Contributing Editor at Inc Magazine. Also writes for Fox News, Wired.com, Popular Mechanics, Mental Floss, Grapefruit Dieting Today, Cats Suck Journal, and several other fine outlets. Oh, and this blog.
Journalism is hard work. As technology writers, we're hard-pressed to pound out one article after another on a daily basis, stressed out by deadlines and editorial demands. When we are not eating free muffins at press functions and making up bad Steve Ballmer jokes, we also have families to support and coffee addictions to fuel (I went to Starbucks 14 times just today).
So, I’m writing to see if you can make my life a little easier. See, I know you said I’m “on the list” to receive my own pair of Google Glass. I know what that really means. It’s secret code for you suck and don’t even think about ever seeing this product – like, ever. But I have decided not to accept that eternal fate as prescribed by you. And to prove to you I have not accepted that fate, here are a few reasons I’d be a great Google Glass candidate.
1. I’m God
Seriously, it would be handy to have a pair. You know, since I’m the Creator of the Universe and all. Think about it: if I decide to record a miracle or move a mountain from one continent to another, that would be a pretty cool thing to see on Google+. (It might even help you capture more than the market share equivalent of Rhode Island.) If you don’t have a fresh pair of Glasses, can I at least get the ones from Robert Scoble when he’s done?
2. I promise not to wear them in the bathroom
TMI on that one
3. I can turn invisible at will
This could really help with privacy issues. It might seem a little odd when I walk into Starbucks and there’s a pair of Google Glass floating in the air, but that’s not my problem. Think about the possibilities here: I can test Glass in senate chambers, at back-hall labor negotiations, during secret FBI meetings, and at the front entrance of Google HQ. (Keep cracking that whip! Last time I was there, I had to give you a blood sample and take a polygraph to get in.)
4. I’m holding a Chromebook Pixel hostage
You sent me the Pixel, which in hindsight might have been a bad idea. I’m holding it hostage, keeping it charged (but just barely), connected to the Internet, and with Google on the home page. I sometimes turn the brightness on the screen way down, which can be quite painful. Warning: If I don’t get a pair of Glasses, I might switch the home page to Bing.com.
5. I have three eyes
This could be a good test of customization.
6. I can cross over to the multiverse
Have you seen that show Fringe? That’s me. I’m living it. I can switch over to the Other Epoch of Time at will, snap a few photos, see if the Super-Secret Organization That Controls All Things (aka Krispy Kreme Doughnuts) notices me wearing them, and record some vids. I can let you know if Glass makes it through the time-warp machine AND the washing machine.
7. I have close personal friends who are Borg
You get used to the pasty white skin after a while. Hey, Borg are people too! (Actually, I think they might be aliens, but let’s move on.) Sure, they are physically connected to a computer and tend to drool incessantly, which is annoying. But, they made wearable computing fashionable long before anyone else did, mostly during their conquest of the universe. Next time we’re sitting around watching the game or having a tacofest, I’ll see if I fit in.
8. I get 14 million e-mails and texts per day
I figure this might be a good way to test whether Google Glass can keep up with my daily influx. Hey, missed that one there, huh dude? Oops, forgot to show that one on the big old HUD again, eh sport? I get so many e-mails per day that Gmail sometimes pops up a message that says – hang on there, we need to open another data center in Iowa for you. Just one of my kids texting me for a ride constantly could potentially turn Glass into a whimpering idiot.
9. I have a cat
Seriously, and he does some crazy antics worth streaming live on the Web for everyone to see. Once, he started building a Lego set with his paws. He has untangled fishing line. He can speak Spanish.
10. I’m multilingual
Not sure how much you are testing this, but I can speak Minnesotan AND regular English. My son-in-law is from Austria, so he can try them out with a German accent. I also occasionally speak to a Wal-Mart check-out clerk who is fluent in Ancient Egyptian. If you need some extra feedback, I can also SPEAK IN ALL CAPs or with a really low voice. I can say every command in screamo or like President Obama. Or, how 'bout this one man: with a California accent.
A few people have asked me over the years, how do I test so much stuff? As a tech reporter since 2001, and a ventriloquist for a traveling circus before that (not really), I have become quite adept at filling out online forms for FedEx return shipments, stacking boxes in a wonderful cubical arrangement so they do not tip over, and drinking coffee. In my spare time, when I am not whipping out a box-cutter like Batman in a dark alleyway, I sit at a computer and read Gizmodo articles while pretending to work so my wife thinks I’m busy.
Sometimes, when I get really bored reading about the survival gear Bigfoot would use on an Alaskan expedition or how amateur photo sleuths are total morons, I write about gadgets. This week, I covered the connected car of the future while simultaneously researching the early recordings of The Flaming Lips and eating a bunch of low-salt nuts at my desk. (You do not want to buy a keyboard from me on eBay under any circumstances.)
But I thought I would take you deeper inside the bubble. It’s a place of wonder and mystery, like stepping into an alternative universe, aka McDonalds. We’ll take a quick scan around my home office where the magic happens, visit the mud room, and even walk out into the yard. I only ask that you take your shoes off first and: please, absolutely no flatulence of any kind.
1. Home office
I spend most of my time here. There’s a feeding tube that comes down from the kitchen, which I slurp on in between frantic typing sessions. (By the way, I am saying “typing sessions” instead of “writing sessions” because I usually have no idea what I am trying to say on first pass. Honestly, it’s mostly gibberish. Think: President Obama without a teleprompter.) There was this one time when the Herman Miller company said they were going to send me an Aeron chair to test out, but that did not pan out, so I am rocking a Wal-Mart no-name brand. As most of you know, I’m deeply in love with this Chromebook Pixel loaner, so I have it connected to an external monitor (testing), speakers (testing), keyboard (testing), and mouse (testing). The monitor is sitting on a plush leather desk mat (testing). I do own the desk – so I got that going for me.
