Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

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Weekly output: FCC broadband map (still) considered harmful

This week was our kid’s spring break, so we had a lot of family time. I, in turn, had a little less laptop time than usual–which is another way of saying I’m starting this workweek slightly behind.

4/19/2019: Why it’s so hard for some Americans to get high-speed internet, Yahoo Finance

This piece started with a lengthy e-mail from a reader of a column I wrote for USA Today four years ago. As I do too often, I neglected that message from this resident of a broadband-deprived part of rural Michigan for a week before kicking off a slow-motion correspondence that revealed a fairly horrible failure of the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband map. The major fault here: The map relies on old and fuzzy data from providers that don’t always accurately report where they provide Internet access. Since this post ran, I’ve received another lengthy e-mail from a resident of rural northern California who’s been dealing with another broadband drought that doesn’t show up on the FCC map, and I can’t rule out writing a sequel.

Tax-time thoughts, 2019 edition

It looks like we didn’t get crushed by taxes this year, even if we did owe money to the IRS. That’s nice, since we skipped the one step we were supposed to take to avoid an April 15 financial hit.

2018 Form 1040I knew going into filing season that last year’s tax changes (I prefer not to call them “reform,” as that suggests progress unsupported by the evidence) would slash our deductions. In the bargain, I’d get a 20 percent break on my self-employment income, what the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 calls the Qualified Business Income Deduction; our rates would drop somewhat; and we’d lose personal exemptions but gain a child tax credit.

Which ones would outweigh the others? It appears that the rate cuts and the self-employment break made the bigger difference, leaving us paying just over 20 percent on our taxable income compared to the 24 percent we paid on a lower taxable income last year. And that’s even though my spouse did not adjust her tax withholding as recommended.

But without the self-employment deduction–be advised that tax accounting is not exactly one of my core competencies–it looks like we would have paid a higher rate.

(No, I won’t provide raw totals. I also use verbs like “appears” because once again, I filed for an extension: I caught some dumb oversights in last year’s return that should slightly lower our bill, but I won’t finish filing until that amended return clears.)

After spending seven years dealing with a tax code that treats self-employment as something to be fined, it’s nice to get a break for it instead. But I also know that the tax code continues to favor investment income over money made from actual work, I continue to resent how it’s gamed by people with the really good accountants and tax lawyers, and I can’t ignore that the tax savings delivered by this rushed bill are paid for by running up the national debt and having the lower rates expire after 2025.

Sorry, politicians: You’re not going to be able to bribe me this way. You know what sort of new tax regime would get my interest? One that didn’t keep me wondering how much we’d owe until I’d pounded through hours of punching numbers into a tax-prep program.

Weekly output: world leaders on Facebook, Facebook phone-number privacy

This week is ending with a dubious first: I’ve had a tweet taken down in response to a groundless Digital Millennium Copyright Act request. After a couple of decades of covering digital-intellectual-property foolishness, it’s interesting to have the shoe on my own foot.

4/10/2019: Trump is 2nd most liked current world leader on Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up a study that found that America’s authoritarian president ranked behind Brazil’s authoritarian president in terms of their effectiveness at coaxing interactions out of Facebook.

USAT Facebook phone-number privacy post4/14/2019: Facebook, lose my digits: Here’s how to unlist your phone number, USA Today

I spent more than a month researching this post–by which I meant, I kept asking Facebook to answer what I thought reasonably simple questions about how it lets advertisers and other users try to look you up by a phone number you first provided as a two-step verification method. Said research finally ended with Facebook saying it would stop letting advertisers target numbers newly added for that purpose.

In case you’re wondering why it’s been a month since my last appearance at USAT, this long wait to get a straight answer out of the social network is one reason. Another is that people above my editor’s pay grade have cut back on the freelance budget–have I mentioned that this is a tough time in my industry?–and one way to deal with that for now is to run half as many pieces from me.

Front-page news worth keeping

When my wife’s alma mater ended March Madness Monday night by defeating Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to claim the University of Virginia’s first national men’s college basketball championship, I knew I had a chore the next day: stashing away part of the newspaper for safekeeping.

