

And I missed my wife and my daughter something fierce when I had to say goodbye to them twice in six days.

Next year, CTIA’s show will again follow IFA by a day. Should I once again fly more than half the circumference of the Earth in less than two weeks? That will require some careful thought.

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.

DIY doings: components, cables and code

I’ve been playing with gadgets ever since my dad let me and my brother take apart an old calculator for fun, but until last week I had never wielded a soldering iron to connect electronic components.

Hand-soldered LED flashlightMy chance to remedy that oversight came at the end of a tour of a redone Radio Shack store across the street from the Verizon Center Phone Booth in downtown D.C.

After getting the company pitch about its screen-repair services, inspecting some Kodak camera modules made to clip onto phones, and playing with a littleBits synthesizer kit, I was invited to assemble a tiny LED flashlight by soldering the required parts to a small circuit board.

Dripping the molten flux onto the right contacts revealed itself to be a painstakingly precise, hold-your-breath task. I needed coaching from the rep manning that station, after which he had to redo some of my work–making me think this whole project was perhaps more like when our toddler puts together some arts-and-crafts project “with help.” But a few minutes later, I did have my own tiny, battery-powered flashlight.

I had also completed my first hardware tinkering in a while.

The last time I’d cracked a computer’s case was two years ago, when I doubled the memory in my iMac (Apple has since made that at-home upgrade impossible on newer models) and then swapped out my ThinkPad’s hard drive for a solid state drive. Either chore involved less work and anxiety than the multiple transplants I performed on my old Power Computing Mac clone in the ’90s, including two processor upgrades and a cooling fan replacement.

Crimping tool

While we’re keeping score, I last seriously messed with wiring when I strung some Ethernet cable from the basement to an outlet behind our TV to prepare for our Fios install in 2010. Going to that trouble, including terminating the bulk cable and attaching plugs myself, allowed me to use my choice of routers on our Internet-only setup.

The crimping tool I used for that task hasn’t seen much use since, but I’d like to think I’m still capable of moving a phone, power, or coax cable outlet. Especially if given a spare length of cable on which to practice first.

My DIY credentials are weakest when it comes to code. I learned entry-level BASIC in grade school but now recall little of the syntax beyond IF/THEN and GOTO. I used to lean on AppleScript to ease my Mac workflow, but now Automator lets me create shortcuts without having to remember the precise phrasing required after AppleScript statements like “tell application ‘Finder’.” My HTML skills now stretch little further than writing out the “<a href=” hypertext link.

I do, however, still grasp such important basics as the importance of valid input and proper syntax, how easy errors can crop up and how much time it can take to step through functions to figure out what threw the error. For anything more complicated, the usual reporting technique comes into play: Ask as many dumb questions as needed to get a little smarter on the subject.

Mail merge? Work, home and other e-mail addresses

I keep telling myself that one of ways I maintain what’s left of my work/life balance is to have separate home and work e-mail addresses. And yet I have to ask who I’m kidding when these two Google Apps accounts, each at its own domain name, constitute separate lines or windows in a mail client, and when I’m sometimes corresponding with the same person from each address on alternate days. Meanwhile, many people I know seem to function perfectly fine with one all-purpose e-mail address.

MailboxIn a prior millennium, it was an easier call. After having lost a bunch of messages from friends during a transition from one e-mail system to another at the Post–and then discerning the dreadfulness of the new Lotus Notes system–I had little interest in trusting personal correspondence to my employer’s IT department.

I also figured that I would have less trouble staying on top of friends-and-family e-mail if it weren’t competing for space and attention in the first screen of my inbox with random PR pitches, interoffice memos and chit-chat with other journalists. And the address that wasn’t listed on a major newspaper’s Web site should, in theory, get vastly less spam.

(Because I am this persnickety about my communications tools, I also have a regular Gmail account that I use for almost all of my online commerce, financial transactions and other things that are neither personal- nor work-related. I don’t mind the ads there, while my Google Apps inboxes have no such distractions, courtesy of Google ending ad scanning for Apps users–even those on the free version it no longer offers to new users.)

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about IT-inflicted mail misery. What about the other virtues of this split setup?

  • Being able to flag messages for follow-up means I’m now less likely to forget to answer an important message, whatever address it was sent to.
  • But I don’t need 11 different folders to sort my home e-mail after I’ve dealt with it. Less cognitive load is a good thing.
  • Having to ask myself nit-pick questions like “since I’m asking a friend about something that may lead to him being quoted in a story, should I send this message from my work address?” increases my cognitive load.
  • Searching for messages and then looking over the results is faster when I’m excluding an entire account’s worth of e-mail. But when I ask Mail for OS X to query all of the gigabytes of messages that have accumulated at both addresses… ugh.
  • My anti-spam strategy has been a total bust. When I checked earlier this morning, Google had quarantined almost 1,500 spam messages in my home account, about 100 of which were messages on my neighborhood mailing list that shouldn’t have been screened as junk.

On that last note, here’s a question for you all to ponder: That mailing list will soon be moving to a commercial hosting service subsidized by ads, and of course I haven’t yet read its privacy policy. Should I switch my subscription to my Gmail address, where I can read those messages alongside those from my neighborhood’s smaller Nextdoor group, or should I keep using my home address there?

 

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.

Reader suggestions for fixing an iMessage mess

Sunday’s USA Today Q&A about getting one’s mobile number untangled from Apple’s iMessage service looks to be one of the most-read columns I’ve done there. It’s also drawn more than the usual amount of reader feedback–including two reports of remedies that I had not discovered during the week or so I spent digging into this issue.

iPhone Messages settingsOne came from an AT&T subscriber in Minnesota:

A few days before the article I had the same problem and called AT&T.  They had me text the word ‘stop’ to 48369, to which I got the response: “FREE MSG: Apple iCloud ID Verification: You have been unsubscribed and will no longer receive messages. 1-800-275-2273″

I’ve since found one confirmation of that fix in a Reddit comment and a posting on Apple’s tech-support forum. There’s also an Apple tech support notice… which only describes this procedure as a way to stop Apple from sending AppleCare identity-verification messages to a wrong number.

A reader in Washington who said he works “at a major phone retailer” sent in a different suggestion that he said “always” works: Reset your Apple ID password.

Go to https://iforgot.apple.com/password/verify/appleid Enter your Apple ID in the space and just reset your Apple ID password. Even if you don’t have access to that email or security questions, it will remove all Apple registered devices from iMessage instantly.

In case you were wondering: Neither suggestion came up in the background conversations I had with Apple PR, even though one is allegedly endorsed by Apple support.
But that’s not nearly as important as whether either cure can earn an endorsement from you. If you’ve found either one successfully exfiltrated a number from iMessage–or if you have a different fix to share–please leave a comment with the details.