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I’m going to the New York Times!

“Excited” doesn’t really do it justice, but I’m excited to announce that I’m joining the New York Times as a deputy technology editor, to write, make videos, opine, tweet, and help guide personal technology coverage for the paper and online. I’ll be working to develop a new column covering personal technology, and I’m open to name suggestions!

I’ll be based in San Francisco, working with the team of reporters and editors here, and in just a short time I’m already so impressed with The Times’ foresight and eagerness to jump at the opportunity to do even bigger, broader, better, and more cohesive tech coverage than it’s already doing. Plus, I know it’s the kind of place that will make me better at what I do, and I can’t wait to start getting edited.

A friend pointed out that for a j-school kid to end up at The Times is kind of like an actor winning an Oscar, and that’s a little bit how I feel. I left CNET intending to freelance, podcast, and work on a book, but I was thrilled to discover I had more options than I thought. And to go work at The Times is, for me, the absolute best option possible.

Thanks to those of you who’ve stuck with me through this little vacation of mine, asking what I was going to do next. The truth was that I wasn’t really sure what would happen when I quit my job, and as it turns out, only good things have occurred (including the most relaxing holiday season and CES I’ve had in about a decade). I’m grateful, I’m rested, and now I’m ready to say goodbye to the Uggs and the daytime gym visits, and get back to work!

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OS X Mavericks forces iOS calendar, contact syncing into iCloud

The relationship between your computer and your iDevices is about to get a lot less personal.

Title of the fast-growing thread on Apple's support forums.

Title of the fast-growing thread on Apple’s support forums.

The OS X Mavericks update gets rid of SyncServices, a proprietary framework in earlier versions of OS X that let you locally sync calendars and contacts from your iOS device to your Mac. So, if you upgrade to Mavericks, you’ll now have to use either iCloud or some other network solution to sync your devices with your computer–local syncing by connecting a device to a computer with a cable no longer exists.

Not surprisingly, there’s a growing outcry about this in Apple’s support forums. And there should be: it’s astonishing that in this climate of electronic spying and cloud insecurity, Apple would, without a word, disable local syncing and force users of Mavericks and iTunes 11 into cloud-based sync. It’s a move that literally wrests control of your contact and calendar data away from you and your devices and forces it into the cloud, for no discernible reason and with absolutely zero warning.

Hilariously, Apple notes in its support article about SyncServices that “Mavericks supports sharing your information using several network-based and cloud-based solutions.” Sharing, indeed: iCloud has significant security vulnerabilities: researcher Vladimir Katalov demonstrated just this month that, as Chester Wisniewski writes, “by simply acquiring the Apple ID and password of another user, whether they have enabled two-factor authentication or not, he can download their iPhone/iPad/iPod backups and documents from iCloud and see their pictures, music, emails, contacts, documents, presentations, spreadsheets or anything else without the victim being alerted.”

That’s because, to summarize Katalov’s research, Apple doesn’t use two-factor authentication to protect iCloud backups and documents, stores them on third-party servers, stores the encryption keys along with the encrypted files, and of course, can disclose the entire decrypted contents to law enforcement, should they come knocking.

Basically, iCloud is appallingly insecure, and Apple has just dramatically increased the volume of information that’s about to start flowing through it–names, email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers in droves, not to mention your doctor’s visits.

And while, in theory, warrants or probable cause are required before the U.S. government and law enforcement can snoop through that data, commenters on the Apple support thread are noting that users users outside the United States may have virtually no protections for personal data that leaves their control. And, as one points out, “I legally have to maintain control over all data from my business contacts, or might get sued over EU privacy law violations either by my clients or by competitors.”

Fortunately (this is sarcasm here), if you care about maintaining local control of your contact and calendar information, the workaround is simple! All you have to do is upgrade to OS X Mavericks Server for $19.99 and then set up a local CardDAV and CalDAV server to enable local network sync between your devices. It couldn’t be simpler! Of course, you don’t have to do it with Mavericks, there are plenty of helpful tutorials for setting up a local sync server with something like Debian, and heck, there are even a few free tools out there to make it easier. That’s a relief, right?

