The bureaucratic burden of telling clients “pay me”

It’s the first day of a new month, and that can only mean one thing for my e-mail: more .pdf attachments than usual in my outgoing messages, in the form of invoices for one freelance client or another.

Close-up of the 4 / $ key on a Mac keyboard, without which I would struggle to invoice anybody.

Instructing these companies to pay me for work done over the previous month should be easy after 11-plus years of not having a real job, but there’s still some struggle attached to this chore during and after the invoicing process.

The easiest part of it involves longer-running clients, where I just need to open the invoice document from the previous month, change the invoice number and the date, update the work done and the sum due, and attach the new file to an email.

But with less-frequent clients, I need to remember if there’s some wonkiness with a P.O. number or payment instructions that I may or may not have remembered to save in a previous version of the invoice file.

Others require their own format, usually a Google document or form or an Excel spreadsheet. Not knowing what kind of file a company will want me to produce before it will send me money is one of the things that’s kept me from following advice to use a professional accounting app like QuickBooks… another thing being my own apathy.

This routine can get more complicated if I’m away from home, since all of these invoice templates live on my Mac and since my Windows laptop doesn’t have a PDF-editing app equivalent to Apple’s Preview (sorry, Drawboard PDF). But keeping these financial documents in one folder on one computer allows for a simple accounting system: Right before I e-mail an invoice, I save it to an “Invoices – owed” folder, and once it gets paid I move it to an “Invoices – paid” folder.

It’s not the most sophisticated system, but it still seems to work after 11 years and change. At least when I remember to prepare and send the invoice in the first place. Which reminds me that I still have one invoice to finish for one client and a second to create for another, and of course they’re not in the same format.

Travel delays can be a team sport

After weeks of walking between the raindrops of flight delays and cancellations, I got soaked coming home from Toronto after the Collision conference there. And while Air Canada started things by cancelling my Thursday-evening flight, I managed to compound it with some avoidable clumsiness of my own that ensured I would not arrive at my house until around 12:30 Friday.

Things started going sideways for my YYZ-DCA flight by midday Thursday, when the Flightradar24 app reported that the regional jet assigned to operate it had fallen hours behind schedule as it hopped from Montreal to Atlanta before coming to Toronto. Air Canada’s site kept listing this flight on time, but at 5:52 p.m. the airline texted and e-mailed that it had canceled AC 8786 due to “the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation which includes government entry requirements, travel advisories, crew constraints, and local movement restrictions.”

That e-mail said the airline was “looking for an alternative flight,” after which I soon found one in United’s app: Air Canada’s last YYZ-IAD flight that night. Alas, Air Canada’s phone line dumped me after playing a goodbye-and-good-luck message: “Due to extremely high call volume, we apologize that we are not able to place you on hold.” And while its site had a rebooking tool, it didn’t list the Dulles flight.

An Air Canada CR900 regional jet at Toronto Pearson International Airport, photographed from a boarding ramp.

But Air Canada’s Twitter profile welcomed direct messages, so I tried that before accepting the site’s least-bad alternative, an nonstop to BWI at 8 a.m. Friday. I sent a DM asking for the YYZ-IAD flight and listing my booking code and then didn’t get an acknowledgment–until 14 minutes later, when a rep replied to confirm my requested rebooking.

“You will need to check-in for this flight,” the rep advised.

If only she’d added “in the next 20 minutes.”

I hustled over to Toronto’s Union Station for the next Union Pearson Express train and didn’t start to check in until reaching the UP Express waiting area. That’s when I hit an obstacle I had not experienced checking in via my phone the night before: AC’s mobile site didn’t show any way to upload my phone’s picture of my vaccination card or the SMART QR code generated from those records, instead directing me to take a picture of either.

Unfortunately, I lost my paper vax card a few months ago (which had until then seemed a sentimental-value problem), and I didn’t think to open my laptop and use my phone to take a photo of the picture of the card or the screenshot of the QR code saved in Google Photos. Instead, I selected an option to verify my check-in at the airport, thought I’d try to check in again using a different browser–and then got a message that check-in wasn’t available.

