Weekly output: Hackable “IoT” devices (x2), AMP, Tech Night Owl

I’m taking a week off from my USA Today column, this being a month that would have had me writing five Sunday pieces instead of the usual four. That ends a streak that had started in late 2011–but was probably never going to get close to the 566-week run of weekly Washington Post column-ization that lasted from September of 1999 through July of 2010.

yahoo-finance-hackable-iot-post10/20/2016: Hackers could use your smart home devices to launch web attacks, Yahoo Finance

This column benefited from some extraordinarily fortuitous timing: The day after it ran, unknown attackers used hacked “Internet of Things” gadgets to launch a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against the domain-name-service firm Dyn that left large chunks of the Internet inaccessible through much of Friday.

10/22/2016: How Google is remaking the mobile web, Yahoo Finance

A co-worker suggested I write about Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, and that turned out to be a good idea. I don’t think Google realizes the level of annoyance some readers feel over seeing news stories served from a google.com cache, but I doubt this post alone will lead to any sudden enlightenment in Mountain View.

10/22/2016: October 22, 2016 — Rob Pegoraro and Jeff Gamet, Tech Night Owl

I talked about the long wait for Apple to ship some new Macs, my experience so far with macOS Sierra, WikiLeaks, Google’s Pixel phones, and a few other things.

10/22/2016: Consumer News with Michael Finney, KGO

I spent about 10 minutes talking to Finney about the risks posed by easily-hacked IoT devices. In a fit of blatant pandering to distant listeners, I compared DDoS attacks to traffic jams on the Bay Bridge’s toll plaza.

Thematic tension

Since yesterday afternoon, this blog hasn’t quite looked the same: After over five years of my sticking with the same themeTwenty Eleven, as in the year I started this blog–I finally changed that out for something newer.

I’m blaming my work for that change: Researching today’s Yahoo Finance post about Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project led me to realize that although WordPress had added AMP support in February, my own blog’s settings had no mention that mobile-friendly option.

wordpress-themes-chooserI figured it was time for a change, opened the theme browser and activated the Twenty Sixteen theme, the closest thing to a current default.

After some customizing of the theme, I’m not sure I made a good choice. The font selection bugs me–there’s nothing close to the clean look of the Helvetica (or the Helvetica look-alike) that Twenty Eleven used. I’m also not a fan of how the simple list of links to my static pages (About, Contact, Disclosures, Portfolio) at the top right gets swapped out for an oversized menu link in mobile browsers.

On the upside, this makeover has forced me to look at the list of widgets that graces the right side of this page for the first time in years. I had no idea that the old Twitter widget was on its way out; now there’s one that displays images I’ve shared and lets you scroll through more tweets. I was also overdue to rearrange the order of those widgets–considering how badly I’ve neglected Flickr, I shouldn’t have had that listed above the link to my Facebook page.

At some point, I should poke around the theme showcase to see if I can’t do better. But seeing as I’m typing this at 5:30 on a Saturday, now is not that time. So I’ll just ask: What’s your assessment of the current decor around here? Got any suggestions on what theme should replace it?

And if you usually read this on a phone, has it loaded any faster since Friday afternoon?

Weekly output: gadget guidance, macOS Sierra’s Calendar, emoji and the law

This week took a lot more out of me than the list below would suggest: I filed two longer features and finished edits on a third, none yet published, after which I sank a lot of time into a story that wound up not working out. And then I spent Friday in a haze of Nats-playoff-exit malaise.

10/11/2016: Electronic Christmas ideas, Greenspring Computer Club

I last gave a talk to the computer club at this retirement community in December 2010, and the kind of gadgets you might give or get as gifts has changed greatly since then. I also didn’t have the Post’s Speakers Bureau to pay me for the appearance this time, but a friendly audience and overdue practice in extended public speaking made the drive worthwhile.

usat-sierra-calendar-search-column10/15/2016: Why the Calendar app in macOS Sierra can show a short memory, USA Today

I got a surprisingly thankful response from Apple PR for reporting the defective search behavior that doesn’t show events more than two years old. (I had to resort to Spotlight to see when I last spoke at Greenspring.) Since a column that amounted to “this is a bug that they say they’ll fix” would run short, I concluded by acknowledging the bipartisan nature of glitchy bundled calendar apps: Windows 10’s somehow doesn’t support time zones. Can you suggest a replacement that does?

109/16/2016: Your silly emojis are going to court, Yahoo Finance

A fascinating DC Legal Hackers panel I attended two weeks ago got me thinking “there’s an article in this,” but I didn’t get around to filing one until Friday. So, yeah, I didn’t exactly keep it 💯 on this story.

So, that happened. Again.

