About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

These impermanent things: going through a near-century of mementos

My mom is getting ready to move to a smaller place, so I’ve spent some of the last few days inspecting a large collection of old photos, papers and scrapbooks that had been collecting dust in the attic.

Dad in 1938One thing I didn’t realize before starting this exercise was how unevenly these old pieces of paper would decay. Black-and-white photos from the 1930s and before (that’s my dad at the right) still look fine, but the brown paper of Mom’s scrapbooks from the 1940s (below) flakes into fine particles at the slightest pressure. There is no preserving some of this stuff.

That’s not an issue I or my heirs will have to deal with, as long as somebody takes a few minutes to copy data to a new storage medium every few years. And if an app exists to open those files, which should be a near-certainty for JPEGs and PDFs.

The other is the frequent absence of metadata. Looking at 1960s photos from cocktail parties–yes, much the same subject material as a typical weekend’s worth of Facebook photos–the only way I can identify their locations, their dates and times, and the people in them is to ask my mom. If Dad took those pictures in his single days, their details will probably remain a mystery, as he died in 1999. At least some of these photos have hand-written captions, some in writing that I can decipher without straining.

Mom's scrapbookThat, too, is a problem we’ll almost never have to deal with again.

It’s now been at least a dozen years since digital cameras went mainstream and we could stop worrying about not knowing the exact instant a photo was taken–assuming you remembered to set the time and adjust the time zone on a digicam. It’s been over eight years since smartphones began automatically geotagging photos. It’s been almost as long since photo-album apps on our computers or on social networks let us tag people in photos and started offering to find more pictures of them. Google Photos can even identify locations and faces in uploaded photos without any such metadata and also promises storage in perpetuity.

So some 50 years from now, when our daughter is going over old photos and videos–presumably in some VR interface–she will have a lot less mystery to deal with. But I hope she’ll come away with the same thought I’ve had while browsing through these keepsakes: You know, Mom and Dad were pretty cool back in the day.

Continue reading

Steve Wildstrom

About a month after I left the Post, I sent an e-mail with the subject line “Joining the club” to another tech columnist who had been sent packing by his longtime employer a year and a half earlier.

I set aside the fact that I hadn’t had the class to send this guy a sorry-about-the-news note after his departure and instead asked upfront: any lessons from your experience that I should know about?

Barely 12 hours later, 875 words landed in my inbox, full of details about how this writer had handled the departure, his current business models and who he’d been invoicing, and what options I might want to consider. This line about the benefits of working from home stayed with me: “I love the flexibility of being able to cut the lawn on a Tuesday morning if that’s when I feel like doing it.”

The writer was Steve Wildstrom. He wrote Business Week’s personal-tech column from 1994 until 2009 with a combination of experience-driven insight and amused annoyance at the industry’s foibles (see, for example, this review of the Windows 7 upgrade experience), then carved out a successful career on his own after his column didn’t survive Bloomberg’s purchase of the magazine. On Tuesday, cancer took him from us, which gives me another reason to hate it.

I don’t remember when I first met Steve, but whenever it was, I soon got used to getting short e-mails and then tweets from him suggesting other angles to a topic I’d just covered that I might want to pursue. I almost always learned something from him, and I never got any sense that he was trying to show off his knowledge; he just didn’t want a key part of the story to go neglected.

Steve was also one of my favorite people to be on a panel with or run into at a conference (for example, Tech Policy Summit in 2012 and then Privacy Identity Innovation in 2014). I looked forward to seeing him randomly on the other side of the country… and now I can’t.

I am thankful today that I’ve had the chance to learn from people of this caliber. Good work Steve; now you can rest.

Weekly output: cross-device tracking, prepaid and MVNO wireless, Justin Bieber Mode, USB-C cables and chargers

My business travel for the year officially wrapped up with my return Friday night from a brief but meeting-packed trip to NYC. If I spend any other nights out of town for work before CES 2016, somebody else will need to be paying.

In other news: Welcome, new readers interested in Syrian-refugee politics and/or USB-C accessories! Should you keep reading, each Sunday you will find a recap of where I wrote or spoke or was quoted; at least one more day in the week sees me writing about some other thing that doesn’t fit at my usual outlets.

11/17/2015: Cross-Device Tracking: How the Ad Industry Will Follow You Wherever You Go, Yahoo Tech

A workshop hosted by the Federal Trade Commission Monday gave me an opportunity to write about a topic I’ve been following for a while.

Wirecutter prepaid MVNO wireless guide11/19/2015: Best Prepaid and Alternative Cellphone Plans, The Wirecutter

My third guide at this site covers both prepaid and resold (aka “MVNO,” short for “mobile virtual network operator”) wireless service, and it was many months in the making. Please read the comments; I spent part of Friday morning answering the first round of reader feedback, and I’ll be back there Monday or Tuesday.

