Mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe

This time of year means falling behind on gift shopping and getting overrun by CES pitches, but it also brings my annual excuse to make my mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe. It’s pretty great and not that much work, though the dough does call for an overnight stay in the fridge. Share and enjoy!

Christmas cookies (an old recipe)

Makes a few dozen cookies, depending on cutter size

  • christmas-cookies-before4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl, then set aside. In a stand mixer’s bowl (or a large, regular bowl; you can combine everything by hand with more effort and sufficiently soft butter), mix butter, sugar and egg, then add sour cream and vanilla before adding the flour mixture. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

christmas-cookies-coolingThe next day, cut the ball of cookie dough in half. Preheat oven to 375° and lightly grease cookie sheets with butter or cover them with parchment paper. Cover a clean kitchen surface with flour and roll each half of the dough flat to about 1/4 in. thick. Cut with cookie cutters, place on cookie sheets and decorate with colored sugar (I stick with red and green because Christmas, but use what you like). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

About those cookie cutters: You want a mixture of small, bite-size cookies in generic shapes and larger, statement cookies for when you absolutely, positively need 200-plus calories of cookie in one serving.

You also want some creative shapes. Stars, basic geometric shapes, trees, and gingerbread men and women all work. But as the D.C.-outline cookies in these photos should attest, I’ve grown fond of state-shaped cookie cutters like those you can buy in the District at Hill’s Kitchen, across the street from the Eastern Market Metro stop and just off the 8th Street SE row of shops in Capitol Hill.

Weekly output: buffer rage, Trump and tech titans, Glass Room, Facebook vs. fake news, unlocked phones

With no swank holiday parties hosted by trade groups or PR shops to clog my schedule  (I’m sure my invitations only got lost in the mail…), my one big work night out this week was a screening of the movie Hidden Figures at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. As a card-carrying space geek, I enjoyed the flick immensely but also had to wonder why the thousands of pages I’ve read about NASA had not enlightened me about this chapter of the space agency’s history. It wasn’t just me: In remarks before the screening, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said he had no idea as he watched Apollo 11’s landing that an African-American mathematician, Katherine Johnson, had calculated the mission’s trajectory.

fierce-buffer-rage-post12/13/2016: There’s No One Fix For Buffer Rage, FierceBroadcasting

I finished this post about how video services try to ensure reliable, buffering-free playback on Election Day, which now feels like a horrendously long time ago. You have to provide an e-mail address and some basic job info to download the PDF of this e-book from the address above; my contribution starts on page 9.

12/14/2016: What tech titans should say to Trump — and vice versa, Yahoo Finance

I could tell this got a lot of attention because about a thousand people clicked the link to this blog at the very end of the post–and click-through ratios are generally terrible even for links at the top of a story, much less the very last line of the piece. Two subjects I should have included in this post: the tech industry’s reliance on skilled immigrants and the possible inclusion of broadband in Trump’s infrastructure ambitions.

12/16/2016: The Glass Room shows how little privacy we really have, Yahoo Finance

I held off on writing up last week’s visit to this temporary gallery in Lower Manhattan  because I’d thought a colleague was going to cover the place first. Fortunately, I got a go-ahead before I had the chance to sell a report to another site at a lower rate.

12/17/2016: Facebook’s plan to fight fake news, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on the air Saturday afternoon to talk about Facebook’s new initiative to undercut fake news. They asked me if this would amount to censorship; I said my worry was that too many people would dismiss the verdicts of third-party fact checkers as the product of bias.

12/18/2016: Is it worth it? Buying an unlocked phone, USA Today

I departed from my usual Q&A format to write this story, pegged to an NPD Group report that unlocked phones now make up 12 percent of the U.S. market. It looks like the forecast I wrote four years ago on the eve of T-Mobile’s move to dump handset subsidies wasn’t that crazy.

2016 gardening report card: arugulification and cucumbering

With Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to take stock of a hobby that makes zero financial sense if you put any value on your time.

(For reference: my 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

arugula-can-be-a-december-crop_30721026823_o Arugula: A+

This incredibly versatile green–beyond using it in place of lettuce, you can also use it as you would chard in soups, stews and risotto and even make pesto out of it–rewarded me with bountiful spring and fall crops. My only regret: I didn’t clear-cut the remaining foliage on Wednesday.

Cucumbers: A

These took off beyond my expectations or intentions–a bunch of cucumber plants volunteered in the other raised bed and random spots around the yard, which makes me wonder if the squirrels or the birds helped redistribute them. Making cucumber salad, cucumber soup, gazpacho, and cucumber salsa–not to mention using them as a sandwich condiment–wasn’t enough to use them all up.

cucumbers_29466424642_oHerbs: A-

The parsley was not as prolific as last year, hence the slightly lower grade. Cilantro did well in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September; meanwhile, sage didn’t come around until the fall. Mint, oregano and rosemary were their usual unkillable selves, but basil was yet again nearly a complete bust. Speaking as a quarter-Italian American, that last part really hurts.

