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.

A hell of a way to follow up on America’s birthday

On Monday, the United States of America celebrated its 240th birthday. Things have gone pretty much downhill for us since.

American flag over Mississippi RiverTuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store as bystanders Abdullah Muflahi and Arthur Reed recorded it on video.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in the car also occupied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and his four-year-old daughter. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.

I knew I couldn’t unsee those videos but watched them anyway. They can’t tell the whole story, but they all looked way too much like extrajudicial executions of fellow Americans who happened to be of African descent. I have grown to accept that African-Americans have sound reasons to be nervous about getting stopped by police, even as I have never worried about anything more than getting points on my car insurance.

That’s unsettling. So is the thought that the excessive use of force by a minority of police officers vastly predates the existence of technology to publicize it, the efforts of news organizations like the Washington Post to track it, and the rise of protests by people trying to make a point that shouldn’t be that debatable: Black lives matter.

Thursday night, another person decided the answer was to take an AR-15 rifle to the scene of a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and murder as many cops as possible. This African-American–I refuse to use his name–killed officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa and injured seven others along with two civilians before the Dallas Police Department sent in a robot with a bomb (welcome to the future?) to kill him.

How could we as a country top the killings of two people almost live on camera? That was how.

None of those stories represent the nation I want to live in. Cops keep us safe–I sleep well knowing I’m not even a mile from Arlington’s police headquarters–but the rule of law is a good idea for them too. Don’t like how they do their jobs? Vote, every damn time, for leaders who will change that. Picking up a rock, a knife or a gun against people who volunteered to protect us makes you an enemy of civilization.

At least this rotten week brought two other things that do embody the United States I know. One was the sight of our daughter happily playing with day-camp classmates whose complexions cover most of the colors on the American quilt. The other came Friday, when the fifth anniversary of the final space shuttle launch reminded me that, as Anil Dash wrote, “We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Yes, we still can.

Once again, I’m writing for the business section

As I trust you all have noticed, I’m still writing for a Yahoo news site. That was not what I could have guaranteed in mid-February, when Yahoo announced plans to “simplify” and “focus” its content strategy–which resulted in the folding of several digital magazines and the exit of my friend Dan Tynan as Yahoo Tech’s editor in chief.

Yahoo sign at W. 43rdI knew then that my Tech colleagues David Pogue and Daniel Howley would move over to Yahoo Finance, but the people at Finance had to make their own decisions on whether to bring over freelance contributors. Fortunately, Tech kept on running with a smaller staff, and about six weeks later, I got the answer from the Financial folks I was hoping for.

(When I wrote about my five years of full-time freelancing, I should have added that this occupational strategy can subject you to moments of fear that a large fraction of your future income is about to vanish–that, in fewer words, you’ve just become Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff. You need a core of self-confidence or at least stubbornness to get through times like that.)

A month into writing for Yahoo Finance, I’m covering most of the same topics and at about the same frequency–with my word count slightly padded by the stock-quote links that are part of the house style at Finance. But a few things have changed at the margins.

With my editors based in New York instead of San Francisco, I can no longer kid myself that at 5 p.m. I’ve got another two hours to finish a story. (Weirdly but appropriately for somebody with my newsprint-stained career, both the NYC and S.F. offices are in buildings once occupied by newspapers.) For the same reason, I’m more likely to see my editors in person–Yahoo’s space in the New York Times’ magnificent old building is only a 15-minute walk from Penn Station.

Finance has also been doing a lot of work with live video, so you may see me in one of those streams the next time I’m in Manhattan–for instance, when I head up for CE Week at the end of the month.

The distributed-workplace banter has moved from HipChat to Slack, which rates as an upgrade overall. Slack doesn’t clutter my inbox with notification e-mails, and it’s also the Wirecutter’s chat system of choice. It looks like my phone will lose an app, while my MacBook has already gained one–it’s easier to switch between different teams in Slack’s OS X app.

If you have any other questions about my latest affiliation, please see me in the comments.

