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.

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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.

I left my conference badge in San Francisco

If business travel has helped ruin Las Vegas for me (downtown LV excluded), it’s had the opposite effect with San Francisco. With this week’s trek to Google I/O in the books, I’ve now had at least one work trip a year there for the past dozen years–and the only part of the experience I dread is being reminded that the days of quality $100-a-night hotels near Union Square are gone.

Departing SFOAs a city, San Francisco has many of the qualities I look for: walkability, history, beautiful architectural and natural scenery, diverse dining from food trucks to white-tablecloth establishments, a pleasant climate, and a subway that goes direct to the airport.

Even the flights are good: The approach up the Bay to SFO offers one of the best arrival vistas around even when your plane isn’t landing in parallel with another. (Bonus: When I fly United’s nonstop home to National I have a 50-50 chance of getting the River Visual approach’s even-better rooftop views of the District or Arlington.)

As a journalistic destination, San Francisco allows me the chance to see job-relevant people I otherwise only meet on social media or e-mail.

On the other hand, those job-relevant folks aren’t all newly-wealthy founders or long-wealthy investors. Some are fellow tech reporters who, unlike me, must cope with a frighteningly expensive real-estate market that keeps getting more toxic, courtesy of deranged housing policies founded on entitlement and denial. One unsurprising result: In May, a friend and his family were served with an eviction notice after their landlord elected to cash out by selling their place.

So while I enjoy going to the Bay Area as much as ever, I don’t feel so bad about my home being some 2,400 miles east. I do, however, feel bad about judging one of my favorite travel destinations with a version of “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

Re: Reader mail

I started answering e-mail from readers in the summer of 1994, and I’m still not done.

Close-up of OS X Mail’s interface.People keep sending more messages, true, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever reached Inbox Zero with respect to audience correspondence more than a handful of times, none of which followed the invention of blogging and social media.

The sad thing is that even as the tools I use to report and write keep improving, my options for staying on top of reader feedback haven’t advanced much since IMAP e-mail gave me the ability to flag a message for follow-up and see that annotation everywhere I check my mail.

So aside from those occasions when I have the luxury of writing back almost immediately, I still save too many of my replies for a frantic catch-up session, usually staged when I’m trying to finish a workday or during travel-induced idle time.

(Feature request for e-mail developers: Let me bookmark the point in my inbox at which I set aside reader e-mail and should resume answering it when I next have time.)

The “good job!” messages take the least time to reply–you write “thanks” and that’s about it–while I can’t resist taking the time to craft clever, snarky responses to the angrier feedback. That’s not healthy, and yet my colleagues at the Post and I used to debate the best way to reply to an unhinged reader’s spittle-flecked missive. I recall one more diplomatic reporter saying he’d simply write back “You may be right,” while a crankier co-worker half-jokingly suggested “Thanks for reading, as difficult as it must have been.”

E-mails asking “how do I do this?” or “how do I fix this?” take the longest amount of time to answer but can’t be neglected at all: They feed my USA Today Q&A column, and before that the Q&A I did for the Post.

The easiest way to get me to answer your message quickly is to tell me something I didn’t know. Think things like some breakdown in service or violation of the rules at a company or a government office, an error nobody’s seen before, or one weird trick to get a gadget or an app to do something that’s not in the manual. Otherwise, I can only fall back on the usual guidelines, which happen to overlap with the advice I’ve been giving to PR professionals for years: Use a descriptive subject header (as in, not “Help”) and make your case in the first sentence or two.

I’d like to tell you that from now on, I will do better, but I would be either lying or foolishly optimistic. This is a most honest statement: Please hold, and your e-mail will be answered in the order it was received.

Tax-time thoughts: now with slightly less incompetent accounting!

I have survived, I think, another tax season as a self-employed individual, and I’m increasingly convinced that if I keep doing this I will someday know what I’m doing.

Misc. incomeOnce again, my worst enemy was my inattentive and sloppy accounting. I was still forgetting to tag some expenses as business transactions in Mint until last spring, and It took me until mid-September to lock in the habit of logging every cash expense within minutes of it happening. Memo to Google: This would be easier if the Google Drive app could edit spreadsheets offline.

For cash transactions not properly noted at the time, I had to recreate records months after the fact. That involved the tedious, time-consuming routine of cross-referencing my calendar, e-mail and Foursquare check-ins.

