Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

An update on my Forbes experiment

It’s now been a year and change I started writing about the intersection of media, policy, and technology at Forbes. It’s also been two months and change since I last published anything there.

That might look like a conclusive verdict against the experiment I started last June, but the reality is a little more nuanced. On one hand, I’ve very much enjoyed the ability to “write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy” (as I wrote last summer). On the other hand, I’ve yet to clock enough page views in a month to earn above the minimum rate.

So when I had a bunch of new work come my way starting in April, I had to decide at the start of May if I would commit to writing my monthly minimum of five posts–my arrangement doesn’t provide partial pay for posting less than that–or take a break to focus on this new business. And since I had gone months without seeing any Forbes post crack a five-digit number of page views, that was an unavoidable call for me.

My most-read story at Forbes, a post I wrote at the end of November about the strange lifeline AT&T and, to a lesser extent, Verizon provide to the hoax-soaked One America News Network, has drawn a total of 35,747 views as of today. But most have done much worse than that unspectacular total, with many failing to crack a thousand views. That’s frustrated me to no end–not least since I’ve seen pieces at other outlets do great in the same time–but at a certain point, I had to stop banging my head against that wall and direct my attention to work that didn’t have Web-traffic stats between me and my payment. 

It’s possible that the subscription paywall Forbes put in place late last year (you should see the dialog above after reading five stories at the site in a month) has made it much harder for a post to go viral there. But I’ve seen at least one friend who writes at Forbes continue to hit numbers that should earn a decent bonus. Maybe I’m just page-view Kryptonite at this client in particular?

If I am, and if I decide to call it a day for this experiment, I will have no regrets. I’ve been able to address important topics–for example, Apple’s retelling of app-distribution history, the self-owns of some senators trying to interrogate tech CEOs, Google’s abusive conduct of its display-advertising business, President Trump’s clumsy and illegal attempts to regulate social media–as I saw fit. (Thinking about that, it would have been nice to toss up a post Thursday about the lawsuit by 36 states and D.C. against Google over its control of the Play Store instead of limiting my commentary to a Twitter thread that made me no money at all.) And the effort I put into focusing on media-policy issues also made me a sharper, better-sourced reporter in that area.

Meanwhile, management at Forbes has made some smart moves–in particular, bringing on the Houston Chronicle’s former tech columnist Dwight Silverman to cover the computing industry was a great call on their part. And nobody there has told me that time’s up on my contributor gig. But I do know that July already looks shot in terms of writing bandwidth that would let me return to it.

Ten years without a real job

I have now somehow clocked a decade of self-employment, and I won’t even pretend that was the plan when my status as a Washington Post employee officially expired on April 29, 2011. At the time, I assumed I would spend not too many weeks as a gentleman of leisure, then find a place where I could resume covering the things I cared about in the world of technology.

(By which I mean, not rewriting Apple rumors.)

Photo shows a 1 and a 0 from a toddler's alphabet set, as seen resting on graph paper.

Instead, multiple places found me, offering freelance rates that were good enough to convince me to try self-employment. It seems that my sudden and surprising appearance on the market represented unintentional, effective positioning on my part; my least-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a column at a major American newspaper, then have the paper kick you to the curb when nobody expects it.”

I also didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to start freelancing by having two different clients commit to pay for a set amount of work each month at an above-market rate. My gigs at Discovery News and the Consumer Electronics Association eventually went away–there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client–but they allowed me to figure out the basics of indie existence without stressing over each month’s income.

They also let me start seeing what I’d missed at the events that had never been in the cards for me at the Post–like SXSW, MWC and the Online News Association’s annual gathering–and begin to develop my own sideline as a conference speaker.

I have learned an enormous amount about the self-employed existence since then–battering my way to marginal competence at accounting, struggling with parallel editor-relationship management, booking travel on my own criteria and then optimizing it, time-slicing workdays to get chores like a Costco run done faster than salaried folks can manage, and bringing a certain equanimity to fluctuating cash flow. (My actually-useful advice to new freelancers is “have a spouse with a real job.”) Some years have been much better than others, while last year was much worse than the rest. Marching on as a freelance writer through a global pandemic even as friends have fled the business is one of the harder things I’ve had to do in my career–but the important thing is that I persisted, and now business is picking up and I can even look forward to once again traveling for work.