The alternative to those alternatives, according to Apple, is simply to revert to a previous version of OS X. Discussions on Apple’s forums about why the change may have occurred and any security implications are, according to moderators, outside the Terms of Service of the support forums and therefore prohibited.

These are the lengths that paying customers have to go to in order to keep their own data under local control when all they want to do is keep calendar and contact information synced across multiple devices? By the way, don’t post in the support forums if you’re outraged like you should be. Send direct feedback here.

Now there is one positive note. On Windows, SyncServices is what powers local syncing through iTunes. Interestingly, it appears that local syncing is still possible on a PC, using iTunes 11. So, maybe Apple just wants you to … get a PC!

Hat tip: The Verge

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Mad Molly and Adam Curry: the podcast?

Here’s the thing about brilliant and complicated people: they don’t make things easy. My friend Adam Curry is one of those people. He’s smart, he’s provocative, he’s sometimes (uh, often) outrageous, and he’s sometimes (uh, often) kind of difficult.

But I love that. I feel challenged by it, and I respect Adam and anyone’s right to say what they think, to ask all the questions they want to ask, and to make people uncomfortable sometimes in service of getting more information. However, I recently got really angry at Adam over some comments he made on the No Agenda show about my then-colleague and current friend Emily Dreyfuss. And since Adam and I have been kicking around the idea of doing a tech podcast together, I wanted to clear the air before we proceeded.

So, I called him up and yelled at him for a while about being a sexist, and he yelled back about hyperactive political correctness, and then we decided we should record all this yelling and clear the air publicly, and frankly, kind of figure out if we even thought we should do a show together since we tend to argue a lot about politics and sexism and vaccines and whatnot. And the result was about a two-hour battle, an apology to Emily (mostly), and, I’m pretty sure, an interesting conversation–interesting enough that I decided to post it here.

Listen: Sexism, society, and whether blunt truths can save us from ourselves

The conversation also made me feel like Adam and I would do a great show together–not because we set aside our differences but because we embrace them.

But if we do a tech podcast, I promise you now that it will be about tech. It’s not a tech version of No Agenda and it’s not a show about trying to fix society–this recording is a one-time experiment. And it won’t be about the gadget of the week and the rumor cycle and the thing that everyone else is talking about. What I love about technology is its ability to change the world–for better or for worse. I want to do the research on the stories that really matter and then talk about what I really think about those stories. As Adam says, I’ve taken a “vow of authenticity,” and I guess it’s time to test it out with someone who pushes my boundaries a lot.

So, consider this our coming-out party, I guess. We’re still working on a name for the show–your ideas are welcome. And your feedback, too. I’m curious to know what you think of an experiment like this.

But before you comment, let me tell you a quick story. Once upon a time, a long time ago (in the early 2000s), I wrote a letter to PC Magazine about a writer they had there, this guy John C. Dvorak. The irony is staggering, I know. I don’t even know what he wrote anymore but I know that it incensed me (it particularly incensed me that he was randomly capitalizing tech phrases in the midst of it). I was convinced he should be fired, and I said so.

I got a very thoughtful response back from his editor, who pointed out that sometimes, it’s good to have voices around that bug you. In fact, it’s often good to have voices around that bug you, because they make you think more, fight harder, and they help you define your own thoughts and feelings in a way that wouldn’t happen if you were constantly validated by the agreeing and agreeable opinions of everything you consumed.

I can disagree with Adam–sometimes vehemently–and still like him, and I think the conversation is better as a result. I hope you agree, and I want to know what you think because if we do a show together, you’re the only thing that’ll make it work. So, let us have it. And thanks for listening.

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I’m turning off Follow on Facebook

My apologies to my Facebook subscribers, but I’m turning off Follow on Facebook. The problem is the Facebook policy that changes my default posting settings permanently every time I post. So, if I post something publicly so all my followers can see it, like show information or updates about work, my default setting is then Public (i.e., “last used”) until I change it back.

Make one post public, overshare forever.

Make one post public, overshare forever.

The result of that policy is that, today, for about the third time, I posted a photo of my child (including his name and some school information) publicly by accident. I have, as a user, sent feedback to Facebook and asked them to change this policy–the fact that I post something publicly ONCE should not mean your postings should be public thereafter–but the simple realization is that mixing personal and professional just doesn’t work.