This whole time, I had been assuming I had 60 minutes pre-departure to check in. That’s the rule I’d seen listed before for international flights without checked baggage but had not researched further–leaving me unaware that YYZ’s cut-off time is 90 minutes.

Inwardly cursing my own stupidity as my train pulled out of Union, I switched back to my DM thread with AC, asked if I’d screwed up everything, and had a different rep assure me: “Not to worry, you will be able to complete the check-in at the airport!”

The rep was incorrect and the rule was correct. By the time I got to Pearson and jogged to the check-in area for U.S.-bound flights (while seeing in Flightradar24 that the IAD flight itself would depart hours late, because that incoming aircraft left Chicago three hours behind schedule), nobody was left at Air Canada’s stations except for two reps at a special-assistance desk who had passengers in line ahead of me with their own complex problems.

When my spot came up 20 or so minutes later, a fatigued but still polite agent said the system would not allow her to check me in–and besides, security and customs preclearance for U.S.-bound flights had already closed for the evening.

This agent said she would put me on the 8 a.m. Baltimore flight; having heard her colleague tell another delayed traveler that Air Canada would cover his hotel costs, I asked her if the airline could make the same accommodation in my case. To my pleasant surprise, she said the airline would reimburse me for up to $300.

As she then worked on my flight rebooking, I sat down on the nearest bench, opened my laptop to reserve a hotel, and got into a conversation with an even more frazzled traveler–a Toronto grandmother who had seen a flight cancellation thwart her attempt to visit her son in Alexandria. I described how I’d foolishly thrown away my shot at getting home that night, said it was a rough summer for airlines all over the U.S., and wished her luck getting to my city in the morning.

After a few hours of inadequate sleep in a Marriott Fairfield outside of YYZ and breakfast split between two Air Canada lounges, I finally boarded the Baltimore flight and slept through most of it. I rushed out of the terminal to the stop for the shuttle bus to the BWI rail station–and a minute later, the Toronto woman showed up, tired and unsure about how to get to D.C. I remembered my mother-in-law telling me about having the same experience years ago.

I said I was happy to walk her through what is, objectively speaking, one of the worst airport-to-rail connections in the U.S., and then we could take the train together if that would help. We had a pleasant conversation at the station waiting for the next MARC to D.C. that continued on the ride into Union Station, and then we headed to our separate family reunions.

Lesson learned: A trip interruption, even if partly self-inflicted, that only delays your return by 14 hours and allows you to be of some small service to a fellow passenger is not the worst thing in the traveling world.

I’m most domestic when I’m post-international

Coming home from the other side of the Atlantic, as I did once again Friday, reliably drop-kicks me into the “do not operate heavy machinery” zone of fatigue. No matter how much sleep I might get over a long day in a pressurized metal tube over the ocean, no matter how poorly I felt like I adjusted to my trip’s destination time zone, 6 p.m. on the East Coast remains 11 p.m., midnight or 1 a.m. where my journey had started somewhere in Europe.

Close up of the dial on an LG washing machine show it set to run a load of laundry on the delicates setting.

But because I know of no better way to get myself back into my home time zone than to stay up until a normal bedtime, this light fugue state also primes me for housework. Chores like doing laundry, washing dishes, baking bread, cleaning countertops, tidying up spaces and taking out the trash or recycling share a few convenient virtues for this scenario: They don’t don’t require exceptional dexterity, any higher-level math, or prolonged concentration. These household tasks also help to keep my jet-lagged brain off social media and, most important, represent tasks that I’d neglected over previous days by being 4,000 miles or so out of place.

And since part of the point of this exercise in tired housework is to make those evening hours go by a little faster, I have to see it as not a bug but a feature that these chores often require an extra level of diligence. Case in point: Before dinner last night, I spent a good 10 minutes walking circles around the house to try to locate my passport, only to realize that it was right in my laptop bag.

