CES 2017 travel-tech report: My devices are showing their age

 

I took the same laptop to CES for the fifth year in a row, which is not the sort of thing you should admit at CES. I’m blaming Apple for that, in the form of its failure to ship an affordable update to the MacBook Air, but 2016’s Windows laptops also failed to close the deal.

My mid-2012 MacBook Air did not punish my hubris by dying halfway through the show and instead was content to remind me of its battery’s age by running down rapidly once past 25 percent of a charge. Seeing a “Service Battery” alert last fall had me thinking of getting the battery replaced beforehand, but my local Apple Store’s diagnostic check reported that I could hold off on that for a little longer.

2017-ces-gearWhen I had to recharge my MacBook, nearby attendees could also guess its age from the black electrical tape I had to apply to its power cord to cover a frayed area–yes, this is the power adapter I bought not even two years ago. In any darkened room, they might have also noticed the glow coming my from my laptop’s N key, on which the backlight shines through now that this key’s black coating has begun to rub off.

My Nexus 5X Android phone, my other note-taking device, kept bogging down as I was switching from app to app. If I could upgrade the RAM on this thing, I could–but, oops, I can’t. Its camera, however, once again did well for most shots, and T-Mobile’s LTE held up up except for press-conference day at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

WiFi was once again atrocious. I’m not surprised by this, only that the Consumer Technology Association tolerated this kind of crap connectivity at its most important event.

Two hardware items I know I can and should easily replace before next year’s CES are the USB charger I took for my phone and my travel power strip.

The remarkably compact charger that came with my wife’s old Palm Pixi almost 10 years ago still functions as designed, but it doesn’t charge my phone fast enough. I only took that item to Vegas because I lost the charger that came with my Nexus 5X (yes, the one I almost misplaced last year at CES) at Google I/O. I should have packed my iPad mini’s charger, which replenishes my phone much faster, but I won’t mind buying a cheap, fast-charging, two-port USB charger. Any endorsements?

My travel power strip also charges USB devices slowly, but the bigger problem is this Belkin accessory’s relative bulk. The Wirecutter now recommends a more compact Accell model; remind me to get that sometime soon.

I’d written last year that I probably wouldn’t take my aging Canon 330 HS point-and-shoot for another CES, but I did anyway. I experienced my usual wishes for better low-light performance and the ability to touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus, but this camera’s lens cover also no longer closes without me nudging its plastic petals into place.

I should have spent more time at CES checking out replacements, but I only had time to verify that the Canon pocket-sized model that looked most appealing doesn’t take panoramic photos.

I’d like to think that I’ll address all of these hardware issues well before next year’s CES. I’d also like to think that by then, I will always remember to note a CES event’s location in its calendar entry.

R.I.P., Vine: what I learned from sharing 100 six-second clips

I can’t lie: When Vine came into the world in January of 2013, I thought that sharing six-second video clips was ridiculous. My comment at the time was that we had moved one step closer to the blipvert ads of Max Headroom.

vine-app-logoI resolutely avoided the Vine app (not hard to do when my phone was chronically out of space) until a year and a half later, when I found myself staring at a crosswalk sign that kept saying “Change Password” instead of “Walk” or “Don’t Walk.”

There was no other choice. I installed the app and uploaded my first of many six-second clips.

I’ve now shared exactly 100 of them–a nice round number I didn’t quite notice until Twitter announced today that it would kill this video-sharing service.

The most common theme of my Vines has been “weird stuff at tech events”: dancing robots, another dancing robot, a drone herding painted sheep, a bot barista, and a two-faced TV. That last clip, shared from CES this January, has been my most viewed one, thanks to it being embedded in a Yahoo post.

But I’ve also found that six seconds is just the right amount of time to illustrate an inefficiency in a smartphone interface, document an obnoxious abuse of Web coding, and catch a smartwatch failing to keep up with the time.

Vine turned out to be a crafty way to share non-tech tidbits too: the tide going out, the view from the front of a Barcelona Metro train, the American flag in a breeze over the Mississippi, butterflies flapping their wings, a plane taking off from National Airport.

I realized that having a completely artificial constraint can force you to be creative–just like Twitter’s 140-character count or a print headline’s two-column cap impose their own discipline. And I learned that having only minimal editing options pushed me to get a clip in one take instead of thinking I could clean it up later (meaning I would never get around to doing so).