11/19/2015: Who Should Be On Lyft’s Playlist After Justin Bieber?, Yahoo Tech

Yes, I’m old to cover anything involving Justin Bieber. But after getting a prompt in the Lyft app to partake in this promotion, I couldn’t not write about the weird intersection of the ride-hailing service and the Canadian pop star.

11/22/2015: Some Android users face quandry with USB-C, USA Today

My self-serving motivation to write this column was my own curiosity over when the phone chargers handed out as tech-event swag will feature USB Type-C connectors to match the hardware on my new phone. Before you mention it: Yes, I’m aware of the typo in the headline, and we’ll get that fixed soonest.

I would like to buy an argument: debating Syrian-refugee paranoia

I’ve spent too much time over the last five days arguing with people who have suddenly decided that Syrian refugees represent such a threat to the United States that we cannot risk admitting any of them, and it’s been wearying work on multiple levels.

First, there’s the bankruptcy of the entire argument that boiled over after the Paris attacks. All of the attackers identified so far were EU nationals, not Syrian refugees; there’s no evidence the craven death cult that has no right to call itself Islamic is even trying to hide itself among refugees fleeing it (none of the 2,200-odd Syrian refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001 have been arrested for plotting violent acts); getting into the U.S. as a refugee is a tedious, years-long process; getting in as a Syrian refugee involves even more screening; and said craven death cult wants us to fear Muslim foreigners, so this entire demonization of Syrian refugees fits right into their playbook.

Japanese internment memorial(Before you brush off the previous paragraph as a product of the liberal media conspiracy, please read this debunking of refugee myths by longtime Virginia Republican Brian Schoeneman.)

Then there’s trying to grasp the logic of politicians who were for Syrian refugees before they were against it and now refuse to admit any unless we can guarantee that 100 percent of them don’t embody a threat that appears to be fictional. This devotion to security at all costs would be touching if so many of these same individuals didn’t shrug away such better-documented risks as America’s current gun policy, the death toll on our roads, and global warming.

Lest the last paragraph look like a jab at Republicans, remember that this fear-mongering is a bipartisan sport: The single worst statement on the subject may have come from Roanoke, Virginia’s Democratic mayor David Bowers, who cited the 1940s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans as a reasonable precedent before apologizing two days later.

The second-most trying part of this conversation is what happens when you ask strangers how they came to this reasoning. One conversation on Twitter ended with the fellow in question asserting that “I trust 10,000 Jews before I trust 10 Muslims.” A friend of a friend on Facebook declared that “Any restrictions in Muslims would be based on the fact that they have earned it.”

It would be easy to brush off this hysteria as the product of garden-variety xenophobia and Islamophobia, but then there’s the most difficult part of the deal: Hearing from friends I know to be educated and open-minded who still think we can’t let in any Syrian refugees.

I try not to be a jerk when talking politics with pals, but I probably haven’t lived up to that standard this week. All I can say is this: If I didn’t care what you thought, I wouldn’t waste so many processor cycles trying to convince you otherwise. But I wish I did know where you’re coming from, because you’ve totally lost me on this one.

Oh, and this: If you really do want to hold up the citizens of one country or the adherents of one religion as uniquely suspect, can you please first go to D.C. and spend a few minutes contemplating the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II that commemorates the fear-driven imprisonment of 110,000 to 120,000 people who came from or had ancestors in the wrong country? Then ask yourself: Are you willing to make that same statement in front of this monument to our surrender to bigotry 73 years ago?

Weekly output: data caps, enterprises and startups, semi-anonymous social media, T-Mobile price plans, social media and Paris attacks

I had a fun few days in New York at the Consumer Electronics Association’s Consumer Technology Association’s Innovate conference. I’d also planned to spend some of my time in Manhattan at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, but learning only hours before that a talk by Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts had been made off-limits to the press (aside from Fast Company’s Harry McCracken, who himself didn’t know about this rule and his exclusion from it) annoyed me enough to skip the rest of that conference. Here’s a little event-planning FYI: don’t indulge in that sort of control-freakery. You will only annoy the press, and word will get out on social media anyway.

11/11/2015: Cap as Cap Can: Comcast, T-Mobile Redefine Data Limits in Ways You May Not Like, Yahoo Tech

One point I could have made in this post but did not: Comcast’s devotion to fairness apparently stops with business customers, who face no such data tiers.

11/12/2015: Witness the Symbiosis Between Enterprises and Startups, Tech.Co

Tech.Co’s Will Schmidt wrote up the panel I moderated at the Celebrate conference last month. The post also includes full video of our discussion.

CAM Summit panel11/13/2015: How Social is Going Private: Snapchat, Texting and New Platforms, Campaigns & Marketing Summit

I had the easiest job as moderator ever because my panelists–Sherri Anne GreenJenn KauffmanKat Murti, and Emily Rasowsky--knew their stuff, enjoyed debating it and didn’t step over each other’s lines. I hope the organizers post video of our talk at some point.

