Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.

Weekly output: Boost Mobile bundles telemedicine, Tegna’s local-ads sales pitch, Facebook Oversight Board (x2), dark patterns

This week’s biggest accomplishment doesn’t appear on the list below: getting my second dose of the Moderna novel-coronavirus vaccine Thursday morning.

5/4/2021: Dish’s Boost Mobile to add telemedicine to the bundle, Light Reading

My newest client asked me to write up the news that Dish Network’s T-Mobile reseller Boost Mobile will bundle K Health’s telemedicine service–an interesting departure from marketing as usual in the wireless industry.

5/4/2021: Tegna outlines local-content strategy at NewFronts, FierceVideo

My other regular trade-pub client then asked me to fill in with coverage of the ad-industry group IAB’s conference. I was struck to see the TV company spun out of Gannett several years ago sound so confident about the ad prospects for local news when so many local Gannett papers seem to feel otherwise.

5/5/2021: Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump ruling, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on for the first time in a while to discuss the Facebook Oversight Board’s May 5 ruling that while Facebook was right to kick Donald Trump off the platform after the January 6 riots at the Capital, suspending him indefinitely instead of just deleting his account was without precedent.

Fast Company FTC dark-patterns post5/6/2021: Can the FTC stop the tech industry’s use of ‘dark patterns’?, Fast Company

I “attended”–meaning I watched from my home office–a conference the Federal Trade Commission held at the end of April about the abuse of “dark pattern” interfaces by tech companies to push customers into making decisions against their own interests. The FTC had a great lineup of speakers, I learned a lot, and at the end I really wished I could have walked over, said hi and asked follow-up questions like in the Before Times.

5/6/2021: (Face)book ’em Donno!, Bipodisan

My friend Robert Schlesinger had me back on the podcast he co-hosts with Jean Card for the first time since last May. We mostly talked about the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision–in particular, its implicit scolding of Facebook’s habit of letting its policy shop override the content-policy enforcement calls–but also discussed broader concerns about the influence of Facebook and what political and technological developments might help check that.

More things I have learned from being a cat’s human

Among the many changes the pandemic has led to in our home, this one’s the weirdest: We now routinely wake up with a live animal ensconced on our bed.

It took several months for the cat we adopted a year ago Thursday to decide that his preferred sleeping spot was at the end of our bed… and then for my wife and I to realize how we appreciated having Abel be our foot warmer, especially in winter. We also now have an extra alarm clock, in the form of Abel walking over or around us once he thinks it’s time to get up.

Photo shows Abel sitting on my laptop and a WiFi hotspot

If you are not a cat’s human, the preceding two paragraphs may look weird. I get it; I was not read up on this element of cat bonding myself before last May’s increase to our house’s population.

I also didn’t realize that while Abel would be capable of understanding the words “off” or “down” when we ask him to get off the dining room table, his compliance would not stop him from jumping from floor to chair to back on the table five minutes later. (This remains a source of shrugging amusement.)

Nor did I know about the weird noises cats make while grooming themselves–or that I would learn to tune out that self-care soundtrack.

And while I was aware of all the hair cats shed, I definitely did not Get The Memo about the inevitable byproduct of cat sneezes.

And yet the newest member of our family provides endless amusement around the house, allows me to contribute to the Internet’s stock of cat photos, lives up to the low-maintenance reputation of cats by spending much of the day sleeping, and returns our affection by nuzzling us and sometimes rubbing noses–and I didn’t realize how great that last part would be. We have a good little cat. Happy adoptiversary, Abel!

Weekly output: password managers, streaming-TV forecast, Limelight earnings, EU vs. Apple

The most important item on my calendar this week: getting my second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine.

Screengrab of story as shown in USAT's iPad app4/28/2021: A cheaper deal from Dashlane invites a new look at password managers, USA Today

Dashlane’s PR firm offered me an advance on their addition of a new, cheaper price plan, which I used as a news peg for an overview of the password-manager market.

