Weekly output: 2014 tech policy in review, Mac scroll bars

LAS VEGAS–Here I am for yet another CES. Sad fact: I’ve made the trip to Vegas for the show so many times that I lost count in an earlier post whining about being badgered by CES PR pitches.

Yahoo Tech 2014 in review12/30/2014: Tech Policy 2014: Mistakes Were Made, Yahoo Tech

I came up with the photo illustrating this column last of all: As I was about to file the thing and stick my editor with the job of finding some stock art, I thought that a photo of OS X’s Calendar app showing “2014” with the setting sun in the background might work just as well.

1/4/2015: How to bring back scroll bars on your Mac, USA Today

Not for the first time, I used my USAT Q&A to revise and extend remarks I’d first made here. Your reward for reading to the end of a column that might otherwise seem too familiar: a tip about an OS X feature that Apple doesn’t seem to have documented.

2014 in review: old and new clients

Somewhere there must exist freelance writers who keep the same core group of clients for many years in a row, but I’m not one of them. This year, like last, saw the Web addresses and the names on checks and direct-deposit transfers change yet again.

2014 calendarRealizing the transient nature of freelance work makes me appreciate the third anniversary of my contract-columnist gig with USA Today that much more. They continue to be one of my favorite clients, and this year that association led to some enjoyable extra work at Gannett’s NowU site.

Then there’s Yahoo Tech. This year kicked off with the moderately mind-bending experience of seeing my photo and those of my fellow columnists on a giant slide during Marissa Mayer’s CES keynote; since then I’ve discovered that I work with a fun bunch of people, that moderating comments gets difficult after the first few hundred, and that I enjoy taking my own stock-photo shots more than I’d realized.

And selling extra stories to Yahoo Tech beyond my weekly column has generated some much-appreciated extra income… while allowing me to cross “fly in a private jet” off the bucket list.

After those two, the client that’s occupied the bulk of my time has been the Wirecutter. Writing its guide to wireless service–already updated once, with a second revision in the works–has involved an enormous amount of time and math, but it’s made me a better student of the wireless industry. And I appreciate how my friends there not only run a good comment system and participate in it regularly but will send me quick notes about noteworthy input there.

I’ll also give a shout out to VentureBeat, which has neatly filled a gap in my current lineup by allowing me to review gadgets and apps that I should check out but which already have reviewers assigned at Yahoo and USAT.

Most of this outside work stepped up in the last third of the year. That plus a few payment hiccups earlier that inconveniently coincided with quarterly-tax deadlines provided me with the humbling experience of developing an intense interest in each invoice’s progress. Things are fine now, but the experience left me more sympathetic to startup types who have to obsess over cash flow.

I traveled almost as much as I did last year but with a much less even distribution of trips. As in, I didn’t go anywhere for work in August but then spent over half of September away from home. Ugh. Can the conference-scheduling cabal space things out better in 2015?

Although I upgraded the security of my accounts this year, I didn’t make any serious hardware upgrades–the first time I’ve gone 12 months without any major computer or gadget purchases since I started freelancing. I hope the industry can forgive me.

Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you all in 2015.

Weekly output: location tracking, lost iOS passcode

I hope this week and next involve a minimum of actual work for you all. But if your jobs have any connection to CES, I know that’s not going to happen.

Location-tracking Yahoo Tech story12/23/2014: Smartphone Location Tracking: How to Turn (Some of) It Off, Yahoo Tech

This was a pretty wonky topic, and I don’t know that I addressed it to my own satisfaction. But if it got even a small fraction of my readers to log into Google or Facebook to see their own location-history records–and then think of the equivalent data AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon keep but won’t display–then it was worth the trouble.

12/28/2014: Lost iOS passcode plus no backups equals lost data, USA Today

I was worried that a column on a holiday weekend about a problem most users don’t experience would get zero readership. Instead, there’s a lively if not always coherent debate in the comments. It includes one complaint (rudely phrased but not off-base) that I didn’t note that you can tell your iPhone or iPad to trust a given computer–which should let you run a final backup cycle to iTunes without unlocking your device before doing a complete restore that will remove that screen lock.

Mac settings changes you might miss going from Snow Leopard to Yosemite

One of the major Christmas presents at my in-laws was a shiny new 13-inch MacBook Air that replaced a 2010-vintage MacBook–which meant that one of my major presents was getting apps, data and settings transferred from the old Mac to the new one, then completing the rest of the setup.

Old MacBook and new MacBookThe first hiccups came in OS X’s Migration Assistant: It estimated the data transfusion would take five-plus hours over the home WiFi. But neither machine saw the other over a faster Ethernet link (using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter on the Air), and an ad hoc, computer-to-computer WiFi network didn’t work until I resorted to the un-Mac-like workaround of turning on Internet sharing on the source laptop.

Then I realized the work Migration Assistant had left for me: configuring parts of OS X Mavericks (preloaded on the new MacBook) and Yosemite (promptly installed as a free update) that had no equivalent in the old MacBook’s Snow Leopard, then changing OS X settings that would confuse anybody used to that five-year-old operating system.

Atop the first category: the social-media integration Apple began adding to OS X in 2012’s Mountain Lion release. My in-laws aren’t on Twitter and don’t spend much time in Facebook–but that integration’s ability to share a photo to Facebook from the Finder does address a pain point I’d heard from them.