And yes, of course I could be more diligent about checking to see whether my post is labeled “public” or not, but it’s obviously just not realistic to expect that I’ll do that reliably, and my privacy is too important to get tripped up by a setting that turns all my future posts public despite the fact that I have historically tried to employ as much privacy as possible. I do not want to “check twice, upload once,” as one user suggested. I know Facebook will constantly try to force me into ever greater public behavior against my will, and I simply want to minimize the opportunity for mistakes.

Should this happen to you, you can, of course, set a public post to private by clicking the globe icon next to the post. But let’s say 80 people have already “liked” the photo you mistakenly posted: even if you set it to private in the future, those “likes” show up in the likers’ timelines, meaning it’s very hard to take back a public post without deleting it outright. It’s a simple fix for Facebook–either make a commitment that privacy is a default (yeah, no, I know, I’m cracking up, too) or serve an intercept asking a user who changes a post setting whether they want that setting to apply to all posts in the future.

This latest mistake comes at a time when I’ve already dramatically reduced my use of Facebook–I don’t trust it, I don’t always find the content interesting (since Facebook insists on manipulating my feed and showing me what it thinks is relevant, rather than a stream of news from people and brands I chose myself) and I’ve had too many privacy run-ins to consider it an essential part of my life. And I’m not alone. Facebook does not work as a public outlet for personal brands, and it’s too untrustworthy to work well as a private space for sharing. I’m starting to wonder what it’s good for, to be honest.

Anyway, if you want to follow my public exploits, please find me on Twitter or on Google Plus, which will be exclusively public. Again, I’m sorry to those of you who followed and engaged with me on Facebook; I hope to find you elsewhere on the Web.

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Going independent … and going authentic

This week, I announced that I’m leaving CNET to pursue independent projects.

What I’m really pursuing with this move, though, is independence. I’m not just going freelance: I’m going authentic.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what to do with my career over the last few months–years, maybe. And I finally came up with what I consider the North Star for my future: in a sea of noise, authentic, personal voices are the only things that matter.

I feel lucky that my audience considers me one of those voices, and I don’t want to lose that trust. In fact, I plan to continue in that vein–in spades. I’ll be podcasting, writing, and ranting for you, and for myself. No bullshit, listener-funded content, and no pulled punches.

I don’t want to suggest that CBS or CNET ever constrained me–and in fact, I know I said and wrote a lot of things during my time there that didn’t make sales, management, or even Les Moonves particularly happy. And believe me: no one ever said a word (except one time when I got drunk with some sales people at the Webbys and they half-jokingly begged me to please make fun of monitor makers, maybe, instead of Apple all the time).

But no matter how clean your shop is, when you’re a corporate citizen, you’re a corporate citizen. You know there are lines you shouldn’t cross. And I’ve been a corporate citizen for a very long time now. I’m excited to, as I said in my CNET blog post, own my own career, my brand, and my time. As a very good friend said to me recently, “freelance is the only career I’ve ever had that had ‘free’ in the name.”

I hope you’ll all join me on this journey, and that you’ll support the exciting project that’s coming next. Stay tuned! Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter for updates–it’s free, and ad-free, too!

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The AT&T third-party eBill verification process, in 50 easy steps

Ok, this is what it takes to sign up to get eBills from AT&T (for phone and Internet service — don’t ask) delivered to my bank.

First, you click “get bills online” on the bank site. When you do this with, say, Visa or Verizon, you get a pop-up asking you to verify, which you do, and the e-bills show up a couple of cycles later. Not so with AT&T. You get the same verification pop-up, and you click ok, and it seems like you’re off to the races.

Ha ha.

A few days later, you get a call with an 8-digit activation code. Personally, I had no idea what to do with this code other than write it down until I got an email, about a week later, reminding me to verify my third-party eBill service provider. Finally! A link!

Now, to verify the provider, you first have to create an Account Manager account (I’m not making this up) with AT&T. To do this, you enter your phone number, then you can verify with either the last 4 of your SSN, or a 3-digit code found on your bill.

But even after all that, in order to create the account, you have to get an online registration code. To request an online registration code, you click “request an online registration code,” (natch). But there’s nothing online about the online registration code. You have two options for receipt: AT&T will either MAIL IT TO YOU VIA U.S. POST (seriously!) or call you with it 10 minutes later.