Spinach: B

I only rarely had enough of this to use as a major part of a salad, but in the spring and the fall I could count on being able to step outside and grab a few leaves to use in an omelette or whatever.

Lettuce: B-

Its spring performance was matched by its weak showing in the fall. But considering what you pay for lettuce in the grocery store or at the farmers market, this still represents one of the best gardening bargains. It’s just not arugula.

tiny-tomato_29881788191_oGreen beans: C+

This grade would have been higher had all of my travel in May and June not led me to neglect the green beans that had gotten off to a fantastic start.

Tomatoes: C

Mindful of my history of heartbreak here, I limited my efforts to buying a couple of plants at the farmers market and trying to grow a few others from seed. The handful of tomatoes I was able to harvest were utterly delicious, even the tiny specimen in the photo at the right; I just wish I’d had more of them.

Bell pepper: F

At least my sunk cost on them was under $2, the cost of a packet of seeds. And at least these are pretty cheap from the right farmers-market vendors.

Verizon’s online tech support needs some serious work

Yesterday I logged into my Verizon account for the first time in months and got an unpleasant and embarrassing surprise: a $2.80 “router maintenance” fee for having an old router. It was unpleasant as all junk fees are, embarrassing because I’d covered this exact problem in my USA Today column.

And Verizon had even warned me about the charge. Once. A July 19 e-mail advised me to upgrade my router to avoid the fee but offered no instructions on returning the router I hadn’t used since 2012–since we don’t get Fios TV, I’ve always been able to plug in the router of my choice.

verizon-chat-safari-incompatibilityI saw on Verizon’s support site that I could have them call me back, so I plugged in my number. After a day of nobody calling, I tweeted to the @VerizonSupport account that this support option wasn’t too supportive. In a direct-message reply, a rep told me to try Verizon’s chat instead.

I hadn’t seen that as a choice on the support site earlier, and clicking that link yielded a 1990s-esque error page with the useless message “We are sorry, but a problem with your request has occurred.” Somehow, this chat doesn’t work in Safari. Memo to Verizon: Running the default Mac browser is not an edge case.

I asked why we couldn’t deal with my problem in our direct-message chat. My interlocutor’s reply: “We have to secure your account and the chat is the secure location for that.”

verizon-tech-support-chatFine. The chat link did work in Chrome, and then I was treated to thanks-for-your-patience automated messages every 30 seconds, each heralded by an annoying chime. The chimes stopped at some point, but a rep never showed up until I closed the chat window by mistake.

I tried again, and a human entered the chat right away. The rep asked for my name, phone number, address and account number–an understandable request, since I wasn’t logged into my Verizon account in Chrome, but also information that I could have given just as easily in a Twitter DM chat.

Which would have been more secure too: Chrome reports that Verizon’s chat site employs the obsolete and insecure SHA-1 algorithm.

After some back and forth to establish that I haven’t powered on this old, Verizon-issued router in years, the rep said Verizon would send a return mailer kit for the thing and, after I asked a second time, said they would also refund the two months of router-maintenance charges.

Total time to get $5.60 returned to me: about two hours. I need to rethink this particular business model.

 

Weekly output: gig economy, building a bot, pro tablets, social media vs. terrorism, video-chat apps

It’s hard to believe that I only have one full work week left in this year.

12/5/2016: Why Trump is bad news for America’s freelancers, Yahoo Finance

This look at the increasing role of independent workers in the U.S. economy–and what nuking the Affordable Care Act without readying an effective replacement would do to self-employed types–really got started with one of the panels I moderated at Web Summit. Then a couple of new studies of the “gig economy” gave me good reasons to revisit it. Should you be tempted to click the “View Reactions” button at the end of the story, be advised that the comments are more spittle-flecked than usual.

12/7/2016: I built a bot, and now I want more bots, Yahoo Finance

On day one of the Future.Today conference I attended in New York, I got my overdue introduction to building a simple, scripted bot. The experience made me wish I could put bots to work for me instead of just having them exist as somebody else’s customer-service representative.

wirecutter-pro-tablets-guide12/8/2016: Can an iPad Pro or Surface Pro 4 Tablet Replace Your Laptop?, The Wirecutter

This guide to pro tablets has been in the works for months–if you saw me at Google I/O in May and wondered why I had a Surface Pro 4, this is why. And after all those months of testing–and quizzing pro-tablet users about what draws them to these devices–I’m just not sold on the category. I am, however, sold on having my next laptop be a convertible model that I can use folded up in a tablet mode.

12/8/2016: Social media vs. terrorism, Al Jazeera

The interview–as usual, with me overdubbed into Arabic–that was originally scheduled for Wednesday in NYC happened the next day in D.C. The subject was the initiative Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft announced Dec. 5 to share digital fingerprints of terrorist media that each could then use to scrub those files from their networks. I said that deciding what messages count as recruitment messages will be tricky. What, if, say, people circulate vile lies about a child-sex-trafficking ring run out of a D.C. pizza restaurant that lead one nutcase to show up at the place with an AR-15? Does that count as terrorist propaganda under this initiative, or do the messengers have to be brown and Muslim?

