2017 in review: This has not been easy

This year has been lousy in a variety of ways.

On a national level, the Trump administration luxuriated in lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. We learned that even more men in power had spent decades inflicting or tolerating vile sexual harassment. And widely-distributed firearms ownership left us with another year of American carnage that featured a few mass shootings so horrifying that Congress did nothing.

On a personal level, the worst part of 2017 was the day in March when I learned of just one of those tens of thousands of gun deaths: the suicide of my old Post friend Mike Musgrove. I think about that almost every day and still don’t have good answers.

But I have had meaningful, paying work, and for that I’m grateful.

Most of that has taken place at Yahoo Finance, where I easily wrote 8,000 words on net neutrality alone.

I continue to appreciate having a widely-read place at which I can call out government and industry nonsense, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of that opportunity–the second half of the year saw me let too many weeks go by without any posts there. But 2017 also saw some overdue client diversification beyond my usual top three of Yahoo, USA Today and Wirecutter.

I’ve done more wonky writing for trade publications, which tend to offer better rates (even if they sometimes pay slower) and often wind up compensating me for the kind of research I’d need to do anyway to write knowledgeably for a consumer-focused site. This year has also brought about the reappearance of my byline in the Washington Post and the resulting, thoroughly enjoyable confusion of readers who hadn’t seen me there since 2011.

Once again, I did more than my share to prop up the travel industry. Conferences, speaking opportunities and story research took me to Las Vegas, Barcelona, Austin, New York (only once, which should have led Amtrak to e-mail to ask if I’m okay), Lisbon (twice), the Bay Area (three times), Shanghai, Paris, Berlin, Cleveland (being driven most of the way there by a semi-autonomous Cadillac was one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments) and Boston.

(See after the jump for a map of all these flights.)

Tearing myself away from my family each time has not gotten any easier, but at least all of last year’s travel put me in a position to make myself more comfortable on more of these flights. As an avgeek, the upgrade I most appreciated is the one that cleared 36 hours before my trip to Shanghai in June to put me in the last seat available on the upper deck of a United 747–barely five months before the the Queen of the Skies exited United’s fleet.

Almost all of these international trips involved concerned queries from citizens of our countries about the leadership of my own. I understand where they came from but wish they weren’t necessary. Someday, that will happen–but not in 2018.

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For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.

When a work-from-home type gets a driving commute

One of the many ways I count myself lucky is that I haven’t had to drive to work since high school. No matter where I’ve lived around D.C, I’ve been able to get to my job by bus, Metro or on foot. And since 2011, I’ve only had to step into my home office.

But the past two summers have added a different sort of commute: our daughter’s various day camps. And as the person in the house with the most flexible schedule, it’s fallen to me to drive our kid to one camp or another most mornings. Sometimes it’s easier for me to pick her up in the afternoon as well.

Compared to the commutes most people endure around D.C., that’s left me nothing to complain about. I’m not sitting in traffic on I-66, the Dulles Toll Road or the Beltway; instead, I’m on neighborhood streets lined with trees and not enough big front porches. And the very worst day-camp commute I’ve had only ran some 20 minutes each way.

(The best day-camp commute involved a location barely half a mile away, so I could walk our child there and back–with some crankiness on her part.)

I sometimes feel like I’m engaged in commute cosplay as I sit at a stoplight, sip coffee out of a travel mug, listen to WAMU (of course I do), and then end the morning’s schlep without clocking a highway mile or crossing the Potomac.

I’d anticipated going back to my usual car-light routine with the start of school this week, but my wife’s broken clavicle means I’m the sole driver in the house through sometime in October. It could be worse. I mean, our daughter could go back to demanding that the same two CDs be on heavy rotation all the time. And outside of picking her up from extended-day care at school, I still barely have to drive anywhere.

That makes now a good time to contemplate the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood… as if having the second half of this year’s property tax come due next month didn’t give us reason enough.

The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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Self-employment is easier if you’re not at the mercy of health-insurance companies

I am thankful every day that my wife has a good job that includes affordable health insurance for our family. But seeing the Republican Party attempt to demolish the Affordable Care Act over the past few months has made me even more appreciative of being a kept man.

For as long as I’ve been self-employed, I’ve been able to tell myself that if my wife’s job ever went away, the ACA would give us a fair shot at keeping health insurance for the three of us–even today, the rates I see quoted at HealthCare.gov remain reasonable. Meanwhile, not having to worry about exceeding lifetime coverage caps (my friend Kate Washington’s testimony about the costs of her husband Brad’s treatments for cancer are essential reading) or being judged to have a pre-existing condition takes a lot of anxiety off my mind.

