A one-man pandemic book club

The past six months have given me exponentially more time at home than I would have thought possible before this pandemic-afflicted year. Normal people would have occupied those hours by catching up on deferred household maintenance or learning a new language, but instead I’ve whiled away many of them by reading two of the denser novels written in English: James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

That was not a quick process. Both doorstop-thick tomes feature their authors free-styling their way through prose as they get lost in the inner worlds of a complex set of characters without any strict reference to time or place, which is a longwinded way of saying they can be intimidating to read.

I tackled Ulysses first, since I’ve had a vintage hardcover copy silently taunting me from a bookshelf for the past 20 years or so. There are deeply poetic moments in Joyce’s Dublin-steeped novel–“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” resonates too well this year–and parts that suggest the author’s profound conviction that he would get paid by the word for every word. Also, I’m impressed that the censors of the 1920s made it all the way through to the really naughty bits towards the end.

After I tweeted out my victory over Joyce’s title and asked “What famously dense novel should I read next?”, one of the first replies suggested Infinite Jest. I finally accepted that logic and put myself on the Arlington library’s waiting list for an e-book copy, but before I could claim that I saw a paperback copy available for all of $2 at a library used-book sale. Buying in print instead of borrowing in pixels meant I’d have all the time I’d need to digest Wallace’s 1,079 words of prose, endnotes, and footnotes to said endnotes.

(Seriously: Wallace’s endnotes eat up almost 100 pages, and a couple count as chapter-length in their own right. I realized early on I’d need to keep two bookmarks in my copy, one to mark my progress in the text itself and the other to preserve my place in the bits at the end–then saw that this book may be best read with three bookmarks. This may be the most hypertext thing I’ve ever read in print.)

Infinite Jest is even more of an atom-smasher of plotlines than Ulysses–it touches on growing up, tennis, drugs, Boston, digital media, addiction, people’s capacity for needless cruelty, crime, more drugs, pop culture, cinematography, Québeçois separatism, and even a smidgen of tech and media policy. And it does so without the standard narrative scaffolding of chapters. I kept having to flip forward to see when the next break in the story might happen, solely to know how late I’d have to stay up before putting the book down at a point that would not leave me too confused the next morning.

I could not help reading Wallace’s tales of Boston types battling depression and inner demons of various kinds without considering how Wallace himself succumbed to his own, because depression lies. Which made me think also of my late, literary-minded friend Mike Musgrove, who I’m sure read this book a long time ago and would have offered some smart or at least smart-aleck commentary about it.

An occupational risk of freelancing: zero words on topic A

The European Commission socked Google with a €4.34 billion fine Wednesday over its treatment of Android device vendors, and I have had zero words published to my name about that blockbuster ruling.

It happens. When you’re not on staff and not in the newsroom as a major story breaks, you can get left aside as staff writers jump on that topic and editors scurry to get their copy posted. That collective rush to publish–and the glut of hot takes about whatever tech issue tops a day’s headlines–may then result in you not being able to sell anything about said storyline before everybody’s moved on to the next breaking topic.

So, yes, I have not opined at length over the EC’s judgment that Google abused its market power in requiring Android vendors to ship its Chrome browser and set its own search as the default if they wanted to bundle the Play Store. I haven’t even gone on radio or TV to spout off on Google getting this roughly $5 billion haircut, leaving only my initial, skeptical tweets as my comments.

I feel like I’ve put my tech-pundit status in jeopardy, especially considering the shameful lack of even unpaid broadcast exposure.

On the other hand, I should appreciate being able to think through this matter instead of having to file 800 words of first-few-hours analysis.

On the other other hand, my self-employed status also means I don’t have to crank out four posts in a day every time Apple commits news. And not being beholden to a single newsroom lets me self-assign less-obvious coverage, as long as I can find a willing client. That occupational flexibility may yet allow me to get back to Topic A in tech news this week, if I can just find the right angle to pitch to the right editor…

Dear Android gesture typing: Enough ashtray with this one autocomplete error

About 95 percent of the time, the “gesture typing” built into Android’s keyboard is one of my favorite parts of Google’s mobile operating system. I trace a fingertip over the letters of the word I have in mind, that item appears in an overlay before I’m halfway through inputting it, I lift my fingertip, and a Scrabble winner like “deoxyribonucleic” pops into a tweet, e-mail or note.

Ashtray forbiddenBut then I have to try to gesture-type the $10 word “already,” and Android will have other ideas. Specifically, cancerous ones: It keeps subbing in “ashtray.”

I could take some comfort in the privacy-preserving thought that Google’s sense of my interests is so off that it thinks I write about cigarettes all the time. (This post probably won’t help!) But, really, I only want to write a common adverb without having to tap keys one letter at a time, like some kind of an animal.