2. Living room
Most of you probably have a living room where you enjoy time with the family, catch a movie, or relax after a long day. Mine is a rat’s nest of cables and gadgets. Seriously, it’s wonderfully cluttered. This might be hard to believe, but all of the gear has a distinct purpose. I just finished reviewing the DISH Hopper (or, as we like to say around my house even though we’re Minnesotan, the Hoppa), so that’s sitting on the floor waiting to be packed up. I have some amazing Boston Acoustics speakers, a Denon stereo, and a large box of Frosted Flakes cereal sitting on a TV stand.
Not much here except food and my own kitchen equipment. There are times when I get in a coffee-maker to test, which is like winning the lottery and solving world peace in the same day. There’s also some good news involving Whirlpool that I can’t share with you (crap, just did). In retrospect, the kitchen is a bit of an untapped area for me as a journalist, and not just because I’m completely inept at anything involving food except eating it. There is a long list of things I have not tested here: no microwaves, no refrigerators, no blenders. Ironically, it is usually the first place I start unpacking things like routers, smartphones, and my Chipotle dinner.
The fun starts and ends here. For some of you who have sent me stuff, it mostly ends, sorry about that. I store all of my boxes in this deep cavern of eternity, waiting for the day when I finally get fourteen seconds to send back a laptop or, say, a large kitchen appliance. And you thought the living room I described earlier was cluttered! This room is Total Chaos. There are people who have gone back into the mud room and shown up, more than a little confused, at the local mall. It’s like a vortex of time with better lighting. But, it is also highly organized. Somehow, I know exactly why each and every box is in here and from whence it came. But that BLT sandwich? Oops. Forgot that was in here.
You know the mudroom I just mentioned where a bunch of boxes I keep in long-term storage are waiting for the day when I finally pack them up? Yeah, so the garage is the overflow. I know that sounds sort of ridiculous, but I tend to get a lot of stuff. There’s a grill that just came in, waiting for the day in Minnesota when it is finally not winter. I have a few tools in from Sears. Oh, and a Buick.
Ah, this is my second office. I live in the country and do a fair amount of off-road vehicle testing. It’s one of the favorite things I do. I tested a Polaris Indy snowmobile a few weeks ago and plan to get busy with a Yamaha Grizzly ATV soon. There’s a pond in front of our house where I might test a kayak at some point in the future (does anyone make one that absolutely will not sink?). I also have big plans for a small plot of land behind a fence (garden) and I may even construct a small home for myself, depending on whether the rest of the people living here put up with all of the stupid gadgets. And, who knows? There’s even a farm field. Maybe I’ll get a tractor in. John Deere, you have been warned.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m the brother of the lead singer in the alt-rock band The National. He has a beard, I have a beard. (Well, sometimes. And by “sometimes” I mean often.) He has made a movie about how he went on tour as an assistant tour manager. I feel like I’m also a bystander, covering things with a casual bipartisan interest. We’re both members of the crowd, linked in an inextricable way to something famous and unattainable.
Just today I talked to an engineer from a company called Detroit Electric. It’s not a utility. They’re making a sports car that can go 190 miles on a charge, which is like having an expensive (and drive-able) smartphone. Brilliance reveals itself in short phrases. The engineer had The Bill Gates Pause where you can almost see neurons connecting inside his head, processing a millions things but only giving you a snippet. They pause because, like God, if they gave us everything at once we would die.
I understand how the brother of the guy in The National feels. You’re sidelined while the superstar gets the attention. The band, quite curiously, has two sets of brothers and then the lead singer. When I read on Pitchfork that the lead singer fully understands he’s the only one with a brother not in the band, I felt a strong pang of recognition. (I will tell you the story of my own brother someday, but it won’t be sarcastic in any way.)
Journalism is about revealing greatness. As writers, we’re not creating as much as divulging. We stand in front of the open window of innovation and say, see – here is a ticket to bountiful.
I went to an event in Las Vegas not long ago where this became strikingly clear. We all struggle with a desire to be famous – that’s why Facebook exists. We have something to say, and we feel other people would be interested in hearing it. I suppose this is what it means to be human, e.g., expressing a desire to be heard. As the film critic Roger Ebert, recently passed, once said: we all have a desire for someone to document us.
The invitation to the event made me think my attendance was a matter of solemn duty. My presence was requested.
I showed up with a friend of mine, perennially positioned as my photographer. We greeted the host and found our place. Within a few minutes, the host said there was someone she wanted me to meet. I told my friend, grab your camera. We chit-chatted for awhile, and – being incapable of being anything but inquisitive, I started asking questions. “Ah, yes. I bet that was a memorable experience.” I jotted down a few notes, then felt a soft tap.
Someone else needed by attention. I felt a glint of import. I rattled through a few more questions; we snapped a few more pictures. Then it hit me. I had not been invited to partake of the event. I had been invited to cover the partakers. I was there to make sure the invited guests felt invited. I was the person doing the covering; I was not the covered.
This can be a difficult role. There is power in the selection process, but it is a limited power. Once, at a car event in LA, I started asking questions about a new model coming out from Nissan. The engineer could tell when I was asking questions that could help him. It was a seven passenger model, something like a minivan but not as ridiculous. So I asked about safety, and legroom, and surround-sound. Then I switched gears. I asked about the molding on the side, the carbon fiber accents – the inner-workings. I had strayed off message. Owing to my penchant to explore something until it is no longer explorable, I had (excuse the pun) driven too far away from the landing site. He cut me off and moved on.