Testing positive for Covid requires sending a whole lot of notifications

At the start of last weekend, two negative Covid tests in a row had me thinking that my sore throat was the result of too much conference socializing or maybe a summer cold. But then I self-tested one more time Sunday night, because I was set to fly to Denver the next afternoon for the Stream TV Show–and that positive result has since led to my having to notify more people than I might have imagined.

An Abbott Laboratories BinaxNow Covid-19 rapid antigen test shows the two strips that indicate a positive result.

That list started with the toughest case: my wife and my kid, from whom I’d have to isolate at home until no longer testing positive. Fortunately, in-house quarantine is easier to manage in the spring when you can open every window for maximum ventilation and eat every meal on the front or back porch.

Next I had to e-mail the organizers of my now-foregone conference. I said I’d cancel my flights and keep that trip credit handy for their next event, after which I’d complete my outline for my panel and e-mail those notes to whoever might step in for me. They were okay with that.

Then I e-mailed the people I’d spent the most time talking to at last week’s WithSecure conference in Helsinki. (The organizers had covered my airfare and hotel, but I’m not sure I can call that travel “free” now.) None of them have written back to say that they’ve since tested positive, which makes me wonder if I’d been in the wrong square meter of indoor space for the wrong 15 minutes.

After that, I sent a note to the organizers of Dublin Tech Summit, where I’m supposed to speak next week. I advised them that while I was reasonably optimistic that I’d get past this and resume testing negative by this weekend, I couldn’t guarantee that. They wished me luck.

Screenshot of the COVIDWISE app for Android that shows the screen on which you enter an eight-digit verification code to sumit a positive test result.

My last act of notification didn’t invove conversations with actual humans. After getting an official PCR test Monday and receiving the results early Tuesday along with confirmation that they’d been reported to the Virginia Department of Health, I had to share them anonymously with VDH’s COVIDWISE exposure-notification app. That would allow other people with smartphones running Apple and Google’s privacy-optimized Exposure Notifications framework to get warnings of their potential exposure if this software concluded they’d been sufficiently close to me for sufficiently long, as judged by algorithms computing randomized Bluetooth beacons.

The e-mail and text I got from the test operator Curative didn’t say how I would do that. But the app itself explained that I had to visit a VDH page and plug in my last name, birth date and test date to get a verification code that I could then type into the app. That’s “type,” not “copy and paste,” because this Android app refused the latter form of input.

My wife reported that her copy of COVIDWISE pushed a notification of the possible exposure nine hours later. But the more important thing is that no other sort of Covid notification has greeted her or our kid since then. Five days after first testing positive and entering my little house arrest–during which my sore throat and nasal congestion have vanished as the positive strip on my recent tests has begun to look notably lighter than on earlier tests–I remain the only person in the family to have exhibited any symptoms this month or tested positive ever.

A long wait for an app notification

Twenty-one months ago, I installed the Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDWISE app on my smartphone and urged everybody reading that post in Virginia to go and do likewise. Back in August of 2020, I expected that this app developed with the Apple-Google COVID-19 exposure notifications framework would soon be warning me that I’d been near somebody else who had tested positive and had then used this app or another built on that foundation to send a thoroughly anonymized warning.

But the notifications of possible exposures didn’t appear, even as the U.S. suffered repeated waves of novel-coronavirus variants and the positive-test rate in Northern Virginia shot up above 30 percent at the start of this year. And as I got my first vaccination, second vaccination and booster shot, the continued silence of this app bothered me less and less–to the point that I briefly forgot to activate it after moving from my Pixel 3a to my Pixel 5a.

That silence ended Thursday morning, when my smartphone greeted me with a notification of a probable exposure. “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” the app told me. “COVIDWISE estimates that you were last exposed 5 days ago.”