An Apple ID is far more important in Yosemite than in Snow Leopard, courtesy of so many updates running through the Mac App Store. So I had to verify that hitherto-dusty account worked and had current billing info, without which we couldn’t download the free Yosemite update.

Migration Assistant had siphoned over a few long-ignored PowerPC applications that OS X hasn’t been able to run since 2011’s disappointing Lion, so I had to delete those myself.

OS X Yosemite General system prefsI thought I was done at that point, and then I heard my father-in-law complaining about not being able to scroll. He had bumped into Apple’s foolish decision to make scroll bars invisible until you mouse over them or use a two-finger gesture to move up or down the page. I hadn’t thought to fix that setting (open System Preferences and click “General”) because I’d fixed it on my own Mac after maybe two hours with Lion. Oops.

The last round of settings to change were in the minds of Yosemite users who had been used to Snow Leopard. From that perspective, the Notifications icon at the top-right corner of the screen means nothing (and requires tweaking to avoid info pollution), while Launchpad’s rocketship Dock icon doesn’t exactly shout that you no longer need click around the Finder to run apps that aren’t already in the Dock.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time walking my wife’s folks through those angles, but I suspect I’ll be getting questions about the new computer for months to come. See also: “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Weekly output: Amazon Echo, data caps, telecom bills

Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? Me neither. But at least I’m further along in the process than I was at this point last year.

Yahoo Tech Amazon Echo review12/16/2014: We Try the Amazon Echo, Yahoo Tech

Amazon PR hasn’t exactly been handing out review units of the Echo, but a friend got a semi-coveted invitation to buy this Bluetooth speaker/digital assistant/listening device and was kind enough to invite me over for the unboxing and some of his early use. Yahoo Tech (by which I mean me) paid for that early access with a bottle of homebrewed beer.

12/16/2014: When Is a Data Cap Not a Data Cap? When Big Telecom Says So, Yahoo Tech

This story had been in the works for a while, and then I had to redo a paragraph in it as it was supposed to go online to note T-Mobile’s customer-friendly addition of a data-rollover policy. The photo, in case you were curious, represents a rare case of my getting actual value from the mailings Comcast sends me every other week; in the background you can see a Dominion Power smart meter.

12/21/2014: Give the gift of cheaper TV, Internet and phone service, USA Today

In need of a column topic for this weekend, I asked the Twitter hive mind which family tech-support tasks people were most nervous about. One person replied that calling Comcast led the list, and that made me realize that I was overdue to write a cheat sheet about ways to trim telecom bills.

You can leave me voicemail

My phone’s been doing something weird over the past few weeks: It’s been ringing and buzzing with incoming calls.

Missed callsAnd not just any calls, but those in which the callers don’t leave a voicemail when I don’t pick up. I don’t pick up because it’s December and calls from tech-heavy area codes–206 and 415, I’m looking at you–usually mean CES PR pitches that, by virtue of referencing something happening weeks from now, do not require my immediate attention.

I keep wondering if one of these calls will break with the pattern and leave me with a voicemail summary. Instead, I only get Android’s after-the-fact identification of the PR agency behind the number. What happened? Was the caller on the verge of leaving a brilliant little soliloquy before he or she had the iPhone stolen. Did an attack by a bear interrupt things? I can only wonder.

I whined about this on Twitter, and one PR rep responded that he didn’t want to annoy journalists by adding yet another voicemail to their queue. I get where he’s coming from. But here’s the thing: A voice call without any here’s-what-you-missed followup (could be voicemail, could be e-mail, could be a tweet) basically reads as “my message is so important that I will not say it unless you drop everything to hear it in real-time.”

And that’s not something I want to do when I have this many to-do-list items to finish before CES.

Look, I have visual voicemail through Google Voice; playing messages is not that painful, and GV’s automatic transcription often makes it amusing too. Besides which, at the moment I can’t seem to get anybody to leave me voicemail. So if you do, PR friends, you can tell your client how this one weird trick made your message stand out from everybody else’s.

Weekly output: police body cameras, mobile battery life, online publishing, DSL modems

It’s not Christmas yet, but I can see it before me. Which is another way of saying that I need to finalize my CES schedule, book my Mobile World Congress flights, and figure out where I’m staying for SXSW.

12/9/2014: 3 Questions to Ask Before Putting Cameras on Cops, Yahoo Tech

This column got a spot on the Yahoo home page, resulting in a flood of comments and a round of e-mails I wish I’d answered already.

Kojo Nnamdi Show mobile battery life12/9/2014: Powering Our Mobile Devices: How to Boost Battery Life, Kojo Nnamdi Show

I talked about what can prolong the time before your phone’s next meeting with a power outlet. My interlocutors: host Kojo Nnamdi and C|Net executive editor Ian Sherr,

12/11/2014: Mistakes made in online publishing, HHS Digital Council

News organizations have often chosen poorly when picking online publishing systems, so I had to accept a friend’s invitation to discuss that history before a group of digital-media managers for various branches of the Department of Health and Human Services.

12/14/2014: Weak Wi-Fi drags down DSL? Try moving the modem, USA Today

This column, like others, started with a call from a friend who had a technical question (in this case, about being able to replace an aging Verizon DSL modem with one that might get a WiFi signal to all of a house). That’s why I’m glad I write a Q&A column: It lets me monetize the inevitable tech-support queries from pals.