Ten years and 87 1099 tax forms later (I may be missing a few in that count), I still think I’ve been pretty lucky in this ongoing chapter of my professional life. I’ve never had a client fail to pay me; while I have had to nag a few for several months for a payment, my single longest wait happened because I forgot to invoice the client. I have covered stories and gone to parts of the world that probably would have remained daydream material had I somehow stayed on my old path. And since April of 2011, no one company has ever been in a position to put me out of business. That means a lot.

Okay, so I am on Patreon now

I launched a Patreon page Monday night, and as I write this, it’s attracted zero supporters. Which means it’s performing as expected—this post is my first attempt to publicize my experiment at this crowdfunding site.

I’ve been thinking of experimenting there since having more than a few people at the XOXO conference in Portland last October suggest I try it myself. Spending too much time checking out how creative types I trust use Patreon and some conversations with two of them (thanks, Glenn Fleishman and Mike Masnick) advanced those thoughts further.

But it took an expiration date to get me to proceed—11:59 a.m. Monday was my last shot at launching a page under more favorable terms than those now on offer under Patreon’s tiered membership structure.

I am cautiously optimistic about how my page could work. I think the value proposition I offer—depending on what tier you pay for, you get content not available elsewhere and, more important, increasing access to my time—is both a fair trade and a reasonable way for me to monetize the scarcest thing in my daily routine, my attention. I also like the idea of having a bit of a sandbox to play in; while I’ve committed to write some patron-only posts and set up a Slack channel, maybe I’ll try doing short podcasts there? There’s nobody to stop me.

But it’s also possible that nobody will support me, and that other people will then point and laugh. That might be chickenshit of them. But it would certainly be chickenshit of me not to try this, not when there are so many things going wrong with the business of journalism.

My own business seems fundamentally sound—at least compared to the cratering existence Jacob Silverman describes in a soul-crushing article at the New Republic. But there’s no such thing as a permanent freelance client, and I would very much like to be less beholden to the tastes, schedules and budgets of my various editors.

So if what I have on offer to patrons strikes you as a good deal, I would very much appreciate your support. And maybe if everything goes well, this new venture will at least make enough to recoup the cost of the XOXO trip that lodged this foolish idea in my head.

2018 in review: security-minded

I spent more time writing about information-security issues in 2018 than in any prior year, which is only fair when I think about the security angles I and many of other people missed in prior years.

Exploring these issues made me realize how fascinating infosec is as a field of study–interface design, business models, human psychology and human villainy all intersect in this area. Plus, there’s real market demand for writing on this topic.

2018 calendarI did much of this writing for Yahoo, but I also picked up a new client that let me get into the weeds on security issues. Well after two friends had separately suggested I start writing for The Parallax–and after an e-mail or two to founder Seth Rosenblatt had gone unanswered–I spotted Seth at the Google I/O press lounge, introduced myself, and came home with a couple of story assignments.

(Lesson re-learned: Sometimes, the biggest ROI from going to conference consists of the business-development conversations you have there.)

Having this extra outlet helped diversify my income, especially during a few months when too many story pitches elsewhere suffered from poor product-market fit. My top priority for 2019 is further diversification: The Parallax is funded by a single sponsor, the Avast security-software firm, which on one hand frees it from the frailty of conventional online advertising but on the other leaves it somewhat brittle.

I’d also like to speak more often at conferences. Despite being half-terrified of public speaking in high school, I’ve become pretty good at what think of as the performance art of journalism. This took me some fun places in 2018, including my overdue introduction to Toronto. (See after the jump for a map of my business travel.)

My focus on online security and privacy extended to my own affairs. In 2018, I made Firefox my default browser and set its default search to DuckDuckGo, cut back on Facebook’s access to my data, and disabled SMS two-step verification on my most important accounts in favor of app or U2F security-key authentication.

At Yahoo, it’s now been more than five years since my first byline there–and with David Pogue’s November departure to return to the New York Times, I’m the last original Yahoo Tech columnist still writing for Yahoo. My streak is even longer at USA Today, where I just hit my seventh anniversary of writing for the site (and sometimes the paper). Permanence of any sort is not a given in freelance journalism, and I appreciate that these two places have not gotten bored with me.

I also appreciate or at least hope that you reading this haven’t gotten bored with me. I’d like to think this short list of my favorite work of 2018 had something to do with that.