The app further informed me that “Most people who are fully vaccinated and free of COVID-like symptoms do not need to quarantine or be tested after an exposure.” Fortunately, I had already self-tested negative on an antigen at-home kit Wednesday morning to verify my health before heading to the Hack the Capitol security conference.

Because this app and others built on the Apple/Google code don’t store location data, I can only wonder when this possible exposure happened. And since five days ago was Saturday, when I flew home from Latvia via Munich and then Boston, I’m looking at thousands of miles of possibility. A second notification from COVIDWISE referencing North Carolina’s SlowCOVIDNC app suggests that my possible exposure source lives there, but the privacy-preserving design of this system ensures I’ll never know for sure.

A five-day turnaround, however, now seems quick after seeing three people reply to my tweet about this notification to report that they didn’t get their own heads-up from one of these exposure-notification apps until 10 days after the possible exposure–a uselessly long lag. My conclusion from those data points: Get vaccinated and boosted, because that will do more than anything else you could possibly undertake to ensure that receiving one of these exposure alerts remains a drama-free experience.

RSS lives, but not equally well on all of my devices

Many of my daily digital habits have changed over the past decade and change, but one has not: I still check an RSS app to see what’s new at a couple of dozen sites. Even as the social-media and news landscapes have gone through multiple cycles of destruction and reinvention, the standard originally called Really Simple Syndication remains one of my preferred ways to know when a favorite site has published new posts.

The core advantages of RSS (which you may find easier to call “Web feeds” if you’re trying to cut back on tech abbrevations) remain unchanged from what I wrote here in 2015:

One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS.

That last angle allowed me to move on from Google’s capricious decision to kill its Google Reader RSS service–on a scale of that company’s faceplants, it’s up there with Google Glass–and switch to Feedly’s RSS platform.

The individual apps I use on my various devices, however, have changed a bit since then.

My favorite among them is the free and open-source NetNewsWire–the iPad version of Brent Simmons’ labor of love more so than the Mac edition. On my tablet, this app displays a simple count of unread articles (which, sadly but typically enough, is once again near triple digits as I write this) and lets me read each one in full without switching to Safari. On my desktop, NNW also displays that app-icon badge count but requires a switch to Safari to read a new post if the site, like most, doesn’t publish a full-text RSS feed–meaning I’m taken out of my reading workflow and then have yet another tab to remember to read and then close.

On my Pixel 5a phone, I use Feedly’s Android app. The free version stuffs some ads into feeds, which I don’t mind all that much since they’re so easy to skip, and it does let me read entire posts in its built-in browser instead of requiring a switch to Chrome. But Feedly’s app doesn’t even try to support Android’s notifications system (if only that OS feature supported not just adding a colored dot to an app icon to indicate new content but a count of unread items as iOS does), so it’s too easy to ignore its green icon on my home screen.

On Windows, I have a different problem: NextGen Reader, a fave of critics in the previous decade, still works fine–with the convenient feature of an unread-articles count on its taskbar button, but without in-app reading of original posts–but also appears completely abandoned. A decade after its debut in the Microsoft Store, it’s gone from that app market, its Twitter account has been silent since February of 2021, and the developers’ site now redirects to a generic parked-domain page.

And the other Windows RSS apps that I’d considered before settling on NextGen five years ago look equally moribund. So I don’t know what I’ll do if this apparently fossilized Windows app stops working–except, perhaps, reach for my iPad instead.

One of my newer travel rituals: setting up a TV hit away from home

AUSTIN

Normal people don’t check into lodging at a destination and then evaluate the room for its TV-backdrop potential, but I have never pretended too hard to be a member of the normal-people demographic.

Picture shows a Pixel 5a phone cradled in a GorillaPod tripod mounted to the screen of an HP Spectre x360 laptop.

So when I got a message from my usual producer at Al Jazeera on my flight here Friday (my thanks to United for adding free messaging to the inflight WiFi in December) asking if I could comment on the White House’s attempts to add TikTok to its public-diplomacy strategy, I knew I’d need to find a workable background.