4/29/2021: Expect To Spend More On Streaming Video Than On Traditional Pay TV By 2024: New Report, Forbes

I wrote up a Strategy Analytics report predicting a slow demise for pay TV as we’ve known it. Sports fans, take note of the streaming deal for Italy’s Liga Serie A that one SA analyst described for me.

4/30/2021: Limelight revenues drop and losses widen, FierceVideo

I filled in at this client to cover this content-delivery network firm’s disappointing earnings.

4/30/2021: EU’s Answer To Spotify’s Complaint: Apple’s Rules Have Consumers Losing Out, Forbes

Writing this post about the European Commission’s preliminary finding that Apple abused its App Store authority to suppress competition from Spotify took me back to 2011–when it already seemed obvious that Apple demanding a 30% share of in-app subscriptions while forbidding app developers from pointing iPhone and iPad users to their own payment systems represented an abuse of power.

Ten years without a real job

I have now somehow clocked a decade of self-employment, and I won’t even pretend that was the plan when my status as a Washington Post employee officially expired on April 29, 2011. At the time, I assumed I would spend not too many weeks as a gentleman of leisure, then find a place where I could resume covering the things I cared about in the world of technology.

(By which I mean, not rewriting Apple rumors.)

Photo shows a 1 and a 0 from a toddler's alphabet set, as seen resting on graph paper.

Instead, multiple places found me, offering freelance rates that were good enough to convince me to try self-employment. It seems that my sudden and surprising appearance on the market represented unintentional, effective positioning on my part; my least-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a column at a major American newspaper, then have the paper kick you to the curb when nobody expects it.”

I also didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to start freelancing by having two different clients commit to pay for a set amount of work each month at an above-market rate. My gigs at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association eventually went away–there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client–but they allowed me to figure out the basics of indie existence without stressing over each month’s income.

They also let me start seeing what I’d missed at the events that had never been in the cards for me at the Post–like SXSW, MWC and the Online News Association’s annual gathering–and begin to develop my own sideline as a conference speaker.

I have learned an enormous amount about the self-employed existence since then–battering my way to marginal competence at accounting, struggling with parallel editor-relationship management, booking travel on my own criteria and then optimizing it, time-slicing workdays to get chores like a Costco run done faster than salaried folks can manage, and bringing a certain equanimity to fluctuating cash flow. (My actually-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a spouse with a real job.”) Some years have been much better than others, while last year was much worse than the rest. Marching on as a freelance writer through a global pandemic even as friends have fled the business is one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my career–but the important thing is that I persisted, and now business is picking up and I can even look forward to once again traveling for work.

Ten years and 87 1099 tax forms later (I may be missing a few in that count), I still think I’ve been pretty lucky in this ongoing chapter of my professional life. I’ve never had a client fail to pay me; while I have had to nag a few for several months for a payment, my single longest wait happened because I forgot to invoice the client. I have covered stories and gone to parts of the world that probably would have remained daydream material had I somehow stayed on my old path. And since April of 2011, no one company has ever been in a position to put me out of business. That means a lot.

Weekly output: T-Mobile and Verizon wireless home broadband, sports on streaming TV, MLB streaming (x2), Netflix earnings, WiFi hotspots, the future of live events, Fios TV, WWE, Facebook’s new audio features, Mark Vena podcast

The list you see below reflects a lot of work done in earlier weeks–three virtual panels recorded in advance, plus a Wirecutter update that I started researching last year.

4/19/2021: Time to cut internet cords: T-Mobile, Verizon up their bids to be your next home broadband, USA Today

I wrote about the fixed-wireless home-broadband services now available from these two carriers–one of which looks better positioned to let more Americans dump their local cable or telco monopoly.

4/19/2021: A key lesson of sports on OTT: first, do no lag, FierceVideo

An editor at this trade pub asked if I could fill in with coverage of an online event they were hosting. That work started with a write-up of a panel about lessons learned in distributing live sports events on over-the-top (aka “OTT,” meaning delivered on a third party’s broadband) video services.