Once you have THAT 8-digit code, you’re ready to create the account that will let you enter the other 8-digit code to verify that you do, in fact, want online billing. Right?

Oh, no. Once you have the code, you can, in fact, sign up for the account, and sign up for electronic billing from AT&T. But by this time, the site has completely forgotten that you want to verify a third-party eBill provider.

To do that, you have to go back to the email they sent, click the link in the email that takes you to the verify page, even though the link is labeled, “create an Account Manager account,” log in again with shiny new account credentials, and THEN verify that you want them to send third-party eBills.

That last step, by the way, did not involve the 8-digit code that they originally gave me, and insisted I would need.

Of course not. Why would it?

By the end of this process, the only thing I wanted to verify was my new Comcast service.

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Digital movie copies: you’ve got a long way to go

I’m just downloading my free digital copy of The Hangover from Warner Brothers and … wow. What a bad process. The download itself is a Windows Media Player format. It’s not compatible with iTunes, PSP, or Zunes. The installation process also includes installing Adobe Air. To get the download, you must install a “Digital Copy Manager” that phones home about your “use” of the digital copy (this is not optional). Now, it wants me to upgrade “security components” of Windows Media Player so that I can play this protected file on my computer. All of this requires constant babysitting so that I’m 10 minutes in and can’t do anything else before I’m even ready to enter the authorization code. Oh, and then it auto-launches an ad. Guys. Seriously. iTunes has this figured out. There is no reason your DRM has to be this obnoxiously restrictive and intrusive. If the digital copy is this hard and this limited, it’s not a better option than piracy. And that’s not how you win. (Plus, now there’s no WAY this download will be done by the time I have to leave for the airport. Boo.)

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The Droid: it’s like, not love

Many of you know that I recently broke up with my iPhone due to the sad fact that AT&T didn’t seem to have coverage at my house, my office, or anywhere in between. Since then, I’ve been on a CNET-provided BlackBerry Curve, which I found perfectly serviceable, but I’ve been waiting for the perfect iPhone replacement to come along, hopefully on the rock-solid Verizon network. And lo, along came the Motorola Droid. Which I bought. So, I’ve spent a few days now with the Droid as my personal phone, and while it’s certainly a good rebound phone, it’s definitely not true love.

Here’s what I like about the Droid: it’s a nice, solid piece of hardware with an incredibly gorgeous screen. The touch-screen is responsive, the phone itself is really, really fast, and so far, I’ve been able to download pretty much all the apps I used with any regularity on the iPhone: Pandora, Facebook, Amazon, a Twitter app, a weather app, and a movies app, plus a handy little mobile version of Wikipedia. So far, the call quality is pretty good, the battery life seems to be surprisingly strong, I like the three customizable “home” screens, and the way it grabs and integrates contact information from across Facebook, Gmail, and Exchange is really nice. And I like the way new notifications of any sort appear at the top of the screen — calendar reminders, new emails, app updates, new texts, etc. It’s a great at-a-glance feature for push notifications.

Media-wise, I bought a few songs from the Amazon MP3 store and while I found the process to be a tiny bit slow (you click the Buy button and … nothing happens for a few minutes, which made me panic a bit), I think the media player seems serviceable. I haven’t figured out how to create a playlist, but I can shuffle and I actually find the Droid’s slider, which scrolls up and down a long list of songs or artists, to be easier to use than trying to tap the tiny alphabet letters of the iPhone’s song/artist list. In terms of playback, the speaker quality of this phone is amazing. It’s both loud and clear — I put on my Spanish guitar Pandora station, set the Droid in the upstairs loft of the 2,000-square-foot apartment where I’m house-sitting, and I could hear it all throughout the house. In a pinch (as long as it’s plugged in), this thing is a little portable stereo. Also, I really don’t mind mounting the Droid as a drive and dragging music to it without having to load the monstrous beast that is iTunes. I managed my iPhone with drag and drop, so I’m not missing syncing at all.