Why is that? Because there is a role to play. In tech journalism in particular, we are not uncovering a secret slavery operation in Congo. We’re not wiretapping for a drug ring. It’s one shiny object after another, strung up on URLs like Christmas lights for a season, only to be removed and replaced by other shiny objects. Make it too ornate and people get confused.
I guess that’s why I do this blog. Granted, part of it is that I can be wholly unedited. There’s freedom in knowing I am not covering anything. At the same time, it is a way to combat the impertinence of reviewing yet another inkjet printer. You can only say so many things about toner cartridges, although I hear Brother International has some big news on that front.
Journalism is an ancient profession dating back to the early heliomongrel days. (I made that word up, but it sounds old. Also, vaguely veterinarian.) Reporters tapped out articles using a stone tablet, which meant editors did not exist (air five, anyone?). Thankfully, as professions go, journalism has progressed to where it can now serve as an adequate form of income and not just an opportunity for people to flog you or hang you on a pole outside of their hut for making an error.
Still, for anyone new to the field, things can be a little daunting. Let's say you have just registered for a blog. Now what? Do you buy a fedora and a spiral notebook? (No.) Do you start pelting Apple with e-mails asking if you can test an iPad? (Please don't.) Do you take a speed-typing class so you can blog every 14 seconds about inane subjects? (Not really, but apparently people have done that.) It's often hard to know exactly what you should do first – or second, after you have bought a MacBook.
I'm a big believer in mentoring, and by “big” I mean I have had too many tacos. Over the years, I have tried to aid the burgeoning career of young writers, mostly by telling them how incredibly difficult it is to get Apple to respond to my e-mails. I will admit I sometimes make up random tips to see if they have any discernment or wherewithal.
“Wait outside the office of the Microsoft PR organization. Pick out the oldest person in the group after they get done with a meeting, and slip them some money to see if they will tell you anything about the next version of Windows. Also, pant heavily even if you are not out of breath.”
A few have been arrested using this tactic. Some are still in prison.
I don't claim to be an expert in the field. I think the Columbia Journalism Review is a gadget blog. Last week, I tried to explain what I do in professional terms to someone who was interested in getting a job at a nationally-known magazine or world-famous newspaper.
“I keep FedEx busy,” I said.
“In the last month, I purposefully tried to run a snowmobile out of gas to see whether the gauge was accurate, then I installed a thermostat in my hallway. One of my editors asked me to wear nail polish to test a laser keyboard for accuracy and to see if it reacted more to skin tone or finger movement (thankfully, my wife did that test). I wrote a review of the new Vampire Weekend. I played ping-pong with my son. He won.”
“I'm a professional router installer. My side job is writing about them.”
“I'm a whiz at processing e-mail.”
Shaking his head, he walked away with a look that would make the expression “deer-in-the-headlights” offensive to deer. He's now planning for a future in social work or the legal profession.
But I'm here to help where I can. So I have decided to make a list of the tools you need if you have just started out in this wonderful line of work.
1. A good nail clipper
As Gandalf would say, keep them tidy, keep them trim. (I mean if he was talking about fingernails, not the the Ring of Power.) Amazingly, if you do trim your fingernails on a regular basis, you will find you can type faster and more accurately.
2. Extra seat cushions
They comes in handy. See, you will be sitting for long periods of time. Think: months. I have not moved from my chair since 2004. Once, when I was at the airport with my wife, I overheard a marketing executive describe to a colleague what it would be like to speak at an upcoming conference. He had two pieces of advice. First, he said, make sure you lead off with a joke. Second, speak loudly because most of the journalists are fat, tired, and old. I thought, my gosh he nailed it.
I have been known to beg for free coffee on Twitter. I have even named specific brands. It is really more like a jet fuel for the mind, an elixir to stir up the mind and promote creativity. If you do not already drink coffee, please consider the field of law enforcement or retail sales.
They kind of go with the coffee, right? In just about every movie I've ever scene where there is a journalist involved there is almost always a donut co-star. You'll be working late at night, wishing you were doing some sort of investigative bio or uncovering a secret criminal conspiracy and not live-blogging a Samsung event. Donuts help.
5. A time machine
These help with deadlines. Check with Iran, they just invented one.
This is one of your most indispensable tools. There are millions of people involved with the site and they all have advanced degrees, at least if you consider “having a Gmail account” an advanced degree. Some of this encyclopedia is accurate. Part of the joy of using it is discovering what was written by a professional ghost writer on behalf of the profile subject and what was written by a monkey with a good spell checker.
8. A dictionary
Spelling is kind of importent.
9. A large mirror
A like to keep one of these so I can check and see if I'm still breathing. Yup, we're good. Pressed up against a tight deadline, like a baboon with his face plastered against a glass wall, I like to check and see if all the blood has drained out of my head. Once, I was working so late and typing so fast, I didn't notice I had fallen asleep. When I woke up, the article I was working on was better than most of the stuff I do when I'm awake.
10. Sigur Rós
I hate to think of this Icelandic band as a “tool” – especially when there's another band with that name. But having a droning percussive ambient rock band handy is good for your productivity level. Also, they sing in gibberish so it's not distracting like, say, punk rock or Bob Dylan.
“I will do anything for love, but I won't do that.” - Meatloaf
Yes, I have resorted to leading off with a Meatloaf quote. This not only cheapens the quality of this fine blog but also makes me hungry. But, before you complain too much or mumble to yourself about how lame that is, please note: there is a method to this madness. Mostly, it is to keep me from getting bored. Also, I'm secretly hinting to my wife that meatloaf might make a good dinner entrée. (Home by 7 honey!)
So, instead of writing a review, I've decided to list just some of the things the new Chromebook Pixel won't do. But first, a little backstory. The Chromebook Pixel ($1299) is a marvel of engineering. It has a responsive high-res touchscreen (check), an elegant machined-aluminum chassis (check), a speedy processor (check), and Google (check).
