I finally remembered to ski

Taking a weekday off to go skiing is one of the more underrated perks of working a flexible schedule around D.C. So I enjoyed it Tuesday for the first time since 2015.

When I started freelancing, that was not the plan. Even at the Post, I was able to carve out a personal day a year for the short drive to one of the two closest ski areas, Ski Liberty (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Whitetail (roughly an hour and 40).

But parenthood, not getting paid unless I write something and the mid-Atlantic’s increasingly chaotic winters confined my skiing in 2016 and 2017 to my neighborhood–courtesy of snow storms that left just enough accumulation for me to break out my already-trashed cross-country skis.

This season’s scant snowfall has lent no hope of even that. But last weekend, I saw that the forecast called for temperatures in the 30s Tuesday–an appointment-free day. I worked for a couple of hours that morning, grabbed my skis, boots and poles, enjoyed the unlikely driving pleasure of a traffic-free Beltway and I-270, and was on the chairlift at Liberty by noon.

Yes, the only snow in sight had been shot out of machines, and 620 feet of vertical goes by quickly. But with no lift lines in sight either, I could easily get get in seven runs an hour. It felt fantastic to realize that the years off hadn’t left me too rusty, test myself on the most difficult runs, then catch a little air coming off bumps. For a day when I would have been happy merely to avoid injuring myself or others, that was pretty great.

After three hours and change with only brief pauses to check my e-mail (of course), I headed back and once again felt spoiled by my commute. Even after sitting in some Beltway congestion, I pulled into our driveway by 5:10, leaving plenty of time to savor the pleasant soreness of this overdue workout. And to wonder what had gone wrong with my priorities the last two winters.

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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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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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2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Year-end cash considerations

Yesterday, I forgot to invoice Yahoo for the last month’s worth of stories, and my stupid oversight may save me a little money next year.

That’s because the odds of payment for November’s work at Yahoo Finance arriving by Dec. 31 just got two days’ worse. And if I don’t get paid by then, I don’t owe taxes on the money until 2017.

2016-in-changeThe downside of this scenario is that my 2016 income, already assured to fall below 2015’s because I wrote less than usual in early summer, will drop even more. That potential embarrassment bugs me, but apparently not enough that I remembered to get the payment machinery in gear by Friday.

Deferring income isn’t exactly an advanced financial hack, but it is something I couldn’t do when I worked on a salary.

Tax calculations should also drive me to go on a moderate hardware-spending binge this month. My laptop and my desktop are both ancient, and replacing either now would put a nice big expense on my Schedule C.

Alas, Apple seems uninterested in shipping a new laptop in my price range, or a new desktop at any price. The Windows universe offers a few enticing options, but on closer inspection I realize that the laptops I like all omit at least one feature I’d appreciate.

More important, CES is now only a month away. And I can’t possibly make any big electronics purchases before using that event to see what the gadget industry has in store for this year–its no accident that electronics rarely land on my Christmas list.

That leaves me another way to lower my tax burden: a late-December spree of charitable donations. You may have read a lot on Twitter about #GivingTuesday this week, but for me that day comes on the last Tuesday of this month–when I know the donation will count for my 2016 taxes but won’t come due on on my credit-card bill until sometime in February. Please do the same if you’re financially able.

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.

Things I have learned from writing 500 posts here

With Thursday night’s post here, I joined the 500-post club. That club is nowhere near exclusive, should not confer any special benefits and hopefully has no existence outside the 500-post badge WordPress.com popped up on my phone. But writing 500 posts still seems like a notable milestone, even if it took me close to five years to reach that mark.

500Here’s what I’ve learned from it–or, if you prefer, how little I’ve learned from it:

Write regularly: Apathy is the death of all blogs, and after the first few months I found myself letting two weeks or more go by without a post. I seized on the idea of writing a weekly recap of where I’d written, spoken or been quoted, and that in turn meant I’d have to write something–anything–else each week to avoid having this become a completely self-promotional exercise. That’s mostly worked since, except that I often wait most of the week to write that extra post.

Write quickly: This is the one outlet I have online where whatever I write gets published instantly, with no further delays because an editor wants to look it over again or schedule it for a better time for reader traffic. I have no minimum or maximum word count. And yet I still overthink a lot of posts here, as if it’s still 3 p.m. on a weekday in 1998 and I have another two hours before my editor will want to see the top of the story.

(As my editors in this century can attest, this happens often with my paid assignments too.)

Popularity can be a total mystery: It’s been wonderfully instructive to see my how site’s stats change (most of my paying clients provide no such insight), then to realize how little those ups and downs match my own efforts to promote my posts on social media or by adding a link to a story elsewhere. Instead, my most-read post this year was an item about setting the time on my wife’s sports watch that I wrote on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage (note what I said above about writing quickly), and which I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to promote since.

WordPress 500-post badgeOther booms in popularity have come about when other sites have pointed readers my way (thanks again, Loop Insight!) or when enough other people on Twitter have shared a link to something here.

Try not to anchor yourself to one site’s algorithm: The emphasis is on “try”–Google’s search drives an overwhelming amount of the traffic here. But at least this site exists outside Google’s orbit and those of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other first-tier tech giants. That’s what I wanted when I set up shop here: to have a home base, as Dan Gillmor has been saying for years, that isn’t the property of a company vying to create its own online empire. (WordPress.com is still big, but it’s not trying to become everybody’s social network, messaging system, or shopping mall.)

Ads can be annoying for publishers too: I don’t like seeing schlocky or noisy ads anywhere on the Web, but I really don’t like seeing them here. But I have no more and maybe less control than many other small publishers–my only options are to hide ads from logged-in WordPress.com users or to show “additional ad units,” with no option to decline auto-playing video or those “around the Web” remnant ads you’ve seen at 50 other sites this week.

And yet I keep the ads on, because they make me a little extra money–and they continue to educate me about a part of the business I have little to no visibility into at my regular outlets.