11/13/2015: T-Mobile’s new deal will mean rate hikes for some users, USA Today

The feedback loop on this one got a little crazy when T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted his annoyance at the headline’s suggestion that some T-Mo subscribers would pay more. That’s a fair complaint, since the carrier didn’t touch plans in effect before Sunday–as the story itself makes clear. My editor said we’d take another look at the headline, but as of Sunday night it had not been changed.

11/14/2015: Social media and the Paris attacks, WTOP

The news station had me on to talk about how social media carried news of Friday’s atrocities in Paris and then gave people ways to, as I put it, scream, cry or wonder why. A busy schedule that Saturday meant I had to do the interview sitting in our parked car while our daughter’s soccer team was playing on the adjacent field, which is not an ideal situation in multiple ways.

Je t’aime, Paris

Eiffel Tower in 1991Lesser-known fact about me: For one happy summer in 1990, I qualified as a part-time Parisian. I owed that to my dad, who had first lucked into a transfer to his employer’s Paris office and then–nepotism at its finest!–arranged a summer job for me there.

Each morning, I’d board the train in the suburb of Louveciennes, transfer to the RER, escape from the subterranean, odorous archipelago of the Châtelet – les Halles station, and enjoy a short walk to Dad’s office. I’d plug away at building out a database, then take a long lunch break and explore the city.

I’d come back, immerse myself in Paradox for another few hours and then head home. I felt like I’d won an occupational lottery on top of the life-lottery victory of my parents’ move to France in 1989 and my subsequent spring, summer and winter breaks there.

Paris office viewThe two and a half years my family spent around France’s capital before returning to the States in 1991 gave me the chance to know the city beyond bucket-list tourist attractions: the sculpture garden of modern architecture that is La Défense; quiet, tree-lined streets in the inner arrondissements; the roof of the old opera building that a friend and I somehow made our way to after ditching a tour.

This time also left me with an enduring fondness for baguettes, croissants, Camembert, crêpes, Côtes du Rhône, steak frites, duck breast, any other entrée done up with a pan sauce, and Calvados.

And it taught me to speak French well enough that Parisians stopped automatically replying in English. (I had an unfair advantage at Georgetown’s foreign-language proficiency exam: When my examiner handed me a Le Monde story and asked me to discuss it, I realized I’d read that piece a week before while spending Easter with my family.) That fluency has faded, but I still enjoy dusting off my rusty French to help a visitor like the gentleman at the Walmart near Union Station who needed a prepaid SIM card for his phone.

France passport stampsI wish I were writing this out of idle nostalgia. But I’m not. The city I adored 25 years ago fell victim to a series of monstrous crimes Friday night, apparently committed by the same craven death cult that has murdered thousands more across the Middle East and has no right to call itself “Islamic” or even “human.”

There is nothing I can do to reverse that. But I can say this much after almost a quarter-century apart: Paris, it’s been so long since last we met, but I will return. That’s a promise.

Weekly output: DMCA exemptions, Facebook futurism, Tinder, Web Summit

Back in March, my friend Ron Miller was recounting his experience at Web Summit a few months earlier and suggesting I go. I’m glad (not for the first time!) I heeded his advice. For a sense of those five days in Dublin, see my Flickr slideshow.

I’m now about to spend a couple of days in New York for the Consumer Electronics Association’s Innovate conference, where I can heckle David Pogue get an update on what the gadget industry’s been up to.

11/3/2015: Why Jailbreaking Your iPhone Is Legal But Hacking eBooks is Not, Yahoo Tech

Longtime readers may recall I wrote a post for CEA’s public-policy blog in 2011 about the incoherent policy of granting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban on circumventing DRM. My wait for an opportunity to revisit this topic ended when the government issued this year’s round of exemptions a week and change ago.

Yahoo Tech Facebook Web Summit talk post11/4/2015: Facebook’s Vision for the Future: Drones With Lasers, All-Seeing AI, VR for Real, Yahoo Tech

This post stands as a sequel of sorts to the piece I filed from SXSW about a similar talk from Google’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller about a comparable range of ambitious experiments.

11/4/2015: Tinder’s Sean Rad: We’re Changing the World, One Long-Term Relationship at a Time, Yahoo Tech

I was worried I wouldn’t get into the hall to see Rad’s interview, but the crowds parted and I got a seat. As I asked at the end of this post: If you, unlike me, have ever installed Tinder on your own phone, do you agree with Rad’s take on this dating app?

11/6/2015: Robot sex, drone sheep-herding: what you missed at Web Summit, USA Today

The lede and end of this story popped into my head almost immediately, but the rest took longer to write. As in, I was still working on it while on a bus to meet three of my cousins for dinner. (Dublin FYI: The buses have WiFi that worked well for me after I’d answered a moderately intrusive questionnaire on the “captive portal” sign-in page.)