Meanwhile, you all who shared your own Vines helped keep me entertained, informed, and sometimes weirded out.

Now that’s all winding down. Why? Twitter’s post announcing the impending shutdown of Vine’s apps–but not the vine.co site archiving our clips–said nothing about that. Twitter’s struggles to monetize Vine had to have been an issue, but I’d like to think that the Vine below may also help explain what went wrong.

 

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?

Update, 11/13: As some of you may have noticed a week or so ago, I decided to revert back to the Twenty Eleven theme–and I see that the settings for it now include an AMP category.

Unfinished summer business: updating my Flickr self

August is almost wrapped up, which makes it particularly sad that I still don’t have a Flickr album up for SXSW… as in, the schmoozefest of a conference that happens in March.

Flickr app logoI didn’t mean to let things slide this badly. But with Easter coming only a week after my trip to Austin, it was too easy to let photo-sharing chores wait. And then I didn’t take care of this in the two weeks and change I had between Easter and jetting off to Hong Kong for the IFA Global Press Conference–at which point, my photo debt had begun compounding.

You would think that a photo-sharing service with mobile apps that automatically upload your photos would ease sharing them with the world. But one of my most frequent edits, straightening a photo so the horizon is level, turns out to be maddeningly difficult in a touchscreen interface–unless you lift your fingertip off the display at just the right instant, the image will yaw to the right or left for a moment more and skew your adjustment.

I also suffer from the disease of needing to caption every picture before exposing it to a world that usually has better things to do. So even though I no longer usually need to transfer images from a camera to a desktop app and then geotag and caption them before uploading them to a photo-album site (which itself still beats the picture-sharing options of the 1960s), I haven’t gotten any more efficient at presenting my photographic output.

Hell, I haven’t even remembered to post a newer profile photo at Flickr. If the blurry nature of that shot doesn’t make it clear, the photo in question dates to 2004.

(For anybody asking “Why Flickr?”: Instagram wasn’t an option on my series of Android phones until 2012–and it remains a bad fit for a dedicated camera. I settled on Flickr years before I had any thought of writing for a Yahoo site but continue to enjoy it, even as alternatives have arisen. I mean, Google Photos is pretty great, but don’t I give that company enough business already?)

The apps that finally pushed me past my data plan’s limit

For the first time in years, maybe ever, I maxed out the data plan on my phone. Fortunately, racking up 3.68 gigabytes of data when I’d only paid T-Mobile for 3 GB didn’t cost me anything–the leftover data from earlier months socked away in my Data Stash covered the overage, and I still have more than 5 GB in the bank.

Android data usageBut the experience did remind me that you can burn through mobile bandwidth surprisingly fast. And since I’m always asking readers who have had the same experience “what apps did you in,” I should answer the same question myself.

So here are the top 10 offenders listed in Android’s Data Usage screen:

• Twitter: 1.91 GB. This one stands out not just because it’s at the top of the list–that’s a quasi-obscene amount of data for a social network originally designed to function over SMS. Tapping that entry revealed that Twitter ate up almost half of that data, 855 megabytes, while running in the background; I guess that’s why Android has a “Restrict app background data” control.

• Chrome: 723 MB. This didn’t surprise me much, since I haven’t switched on this browser’s Data Saver option. I’m glad it’s there, though.

• Facebook: 244 MB. I expected more, considering how I spend almost as much time in this app as I do in Twitter. The developers at the social network may deserve a little more credit for keeping their app quasi-efficient in its bandwidth use.

• Android OS: 109 MB. Picture me shrugging as I realize how little this entry just told me.

• Gmail: 92.6 MB. I thought this would be higher, considering I have this app syncing three different e-mail accounts.

• Google App: 63.11 MB. This is all Google Now, right?

• Google Play services: 62.55 MB. Here we have another catchall item–this Android library does chores for a vast variety of apps on a phone.

• Vine: 55.79 MB. While Twitter’s primarily text-based app binged on bandwidth, its video-only offshoot sipped this little. Picture me once again shrugging.

• Snapchat: 53.13 MB. I don’t even use this app in any meaningful way (a fuller account of my Snapchat incompetence will require a separate post), so I don’t know how it burned through that much data.

