I can stop trying to keep up with Walt Mossberg

After 23 years or so of writing about consumer technology, it’s time to slack off a little: Walt Mossberg’s last column ran today, so I don’t have to keep up with him anymore.

That was never easy, starting the day the Post somehow gave me my own tech column. I can only recall two times when I beat or tied Walt to a story about Apple, then as now Topic A among tech writers. Once was a review of the first shipping version of Mac OS X, when a guy at a local user group handed me a copy of that release before Apple PR would. The other was a writeup of iDVD that benefited from my willingness to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. a couple of nights in a row.

In the summer of 2000, the Post ran a front-page profile of Walt; being a guy in his late 20s with more ego than circumstances warranted, I took it poorly. But I always liked talking shop with my competitor at tech events around D.C., the Bay Area and elsewhere. (Does anybody have video of the 2006 panel featuring myself, Walt, the late Steve Wildstrom, Kevin Maney and Stephanie Stahl in which we shared an airing of grievances about tech-PR nonsense?) And when I announced my exit from the Post in 2011, the guy with one of the busier inboxes in all of tech journalism took a moment to e-mail his condolences and wish me good luck.

Since then, Walt has remained a must-read writer, provided the occasional column idea, and been one of the people I enjoy running into at conferences. He’s a mensch–or, to translate that from the Yiddish I know almost nothing of to my native Jersey-speak, a stand-up guy.

Enjoy your retirement, Walt. But please try not to taunt the rest of us too much when we’re off to yet another CES and you can finally spend that week in January as normal human beings do.

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Weekly output: WannaCry, Google I/O, Android O, AMP, DVD on UHD

 

Google I/O consistently ranks as one of the most info-dense events I cover. After Google has put out its headline news in the opening keynote, the conference offers dozens of talks that get into the weeds on things like mobile-ad formats, Android’s notifications interface, and augmented-reality applications. I take far more notes than I can put into the stories I file from this event, but those notes inform many more stories over the next 12 months.

5/15/2017: Rob Pegoraro Finance and Tech Writer from Yahoo.com [Interview], Mike and Molson

I talked about the WannaCry ransomware outbreak with Johnny Molson and Mike Wennmacher, hosts of this show on the Springfield, Illinois station WMAY.

5/17/2017: Google Assistant and Google Home Make Renewed Pitch to Consumers, Consumer Reports

An editor at CR e-mailed to ask if I could do an I/O recap right as I was going to e-mail him to ask if they needed one.

5/18/2017: Android O: Google tries to fix Android’s biggest weakness, Yahoo Finance

I led with Project Treble, Google’s overdue move to speed Android updates by putting a hardware abstraction layer between that operating system and that machine-specific code that talks to a phone’s chipsets. Google did not, relegating Treble to brief mentions in presentations until engineering V.P. Dave Burke called Treble “probably the biggest architectural change since we started” in a Q&A session Thursday evening.

5/19/2017: How Google’s trying to make the mobile web look less ugly, Yahoo Finance

My big takeaway from a few I/O talks about Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages effort: How about putting the same effort into making the desktop Web look less like hot garbage?

5/21/2017: Ultra-high-def TV’s image problem, and how to fix it, USA Today

A chat over breakfast at the IFA Global Press Conference last month with another tech journalist led me to this under-reported problem with 4K televisions: how bad a DVD can look on them.

The silent shame of bringing an older Android phone to a Google event

MOUNTAIN VIEW–I really didn’t think my Nexus 5X phone was that old until I saw so many others at Google I/O here–being used by event staff to scan the RFID tags in people’s conference badges before admitting them to talks.

Badge-scanning duty is typically the last lap around the track for a mobile device before it gets put out to pasture. Or sent to the glue factory. But that usually doesn’t happen until years after its debut; for instance, at SXSW this year, I was amused to see volunteers use 2013-vintage Nexus 7 tablets to scan badges.