Unless you're a glutton for punishment (e.g., Windows 8), the Pixel is everything anyone would ever want in a touchscreen laptop and thensome. (It's so awesome, I've invented the word thensome just for this post.) But it won't do everything. And to prove it won't do everything, I have decided to make up a few things it won't do.
1. Pretend to be a hot plate
I've tried this one, believe me. The steps are fairly straightforward. You login with your Google password, then set the laptop on a hot driveway for about seven hours. My test results: Initially, I was getting some bubbling with eggs and my toast felt warm, then – nothing. I don't mind some of the cracks, and I don't think Google PR will either. (E-mail me if you can get yours to work like a hot plate, but I think the aluminum chassis might be designed only for warming up Pop Tarts and egg rolls.)
2. Run the original version of Doom
I have also tried this. It's the first thing I did after the hot plate test. Now, for the naysayers out there (comments are disabled just for you!): I realize there are gaming portals that let you run Doom illegally in a browser. That's like reading the new Al Gore book as a stolen PDF: boring and wrong. I'm talking about installing Doom from my original floppy disks. I'm not sure when I felt the most remorse: when I realized there wasn't a floppy disk drive or when I realized no one knows what that is.
3. Perform surgery on a human
The Chromebook Pixel cannot perform surgery. While this is probably a good thing, you should know some of the limitations before you purchase one. You might be thinking: I have decided to buy a laptop that performs surgery. The Chromebook is not for you, seek medical help. Or maybe it's a relief knowing this limbless Linux derivative (you did know Chrome is a derivative of Linux, right? I mean, right?) is not perfect. That should not be a barrier to entry. Not having a functioning appendix, that definitely is.
5. Telling you jokes and puns in a quirky robotic voice
I used to think this is important, back when I had a closer relationship with Apple Siri. We've grown distant latley. I now have a new artificial friend named Google Now. But does Google Now work on the Chromebook Pixel? Not really. (Post in comments if it actually does let you use Google Now. Wait, I forgot – comments are disabled!)
6. Stargazing on a clear night with someone you love
One of the delineating features of the original Android smartphones was that you could hold the little sucker up to the night sky and see star constellations. I mean, wonder of wonders! This feature alone made me question my iPhone purchasing habits. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any way to do this with the Chromebook Pixel. You can use one to block the sun on your morning commute, though. I have already let Google know the whole Chromebook stargazing thing would be cool.
7. Solving world peace
The Chromebook will not solve world peace. I feel that's a little less critical than the Photoshop problem I mentioned above.
8. Connecting pretty much anything by USB
Okay, harsh! But there's this pesky problem that is worth mentioning to anyone who is confused: the Chromebook Pixel does not run Windows. I need to let that sink in a little. Wait for it. Okay – also, since the Chromebook does not run Windows, it does not run Windows drivers. So let's say you own some amazing USB recording equipment and want to make an album. Or let's say you have a fancy USB telephone system for your office. Or, anything USB-related. Good news: you can warm up your toast! (Disclaimer: Many printers, webcams, and toasters do work.)
9. Performing data-intensive experiments related to nuclear fission
Actually, it can do that.
10. Developing a complex Web site using Windows software
You remember that point I made about USB drivers? I know you're still coming to grips with that. More bad news for you: a Chromebook Pixel cannot run complex Windows desktop programming software. Like, none. It does work perfectly fine for Joomla, WordPress development, most Java programming, some mild cooking, and recording cat videos.
That's why God created Windows 8 laptops.
12. Chatting over Apple's Facetime app
I know! I was surprised by this one, too. No Apple Facetime app at all. I repeat: Nada on Facetime. There's a perfectly good webcam, too. If you try to do anything related to Facetime you just get a blank stare/screen. The webcam is only good for taking photos of kittens. Oh, and for stargazing in real-time once Google gets my message about that.
14. Microsoft Office, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote
Okay, like anyone really takes OneNote seriously. And, technically speaking, there are Google equivalents. Also, if you really need to use Word, you can use the Chrome Remote Desktop app and tap into a Windows computer. Or move on in life. Or dictate documents using Google Keep in 20-second intervals. Or write them by hand.
15. Time travel
I had high expectations for this one. I thought, hey – maybe the Chromebook Pixel does time travel? Or maybe it can tap into the multiverse? That would make up for the whole USB driver problem or the Photoshop issues I mentioned (twice). But the Chromebook Pixel does not do time travel or the multiverse quite yet. You can do experiments in nuclear fission, program complex Web sites, chat over pretty much everything except Facetime, warm your toast, and record a document by voice in 20-second intervals. Oh, and type up sardonic blog posts.
“We've already been featured in top media outlets.”
Those are the famous last words I received in an e-mail today.
In some ways, it's like telling a police officer you've already received enough speeding tickets. Or, explaining to your doctor you've already performed surgery on yourself.
In other words, it's not the most effective way to deal with the media.
There's a short phrase we like to use which is sort of a secret handshake in the field of journalism: the hands-on test. I might say hands-on when I need to see the thing in person. You make a widget, and I need to see if the widget does what it's supposed to do. There's a check and balance at play here. (Eventually, there's also a check.)
As journalists, we're often paid to find out, on behalf of a customer, if something really works. We're sort of a silent oracle, the space between two realities. (Some of us take up a bigger space than others.)
Say you've invented a dog collar that connects to a transmitter in your kitchen. You say little Fido won't run beyond a certain distance. I want to believe you, I really do. Something deep inside of me yearns to trust complete strangers by e-mail. And, I'm not so attached to my FedEx driver that I need to see her everyday, unless the delivery involves chocolate or coffee. In a few cases, a box cutter has turned on me, which is one of the few work injuries in my field that makes me nervous.