It was past 2 a.m. on a weeknight in October when I started writing a blog post, which has come to mean that my city’s baseball team has lost another postseason series.

The Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the Dodgers did not hurt as badly as 2012’s gut-punch loss to the Cardinals or our 2014 demise at the hands of the Giants, highlighted by an 18-inning defeat at which I had the dubious privilege of being in the stands for every single pitch. We never had the game in the bag, and there was no catastrophic moment of failure. But the output is the same: a need to spend a few minutes “reflecting on everything that’s good about my life.”

(That link doesn’t point to the original ESPN copy of Bill Simmons’ magnificent post on the 2003 ALCS, because some idiotic ad fail makes it unreadable for more than a few seconds. As Simmons has been wont to say: No, I’m not bitter.)

nats-park-2016-nldsOn one level, I know that the cherry blossoms will bloom again next spring, and every team will be in first place on opening day. I will once again enjoy seeing batters leg out triples and fielders turn double plays. And if the Nats are good enough to get into the postseason, anything can happen.

On another level, I want to see my city win a championship while I am alive to enjoy it, and our recent history does not give grounds for optimism. The Capitals have gotten closer than any other local franchise with their 1998 appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, but since then they seem to have developed a postseason glass jaw. The Wizards suffer from the same ailment, plus it’s the NBA and the same handful of teams win the finals anyway. The local NFL franchise looks doomed on multiple karmic metrics, and I’m pretty much checked out of football anyway.

I would love to see Georgetown win the NCAAs more than almost anything, but I don’t think my alma mater is mercenary enough to make that happen. Getting to the Final Four in 2007 was pretty great, but next year brought the calamity I refer to as the “[varying expletive] Easter Sunday game,” and it’s been bad ever since.

That leaves the Nats. I like their odds in the long term, given how open MLB’s postseason is to teams that jump on it–remember, Kansas City won it all last year. But I’d also like to see myself spending an insane amount of money on postseason tickets while the onetime Washington Senators fan who sat next to us last night can enjoy it too.

See you at Nats Park in the spring. This is my home, this is my team. D.C. or nothing.

Weekly output: Google phones (x2), SXSL, e-mail encryption

I just watched the second presidential debate, and I was disappointed but not surprised by the lack of tech-policy banter. You?

yahoo-tech-google-phones-post10/3/2016: Why it matters that Google might be producing its own phones, Yahoo Finance

My suggestion at the end that Google might offer an installment-payment option for the new Pixel and Pixel XL phones–something analyst Jan Dawson suggested to me in an e-mail–panned out when Google introduced just that.

10/4/2016: Google’s new phones, WTOP

I spoke briefly about the Pixel and Pixel XL to the news station. One thing I wish I’d mentioned: These two new phones aren’t waterproof, unlike the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7.

10/4/2016: Obama gathers top tech to tackle US problems, Yahoo Finance

I spent most of Monday at the White House, which is not a bad way to while away an afternoon. This South by South Lawn event did not feature free beer (at least during the day) and so fell short of being a D.C. salute to Austin’s South by Southwest festival, but on the other hand SXSW has yet to allow me to see Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) speak.

10/9/2016: How to protect your email from snooping, USA Today

Freelancing for multiple clients can sometimes lead to situations where one client asks you to write about an issue involving another.

Notes on macOS Sierra

I’m now just over a fortnight into using Apple’s macOS Sierra, and I can report that it’s not enough time to get used to that name’s oddball capitalization. The past two weeks have, however, allowed me to come to some conclusions and form some questions about this operating-system update.

macos-sierra-logoThe pleasant disk-space mystery: Both times I’ve installed Sierra–an uneventful 50 minutes on my 2012 MacBook Air, an absurd three hours and change on my 2009 iMac–the OS has rewarded me with multiple gigabytes of free space. The MacBook, which was getting so close to full that I had to delete several gigs’ worth of data to install Sierra at all, gained 17 GB, while the iMac got an extra 18 GB back.

I do have the MacBook set to back up its Documents and Desktop folders to iCloud (neither contain enough data to threaten iCloud’s meager 5 GB quota of free space), but that comes nowhere near explaining the newly-liberated volume. And although Sierra doesn’t count “purgeable” files–synced files and media, rarely-used fonts and dictionaries, and other items that the system can always re-download after deletion–the totals of purgeable data listed in the info boxes for each startup disk don’t come close to explaining the discrepancy either.

macbook-storage-about-boxUniversal Clipboard is kind of magical: When I copy something from my iPad, I can paste it into my MacBook and vice versa. This wireless copy-and-paste feature neatly solves an everyday problem of switching between a mobile device and a “real” computer, and the fact that it’s happened with zero fuss amazes me. (I hope I haven’t just jinxed it.)