And because I’m in the same abusive relationship with autocorrect as everybody else, I keep hoping that this time, Android will finally realize I have no interest in tobacco products. That’s when it will humor me by inserting “airway” instead of “ashtray.”

I just don’t know what could lead Google to misread me so consistently. The path you trace to gesture-type “already” requires going significantly farther east on the keyboard than the route for “ashtray,” and Google’s own search results suggest the former word is used about 143 times more often than the latter. Who would see any upside from this pattern of error?

As I said, this is annoying because it’s so unusual. The only other common word that Android gesture typing botches halfway as often is “conference.” And there, it’s at least more creative: The software will sometimes choose to read my attempt to enter this noun for an occupational hazard of my job as me gesture-typing “cicatrice.” Yes, real word: It’s a Middle English-derived noun for tissue that forms over a wound and then becomes a scar.

One thing I do know about this mystery: If there’s a tech conference with “already” in its name, I may have to decline all of its invitations to preserve my own sanity.

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.

 

The missing “let me be clear” line: No, Google isn’t killing Google Voice

Google did not axe Google Voice today. Sunday’s USA Today column didn’t say it would—it covered Google’s scheduled shutdown, effective today, of a protocol that other Internet-calling apps had used to connect to Google Voice—but many of you thought it did.

Google Voice Play Store iconMy first reaction on getting questions like “Is Google Voice being discontinued?” was to think “Gah! If that was really happening, don’t you think I would have said so right at the top of the story?”

My second: “Google, this is your own damn fault for neglecting the service for so long that people now expect the worst.”

My third reaction was a grudging acceptance that I should have foreseen readers skipping over my description of how Google Voice was shutting down the “XMPP” support that had allowed third-party VoIP clients to connect (admit it, you skimmed past that jargon just now) and instead seeing only the words “Google Voice” and “shutting down.”

That realization could have led me to write the column with fault-tolerance in mind: If there’s a way readers could get the wrong idea, throw in a “let me be clear” graf to disabuse them of that incorrect assumption. A little extra defensive writing then would have saved time since spent answering nervous reader e-mails and story comments.

I should know that by now, but apparently I’m still figuring out this writing thing after some 20 years of doing it for a living.

In other news: The Android Hangouts app still can’t place VoIP calls from your GV number (a capability the iOS version has had since October), officially leaving Android users in the lurch. Heck of a job, Google.

So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–“ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

Storytelling about story selling

Earlier this week, I did a foolish thing: I wrote an article without even trying to get paid for it. The piece in question–a 313-word listicle relating ten thoughts about Facebook on the day of its tenth birthday–only took a few minutes to write, and in the moment my Facebook page seemed like an apt spot for it.

Tumblr post buttonMost of the time, however, I’m not in such a rush and I do want to make some kind of money for writing something longer than a few paragraphs. (For about a year, this blog generated no income, but since the spring of 2012 WordPress.com’s ads have been paying me an exceedingly low per-word rate.) But if I have an idea that’s not an obvious fit for one of my regular clients, where do I try to sell it?

For me, the answer is not always the obvious “whoever will pay the most money.” Assuming the options are all offering about the same range, other considerations come into play:

Audience: If I’m writing something that I hope will change people’s minds, then I’d rather a site be able to get my words before more people. If it’s more of a personal essay or some specialized topic that won’t get a large readership anyway, that’s not such a concern, and I’ll even write behind a paywall.

Old or new client? I don’t want to let my connections with editors go stale–when an editor knows you and your work well enough, you can pitch a story and get it assigned to you in a minute’s worth of Twitter direct messages. But if I’m not getting my byline to show up in different places, it feels like I’m not trying hard enough.

Contract: Most freelance contracts are written to reserve as much of the post-publication upside as possible for the client. Ones that instead let me keep copyright to my work and resell it later on (thanks, The Atlantic Cities and The Magazine) easily get my attention.

CMS: Being an outside contributor generally insulates me from whatever horrible content-management system a newsroom uses, but if a site uses a good CMS it gets a little extra credit. For example, it doesn’t hurt that Yahoo Tech uses Tumblr, and one big reason I want to write something for The Magazine’s venture on Medium is to spend some quality time in that CMS without writing for free.

Comments: Because I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoys reading and responding to reader comments, I appreciate writing for sites that make it easy to do so–and have commenters who generally know what they’re talking about. (Yes, Yahoo Tech doesn’t have comments yet. A custom system that, per, David Pogue, will “attempt to eliminate awful anonymous drive-by potshots that add nothing meaningful to the discussion” is on the way; when it launches, you will see me on it.)