Fortunately, the house I’m renting (and had rented for several years in a row for SXSW in the Before Times) has an excellent bookshelf in the living room. It also had enough room in front for two chairs: one for me to sit in, another to serve as a stand of sorts for my laptop.

Because that 2017-vintage HP Spectre x360 has a woeful webcam, I don’t just park it on a table or another suitable flat surface. At the same time, I don’t want to do a video interview looking at my interviewer on a phone screen that’s more than a foot away. Instead, I use my Pixel 5a phone’s back camera in place of the laptop’s camera–a workaround that requires running Dev47Apps’ DroidCam app on that Android device and on my Windows laptop and connecting the two devices with a USB-C cable.

Then I place the laptop, folded open to its “tent mode,” over the top rail on a chair so I can see Zoom, Skype or whatever app I’m using for the interview (or virtual panel) on the computer’s screen, and then use an old Joby GorillaPod flexible tripod to position the phone atop the laptop.

That gadget accessory is now among the first things I toss into my suitcase before a trip: Instead of flip-out, rigid legs, this tripod features a trio of flexible legs that you can wrap around a nearby object. Or, in this case, splay out across the hinge on a Windows laptop in tent mode, such that the smartphone camera sits just about at eye level.

That may look like a ton of work, but I’ve now gone through this routine enough times that it doesn’t feel like it demands much time–certainly not when the TV hit starts a bit behind schedule, as this one Friday did.

E-mail like it’s 2012: revisiting my Gmail filters

Several months ago, I spent too many hours hacking away at the 18 years’ worth of messages piled up in my Gmail account–because while I could live with paying for extra storage for Google’s backups of my own photos, I’d be damned if I was going to pay to warehouse random companies’ marketing pitches that were eating up far more of my free storage.

Screenshot of Gmail's filter, showing a menu of options that

That experience evidently wasn’t enough fun for me, because over the last couple of weeks I’ve dived into a corner of the Gmail interface I hadn’t spent any sustained time in since… 2012? Fortunately for me, Gmail’s filter interface hasn’t sustained any notable changes in at least that long, judging from how rarely it’s earned a mention in Google’s Gmail blog over the last decade.

Much as in 2012, this dialog lets me choose a message by factors like sender, recipient, subject, content, size and the presence of an attachments. Its next pane allows me to amplify the message’s importance by starring it or marking it as important, apply a label or file it under a category tab, or forward it to to an outside address registered with your Gmail account using an even more fossilized interface.

Those are the basics of e-mail management, and they did suffice to help me craft updated message rules that make my Gmail inbox less chaotic and keep my more consequential correspondence filed away neatly. Less e-entropy is a good outcome.

But the limits of the filtering user experience loom large among Gmail’s missing features. The one I keep coming back to is an equivalent to the “sweep” function in the Microsoft’s Outlook.com that automatically whisks matching messages into the trash 10 days after they arrive. But it’s also crazy that the entire filter UX is imprisoned in Gmail’s Web app–you can neither create nor edit nor view filters in Gmail’s Android and iOS apps, as if the last 10 years of mobile-first computing never reached whatever Googleplex building houses the Gmail developers.

Compare that thin gruel to the thoughtful mail-management tools surfacing in apps that actually have to win customers–I’m thinking here of a new Gmail front end called Shortwave that a team of former Google developers just shipped, but also of the Hey mail service. It’s not hard to think that Google could do a lot more with Gmail if it put serious effort into that work. It’s also not hard to think that Google must feel as comfortable in the e-mail market as Microsoft and Yahoo did before Gmail showed up in 2004.

Suggested Windows 11 laptop taskbar-settings edits

My overdue introduction to Windows 11 hasn’t allowed me enough time to develop too many informed judgments about this operating system as a whole. But three weeks have left me pretty confident that I made the right choices in editing the default taskbar settings in this release.