12/11/2016: How to choose the best video-calling app, USA Today

A question I got for my October talk to a local retirement community’s computer club led to this column.

Why yes, I did get your CES pitch. Again.

As I started working on this post, my phone buzzed and its screen lit up with a predictable subject line: “Are you going to CES?”

Of course it did. And of course I am. This January will mark my 20th consecutive trip to CES, the gadget gathering formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show–which itself will mark its 50th anniversary. So this December features not just my usual late and disorganized attempts to shop for gifts, but the annual wave of requests to book meetings at CES.

And just like last year, I have yet to address more than a small fraction of that correspondence. To save tech-PR types some time, here are my answers to the most frequent questions about my schedule in the first week of January. To save myself time, I copied much of this from last year’s post.

GoPro clusterAre you still going to CES?

Since I’m apparently serving a life sentence at this show, that would be a yes. I’ll be there from Tuesday morning through Saturday night.

Will we see you at our press conference?

Your odds are actually better this year, since my flight should land at LAS before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. That leaves me a lot more time for the events before the show officially opens Thursday. But that doesn’t change the basic problem of big-ticket press conferences at CES: endless lines to get in. Not be all “do you know who I am?!,” but if you can put me on whatever list frees me from spending an hour queued up in a hallway, it will help your company’s cause.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. I should have answered all of these pitches by now; sorry for the delay.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Thursday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Friday will find me in the South Hall of the LVCC (it’s become drone central) and then probably in the Sands, where it looks like I’ll be moderating a panel on cybersecurity… which will actually be the second panel on cybersecurity I’ll do that day, because CES.
  • Saturday’s my day to cover everything else before what I’m sure will be a delightful 3.5-hour red-eye flight to O’Hare and then home to National Airport.

Can we set up a meeting at [Pepcom/ShowStoppers]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom (Pepcom is in the Mirage, ShowStoppers at the Wynn), rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Strip trafficCan you come to our reception/happy hour/dinner/party? 

Pepcom and ShowStoppers have me occupied most of Wednesday and Thursday night, but if you have an event before or after them in someplace nearby, I’m more likely to show up. If your event has a couch I can fall asleep on, that might help too. If it will be in a place with no convenient way to charge my devices, that will not help.

Okay, jerk, we get that you’re busy. Are there any times or places that won’t cause you to whine about your trying circumstances?

So glad you asked! Considering how annoying it is to get around Vegas during CES, giving journalists a lift in exchange for a quick product pitch can be pretty smart–I’m surprised I’ve only gotten one offer along those lines. Breakfast is also a good time to try to get a reporter’s attention at CES, because what they do to bagels in CES press rooms should be a crime. And remember that I’m around through Saturday–my schedule should open up after the insanity of Thursday.

Any interest in the e-mail I sent yesterday?

If there is, I promise I will write back… in the next week or so… probably.

Weekly output: sketchy pop-ups, DirecTV Now, environmentalism under Trump, iCloud calendar spam

I’m in the middle of what I trust is my final lap of business travel for the year, which started with a conference at MIT’s Media Lab Saturday and will include another in New York Tuesday and Wednesday. The chance to see family and friends in Boston and NYC was not irrelevant to my booking this travel.

usat-icloud-spam-post11/28/2016: Don’t let sketchy pop-up ads scare you, USA Today

This column started with a question posted by a friend on Facebook. Spammy pop-ups on the Web aren’t exactly news (I should confess that I may have just seen one spawned by an ad on this blog), but it doesn’t hurt to remind readers that they’re almost always lies.

11/29/2016: AT&T’s DirecTV Now challenges Sling TV, PlayStation Vue…and DirecTV, Yahoo Finance

My unpacking of AT&T’s new over-the-top video service was held up slightly when the company spent 45 minutes touting the service without saying which channels would be available on which price plans. That PR foolishness and DirecTV Now’s initial glitches aside, I still think it’s a big deal for one wired subscription-TV provider to start selling video service into the markets of others–witness how then-Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt completely dodged my question about that possibility in 2011.

12/2/2016: Why Trump’s election hasn’t crushed the hopes of environmentalists, Yahoo Finance

A visit to New York three weeks ago for yet another conference got me thinking about how environmentalists might do well to shift their attention after Jan. 20 from the White House to large companies that, whatever their other faults, accept the scientific consensus around climate change instead of saying it’s a hoax cooked up by the Chinese government.

12/4/2016: How to squelch iCloud calendar spam, USA Today

My contribution to the growing genre of stories about this problem, most quoting the exact same statement by Apple PR, advised readers that Apple has known about this issue since at least July. I also reminded them that while iCloud’s site will normally brush off mobile browsers, iOS and Android let you work around that restriction to change the setting allowing spam invitations to pollute your iCloud schedules.