Screenshot of the panel as seen on an iPad, with me at the left and Marinak at the right4/20/2021: Keynote Interview: Producing OTT Sports Content, StreamTV Sports Summit

I didn’t just write about Fierce’s conference, I also participated in it by interviewing Chris Marinak, Major League Baseball’s chief operations and strategy officer. You can watch our banter after registering with your e-mail or Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter accounts; meanwhile, take a close look at the screenshot at the right and you may be able to recognize the Nationals bobblehead I’d placed on my desk for this recording.

4/20/2021: MLB to RSNs: It’s time to think direct-to-consumer, FierceVideo

Fierce then invited me to write up my own appearance at its show, so I led with Marinak’s answer to my question about his statements in a March season-preview event that MLB wants regional sports networks to sell game coverage direct to subscribers instead of making them sign up for a big pay-TV bundle. (I’d covered those earlier comments in an Opening Day post at Forbes.) Marinak reiterated that stance, and my recap got picked up at a few places; among them, Awful Announcing‘s Andrew Bucholtz and The Streamable‘s Jason Gurwin provided useful context.

4/21/2021: Netflix subscriber growth downshifts in Q1, FierceVideo

I wrote one more post for Fierce, in this case because the usual reporter was taking a just-in-case day off after getting his second dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Netflix earnings are less annoying to cover than those of other tech companies, because NFLX posts an “earnings interview” video instead of making people listen to an audio-only recording on which all the executives usually sound alike.

4/21/2021: The Best Wi-Fi Hotspot, Wirecutter

This overdue update to the guide I’d last revised in those innocent days of early 2020 brings a new 5G-specific pick, T-Mobile’s M2000 hotspot. AT&T and Verizon’s 5G hotspots, lacking the midband 5G T-Mo offers, were nowhere close–and yet Verizon’s LTE remains so good that the top pick went to the same Vz 4G hotspot as last year.

4/21/2021: Preparing for the return to live, Collision

I started this interview of Nathan Hubbard (formerly of Musictoday, Ticketmaster, Twitter and Rival) by mentioning the last game and concert I’d attended in the Before Times. That last musical event was a John Hiatt set at the Birchmere, which led Hubbard to recount how he’d once played that Alexandria venue himself.

4/21/2021: Verizon’s Slumping Video-Subscriber Numbers: Here’s What A Post-TV Provider Looks Like, Forbes

Seeing Verizon lose another stadium’s worth of pay-TV subscribers led me to take a closer look at both its Fios TV service and its sales pitch for it online, which at this point represents the softest of sells.

4/22/2021: WWE: Breaking down the data, Collision

I talked to WWE CTO Rajan Mehta about the network’s applications of technology… after offering the disclaimer that not only am I not anybody’s idea of a WWE viewer, as a D.C.-based journalist I must self-identify as a C-SPAN man.

4/22/2021: Facebook Exec Sounds Off On Its New Audio Features, Forbes

Fidji Simo, who heads Facebook’s app efforts, spoke at a couple of Collision panels about the social network’s upcoming audio features–while other Collision speakers made some good points about Facebook’s history of not thinking through the implications of new products and features.

4/24/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (4-23-21), Mark Vena

I returned to my tech-analyst friend’s podcast to discuss Apple’s announcements from its “Spring Loaded” event and talk about my findings from testing 5G hotspots around the D.C. area.

 

Weekly output: finessing 5G pricing, cruise-ship apps, RootMetrics 5G report

The significance of April 15 this year didn’t involve filing my taxes, thanks to the IRS moving back the deadline to May 17. Instead, Thursday happened to be the 10th anniversary of my last day of work at the Washington Post. Looking that up made me realize that I’d never quite decided when my freelance existence began, but now I know: April 29, the date of my resignation from the paper after the two weeks of vacation time I took following that final Friday in the newsroom.

Screenshot of 5G-details post as seen in Safari on an iPad mini4/14/2021: Here’s how AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile slice and dice 5G plans and pricing, Light Reading

This is my first post for a new client–thanks to an old editor working there. Freelancers, remember to be nice to your editors. Readers, give Mike Dano a follow on Twitter if you want to stay current about the wireless business.