• Flickr: 48.02 MB. This would have been vastly higher had I not set Yahoo’s photo-sharing app to upload photos only over WiFi. The Play Store accounts for a tiny share of my bandwidth for the same reason.

If you don’t mind sharing, what apps top your own phone’s data-usage screen? I realize that in iOS, you can’t get a month-by-month breakdown (the upcoming iOS 10 doesn’t fix that, to judge from the peek I got at it last month), but even the running total iOS keeps should still yield some useful insights.

Sparring with a 3-million-plus-follower Twitter account

I expected angry feedback to Wednesday’s post about WikiLeaks and its increasing recklessness, but I didn’t know how that would play out. The @WikiLeaks Twitter account has 3.33 million followers and a history of jabbing at critics, and the story of WikiLeaks posting a trove of Democratic National Committee e-mails–with zero attempt to blank out personal data like Social Security numbers–intersected with the angst of Bernie Sanders fans who are themselves not known for social-media silence.

WikiLeaks Twitter interactionThe WikiLeaks account quickly took exception to my post (and supportive tweets) in responses ranging from boastful–“The Hill, Gawker and others published alleged DNC docouments months ago. Only WikiLeaks had impact.”–to dorm-room BS–“Sure. Anyone who exposes the estabishment by telling you the truth is not your friend. We got it.”

Many of those three-million-plus followers then started liking and retweeting those tweets. I’m not used to seeing my notifications fill left-to-right from so many people clicking on the same tweet.

My new interlocutors came from different places. Some were hardcore WikiLeaks defenders. Some backed Donald Trump and so were in favor of anything making Democrats’ lives more difficult. Some were Bernie Sanders fans convinced that the DNC had stolen the election from him, despite the absence of proof.

(Sorry, Bernie fans: The Democratic Party–especially the woefully-mismanaged DNC–is nowhere near organized to pull that off. Also, you might want to think about where your militant confusion of a party bureaucracy’s dislike of your candidate with “rigging an election” might end up taking you.)

I tried to reply to the tweets directed at me but soon lost count, leading to me feeling I was reliving Seinfeld’s “jerk store” episode when I saw rebuttal-worthy material half a day too late.

But I did not have to answer any hateful crap attacking my gender, race, ethnicity or religion. Every time that happens, I think I’m playing this game with a WHT PRVLG cheat code.

After a day of this amusement, it was nice to see Edward Snowden come to the same basic conclusion as me and then get his own moralizing response.

Twitter reminder: The block button’s there for a reason

The block button on Twitter can get a bad reputation when people in a position of power use to ensure they won’t hear a dissenting but informed voice–even when it might help them do their job or their work outright requires it.

Twitter block buttonThink of investor and Web pioneer Marc Andreessen blocking veteran tech journalist Dan Gillmor this morning, Cleveland Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia blocking  The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery last week, or Donald Trump social-media director Dan Scavino, Jr., blocking my friend Robert Schlesinger, U.S. News and World Report’s managing editor for opinion, last month.

(Robert told me that getting blocked by one of Trump’s mouthpieces couldn’t quite match his dad Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., landing on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, but he still considered it a badge of honor.)

Seeing that kind of childish behavior makes me want to leave the block function–which stops a user from mentioning you or even seeing your tweets when logged in–to victims of GamerGate-level harassment.

But then I saw my notifications fill Wednesday with irate responses to my Yahoo Finance post about Twitter banning professional jerk Milo Yannopoulus. These tweets were marked by an absence of logic, facts and grammar–and, once I replied to some of them, a general unwillingness to consider that they might not have all of the answers to the universe in their possession.

I enjoy a good argument (you can see I waded into the comments on the post) but I also have a finite number of hours in the day. And being swarmed by trolling replies with no evident interest in an actual debate is properly read as a distributed denial-of-service attack on my attention span. There’s even a term for this kind of behavior: “sea-lioning.”

So I gave fair warning, blocked a handful of the worst offenders, and felt much better afterwards.

Then I politely answered an e-mail from an angry reader about the Milo post and got a more nuanced and understanding reply not long after. I wish that Twitter allowed for that sort of learning–for some testimony from people who have tried to engage with their Twitter trolls, see Ariel Bogle’s post at Mashable–but maybe some people just don’t want to admit in public that they were wrong. I will try not to fall into that habit myself.