My iMac, however, is cut off from Universal Clipboard, as it’s a good three years too old. Once again, Apple: I’ll think about buying a new model when you don’t charge me 2016 prices for designs barely changed from 2014.

Search snafus: On both computers, a search in the Calendar app for events that I know exist–like conferences I’ve attended every year since 2010–now fails to show results older than late 2014 in my Google-hosted calendars. Sierra knows these older events exist, because Spotlight searches still find them. A post in Apple’s tech-support forums cites an unnamed Apple rep as saying this is a bug that should be fixed, which I hope is true. I also hope somebody in Apple PR replies to the e-mail I sent Wednesday asking about this.

Meanwhile, Mail has developed its own annoying habit of bouncing back to the oldest messages in my inbox after I cancel out of a search. I trust that’s a bug too, because I cannot think of many search use cases that conclude with the user thinking “now I would like to see my correspondence from 2011.”

siri-in-sierraStuff I haven’t tried much yet: I know that Siri leads off Apple’s pitch for Sierra, but I only really need one personal-assistant app–and that app serves me best on the device I carry most often, my Android phone. I also have yet to try out Apple Pay on the Web, although that’s mainly a factor of me not buying anything online in the past two weeks aside from one quick Amazon purchase. The new auto-categorization features in Photos sound neat but can’t help the overwhelming majority of my photos taken on my Android phone, which never even show up there. The same goes for the souped-up conversation options in Messages (did I mention I use an Android phone?).

Things unfixed or newly broken: Sierra seems as powerless as its predecessor OS X El Capitan when Safari or Chrome decide they want to gobble up every last morsel of memory on the machine. I sure do wish this operating system would remember that
pre-emptive multitasking” was one of its foundational features. It also annoys me that Photos persists in the user-hostile practice of discarding the title, description and location I added earlier to a photo when I try to export it to Flickr.

Meanwhile, Sierra has broken the GPGMail plug-in I use to encrypt and decrypt the occasional e-mail–something I only realized after I’d installed this OS on both Macs. I e-mailed the developers and got a reply explaining that Apple made non-trivial changes to the Mail app’s internal code (I wouldn’t have guessed, since Mail seems as glitch-prone as ever) that they realized late in the game would require rewriting the plug-in. So if you were going to send me an encrypted e-mail critiquing this post, please hold off until they can ship a Sierra-compatible beta.

Weekly output: HP and ink, cybersecurity, journalism and biz-school PR, unlimited data, EMV chip cards

Once again, the Nationals are headed to the postseason. Since our last two bouts of October baseball ended badly–the excruciating game 5 of the 2012 NLDS still haunts me–and the team has gotten whacked with injuries lately, I’m not super-optimistic about this one. Fortunately, I have the election to distract me by providing an alternate source of stress.

9/26/2016: How HP’s decision to reject some ink cartridges reflects a much bigger problem, Yahoo Finance

First I thought this post would be a great opportunity to use a still image of the printer-execution scene from “Office Space,” then I realized there was a good point to be made about the risks of using automatic security updates to deal with business-model problems. Two days later, HP confessed that it “should have done a better job of communicating” about the software update that disabled some third-party ink cartridges and said it would provide an optional patch to disable the offending feature.

9/27/2016: Here’s the cybersecurity debate Clinton and Trump should have had, Yahoo Finance

I wrote a quick recap of the cybersecurity issues that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could have gone over during Monday’s debate. Will these topics get a reasoned discussion during the two other debates? I’m going to say no.

bam-media-panels9/29/2016: Media Panel, Business Access Media

My role in this conference for business-school PR and communications types was to speak briefly about what I cover, then answer questions from attendees. As the one freelancer speaking, I could offer a different perspective than my fellow panelists, all full-time staff: Economist finance editor Tom Easton, the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher, CNN national correspondent Ryan Nobles and Marketplace Radio education reporter Amy Scott.

(Zurcher and I not only went to Georgetown, the conference venue, but worked together at the Georgetown Voice. You can imagine my disappointment that nobody in the audience asked “how did you all get into journalism?”)

10/2/2016: Why you may be able to finally ditch that old unlimited plan, USA Today

Right after my editor asked me to revisit this question, I had two different people show per-app data usage details on their iPhones that had not been reset since 2013, making them useless for getting a sense of how much data they should get. Apple, please fix that feature so the count resets once a month.

10/2/2016: Why the chip card isn’t the disaster everybody says it is, Yahoo Finance

I don’t know if I’m going to convince anybody with this, but the small extra wait to have an EMV chip-card payment read–far less time than I lose to checkout lines–doesn’t bother me much. I do, however, appreciate being able to pay with plastic overseas without getting funny looks or (most of the time) having my card rejected by a ticket-vending machine.