The thing is, in almost every instance, we have to see the thing. We have to flip open the cover and look inside. We have to see the innards. Once we strap on the collar to little Fido and send him on his merry way and see that he will not be run over by a train or a food cart because of your app, we will be more than happy to write some glowing and solicitous prose about it. We'll be earnest. But looking at a picture and some text on the Web does not help. Fido deserves a lot better than that, doesn't he?
After 12 years as a writer, I've seen quite a few interesting reactions to my product requests. Of course, it all starts with the Apple response: no. Then there's the Microsoft response, which adds some flair: unfortunately, no. Or, there's the response I half expect these days: the product is not available for testing yet. And, I get that. These things take time. Greatness is not easy. Still, I get a little confused (and constipated!) when I find out 400 other journalists have posted reviews about the product already. But maybe they are in a different epoch of time? Maybe there's an alternate universe where the product is in wonderful abundance?
For most of these requests, we're just doing our job. We're being oracles.
I'll tell you one of my favorite stories, which is almost completely true. There was a mystery tablet from a major tech company once. (I won't give you any specifics about it other than to say the letters of this company start with H and P.) Things were pretty hush-hush, what with those folks at Gizmodo on the hunt for unreleased stuff. There were coded messages, whispers in dark alleys. Finally, someone admitted there was going to be a tablet, and it was going to be kind of similar to the Palm OS phone.
I used every tactic in the book: I will sign an NDA, I promise not to tell Gizmodo, I will sign in blood and offer my life in servitude if I break my silence. None of that worked, although I think the representative from this super-secret company was intrigued by the servitude bit. Eventually, the answer was no and it was always going to be no.
Then my editor got involved.
Within a few minutes, another e-mail arrived. “Why, we found one right under the desk here!” Apparently, everyone in the office of this mysterious company (codenamed H and P, shhh) was pleasantly surprised when they found it hiding under that desk. They all smiled and laughed. “We will get this packaged up for ya right away and ship that off pronto!”
In all honesty, I felt a little conned, specifically by the “hey we found one right here under the desk” trick. Part of me knows they were probably in short supply. But, part of me also thinks there are those who work in shipping departments who are standing right in front of 14 product boxes typing a message on an iPad that says they don't have any.
But this all leads me to the most flummoxing response of all: we already have enough coverage. Isn't that like saying we already have enough money? Or we already have enough precious jewels? Or we already have enough gold bars? Or maybe – we already have enough endorsements by famous supermodels? Oh, we would be interested in that coverage but we already have like a billion dollars because of the Gizmodo write-up. We can't take any more money because our bank is not big enough.
I'm probably missing something here. I know that selling too many products can be a problem. Which, thankfully, is one of the few things that BlackBerry doesn't have to worry about. But isn't all press coverage good press coverage? Putting this stuff into the hands of a journalist is a good thing, depending on the cleanliness of the journalist? I'm not saying just mail stuff out willy-nilly to anyone who has a WordPress account. That would not be wise, and would also involve the phrase willy-nilly (lame!).
But there is never really enough major media coverage. There's Apple and there is everyone else. (Lately, even Apple has been happy for the coverage.) At the end of the day, this is just a happy exchange of goods and services. Some guy in Minnesota tests your stuff. It's not that complicated. The customer is the ultimate winner. And, poor little Fido.
No, really. What is it? Where is it going? How has it changed? Why am I asking so many questions? How many questions in a lead are too many and get annoying after a while?
I was asking myself these questions today, trying to write an amazing and detailed account of video game character development. (Actually, I didn’t really ask any of those questions, but I did have a BLT for lunch. Also, I’m lying about the amazing part. To be honest, it’s only mildly amazing.)
I don’t think journalism has changed at all, though. I think it has stayed the same for eons. And I don’t think it ever will change. You find a source, get them to say stuff, and make it interesting. Or, you get something in the mail, test it, and then say what you think. If there is anything else beyond this, I’m not sure what it is. Maybe having a FedEx account?
Some insist journalism is changing. They usually point to citizen journalists. For the record, I know a few citizen journalists. They are smart and perceptive. Also, they have smartphones. But there’s a difference between someone who happens to be near a bridge when it collapses and someone who is doing journalism. It’s a bit like the difference between someone who drives a car to work and someone who drives a car professionally. Both have a car. They drive it in a different way.
To me, it doesn’t matter if you are on a personal blog like this one, doing a feature for Men's Journal, writing for Gizmodo, or doing a review for the Largest News Organization in the World (also Gizmodo), the basic process is the same. For the young’uns out there, you do need a good digital recorder. Take notes. Make sure you fact-check your stuff or you will look stupid. The massive cornucopia of product opinion on the Web, aka Amazon reviews, does not qualify as journalism. I’m sorry if you feel it does, but no one has a degree in Amazon reviews. For those who do feel an Amazon review is journalism, please try performing a surgical procedure on your arm and then compare the results to what a doctor can do. I will wait here for when you are done. Please use anesthésia.
See, they are a little different, right? Kinda night and day?
Now, when I first started out in the field, in 2001, I thought there was something mystical about this job. I pictured myself looking like Indiana Jones hunting through the Congo, trying to find a smuggling ring or King Kong (or a King Kong smuggling ring). I’d fly in on a chartered jet, meet with the local tribal leaders, try not to get rolled over by a big rock, and furiously type up my groundbreaking story on a typewriter.
