An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

Event-space review (second in a series): the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

My work-from-home job doesn’t provide me with a regular commute to an office, but it does allow an irregular commute to a handful of event spaces in the District for one conference or another. Last summer, I posted a guide to the most frequent such venue, the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center; second place on that list probably belongs to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a few blocks west on Pennsylvania Avenue. If you’ve got an event coming up in this enormous facility–at 3.1 million square feet, it’s the largest building in the District–here’s what you need to know.

Reagan building Reagan bustLocation

The Reagan Building’s 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW address is obviously convenient for anybody walking from the rest of downtown, taking Metro (the Orange, Silver and Blue lines have a stop in the basement) or taking the 14th Street Bridge from Virginia (though I can’t speak to parking options). But with an oversized Capital Bikeshare dock on its 14th Street side and the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track around the corner, it’s also well situated for two-wheeled travel.

Be advised that one does not just walk into the Reagan Building, because its entrances greet you with metal detectors and X-ray scanners. It annoys me that I have to take my laptop out of my bag when I don’t need to do that at airports… by virtue of the Global Entry membership I obtained with a cursory interview in this very building.

Bandwidth and power

Many of the Reagan Building’s meeting spaces are below street level and therefore have terrible phone reception. Inconveniently enough, the WiFi requires a username and password–and yet every event I go to here seems to leave that information out of the program. Half the time, the event organizers also forget to tape a printout with those details in any obvious spot.

Power outlets, however, are reasonably easy to find. I can’t remember seeing the auditoriums get split into two or three, so if you’re in a room you should be able to count on locating one along a wall instead of realizing that you’ve found a temporary divider.

Reagan building atriumCatering

It’s been remarkably good over the variety of events I’ve attended here, not all with high-dollar production values. I can’t say that I’ve had any memorable meals here, but what do you want for free ethics-compliant hors d’oeuvres?

Extras

There’s not much of a view to be had from most of the building, leaving you to focus on the Reagan Building’s own fine if restrained architecture. The vast atrium that greets you when you enter from 14th Street is one of Washington’s better public spaces, but otherwise this edifice focuses on fitting into the rest of the Federal Triangle area. Since the Reagan Building filled a parking lot, I’d say it succeeds at that.

If you weren’t a fan of Reagan’s rhetoric about the risks of government power, you can also derive a certain malicious glee at seeing the 40th president memorialized in an $818 million temple–double earlier estimates!–to big government.

I see you all have some questions about your “cable modems”

After I filed my latest USA Today column–a reminder that it’s still generally a waste of money to rent a cable modem–one of my editors said they would play up the post. He and his colleagues may have used some sort of cheat code, as the column has drawn more feedback than almost anything else I’ve written for USAT since starting this column at the end of 2011.

Old coax cable close-upAmong the 100-plus comments and 40 or so e-mails I’ve received since this piece went up Monday morning, the most common queries addressed Internet services that don’t involve any cable-television infrastructure.

AT&T’s U-verse was the most frequent subject of readers’ curiosity, followed by Verizon’s Fios and then CenturyLink’s digital-subscriber-line offering. I didn’t cover them in my cable-modem column because they all branch off the telephone evolutionary tree–AT&T and Verizon use fiber-optic lines built on top of their phone networks, while CenturyLink’s DSL relies on traditional copper phone lines. None depend on the local cable plant; all compete with it at some level.

Am I going to write back to all of these readers to explain that they’ll see my column is properly framed once they understand some first principles about telecom? No.

Many normal people just don’t classify their home Internet service by which regulated local monopoly began building out its infrastructure decades ago or how how high its wires go on a utility pole. The problem isn’t that some think of their phone and cable companies as functional equivalents, it’s that too many others can’t because only their cable operator delivers both television and high-speed broadband.

Besides, AT&T’s policies about U-verse hardware are interesting enough–especially compared to Verizon’s–to justify a follow-up column. Look for that this weekend.

A different sort of spring cleaning: keyboards

A pocket knife, Q-tips, a toothbrush, paper towels, rubbing alcohol and dishwashing soap aren’t normal computing accessories, but I needed all six the other week when I gave the keyboards on my iMac, my MacBook Air and my mom’s old 2006-vintage iMac a desperately-overdue cleaning.

2006 iMac keyboard strippedWith the old iMac that Mom had retired in favor of an iPad Air, I had to get the keyboard looking decent before I could think of donating it anywhere. (If I’m overlooking potential buyers for a 10-year-old Mac, please tell me who they are in the comments.) With the other two, I was simply tired of seeing what a slob I am every time I stared down at the keyboard–the iMac’s keys had gotten especially begrimed over the last few years.

On the vintage iMac, the process was no different from the one I outlined in a 2006 column for the Post: Unplug the keyboard, pry the keys off and hand-wash them in the sink, and carefully scrub out the recessed area below. That last task required some painstaking work with a toothbrush to get out all the dirt that had piled up in that recessed area.