Most of the GOP’s proposed replacements for the ACA would have taken a hammer to some if not all of those protections. It’s possible that my wife’s premiums would have dropped as a result. But we don’t want to trim that bill at the cost of screwing over other people.

Like, for example, self-employed friends who get their coverages on ACA exchanges. Tom Bridge and his wife Tiffany each run tech consultancies in D.C., and without the law’s protection they’d be looking at vastly higher coverage for themselves and their son. He’s tweeted often and well about how this product of the Democratic Party has allowed him to build a business.

Friday morning’s Senate defeat (thanks, Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski and all 48 of their Democratic colleagues) against the latest in a long line of ACA-gutting bills drafted in secret and in haste should ease the existential dread they and many others have been feeling.

(President Trump being President Trump, he won’t shut up on Twitter about how the GOP should keep trying to kill “Obamacare” despite its unbroken record of failure so far. He’s the Black Knight of American politics on this subject.)

It does not, however, end the need to fix what’s wrong with the ACA in some markets. Another freelancer friend, Seattle-based tech writer Glenn Fleishman, has seen his costs climb to “ridiculous” levels–as in $20,000 this year. He’s now seeking full-time employment to escape that.

Now would be a great time for the Republican Party to accept that Americans have decided health insurance shouldn’t be left as a privilege, then bring some business smarts towards crafting the most efficient, choice-driven way to meet that goal. Since most other industrialized countries achieved universal coverage long ago, there’s a huge variety of ideas for them to steal, and which Republicans could have learned from over the past seven years instead of repeatedly staging stunt votes against the ACA.

The party that constantly says it speaks for entrepreneurs should be able to sell this as making it easier for people to start a business and create jobs. Or the GOP can continue to try to tear down this part of President Obama’s legacy, all so the self-employed can once again be “free” to run into the embrace of a large corporation if they don’t want to have to worry about getting sick.

Throwback Thursday: I’m walking around in 2017 with a phone from 2013

PARIS–I’m having an unusual week of smartphone use: I’m not unlocking my device with my fingerprints and I’m not posting any pictures. That’s because I’m not using the Nexus 5X I’d been carrying around since late 2015.

On my walk home from Metro late Friday after a very long day, night and day of travel back from Shanghai, my Nexus 5X rebooted by itself. That’s become a depressingly common occurrence lately–but this time, my phone wouldn’t get past the initial Google logo.

I spent the next 48 hours reading up on this “bootloop” issue (see, for example, this Reddit thread and this post from a user who spent far more time fighting the problem than I have) and trying to revive the phone. Putting the phone in the fridge or freezer let me boot the device, unlock it and run it long enough to stage some manual backups in two apps, but I got no further. It seemed clear I was facing a hardware failure, not a software issue.

The tech-support call I requested Sunday led to a remarkably quick resolution: After I told the rep that two other troubleshooting options in the Android bootloader hadn’t worked, he said Google would make a one-time exception and replace my out-of-warranty phone with a refurbished 5X for free.

Good! But I needed some kind of mobile device for my trip to the Viva Technology Paris conference. Enter the Nexus 4 that I’d never gotten around to selling, donating or recycling after retiring it a year and a half ago. I dusted it off, charged it up, wedged my 5X’s micro-SIM card inside the frame of an old prepaid SIM (the kind that lets you push a micro-SIM out of a surrounding bracket), popped that into the N4, and began restoring and updating the old phone’s apps.

Five days in, it’s working… more or less. Having to trace an unlock pattern on the screen every time I wake it is a pain, while constant interactions with the phone have also reminded me that part of its touchscreen no longer detects my fingers. The camera is clearly inferior, the lack of storage space bugs me even more than it did three and a half years ago, and the battery life is also pretty bad.

On the other hand, not having LTE doesn’t matter at the moment, since T-Mobile’s free international roaming only allows 2G speeds anyway. And the touchscreen has–so far-refrained from relapses into the digitizer freakouts that marred its last few months of service. So for the basics of Web browsing, text-only tweeting, checking my e-mail, getting Google Maps directions and taking notes in Evernote, my antique Android suffices.

The problem I now have: The refurb Nexus 5X that was supposed to have shipped on Monday and arrived at my home by now hasn’t gone anywhere. I have a query into Google about the status of that; stay tuned for a future post that will relate how soon I was able to set aside my fossil of a phone. I’d just as soon not have to buy a new Pixel phone when that model is due for its own update, but that’s not entirely up to me anymore.