I like the auto-suggest/complete of the virtual keyboards, although it’s a bit aggressive, and I like that it sometimes gives me the “.com” key when I’m typing in an email address. I also like that when I’m texting, I have a :-) emoticon key. Cute touch. I love the integrated Google search bar at the top of the home screens, which searches both the phone and the Web, and I also love the Maps. The GPS is quick to find a signal, the maps are fast, and the turn-by-turn direction feature is truly killer. Oh, and I love the application switcher — I just hold down the Home button and go from browser to Facebook to email to Twidroid. Awesome.

But enough drooling. Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like the physical keyboard at all. I know that’s not a new revelation — no one likes it. The Droid is slightly too wide for me to type comfortably on it, especially since the keyboard is flush left and not centered on the phone (this is to accommodate the phone’s mysterious “lip” on the bottom — why is that there!?). After using it for even a few minutes, I actually feel physical pain in my right hand and wrist from stretching so far across the hardware (granted, I suffer from nagging RSI). So, I pretty much only use the virtual keyboards, and I use them in portrait or landscape mode roughly evenly. It’s nowhere near as fast as the nubby little BlackBerry keyboard, although I’m seeing a gradual increase in my speed.

The Android 2.0 interface is good but not great. I don’t understand why I have to tap a text field to get the keyboard to surface every time — if I put my cursor in a text field, shouldn’t the keyboard pop up automatically? And in landscape mode, the screen real estate with the keyboard gets weird, so when you “tab” to a new text box, you can’t actually tell what you’re supposed to type there. Awkward. Also, I love how I can customize the home screens, but the OCD in me doesn’t like how when I add an icon to a screen it shows up in a slightly random location, rather than in a nice tidy row. (Yeah, that’s just me.) I also don’t like that I can’t easily move icons from one page to the next, the way I can with the iPhone “jiggle” for rearranging icons. (CORRECTION: You can do this if you tap and hold the icon — it just takes a bit of precision to drag over to the next page. Thanks, Vance!)

The Droid’s vaunted camera and LED flash are a little overrated. Compared to the iPhone, yeah, it takes better photos in low light, and in general, the picture quality is good. But the LED flash casts a very specific blue glow so that everything within the immediate, small area is illuminated, but everything outside of it is abruptly dark — there’s no soft illumination as with a normal flash. Full disclosure: I haven’t taken any video. Also, the little button on the side that is supposedly the camera button doesn’t seem to do anything. Maybe it’s broken.

Other nitpicks: the screen, gorgeous as it is, couldn’t be less oleophobic. That thing picks up fingerprint smudges like you wouldn’t believe, and once it’s coated with unattractive schmutz, the screen itself is completely invisible in bright sunlight. Not cool.

On the app front, the Facebook app is a dog, and that is serious business. I can’t filter my news feed by friends lists or even view friends lists at all, which is a major bummer. Oh, and in other nitpicks, I don’t really love the built-in ringtones. But ok, now I’m just being annoying.

No technology is perfect, and the Droid is no exception. But I like it a lot, and I like it enough to port my number to it. It’s a keeper. Plus it’s only going to get better as the software and firmware upgrades roll out. (Seriously, somebody at Facebook? Help me.) But if you came to me and you weren’t super tech savvy and AT&T worked fine at your house (a long shot, I know), I’d probably still tell you to get an iPhone. It’s still just a hair more elegant and easy to use. For now.

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You better believe I vaccinated my kid

I recently had a conversation about vaccines that left me frankly stunned. A friend I respect and an older Marin couple were matter-of-factly agreeing that the H1N1 vaccine was, if you’ll pardon my language, “bullshit.” Their conversation happened as the Marin couple was running down a checklist of items that make one an acceptable conversation partner in their book: are you for or against Obama’s health care plan (against, because it’s useless without a public option); do you agree that health care in this country is a disaster, mostly thanks to Bush (of course); and so on and so forth and then lastly, “what about vaccines?”

“What about vaccines” has, for a certain segment of the population, become part of the knee-jerk rhetoric that marks whether you are or are not part of the educated liberal elite that’s progressed so far and so high that they’re actually above the need for medical intervention. At least if that medical intervention comes in the form of a vaccine, any vaccine, and particularly the H1N1 vaccine, which is considered “bullshit” because it, apparently, hasn’t been sufficiently tested and is more dangerous than the virus itself, according to articles like this one that cheerfully take entire paragraphs out of context (while helpfully linking to the original article), uses pseudo-science to terrify readers, and plumps up relatively obvious statements by health officials (e.g., “you should test vaccines before you use them,”) to make it sound as though those officials were in fact targeting the H1N1 vaccine itself as the harbinger of widespread death. Oh, and then there are the outright lies.