Well, I gave up on that dream a little. The truth is a little less glamorous and doesn’t pay as well. Not that I don’t have big aspirations to visit the Congo and break a major story. I might even stop saying “the” Congo and call it Congo. Maybe I will explore some war-torn villa and uncover a secret mining operation, aka the plot to that other Indiana Jones movie. There is always a burning desire to uncover a new lead. But I don’t think I care as much about “the big story” or being recognized for doing it.
While I’m thinking about my career, I thought I'd share a few highlights from the past 12 years. (Not all of them have to do with getting paid.)
The time I interviewed Lara Croft. Actually, this happened on Tuesday, so it's still fresh on my mind. But it sure beats interviewing an enterprise security expert. (No offense if you are one. If Lara Croft was an enterprise security expert, we would all live more comfortably and safely.)
Hanging out with 50 Cent. But you know about that one.
An hour-long chat with Buzz Aldrin. I think we were talking about space junk or a one-way mission to Mars (or both). I can’t remember if he was a fan of the one-way idea, but when I suggested a few people we could send, we had a good laugh at their expense. (Sorry Bieb and Al Gore.)
First time visiting Google HQ. I am pretty sure there was a shining aura around the place, a mystical hum, a ring of angels protecting the premises (and carrying iPads). My first contact with anyone at Google happened to be the main visionary behind Gmail. I can’t remember his name – maybe he works on Outlook.com now – but I do remember he is the first person who ever told me about Gmail labels. So the person who invented Gmail labels told me about Gmail labels. Cool, huh? That’s like the person who invented food giving me my first Burrito El Grande or my first milkshake.
First car test. Some of you know I test cars. There is nothing quite like having one delivered to your door, and I think everyone should have the experience once in life. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement, mostly because you don’t have to pay for the insurance. My first loaner was a Dodge minivan. Normally, people don’t get all bubbly when they think about sliding behind the wheel of a vehicle that goes 0-60 in ten minutes (about the time it takes to eat a sandwich, by the way). I was like: I can't believe I'm sitting in a minivan right now! On top of the world!
Driving the entire coast of California. No really, the entire coast. In a Hyundai. To be honest, it was a bit surreal because – for those of you who live in the state, you know this – the vistas make you drop to your knees, which is hard to do in an Elantra. It’s one scenic jaw-dropper after another.
Anything to do with California.
Hanging out with my favorite editor. This was quite a few years ago now, but we both love books and don’t take things too seriously. We tend to view family as a priority and journalism as a job, albeit one that can be all-consuming.
Cirque du Soleil. This doesn’t have anything to do with journalism, I know. They just put on an amazing act. Great job guys (and girls)!
Visiting the state of Colorado. Wow, the memories. Somehow I managed to parlay this visit into about 15 different articles over a two-week period, plus I drove a Winnebago for the first time. Which brings up a low point in my career. You know the movie RV with Robin Williams? Watch that sometime and think of me.
I'll add more another time. Or maybe my all-time worst experiences. Or maybe just about Cirque du Soleil.
There, I said it. I am out in the open now, available for public scrutiny. I have admitted my love affair with the Golden Domain of tech, the offspring of Mark Zuckerberg, the great Blue Monolith of the Internets.
I love Facebook in the way people love sports or that Bachelor show. I love it the way you love a lost puppy. You can speak out in a public forum, sharing insights with hundreds of interested parties. You can craft a brilliantly worded expose and people will cling to every word. I can’t remember who said it exactly (okay, it was Mark Zuckerberg) but this is a 100-year invention in the same league as the printing press or Starbucks.
So, here is my tribute – a few examples of what makes it so valuable:
Letting us know you are sick. And I don’t mean you have a mild cold. I mean you are literally coughing up a lung. With Facebook, you can go into great detail about your deeply morose infection, your flaming sore, your wholly inconflagulated condition – e.g., something so painful and so worrisome that you had to make up a word like inconflagulated.
Posting baby pictures from all angles. Seriously! Thank you. We’re talking over the shoulder, with and without a rattle, sitting in the sink, burping in a hilarious fashion. (By the way, I want to publically thank everyone for not posting any shots involving diaper changes.)
A memo about attaining a major milestone in life. This is incredibly valuable to us. We need to know this information, because most of us are keeping track. You lost 5 pounds? I am making a mental note of it right now. You got engaged? All 700 of your followers are doing high-fives with you in their minds. Please keep posting more of your achievements. PLEASE.
Stating your political views. See, this one helps. I was on the fence about gun control, trying to decide if I was going to buy that AK-47 or start picketing about it on the steps of my state capitol. Then I read your post. I’m changed forever. You have stemmed the tide and swayed my position.
Birthday wishes, even from that long lost cousin. How else would we know? None of us keep good records. By seeing 50 other people congratulate you on this wonderful day, we all get a chance to add our two cents. It is a deeply meaningful way to say you’re special. It also saves us on A) a trip to Walgreens to get a card and B) postage.
Curiously compelling motivational quotes. I remember that one you posted about how there is no gain without pain, and I immediately picked up some barbells and did about 300 pumps in one sitting. (You were right! There is a lot of pain!) Another time, when you posted that quote about letting go of someone you love, I felt really good about it. I know someone at the humane society will adopt our family cat eventually.
Diet programs, especially those with scientific benefits. I mean, we would be lost without them! We’d be blimps. Some of us would gorge ourselves on donuts and cheese curds. But because we have Facebook, because you posted that diet regimen, we are saved. We can live.
In the end, I don’t think any of these things would be possible without Mark. He has helped us form a unique bond with each other – a social network! – that will last through time immortal (or at least longer than Friendster). We have a record – a timeline! – of our daily activities, our interactions with those we love, and our weight loss.
Someday, we will all look back and scroll through these milestones, these pronouncements, these historically important events and recall with great fondness that one time you started a diet program or posted a picture of little Billy Bob crawling up the staircase for the first time. And, we will be thanking you, singing your praises, and/or crying.