Thanks for reading; please keep doing so in 2019.

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Three ways to track freelance income–none of which may be right

My work for this year isn’t done, but my income almost is. One client’s payment arrived today (having that happen less than three weeks after invoicing ranks as a Christmas miracle), another has told me to expect a direct deposit next week, and that’s all the positive cash flow I’m expecting for 2018.

Nearing that taxation-and-accounting finish line has me thinking once again of how I try to keep track of what I’m making throughout the year. I have three different models for this, and each can be wrong in their own ways.

What I file in a month: This approach has has the advantage of focusing on the one thing I can control the most. But a lot can happen after I file my copy, by which I mean it can go through a prolonged edit that pushes back completion of the work by weeks.

Or by months: An editor’s departure at one site earlier this year left a post collecting dust for several weeks until one of his now-overworked colleagues could tend to it between other tasks.

What I invoice in a month: Sending in the form itemizing your work and requesting payment has a pleasing finality, but not everybody sends the direct deposit or the check on the same timetable. Thirty days is typical, but USA Today and Wirecutter usually beat that number by at least a couple of weeks (having two of America’s largest newspapers turn around a payment that quickly continues to amaze me). Sometimes the same client’s payments arrive on wildly varying schedules for no apparent reason.

Last year, I also had a client reject an invoice because of a glitch with the bank deposit information I’d provided, and because the parent firm of this site picked an invoicing system for its fundamental meanness, I had to start the invoicing process for that story from scratch. Fortunately, I’ve not yet had to send more than a few nagging e-mails to get a invoice paid out, which is not a given in this line of work.

What I get paid in a month: There’s no arguing with the numbers on a bank statement, but this can often be a fake metric because it reflects work done months later. And for every month where a round of overdue payments finally land and make me look like a business genius, there’s going to be another where a couple of invoices get processed just late enough to have that money hit my account not on the 29th or the 30th but on the 1st or the 2nd of the following month.

As it happens, it looks like I’ll get a reasonably large deposit from one site early next month. I’ll try not to let that cash flow get to my head… because I really thought I would have seen a chunk of that change by now.

How I inspect laptops at tech events

BERLIN–I’ve spent the last three days here at the IFA tech trade show poking and prodding at new laptops to see if they might be worth your money. That inspection has gotten more complicated in recent years, thanks to some new features I welcome and a few others I could do without.

The following are the traits I now look for after such obvious items as weight, screen size, if that screen is the rare Windows laptop display that doesn’t respond to touch, advertised battery life, storage, memory and overall apparent sturdiness.

Acer Swift 7 close-up

  • Screen resolution: On smaller screens, 4K resolution eats into battery life without making a meaningful difference in picture quality–from most viewing distances, you can’t even see the pixels on a 1080p laptop screen anyway.
  • USB-C charging: Now that I have a laptop and a phone that can both use the same charger, I never want to go back to needing a proprietary power cable for a computer. You shouldn’t either.
  • USB ports: Laptops that only include USB-C ports can be thinner than those with full-sized USB ports, but I’m willing to accept a little bulk to avoid having to pop in an adapter for older USB cables or peripherals.
  • Other expansion options: For people who still use standalone cameras, SD or microSD Card slots will ease data transfer. I also look for HDMI ports, which ease plugging the laptop into a TV. (Since my own laptop doesn’t have one of those: Anybody have a recommendation for a USB-C-to-HDMI cable?) And now that I’ve seen a laptop here without a headphone jack, I need to confirm that audio output’s presence too.
  • Backlit keyboard: Typing without one in a darkened hall is no fun. While I’m looking for that, I’ll also see if the trackpad is governed by Microsoft’s simple Precision Touchpad control or janky third-party software.
  • Webcam placement: Some laptops stash the webcam not at the top of the screen but below it, which leaves video callers stuck with an up-the-nostril perspective of the laptop user.
  • Windows Hello: Fingerprint-recognition sensors are cheap, while having to type in a password or PIN every time you log in imposes its own tax on your time. I’m not so doctrinaire about Windows Hello facial recognition if fingerprint recognition is there.

This list is a little involved, but on the upside I no longer have to worry about things like WiFi or serial ports. So now that you know what I fuss over when inspecting laptops at tech events like this, what else should I be looking for on each new computer?

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…

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.

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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