Okay, maybe this SXSW commercialism really has gotten out of hand

AUSTIN–SXSW is really two events. One is the long series of panels and keynotes that teach me new things and get wheels turning in my brain for weeks afterward–for instance, yesterday President Obama did a Q&A that was supposed to be a sales pitch for SXSW techies to lend their talents to making government work better but wound up being his most revealing discussion about device encryption ever.

Sixth Street during SXSW(Twitter was not pleased with Obama’s displeasure about “fetishizing our phones above every other value,” to judge from my own timeline.)

But there’s also the Marketing Spring Break that surrounds this conference, in which every other social media manager, PR rep, advertising executive, and brand ambassador in America takes their employer or client’s corporate credit card and goes on a spending spree with restaurants, bars and caterers here.

The result is a schedule crammed with happy hours, receptions and parties, this year even more so than in the four before that I’ve been privileged to attend this event. My own calendar this evening features five events, most overlapping each other’s time slot. I am not sure what I could say to a normal human being’s “I hate you” assessment:

2) “Don’t hate the player, hate the game!”
3) Actually, just go ahead and hate me.

It’s not just tech startups lighting their investors’ money on fire in the hope of repeating Twitter’s 2007 SXSW breakout. The social scene here also features a wide variety of big-name Establishment firms looking to capture “mind share” by giving away free beer, tacos and BBQ–anytime I am overcome with SXSW-scheduling angst over which panel I won’t be able to attend, I can chill at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Connected Yard, the McDonald’s Loft, the Budweiser Beer Garage, or the Comcast Social Media Lounge.

I don’t know how all of these companies can get an acceptable return on their investment. What I do know: I’m not getting out of this place any skinnier.

Watching concrete dry on the way to Dulles

I find watching paint dry as dull as anybody else, but concrete’s another thing–when it’s reinforced by steel in the service of a large construction project that I will enjoy at some point in the hopefully not indeterminate future.

That’s why I don’t sit on the bus from the Wiehle-Reston East Metro to Dulles International Airport. I stand so I can get a better look at construction of the Silver Line’s extension to IAD and beyond.

Silver Line construction at IADThat project’s opening seems painfully far off when I look at a calendar and note how many months stand between now and 2020, the current if-all-goes-well estimate for its opening. It annoys me to observe how slow we build a railroad on mostly open ground–it’s not like we’re trying to thread the Second Avenue Subway under Manhattan, people!

But seeing bridges placed over roads and streams, the structures of stations emerge from the dirt, and columns rise out of the ground to carry aerial tracks through Dulles reminds me that there is a payday coming… someday.

Gawking from the bus or a car is also one of the few ways to monitor this progress. The Dulles Metro project sends out an e-mail newsletter every few months, and a thread on railroad.net (I know, nerd) sees a post maybe once a week on average, but there’s no Flickr or Instagram account to follow and no construction webcam to check.

Peering through the windows of a packed Silver Line Express bus is not a great substitute for that… or for, you know, having a one-seat and traffic-immune ride to my city’s international airport. But at least it gives me an excuse to give my phone a rest.

CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.

 

Donald Trump supporters have some opinions

Thursday’s post at Yahoo Tech critiquing Donald Trump’s notion of “maybe, in certain areas, closing the Internet up in some way” did not go over well among Trump fans.

Trump-supporter messagesI expected as much, but I did not quite expect to see quite their rage so poorly expressed–like, for example, the fellow whose entire message consisted of a one-word subject header, “Bull,” and the “Sent from my iPhone” signature. Another disgruntled individual closed with “Your a Complete ASSHOLE.”

A few less spittle-flecked messages expressed disdain for my calling The Donald a blowhard or a loudmouth. My response: If Trump isn’t one, then those words no longer have any meaning in the English language.

Several asked why we couldn’t cut the terrorists off from the Internet when North Korea, China or Cuba maintain an iron grip on their citizens’ online access. Well, if we could exercise that level of control over Iraq and Syria, wouldn’t we already have rounded up the Daesh death cultists by now?

Finally, a few led with “you’re just a member of the liberal media.” Hoo boy, I’ve never heard that one before. I will have to warn my colleagues about this novel insult they may come across on the Internet.

On the other hand, a couple of people wrote in to say they appreciated the story. So I’ve got that going for me.