Ease of payment: I usually don’t think to ask about this until after I’ve filed, but if I don’t even have to invoice the client to get paid, that’s great. Having the payment deposited directly in my business account or sent via PayPal helps too, but my bank’s nearest branch is only a 10-minute walk away, and I could always use its app to scan in a check. Really, just don’t make me have to invoice twice and I’ll be happy enough.

My wavering definition of “weekend”

By the middle of this Saturday morning, I’d already written one thing for work, sent a couple of pitches to one editor and had begun working on this post.

iPad weekend calendarThis was not unusual. What may be odd is that I don’t mind doing work-like things on the weekend.

At one level, I have no choice about it. That part of work-life balance began eroding years ago; first not reading work e-mail became unwise, then not replying to at least some messages got to be too risky. The arrival of RSS and Twitter further escalated my occupational Internet use on weekends.

And as a work-from-home freelancer I’m rarely entirely off the clock but also have the liberty to shift my work hours around–which in practice often leaves tasks like, say, writing a post a week here that’s not completely self-promotional undone until Saturday. That should further blur the distinction between workdays and weekends.

But another level, Saturday and Sunday remain the days when work is something I do between other things, the alarm isn’t set unless there’s some special event, I feel zero guilt about throwing on an old pair of jeans and a t-shift, and it’s fine if I spend a few afternoon hours biking or gardening. Let’s try to keep those distinctions around, okay?

(There’s one other thing that can make weekends feel like workdays: parenthood. As much as we love spending time with our adorkable toddler, the advent of Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad when it means professional help with child care will once again resume.)

A look back at 2012’s blogging stats

Once again, a routine running on a server somewhere in a WordPress.com data center generated a 2012 annual report for this blog. You can view that presentation by clicking on the fancy fireworks graphic below; after, I’ll share a few highlights from last year’s stats, including some that didn’t make it into this automated annual report.

Total views: 89,639, up from 74,636 last year–and with a notable spike in November and December, largely thanks to my second-biggest traffic source.

Busiest day: Nov. 11, with 5,511 views, most for my discussion of whether I should keep or return a Surface and an iPad mini. (which broke the prior record of 5,416 I set when I announced my exit from the Post on April 7 of last year)

Most popular posts: that Surface and iPad mini post, at 11,300 views and change; my perennially popular guide to forwarding Lotus Notes e-mail to Gmail, at 6,600 or so; a quick note about search results getting redirected elsewhere, roughly 5,400. (These and following numbers are necessarily vague, because WordPress.com doesn’t break them down by the last year, only by the last 365 days.)

Top referrers: “Search engines” counted for almost 20,000 clickthroughs, of which about 19,000 came from various Google sites, maybe 300 from Bing and even fewer from other search options; Jim Dalrymple and Peter Cohen’s Loop Insight added up to about 8,800 and gets most of the credit for the popularity of the Surface/iPad mini and strange-search-results posts, among a few others; Twitter and USA Today followed up with about 2,000 each, and Facebook was just under that threshold.

Top search terms: Beyond the obvious one of my name (not to mention about 10 misspellings thereof), this list is topped by two computer-troubleshooting topics: forwarding Notes to Gmail, and OS X’s occasionally runaway CalendarAgent process.

Intangibles: I’m glad I was able to stick to writing at least a post almost every week outside my weekly-roundup self-promotion–and that some of these shorter posts that I might have held off writing in 2011 flowed into paid writing elsewhere. But I’m also happy that the writing feels like it’s been coming faster and easier here.

Springsteen, and the persistence of good art

I saw Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band play Nationals Park last night. Besides being at least the 10th time I’ve seen the poet laureate of New Jersey live (details after the jump), the show also got me to thinking about how long Springsteen’s work has been helping me make sense of my own life.

It started when I was maybe 12 or 13 and began developing my own musical tastes beyond disliking the easy-listening stations Mom and Dad felt compelled to listen to in the car. I can’t think of any other artist whose work has held up for me for so many years. (U2 comes close, but I didn’t get into them until later in high school). Back then, I didn’t know how well and how often Springsteen’s words and music would explain things around me. And that there would be times when I’d need the help.

I thought about quoting “Walk Like A Man” in my father’s eulogy, but I didn’t think I could hold it together while reading those words. “Lonesome Day” and “Empty Sky” still encapsulate what Sept. 12, 2001 felt like better than any story or photo. And I knew I had to marry my wife when I started tearing up listening to a  version of “If I Should Fall Behind.”

I hear many of these songs differently now than when I was an angsty teenager or an underemployed 20-something. I expect that to continue as they and I age in our own ways.

As a writer, I also find it fascinating how Springsteen’s lyrics have evolved from the baroque exuberance of the early ’70s to the sparser language of today (and, along the way, have lent the occasional turn of phrase to my own prose). I try to use fewer words than I once did too; that, and the both of us being born in the Garden State, are about the only parallels I can get away with here.

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