Weekly output: Verizon’s unlimited plan (x3), video-game economic impact, chatbots, broadband competition

Presidents’ Day used to feel like a real holiday–preferably experienced while enjoying views from a chairlift somewhere–but Monday doesn’t feel like much of one. I’m facing an abbreviated workweek, thanks to my Friday departure for Barcelona to cover Mobile World Congress. On the upside, I’m about to spend a few days in Spain for work.

2/13/2017: How Verizon’s new ‘unlimited’ plan compares to the competition, Yahoo Finance

This workweek technically started Sunday afternoon, when Verizon announced that it would once again sell an unlimited–more accurately called “unmetered”–data plan. After I’d filed this post, I got to rewrite a quarter of it to catch up with T-Mobile lifting the two worst restrictions on its own “unlimited” plan.

esa-panel-screengrab2/14/2017: Achievement Unlocked: The Video Game Industry’s Economic Impact, Entertainment Software Association

The nice thing about moderating a panel with members of Congress: They are guaranteed to make you look timely. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D.-Calif.) had to duck out halfway through this discussion, just as Rep. Doug Collins (R.-Ga.) made his belated entrance. You can watch the conversation, also featuring Higher Education Video Game Alliance president Constance Steinkuehler, on Twitch (this is the first and probably the last time I’ll appear on that game-centric network) and see photos from the event at ESA’s Facebook page.

2/15/2017: A Chatbot Is Here to Help, FedTech

I filed this story about the potential of chatbots to ease federal-government services in a simpler time when a Facebook Messenger bot would walk you through sending a message to the president. The Trump administration shut that down; I don’t know why, as my e-mailed inquiry to the White House press office did not yield a response.

2/15/2017: Here are the catches in Verizon’s new plan, USA Today

My editors at USAT asked if I could file my column early, recognizing that something about Verizon advertising unlimited data was driving readers bonkers. The piece now has 27,788 Facebook shares, which suggests they had the right idea.

usat-facebook-live2/17/2017: Unlimited data! But at what cost?, USA Today

My USAT editors also asked if I could do a Facebook Live spot with tech and media reporter Mike Snider. This allowed me to see what USAT’s Tysons Corner newsroom looks like–yes, more than five years after I started writing for the place.

2/18/2017: Wireless carriers are fighting for your cash, and that’s good news, Yahoo Finance

While I was gathering string for a story on broadband infrastructure, I realized I already had almost everything needed to write a post about the wireless industry’s recent display of the benefits of competition–and the equally telling behavior of residential-broadband services that face few or no rivals.

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SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

Weekly output: net neutrality, Vizio surveillance, Amazon ads

Our daughter spent the first three workdays of the week home sick with a cold, which had a calamitous effect on my productivity. Especially on Monday, when my wife’s schedule left her unable to take any time off from work.

iPad screengrab of Yahoo post2/7/2017: Open-internet rules look dead. Now what?, Yahoo Finance

This look at the fate of net-neutrality regulations under new Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai benefited from an interview that was supposed to happen during CES. But I could never coordinate my schedule with that of political commentator and TYT Network founder Cenk Uygur during the show, so the publicist who had suggested a CES meeting instead arranged a sit-down when Uygur was in Arlington for a conference last weekend. Since TYT’s news and talk shows depend on Internet distribution, the possible effect on Internet video of weakened open-Internet rules was an obvious topic to discuss.

2/10/2017: FTC’s case against Vizio illuminates terrible tech industry habit, Yahoo Finance

This is a post that I would have written sooner had my workweek not been so thoroughly disrupted. When I finally had some free time, it hit me that Vizio’s deceptive presentation of the “Smart Interactivity” feature that tracked your viewing habits could fairly be called a “dark pattern” user experience–and that I could get an informed ruling on that by asking the guy who coined that term, London-based user-experience designer Harry Brignull.

2/12/2017: How to stop seeing your Amazon searches everywhere, USA Today

The Amazon ad-preferences setting that stops the retail giant’s ads from featuring your recent shopping searches on other sites has been around for a while. But to judge from the appreciative response I’m seeing on Twitter and Facebook to this column, its existence was news to many Amazon shoppers.

I miss skiing

This has been an oddball winter in Washington, on account of the nearly complete absence of snow. But it has been too typical in another respect: Once again, I’m doing a horrible job of propping up the skiing industry.

View looking uphill from Ski Liberty's chairliftBack in the pre-parenthood era, I had the opposite problem. Between day trips to the handful of places sufficiently nearby (one of D.C.’s less-obvious virtues is having the closest hill, Ski Liberty, less than an hour and a half away), long weekends in West Virginia and at least one trip a year to Colorado, Utah or some other faraway place with Real Mountains, I was spending serious money. Even without having to rent equipment.

Having a baby put a stop to most of that. Instead of expecting to rack up 10 ski days a year, I was lucky to get in one or two–and none out of town.

In prior winters, I could at least count on the occasional blizzard giving me a chance to cross-country ski around the neighborhood. This year? Forget it.

Meanwhile, my ability to give myself an occasional day off to make that drive to one of the local hills has atrophied. It turns out that while freelancing from one’s home does let you dodge your responsibilities long enough to stage an efficient Costco run on a weekday morning, blowing off work for an entire day is no easier than in any other full-time job.

So it’s now been almost two years since my boots, skis and poles got any use. And it’s been almost a year since I last grabbed the cross-country skis for a tour of the neighborhood.

This is lame, and I’m not happy about it–especially not after reading this fine overview of nearby skiing options from my fellow Nats fan/victim William Yurasko. But as I type this, it’s 50 degrees outside with a high of 63 forecast tomorrow, and besides we already have a bunch of things on our schedule. Maybe next weekend?