Old newspaper front pagesI’ve been keeping newspaper front pages and section fronts for more than 25 years now. It’s my grandparents’ fault; every time I visited Nona and Papa, I loved to flip through their collection of Plain Dealer editions, especially their copy of the paper reporting that Ohio’s Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon.

My own collection includes the following Washington Post A sections:

The front page I wish I had is one covering the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but I didn’t think to keep a copy then. The one you’re probably wondering why I don’t have is the Post’s coverage of Trump’s election–but I was on the other side of the Atlantic that Wednesday, and by the time I got home I’d decided that I did not want that reminder.

Weekly output: watching baseball online, ATSC 3.0, 5G media, CDA 230, alternative DNS, Lyft vs. Uber

My college newspaper celebrated its 50th anniversary this weekend, which both let me catch up with not enough of my long-ago colleagues and contemplate anew how important the Georgetown Voice was to this business I’ve chosen. Without all those insane (and unpaid) hours, I might have still made my way into journalism–but I wouldn’t have had four years of learning to report, write creatively but quickly, deal with frequently-brutal edits by peers, and get back to it for the next issue.

4/1/2019: Why these 6 baseball teams still won’t let you watch their games online, Yahoo Finance

For the third year in a row, I ranted about regional sports networks–yes, I very much have the Nats’ Mid-Atlantic Sports Network in mind–that still limit their distribution to traditional cable and satellite bundles instead of following cord-cutting viewers to streaming TV services.

4/2/2019: ATSC 3.0 hits the road at NAB 2019, FierceVideo

I wrote a short post for this trade publication about likely storylines at the National Association of Broadcasters’ trade show involving this next-generation broadcast-TV standard.

4/2/2019: 5G brings optimism and concern to NAB Show 2019, FierceVideo

My second NAB-show preview outlined what this conference, happening this week in Las Vegas, might have to say about media ventures built on 5G wireless.

4/3/2019: Why killing a law that shields tech companies would actually cement the dominance of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, Yahoo Finance

When I wrote this post unpacking a recent bout of criticism of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act–the statute that says online forums aren’t publishers and can’t be held liable for everything their users post–it came in at well over a thousand words. It took multiple rounds of editing to get my precious prose down to a manageable size (sound familiar, my former Voice editors?).

4/4/2019: Primer: When (and how) to dump your Internet provider’s DNS service, The Parallax

I wrote a how-to post about using such alternative domain name services as Google and Cloudflare to work around reliability and privacy issues you can run into if you stick to your Internet provider’s DNS.

4/4/2019: Lyft exec says ‘we’re a company of values’ when asked about Uber, Yahoo Finance

I wasn’t sure the lunchtime talk by Lyft public-policy chief Anthony Foxx at the Washington Auto Show Thursday would yield a story until he answered an audience question about how his employer differentiates itself from Uber with that company-of-values line. I’m not sure how many of my readers bought that self-assessment; at UberPeople.net, a forum for ride-hailing-service drivers, the reaction was distinctly cynical.

TV-shopping bookmarks for cord-cutters

I had yet another story about how to watch baseball games online this week, which meant I had yet another round of checking the sites of streaming-TV services to see which regional sports networks they carry in various places.

That should be easy, but some of these “over the top” video providers don’t let you do this right on their home page. They may not even link to the relevant channel-finder page from anyplace obvious, and in one case a channel-finder feature lurks on a tech-support page.

So I had to open last year’s version of this cord-cutting story to find all the links I’d gathered then. To save me from having to do that again, and to spare you from some extra clicking around, here are those local-channel-lookup links:

DirecTV Now

FuboTV

Hulu with Live TV

PlayStation Vue

Sling TV

YouTube TV

You’re welcome. As a bonus, two more links:

• The Streamable put together a chart showing which services carry the regional sports networks of which baseball teams, which would have saved me a ton of time in researching my own post if only I’d known about it at the time.

•  CNet’s David Katzmaier put together an enormous Google spreadsheet showing which services carry which TV networks (the big four of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC plus MyTV and the CW, with PBS stations remaining absent) in more than 200 TV markets. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since August of 2018… but I can’t blame the authors for not diving back into what must have been an exhausting effort.