Honestly, where would be be without Facebook? How would the world continue to exist? Our relationship with that distant cousin would sour like yesterday's expired milk. We’d wonder, in blind acrimony, what that little tyke looks like now, three months after we saw him at Christmas.
So let’s all salute Mark Zuckerberg. Let's hail him as a visionary, a champion for the social cause. Hip-hip-hooray! Mark Zuckerberg has saved us! And, indirectly, from me having to put up with the cat.
I hate air travel. It is an anathema to me, a scourge.
I hate it the way I hate going to the dentist or having a sit-down talk with my wife to discuss my shortcomings. Travel is a necessary evil but it is also just plain evil. You’re in a cramped seat with awkward lighting, how can this be good? Getting from point A to point B is painful and tedious enough, but the worst part of air travel is that it is so wholly predictable.
I’m on a flight right now typing this. It’s a regional jet, which means there is enough room to move one of my legs and an elbow. You would think United Airlines would have installed some sort of power outlet near my seat, knowing The Tech Geek of the Century would be on board. (I suspect this has something to do with needing enough power for the plane, but let’s be reasonable here: I have work to do.)
I mentioned how air travel is predictable. Here are a few examples:
Overly-detailed flight attendants. I mean, seriously: I don’t need to know that the snack cart is big. I can see that for myself. Besides, if I do lose an arm, I will just have to get by with my good one for the duration of the flight anyway. Keep your FAA sermon short and to the point.
The guy next to me using the arm rest. Assuming I survived the snack tray and have not lost an arm, it would be nice to have a place to put one. But no. The guy needs his comfort.
Wrangling over bags. Okay, major airlines and smaller carriers, we understand there are rules and you are broke like a bad Vegas gambler. But this is not the country fair, and you’re not an auctioneer. Just calm down about the baggage fees. We are trying to get to Chicago with our two-piece luggage set, not broker a deal with you. I have yet to take a flight without haggling over bags. It makes me want to take a bus.
Laptop cramps. This is the ailment that really gets me. I fold open a brand new Lenovo (not that I purchased, mind you) expecting to get some work done. Maybe it is the sound of the Windows chime that triggers this reaction, but invariably the person in front of me decides to extend their seat. Whonk, thank you for the warning. On a few flights, I have thought about offering cash by the hour so I can get work done.
Crying babies and/or toddlers. I know this one will get me in trouble. Honestly, I get it – babies are people, too. I’m pro family. I have kids. But for some inexplicable reason there is always an infant within earshot when I fly. I think someone in row six needs to do more coddling or find a diaper. That’s one reason I enjoy the flight to Vegas – every passenger is either a prepubescent young adult or elderly. Few of them are crying.
(Before you send me any hate mail about the baby comment, let me be clear: I believe humans are engineered to respond to a crying baby as an early warning mechanism, and that’s a good thing. My mechanism just appears to be slightly exaggerated. Also, the babies are not to blame.)
So, here’s the burning question: why do we put ourselves through this? I often wonder if the benefits of travel are worth it. You know, I’ve been to San Francisco about a dozen times, it hasn’t changed much. There are times when I think it would be more effective to cover CES by phone.
But then there’s this really annoying perk: it isn’t so much that the travel is fun, but there is a payoff. On every trip, I meet people who have amazing insights. I engage in conversations that spur article ideas. I discover brilliant advances in technology, even when I visit Microsoft.
I remember the first time I met with Google. I went solo on that trip. (In a few cases, I have brought along my son or a photographer.) As I walked past the volleyball courts and open-air hot tubs, and eventually sat down to chat with some awkward engineers (are there any other kind?) to talk about search technology, I realized that geography – where you work, where you live – plays a major role in spurring creativity and innovation. When I camp out at a coffee shop or in a crowded mall (or on an airplane, given enough space), the words flow faster and the fingers dance quicker. As much as my job is about testing metal objects to see if they work, it is really about testing the innovation of people in disparate regions.
And, airplanes get me there and back faster. The pain is worth it.
Now, I really need to get back to some real work here. Enough blogging for one day! I’ve now commandeered the armrest. These Princess Leia headphones are going to block out the noise. I slipped the guy in front of me ten bucks to move his seat forward. I'm ready to rumble.
Addendum: As a personal note to a friend of mine, we both know there is proof the airlines know me by name. Before our flight left to Vegas last month (I am not making this up) the flight attendant came over the loudspeaker. She said “Is John Brandon on board?” and I waved. Then she closed the hatch. Neither of us have any idea why that happened.
Somehow, through a progression of abnormal happenstance, I landed this as my vocation. And I mean vocation in the Latin sense: my calling.
I now write at least a dozen articles, or usually about 10,000 words, per month or more. Like a chain-smoker, I have no idea how I am doing this or why, and I have no idea if I will ever stop. I just keep doing it.
In third grade, I wrote a short-story called Topper the Mouse. It was filled with erudite prose and had a twistingly subversive plot, regrettably now lost to the canon of fine literature. I remember how my teacher had to lean against the blackboard as she sobbed with joy at my preternatural accomplishment. I can only assume those ten pages are now framed, one by one, in some elementary school library, surrounded by blue ribbons.
As a junior in high school, during a dark Stephen King period, I wrote stories about exposed viscera and severed limbs, haunted houses infested by serial killers, and junior high school dances. (For the record, I had no personal experience with the subject matter.) I was trying to shock my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who looked exactly like Tina Fey, but it had the reverse effect: she pinned them to the bulletin board before class. It was my first experience getting “published” and gaining some notoriety.