Weekly output: switching from Mac to Windows, Comcast Roku app, malware study, Super Bowl vs. “Big Game,” Chromebook security

So, got any favorite Super Bowl ads? I guess all of us, even crestfallen Atlanta fans whom nobody can rightfully expect to show up for work tomorrow, can take some comfort that no advertisers sank to a Nationwide-kid level of awfulness.

Screenshot of Consumer Reports story as seen on an iPad1/30/2017: 5 Things to Know About Switching From Mac to Windows, Consumer Reports

Interesting thing in the comments on this: Readers defended Apple’s software but didn’t mention its hardware, which is one of my primary gripes with the company these days. This explainer got republished on Yahoo later on Monday.

1/31/2017: Comcast now lets you watch cable on your Roku

What I thought was going to be an overwhelmingly positive development turns out to be much less attractive, entirely thanks to Comcast’s Kafkaesque pricing. I didn’t even realize how bad it was until a last round of fact-checking e-mails–with the result being that we didn’t have this story up when Comcast’s 1 p.m. embargo expired, but we did have the numbers right in it.

1/31/2017: Malware study shows people still falling for old tricks, but there’s hope

The most surprising and dismaying part of this Malwarebytes study: That Microsoft Office macro viruses have made a comeback.

2/3/2017: Why the NFL makes companies call the Super Bowl the ‘Big Game’, Yahoo Finance

The NFL’s control-freakery about not just the trademarked name “Super Bowl” but even variations of it is something I should have covered a long time ago.

2/5/2017: How safe are Chromebooks from malware?, USA Today

A reader asked about this on my Facebook page, and I thought it was a good question… especially after my editor passed on a couple of other column ideas.

 

Do I really have to use Snapchat?

Snapchat filed for its initial public offering Thursday, which makes it a good time to admit that I completely suck at Snapchat.

I have the app on my phone (I installed it first on my iPad, which should exhibit how confused I am about the whole proposition), but it’s among the least-used apps on that device. And that doesn’t seem likely to change.

Self-portrait using Snapchat's snorkel-and-fish lensFew of the friends from whom I’d want to get real-time messages number among its 158 million daily active users, and even fewer seem to use it actively versus lurking on it. I will check out the occasional Story from a news or entertainment site, but that slightly longer-form medium has yet to become a regular part of my info-diet.

I could use Snapchat as yet another way to connect with readers. But without any clients or readers asking me to do this–and with a surplus of social-media distractions already on my various devices–I’m struggling to see the upside.

The biggest reason for my holding off is, to put it bluntly, is that I’m ancient relative to Snapchat’s millennial demographic. I didn’t get the initial appeal of the app when it was focused on sexting disappearing messages, and I’ve been stuck in a get-off-my-lawn mentality ever since.

Snapchat’s self-inflicted wounds are part of the story too. This startup had barely been in existence for three years before having a data breach expose partial phone numbers of more than 4.5 million users, after which it accepted a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. That’s not the sort of thing that makes me want to give an app access to my phone’s contacts list. It does not help that founder Evan Spiegel hasn’t exactly seemed like the most enlightened founder in tech.

Finally, there’s Snapchat’s cryptic interface, which expects the user to swipe in random directions to see what features might surface. When the clearest explanation of this UI comes as a diagram on page 92 of Thursday’s S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, we have a serious failure of discoverability. That, too, does not make me want to spend my time figuring out this app.

As that pre-IPO disclosure to investors itself admits: “These new behaviors, such as swiping and tapping in the Snapchat application, are not always intuitive to users.”

I’m not going to delete the app from my phone or anything. It’s an important part of social media today, and I should stay at least functionally literate in it. But if you were hoping to have that be yet another instant-messaging app you can reach me on… look, don’t I have enough of those to monitor already?

Perhaps I’m wrong. If so, please don’t try to convince me otherwise in a Snapchat chat; leave a comment here instead.

 

Weekly output: Trump tech policy, cyber attacks, watching Oscar nominees online, security attitudes, Android messaging apps

Like most Americans, I’m a descendant of immigrants. My dad’s grandparents came over from Italy and Croatia and my mom’s father arrived from Gibraltar before WWI, while her mother landed in New York from Ireland in 1923–only months after the end of the Irish Civil War. It is easy to imagine a rule like President Trump’s executive order keeping her out.

1/24/2017: President Trump’s tech policy is a mystery, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been going to the State of the Net conference on and off since 2007, and this was the first time I saw so much confusion over what a new administration would do in so many areas of tech policy.

1/24/2017: Cyber attacks, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news network had me on for a segment about cyber attacks like the Shamoon virus that recently crippled government and business PCs in Saudia Arabia.

Screengrab of Yahoo Finance Oscars post1/26/2017: Why you can’t stream this year’s Oscar nominees on Netflix, Yahoo Finance

One of the first posts I wrote for Yahoo Tech looked at the crummy online availability of the year’s critically-acclaimed movies. I enjoyed a chance to revisit the topic and shed some light on how the industry works.

1/26/2017: Study finds most people are scared they’ll be hacked, but don’t do much about it, Yahoo Finance

The Pew Research Center’s study on Americans’ attitudes on cybersecurity painted a depressing picture–aside from a figure on use of two-step verification that I found more reassuring but also suspiciously high.

1/29/2017: The best Android messaging apps in a crowded field, USA Today

Google’s blog post announcing the revival of its Google Voice apps couldn’t explain the differences between them and the Hangouts apps most GV users had switched to a couple of years ago. That gave me an opportunity to do so and remind readers of other noteworthy Android messaging apps.