Google didn’t introduce my phone until September of 2015, after which I waited a month to buy my own.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the hardware milieu at this conference that’s been making my phone look obsolete. Over the past few months, my 5X has gotten into the embarrassing and annoying habit of locking up randomly. Sometimes the thing snaps out of it on its own; sometimes I have to mash down the power button to force a restart.

I’ve factory-reset the phone once, with all the reconfiguration of apps and redoing of Google Authenticator two-step verification that requires, and that doesn’t seem to have made a difference. It’s been good today, but yesterday I had to force-reboot it twice. I only hope fellow attendees didn’t notice the Android logo on its startup screen and start judging me and my janky phone accordingly.

Weekly output: Ajit Pai’s agenda, inflight WiFi, Clinton-era telecom policy, cord cutting, electronics ban

This week has me headed to the Bay Area to cover Google’s I/O developer conference. If you have questions about Google’s intentions for its Web services, Android, Chromebooks, or any of its other products, now would be a good time to send them my way.

5/8/2017: Trump’s FCC chief looks to expand broadband internet access, Yahoo Finance

I’ve beaten up on FCC chairman Ajit Pai many times already, but this recap of his speech last Friday at the American Enterprise Institute had me in a somewhat forgiving mood. I don’t like scam robocalls any more than he does, and this talk was nothing like the red-baiting denunciation of net-neutrality regulations I’d watched last month.

5/11/2017: How Gogo will transform your Wi-Fi experience in the sky, Yahoo Finance

Here’s my recap of Tuesday’s Gogo flight that showed how inflight WiFi doesn’t have to be terrible–unless airlines screw up anyway. If you’d like more technical details about Gogo’s souped-up “2KU” satellite-linked system, read my fellow passenger Seth Miller’s writeup.

5/12/2017: The Trump administration gets the history of Internet regulations all wrong, The Washington Post

Six years and 25 days after the Post last featured my byline, I wrote another story for the paper. This was originally going to be an item on the PostEverything blog unpacking Ajit Pai’s inaccurate praise for 1990s telecom regulation. But after a John Oliver rant about net neutrality and multiple rounds of editing, it became a broader take on the history of open-Internet policies and found a spot on the front of today’s Outlook section.

If you read this piece in the first few hours it was up Friday, you probably caught it citing an older FCC statistic about the state of competition among Internet providers. Conservative analyst Richard Bennett tweeted out my failure to include the latest, less-depressing stats (they may have been posted after I started writing this), and I only spotted that after seeing this guy had added me to a Twitter list named “open piracy”–a notification Twitter’s “quality filter” showed while hiding the more-relevant tweet calling out my error. Anyway, I e-mailed my editor about the problem, he fixed it, and I left a comment advising readers of the change.

5/12/2017: Financial Review by Sinclair Noe for 05-12-2017, Financial Review

I talked with host Sinclair Noe about the ups and downs of cord cutting, the subject of a Yahoo Finance post last week.

5/13/2017: How a wider laptop ban could threaten your safety and data, Yahoo Finance

I take this story somewhat personally, since if the Feds do expand the current laptop ban, my trans-Atlantic travel habits will ensure I’m hurt by it. And since it looks like my next trip to Europe will be this year’s edition of the Viva Technology Paris conference, I may get to experience any such ban in one of the EU’s worst places for passenger queues: Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport.