In college, I co-created The Empty Mailbox Club Newsletter. This was a work of conceptual non-fiction, intended for people who don’t get a lot of mail. The articles were insipid and sarcastic, which is kind of hard to do. Eventually, we gained a readership of about 200 students, most of whom confused our periodical with one of those credit-card come-ons from Chase Bank or a threatening letter from a legal adviser. A friend of mine still has a binder of the published newsletters, which she is holding onto in case she needs to blackmail me or cause a public spectacle.
Then, in 2001, after spending a decade in the corporate world, I started freelancing. In those early days, I set up a temporary workstation in my bedroom, probably because I liked the view out the window or because I wanted an incredibly short commute. I was clueless about how to pitch a story idea. There were a few times when I decided to cold-call the managing editor at a magazine. The conversation usually went like this:
“Hello, this is John Brandon.”
“I’m a freelance writer. I noticed you had a story about smart cards last month. Have you ever thought about doing something on biometrics?”
“You know, security protocols – authentication?” I had spent the last ten years in Information Technology, so I specialized in gibberish.
“Not interested,” the editor would say, hanging up abruptly.
Undeterred, I took to spamming editors by sending them all one message in a blind copy but making it look ultra-personal.
“Hey there,” I’d start out. “Wondering if you are looking for any ideas for the magazine. Give me a call or write back. Hope yer having a great day!”
I figured by using the word “yer” I was adding some personality to my pitch. (I imagined this would cause the editor of Wired to become immediately interested in my ideas.) I didn't mention the fact that I had never written an article before, unless you count that college newsletter. In fact, I had never even thought about writing an article. Typically, I’d drive up to Barnes & Noble and grab a few recent issues of a magazine. I’d read every word, front to back, and educate myself about the subject matter. Then, I would start spamming. If anyone replied, I’d send a few quick ideas. This went on for months. I had an airtight system: going to Barnes & Noble gave me a reason to buy books I didn’t need and expensive coffee I couldn’t afford.
Then, by some miracle or act of providence, an editor from a small mobile computing mag finally responded and said she was interested. Her name was Jessica. I frantically wrote a few pitches and clicked Send. She wrote back right away: she wanted to talk to me by phone, could I give her a call in a few hours?
I didn't breathe for about four minutes. I was quickly going from “vacation” to “vocation” faster than AOL could process my e-mail.
I set a timer on my Mac to call her back later. When I called, she picked up on the first ring.
“So, I’m interested in your pitch on biometrics,” she said, sounding out each word in a thick New York accent.
“What?” I replied.
“As a feature – I’d need you to send me an outline today. Can you do that?”
Eventually, I responded.
“Sure, I can send you an outline for an article on biometrics,” I said.
Of course, I didn’t mention to her that I had no clear idea what I was going to say. I knew a little about fingerprint readers and I had seen the movie Minority Report. Somehow, that first article led to another, then a third. To my utter amazement, I’ve been writing for that magazine ever since – although my level of production has slowed in recent years.
Ever since then, I’ve been pounding out words on a keyboard faster than a butcher at a meat sale. I don’t know how this works. I know The Daily Beast had an article recently about how writing is like the opposite of woodworking: you have no clear picture of what you are going to make. You push forward in the hopes that you will make something, anything.
It’s like that for me, too. I can almost hear my own synapses firing as I type. I know I’m writing about a new app or the top three business hotels, and I have a clear picture of the ultimate purpose. In some cases, I have notes that help me construct what I want to say. Yet, quite honestly, for each of the 12,000 articles I’ve written in the past 12 years, I usually just start with the first sentence. Then, I write the second one. Eventually, I have a full page. This is not what they teach you in journalism school, but it works for me.
I’m sorry for making this graphic analogy in public, but it often feels like I'm puking up a lung. I feel the rumble in my stomach, an idea forms – the scent of something profound. Quite literally, I sometimes wonder if that first insight is just a hunger pain. Maybe I’m craving shrimp stir-fry or an egg sandwich, and I’ve confused this with journalism. I’ve been known to start speaking out loud when this happens, stirring an echo into a sentiment. You’d almost think I was writing about political maleficence and not about a touchscreen laptop or an event organizer app, but there’s always a faint echo at first: the laptop is made of magnesium. Other laptops are not made of magnesium. That might make a good lead. I need to find my MacBook.
I churn this over in my head like butter or Silly Putty. This all happens in a micro-second. Sometimes I think the idea was formed before I knew I had the idea, and that the process of writing started when I was browsing Buzzfeed.com. It’s like God handed me one piece of a Lego set, the one with the shining aura, and told me to do the rest. I have the Golden Nugget, now it is time to build. And this is exactly how it works, every time. I write the first sentence, and my brain starts to construct an elaborate set-piece: what will happen in the first paragraph, and the second? How will the first section end? What happens in the middle? I often go back and re-read this expulsion as though someone else wrote it. Where did that come from? Why did God hand me a Lego? I edit myself as though I’m in the third person.
The other really odd (and, frankly, unsettling) thing about this process is that it happens so amazingly fast. I’m not a gifted typist. But I can write a 3,000-word article in about 20 minutes. It is a race to make sure the Lego becomes something worthwhile. There are times when I am writing so fast and the thoughts are coming so quickly that the keyboard becomes a mangled clutter of keys, a rhythmic visceral pound. It’s a marvel to me. I have no idea why it all works this way. I have no idea why I’m able to do it. I have no insight or understanding into my own writing process. It just erupts.
And then it is done. I sit back and page through the finished piece, half in wonder. I usually add a few bolded headlines, make some light edits, and remove a few typos, but the article is almost always completely done in one sitting. The words you are reading right now were expunged this way. So was that article on biometrics. (For those who are interested in reading my first ever article, let me know – I have a link.) I can’t understand how or why this vocation found me. And I don’t think I ever will.