Here’s the deal. More than 30 years ago, 25 people died from an extremely rare side effect of a swine flu vaccination. So far, more than 100 children have died of swine flu, and more than 1,000 overall, in the United States alone. To put it mildly, we’re already trending ahead of that bad batch of vaccine that happened 30 years ago when science probably wasn’t quite as far along as it is now. Countless experts now say the vaccine is safe, and produced in the same way as the standard flu vaccine, a product that’s pretty well vouched for at this point.

I took my 2 and a half year old son in for a swine flu vaccination today (and I’ll get it myself once they’ve gotten all the kids and pregnant women — the ones most at risk — safely out of the way). I asked the doctor if she’d vaccinated her own children, ages 6 and 4. She said she had. She also said my son’s pediatric practice had three child patients in the hospital right now with “complications” from swine flu. Meaning, she said, “chest tubes.” That’s just in my town. On the other hand, I can’t find, and neither can anyone else, any confirmed cases of death or serious illness linked to the H1N1 vaccine thus far, anywhere in America.

And I wish I could say that anti-vaccine insanity was limited to just swine flu. It’s not, obviously. It’s just that irrational fear of the swine flu vaccine, considered by many health officials to be one of the most important tools in fighting off an increasingly dangerous and growing global pandemic, is the unfortunate culmination of a totally insane public conversation that’s been happening for years. Pediatricians and scientists are under attack for insisting that vaccines save lives (they do). Children with compromised immune systems are at risk from their classmates who haven’t been vaccinated against what should be, at this point, completely neutered diseases like measles, meningitis, and pertussis. Yet un-vaccinated kids are contracting, spreading, and even dying from those diseases at an alarming rate.

I don’t know how much more clearly to put it: that’s utterly ridiculous. There is ample science to show that vaccines save lives. Hundreds of millions of lives, people. There is zero hard data to show that they cause rampant autism, kill or cripple people in alarming numbers, or any of the other fear-based claims that are keeping people out of the doctors’ office. And I don’t have to, in the touchy-feely way of 21st-century America, “respect your beliefs” when your beliefs are not only utterly scientifically unfounded but also lethally dangerous!

This refusal to acknowledge human progress and scientific fact is a uniquely and bizarrely first-world problem, too. Wired points out that, “counterintuitively, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth.” It’s as though the Marin dwellers (where, unbelievably, non-vaccination rates are nearly 6 percent) and those like them have gotten so comfortable, so complacent, so alienated from the actual impact of widespread disease, that they feel they can reject the need for vaccination because they’ve never seen the effect of the lack of it. They haven’t actually had to see children contract first a fever, then a runny nose, then a full-body rash, then develop complications like blindness, encephalitis, and weakened immune systems that lead to choking and fatal pneumonia. And that’s just measles! Just think if we got to watch polio re-emerge! I haven’t seen that first-hand either, but to take one look at my child and imagine it happening to him is simply unacceptable.

Just because we don’t see the effects of widespread disease doesn’t mean we can stop believing they exist. This is not a subject for public debate. This isn’t a subjective topic. There is hard science and decades of evidence to prove that vaccines save lives and that refusing to get vaccines kills people. Period. So, yeah, you’d better believe my kid got a swine flu vaccine. For his life and the life of the kid next to him. You’re welcome.

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Windows 7 launch day keeping me busy

Pretty good media tally for me on Windows 7 launch day (so far?)! Here’s the hit I did on CNBC:

And they quoted me like crazy in the news piece they did later, which was funny since I didn’t feel like I said anything much at all.

I was also on NPR’s Marketplace this morning, which was a personal thrill (I love that show). Listen to it here (click “Listen to the latest shows”). And I taped an interview with CBS News Radio this afternoon that you may or may not hear on your drive home.

And I apologize in advance if I’m inescapable today!

UPDATE: Wow, apologies to everyone who got spam from the RSS feed! I upgraded WordPress, and I hope that fixes it. What is that?

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