An avgeek treat: experiencing a takeoff from the cockpit jumpseat

I’ve flown out of Newark International Airport dozens of times, but Tuesday’s departure wasn’t like any of the others. Instead of flying United (or, years ago, Continental), I was on Gogo’s 737-500 testbed with other journalists to try out the company’s latest inflight WiFi system.
And instead of occupying one of the 58 generously-spaced seats on that 1982-vintage airframe, I took the jumpseat up front, just behind the pilot and co-pilot.
That was all Zach Honig’s fault. When I was on another Gogo WiFi flight last March, the editor of The Points Guy travel blog thought to ask if he could take the jumpseat for landing–allowable because FAA air-carrier rules didn’t apply to this private flight. That sent me into an immediate fit of jealousy.
So Tuesday afternoon, I had to ask–politely, while acknowledging the pilot’s discretion. He considered it for a moment and then said okay, and I promised to keep my mouth shut and not touch anything. A flight attendant unfolded the jumpseat, and of course I needed help buckling myself into the five-point harness.
My eyes got a little wider as the pilot explained that if we had to get out of the plane in a hurry, we’d bail out the side window, using the rope stashed above it. Then he and the co-pilot busied themselves with their checklists as I gawked at the switches, knobs and gauges covering most of the available surfaces.
I’ve had the privilege of flying up front a couple of times before–a biplane ride out of College Park’s tiny airport in 1996, and a floatplane tour of Seattle out of Lake Union in 2010. This involved a lot more metal.
EWR being EWR, we had to wait an extra 10 minutes or so to get our clearance. We taxied to the runway–it felt like we took each turn too late, on account of my sitting forward of the nose landing gear–and lined up. The pilot pushed the thrust levers forward, the engines roared, and after a very short takeoff roll our lightly loaded Boeing cranked into the sky.
I had to resist the impulse to yell “holy shit! holy shit!” as we banked left and then right, the altimeter spiraled upward, the trim wheels on each side of the throttles spun, and Manhattan’s skyline unfolded across all three of the windows on the right side. Flying is a more visceral experience when you can watch the pilot turn the yoke, then see the plane respond a moment later–and when sitting at the front of the jet lets you feel it shake more than you would seated by the wing.
Then we popped through a layer of clouds to see them spread out before us, an impossible sight from any seat in the back. Looking at that office view, it became much clearer why people do this for a living.
I will admit that the seat itself–with no recline and vanishingly little legroom–was among the least comfortable I’ve sat in on any airplane. That did not matter Tuesday afternoon.
For more pictures (plus a shaky, poorly exposed video of the takeoff), see this Flickr album.

I tried targeting you all with a Facebook ad. It didn’t work well.

Last Sunday, I finally saw something new on Facebook: an invitation to run an ad campaign on the social network and pay for the whole thing with a $30 coupon. Since other people’s money is one of my preferred payment methods–and since I’d been meaning to see what the Facebook ad mechanism looks like from the inside–I accepted the offer.

I couldn’t choose a post to promote, as the coupon was limited to the post I wrote here about money-losing prompts at ATMs and credit-card readers overseas that had become unexpectedly popular when shared automatically to my public page. But I could pick who would see the ad, as identified in a few different ways. In case you’ve wondered just what Facebook advertisers can know about you, here are the options I saw:

• Target people who like your page, people who like your page as well as those people’s friends, or people you choose through targeting. I picked the last, in the interest of science.

• Reach people at a region or at an address. The default was the District. I could have picked an address, but since I’m not promoting a business at a fixed location I didn’t see the point. But with this post’s travel-centric focus, I should have picked Dulles Airport–right?

• Choose interests (as expressed by people on Facebook in things like Likes). For this post, I selected “Air travel,” “Europe,” “credit cards,” and “personal finance.”

• Pick an age range and a gender.

• Pick a duration and a total budget for the ad campaign.

I could have gone deeper into some of these options, but since I was navigating this dialog on my phone during our daughter’s dance class, I didn’t have unlimited time. I submitted the ad, got an e-mail saying it was under review for compliance with Facebook’s ad standards, and got a second e-mail 16 minutes later saying the ad passed.

Three days later, Facebook sent me a summary. Their $30 had brought the Facebook share of my post here to another 2,516 people, of which 56 had clicked on the link and one had left a comment on my page.

This report also informed me that the ad’s audience was 95% male, which is both confusing and unsettling. Maybe I should have targeted only women, considering that my page’s audience already skews so heavily male? Age-wise, the ad found its biggest audience among the 25-34 demographic. I’m not clear about that either.

What I do know is that my WordAds ad revenue here doesn’t support spending $30 to reel in 56 views, so I doubt I’ll be running this experiment with my own money anytime soon.