Importing the credit-card purchases that Mint had recorded automatically was the same as ever, which is not good: Intuit’s site still provides no way to limit a transaction search to a date range short of hand-editing a Web address. Intuit, this is idiotic. Try spending some of the money you sink into astroturfed lobbying into adding this most basic of features.

Last year also saw client income (Sulia and WordAds) arrive via PayPal deposits, a first for me. I liked the invoice-free convenience of those payments, but I made two rookie accounting mistakes. The big one was not identifying all of the subsequent PayPal transfers to my bank as freelance income; the little one was using some of a freelancing-inflated PayPal balance to reimburse my share of an Airbnb apartment rented for Mobile World Congress instead of first moving the sum of those freelance payments to my bank, then covering the lodging expense with a separate withdrawal from my bank.

The fact that I realized most of these errors in late March by itself represented my single biggest accounting failure–I spent too much of 2013 in a financial fog, which is stupid. So after cleaning up last year’s records, I set aside a couple of hours last weekend to do the same for those from the first quarter of this year. Like I said: I do learn, just not quickly.

#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:

 

Snapshots from SXSW

It’s now been three days since I got off the plane at National Airport, officially ending this year’s SXSW itinerary, and it’s taken me that long to catch up on sleep, do laundry and edit and upload pictures. (The traditional post-conference LinkedIn binge remains undone.)  And maybe I’ve gained a smidgeon of perspective on the event too.

Attendees make their way through the convention center.Once again, my primary first-world problem was deciding which panels and talks to attend. I was more ruthless and/or lazy this time, deciding I wouldn’t even try to get to such relatively distant locations as the AT&T Conference Center at the University of Texas’s campus (where my 2012 panel drew maybe 20 people) or the Hyatt Regency at the other end of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

But then I wound up not watching any panels outside the convention center and the Hilton across the street. Of those, remote interviews with Julian AssangeEdward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald topped my list. But I was also fascinated by a debate about net neutrality in which law professor Tim Wu noted our own responsibility in putting a handful of giant companies in charge (“we don’t have a culture on the Internet of preferring alternatives”), a talk about wearable computing that pivoted to discussions of “implantables” and “injectables,” and an honest unpacking of the failure of tech journalists to break the NSA-surveillance story (TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis: “We need to step back from our role as cheerleaders and give a more critical eye to the people we’re surrounded with”).

My geographically-restricted attendance led me to miss many other discussions that had looked interesting beforehand. Not only was this narrow-minded conduct, it stopped me from walking around more to make up for all the food I ate.

It would be hard to avoid putting on a few pounds while in Austin on a normal weekend, but when you don’t have to pay for most of your food, courtesy of pervasive corporate and PR sponsorship, the city becomes a thoroughly enabling environment. And a delicious one! For example: the brisket at La Barbecue (thanks, Pinterest), algorithm-driven cuisine at IBM’s food truck, and breakfast tacos at Pueblo Viejo (that was on my own dime, and you should be happy to spend yours there too when you’re in Austin).

Austin’s nightlife hub on the first night of SXSW Interactive.As for empty calories–um, yeah, they’re not hard to find at SXSW either. This is the single booziest event on my calendar. That can be an immense amount of fun (my Sunday night somehow involved both seeing Willie Nelson play a few songs with Asleep at the Wheel from maybe 20 feet away, followed by the RVIP Lounge’s combination of touring bus, open bar and karaoke machine), but waking up the next morning can be brutal. To anybody who had a 9:30 a.m. panel on Sunday, only hours after the time change cut an hour out of everybody’s schedule: I’m so sorry.

And then the night after I left, some drunk-driving idiot crashed through a police barricade and killed two people.

Even before that, the “do we really need this event now that it’s been overrun by marketing droids?” conversation about SXSW was louder than usual. I have to note that three of the most interesting panels–the Assange, Snowden and Greenwald interviews–featured subjects thousands of miles away; in theory we all could have watched those from home.

But this is also an event where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise see and might not ever meet–a long-ago Post colleague from copy-aide days, Internet activists you should know for future stories, journalists who put up with the same problems as you, entrepreneurs with interesting ideas that might go somewhere, and so on. Maybe this is a colossal character defect on my part, but I enjoy those conversations–even the ones with the marketing droids. And that’s why I do this every year.

(After the jump, my Flickr set from the conference.)

(7:30 p.m.: Tweaked a few sentences because I could.)

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