4/14/2021: The Rise of Digitalization & Mobile Apps: Travelling Smarter and Safer, Seatrade Cruise Virtual

I was going to have a panel at this cruise-ship conference on my calendar last spring, but then the pandemic sank those plans. Instead, the event resurfaced as an online gathering, at which my role was to interview three executives at cruise lines–Jay Schneider of Royal Caribbean Group, Scott Piccolo of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, and Luca Pronzati of MSC Cruises–as well as Greg Ross-Munro, CEO of the app-development firm (and panel sponsor) Sourcetoad. We had a good conversation about the design principles that go into cruise-ship apps and where these folks think the industry is heading with them.

4/15/2021: RootMetrics 5G report puts AT&T in first place, Light Reading

RootMetrics PR gave me an advance on their latest report on 5G network performance, which I then wrote up for my new trade-pub client. Lesson re-learned from this: Always read through to the end of a study to see where they tested, which in this case was a grab-bag of mostly medium and small cities.

Smartphone spring cleaning: delete some apps, pay for others

By keeping me at home for so much of the past year, the pandemic has prolonged the life of my 2019-vintage Pixel 3a phone to an unnatural degree. But the cushy, stay-home lifestyle this Android device has enjoyed has not prevented one sign of smartphone age: a dwindling amount of available storage.

The easiest way to free up a bunch of space is to get rid of apps you haven’t been using. In any version of Android, the Play Store should let you sort your list of installed apps by when they were last used, but the current Android 11 provides a more direct reminder: If you don’t use an app for long enough, the system will automatically reset its permissions to zero.

Screenshot of Android's list of apps with automatically-removed permissions

The resulting lists of apps with removed permissions reminded me of how long I’d used a bunch of travel apps, but they’ve also spotlighted apps that I had lost interest in using even before the pandemic.

But as I’ve been removing various apps from smartphone, I’m also not only adding some but paying for them.

That’s not a matter of storage space but privacy. As I’ve realized in covering privacy fears over phone apps–as in, the evidence-starved assertion that TikTok is uniquely dangerous–ad-supported apps can allow for the collection and subsequent resale of more data than you might imagine.

The simplest way to solve that concern is to pay for the app–either by upgrading to an ad-free version with in an-app payment (as I did last year with Flightradar24), or by switching to a competing app if the title in question doesn’t allow that option.

And that’s why I finally have a new weather app: After years of relying on Yahoo Weather and then starting to get grumpy over the space devoted in its interface to ads, I finally deleted it. In its place, I installed Today Weather, the pick of multiple reviewers, and then paid the $6.99 lifetime fee for ad-free operation with premium features enabled. Now I have a better set of forecasting tools without any ads and the tracking that goes on behind them.

And yes, this app takes up about a third of the space than Yahoo Weather did. On an aging device like my Pixel 3a, every little byte counts.

Weekly output: online-news problems and possibilities, Mark Vena podcast

Sometimes these weekly recaps only feature me talking about my coverage instead of, you know, actual examples of my coverage. This week is one of those times.

Screenshot of CPI page showing my event, with a still frame from the video4/7/2021: The Future of Innovation in News Production, Competition Policy International

I moderated this panel on problems and possibilities for online news publishers, featuring eco – Association of the Internet Industry policy adviser Thomas Bihlmayer, tech-policy lawyer Cathy Gellis, and Public Knowledge competition policy director Charlotte Slaiman. Spoiler alert: We did not solve the media’s business-model problems in the hour we had, but the participants all made great points, and I would be happy to pick up the discussion with any of them.

4/7/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (4-6-21), Mark Vena

The topic I discussed on this week’s installment of this tech analyst’s podcast: the Supreme Court’s termination of Oracle’s attempt to get courts to grant it a new intellectual-property monopoly, a quest that would have had disastrous effects on interoperability and competition in the software industry. As I said on the show (also available in video form): You can hate Google and still like this ruling.