Fortunately, all these preferences live in the same window, under the Taskbar category of the Personalization pane of the Settings app:

I’ve also pinned a handful of core apps, starting with Settings itself, to the taskbar. And I’m sure I’ll continue twiddling with the interface settings of Win 11 as I get accustomed to this release–which, to be clear, continues to grow on me as I soak in less-obvious edits like a right-click menu that finally tries to respect my time.

Google-induced mail migration malaise

A week ago, I learned that one of my longest-running online freebies would end this summer. The seven days since haven’t been enough time for me to decide how to replace the no-charge Google account that’s hosted my home e-mail since early 2010–but they have allowed me to find a reason to dislike each obvious alternative.

Yes, I should have seen this coming. The Google that launched “Google Apps for Your Domain” as a free service in 2006 was a much scrappier firm that could not assume potential customers’ attention. Even in 2010, when I moved my home e-mail to a Google Apps account under a custom domain and set up (just in case!) a work e-mail address under a different custom domain at another Google Apps account, Google hadn’t risen to become an obvious choice for business collaboration.

The Gmail logo under an "Apps" banner, taken from a 2008 Google presentation.

Google did end signups for this free option in December of 2012, but it let existing Apps customers keep their free accounts. That grandfathered, privileged status continued as Google Apps became G Suite in 2016 and then Google Workspace in 2020.

The Google of 2022, however, is a different entity that’s been unplugging other free services. So I was not too surprised to learn that starting July 1, I’d have to pay to keep these two mail accounts hosted–just annoyed to read about this at the 9to5Google blog instead of in an e-mail from Google to me.

I’m fine with paying Google for my work account–make that, paying more on top of what I’ve been spending for extra storage since 2016. A Google Workspace Business Starter account will cost another $6 a month, which is reasonable considering how many other Google services I have tied to this account and how $72 a year would still rank among my cheaper business expenses.

But my home account is just an e-mail account. I don’t use it with Google’s other “workspace” tools; because I keep a separate, standard Gmail account for shopping, banking and other non-work stuff, my home account barely gets used as an e-mail service. Paying $72 a year makes a lot less sense, much less spending that much on addresses I’ve set up for family members who use them even less.

But the options I’ve evaluated first have their own issues:

iCloud+: Since my wife is already paying for extra storage on Apple’s cloud service, I could set up a custom domain there for free. But by associating my home e-mail address with iCloud, I would revive the problem of iPhone-using friends who think they’re using the Messages app to text me on my phone and instead have Apple’s iMessage system silently divert that to the Messages app on my iPad.

Microsoft 365: I already pay for Microsoft’s cloud storage to back up my Windows laptop, and adding multiple e-mail accounts by upgrading to Microsoft 365 Family would add only $30 to my yearly cost. Except Microsoft, for some inane reason that probably looked sharp on a marketing PowerPoint, limits this option to domains hosted with GoDaddy, and that’s not the registar I’ve been content with using for this domain. (One thing I don’t like about this registrar: Their own mail hosting only covers 1 gigabyte of storage per address, which is why they don’t make this list.)

Fastmail: This mail-first service isn’t tied to any larger cloud platform, a simplicity of mission that I appreciate. I also like how I could use this with 1Password to generate “masked,” disposable e-mail addresses for individual services. But with pricing for a custom domain starting at $50 a year per user for 30 GB of storage, this, too, feels like overkill for my own little use case.

Meanwhile, Google may have realized the foolishness of treating every user as one type of business customer. Wednesday afternoon, Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo flagged an addition to Google’s support note inviting input from people who don’t use legacy Google Apps accounts for work.

Will Google offer a cheaper tier for personal use, and how long will we have to wait to find out? The May 1 deadline Google set for ex-Apps users to choose between upgrading to Workspace or moving their mail elsewhere leaves plenty of time for the indecision-making process to grind on at this company. And among perplexed customers like me.