On the other two Macs, there was no removing the keys, so I had to use paper towels dipped in rubbing alcohol–it dries almost instantly–to swab the tops of the keys, then run a Q-tip dipped in the same to clean the gaps between them and get some of the dirt off their sides. Of course, now that I look at the iMac keyboard I’m typing this on, I see I missed a few spots.

(The How-To Geek has a guide to cleaning keyboards that should come with a trigger warning for its disgusting photos of Superfund-site keyboards. It does not, however, mention one recourse that I once tried with eventual success: sticking the keyboard in a dishwasher.)

After less than an hour of effort, I had all three keyboards in a state that no longer had me appalled at my own greasy, grimy slovenliness. And I had a renewed appreciation for what should now be a basic rule of multitasking: If you must eat while doing something on a computer, please make that a device a tablet or a smartphone, where you only need to wipe the screen clean.

Possible upside of Safari’s memory-hogging ways? Teaching me to appreciate inner peace.

Sometime in the last year or two, my least favorite three-word phrase in all of computing became “Safari Web Content.” That’s the component of Apple’s browser that appears red in OS X’s Activity Monitor app–normally, you see the address of the Web page being displayed by this process–when it stops responding and starts locking up the rest of the Mac.

OS X Activity Monitor Safari run amokWhich it does all the time, even in the El Capitan release that was supposed to be all about bug fixes. Having spent more than decade in the “classic” Mac OS, in which we just accepted that any errant application could take out the computer, I find it intensely annoying to meet the same problem over 15 years after the advent of OS X and its move to “preemptive multitasking.”

My usual routine when I see OS X once again seize up is to flip over to Activity Monitor–which sometimes requires a wait for Safari to loosen its death grip on the system–and start force-quitting the stuck Safari Web Content processes, if I’m not looking at a screenful of them. If I do see a screenful, I’ll force-quit the whole damn browser.

(Before you say “switch to Chrome,” I find that Safari integrates with OS X better in some ways–and Google’s browser can be a memory hog too.)

This usually leads to lengthy bouts of swearing, about which I’m getting increasingly embarrassed. Yes, I work from home and nobody is around to object to a stream of curses (which was not the case in the Post’s newsroom; sorry, Posties), but I also realize I’m being an idiot. The computer has no feelings; it doesn’t care how many f-bombs I direct at it. And all this nerd rage can’t be good for my health anyway.

So while I wait and wait for Apple’s developers to bring their browser to heel, I am trying to learn to chill. To slowly inhale and exhale and to listen to the sound of my breathing, to look up from the screen so I can gaze at the trees and the sky outside, to stand up and stretch, to in general not give in to the Dark Side. Do you have any advice about how I might better do that? Please share it in the comments.

 

Mail encryption has gotten less cryptic, but some usability glitches linger

I seriously underestimated you all late last year. In a Dec. 7 post about encryption, I wrote that I hadn’t gotten an encrypted e-mail from a reader in years and said I expected that streak to continue.

PGP keysIt did not. Within a week, a dozen or so readers had sent me messages encrypted with my PGP public key (under subject lines like “Have Faith!” and “Challenge Accepted”), and several others have done the same since. That’s taught me that the crypto user experience has, indeed, gotten pretty good in GPG Suite, the Pretty Good Privacy client of choice in OS X.

But at the same time, some awkward moments remain that remind me the woeful state of things in the late 1990s.

Most of the them involved getting a correspondent’s public key, without which I could not encrypt my reply. When it was attached as a file, dragging and dropping that onto the GPG Keychain app had the expected result, but when it came as a block of text in the decrypted message, I (like other users before me) wasted a few mental processor cycles looking for an import-from-clipboard command when I only had to paste that text into GPG Keychain’s window.

I should have also been able to search keyserver sites for a correspondent’s e-mail address, but those queries kept stalling out at the time. One reader did not appear to have a key listed in those databases at all, while I had to remove a subdomain from another’s e-mail address to get his key to turn up in a search.

One more reader had posted his public key on his own site, but line breaks in that block of text prevented GPG Keychain from recognizing it.

The GPGMail plug-in for OS X Mail is in general a pleasure to use. But its default practice of encrypting all drafts meant that I could no longer start a message on my computer and finish it on my phone–and one e-mail that I’d queued up in the outbox while offline went out encrypted, yielding a confused reply from that editor. I’ve since shut off that default.

It’s quite possible that the upcoming stable release of GPG Suite for OS X El Capitan will smooth over those issues. But that version was supposedly almost ready in late September, and there hasn’t been an update on that open-source project’s news page since. I suppose having to wonder about the status of a crucial software component counts as another crypto-usability glitch.