About robpegoraro

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

Did I do the whole vacation thing right?

I was on vacation from last Tuesday morning to Wednesday night. Could you tell?

Maybe not. Beyond my output at Yahoo Tech (two posts written in advance, one I did Monday), at USA Today (filed the night before we left). and here (neither of those two posts were done ahead of time), I hardly disappeared from social media. I tweeted 33 times, not counting verbatim retweets, and posted three things on my Facebook page, not counting WordPress.com’s automatic sharing.

Golden Gate and hillsAnd I skimmed through my RSS feed each day and read my work e-mail more or less as it came in, even if I didn’t answer as much as usual. Over those seven days, I sent 33 messages from that account. In the three days since, I’ve sent 32. But wait–I composed 10 or so of those on the plane home but left them in my outbox until Thursday morning. No, I did not even think of setting a witty out-of-office message. Who would believe it?

Finally, the destination of this trip–Sonoma County–meant we arrived at SFO late Tuesday morning. And when I’d be in San Francisco at lunch, how could I not meet my Yahoo editor for lunch? (I let Dan pick up the check.) I couldn’t entirely escape work in the North Bay either. After my wife and I met a friend for lunch in Petaluma, he suggested we walk around the corner to stop by the This Week in Tech studio.

I had my reasons for all of that work-like activity: I had to finish a couple of projects, I didn’t write the Yahoo column before the trip as I’d hoped, I didn’t want to miss an e-mail with a writing or speaking opportunity and actually did get one such invitation, the laptop was on the kitchen table, the phone was right in my pocket, blah blah blah. (My most successful act of unplugging was an overnight trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, when I liberated myself by taking only my phone.) But it all falls short of how much I was able to let work go two years ago.

And it’s nowhere near how my friend Alex Howard didn’t check his work e-mail for an entire six days of a vacation. Or how my wife could ignore hers for our entire trip. The key difference: Both of them have full-time jobs. Imagine that–somebody pays them not to work!

I don’t quite have that luxury unless I sell enough stories first. But the flip side of full-time freelancing is that without a boss looking out at my desk, I can take time during the day to do other, offline things–gardening, laundry, baking bread, maybe even bottling a batch of homebrew–instead of trying to look productive in front of a screen.

It’s not a bad trade-off.  But I really should check my work e-mail less often the next time I’m on vacation.

Weekly output: techno-panics, unsubsidized phones, Apple and Google streaming music

Hey, August, you’ve been doing a really bad job of being a slow news month. Could you please clock out already?

8/18/2015: How to Survive the Next Techno-Panic, Yahoo Tech

When I suggested this topic to my editors, I had no idea that a day later, Spotify would uncork a self-inflicted techno-panic by… wait for it… rolling out a vague and expansionist privacy policy written by lawyers for other lawyers.

Yahoo Tech phone-prices post8/20/2015: 5 Reasons You Should Pay Full Price For Your Smartphone, Yahoo Tech

I filed the first draft of this story last week, then had to update it twice when Sprint a) said it would stop selling subsidized phones at the end of the year and b) the next day, rolled out a warmed-over version of its old “iPhone for Life” lease plan. You can guess what other, oft-updated work of mine needed repeated revisions this week; look for them to show up online shortly.

8/23/2015: What to do when Apple Music has its head in cloud, USA Today

In an alternate universe, this would have run July 5. Instead, I wrote another, timelier column and put this one back on the shelf until now. That extra time led me to discover a useful option in Google Play Music that’s missing from Apple’s music apps.

One place I don’t mind paying for Internet access by the hour

For years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon about inflight WiFi. A seat on a plane was a refuge from an interrupt-driven lifestyle, a place where I could monotask for a change.

Engine nacelle over mountainsAnd besides, most first-generation, air-to-ground WiFi systems became unusably slow once enough people got on. In my limited experience, at best Gogo’s cellular technology yielded download speeds below 1 million bits per second–unacceptably slow 3G service on the ground. So why would I want to pay $16 or more for a flight’s worth of that?

Satellite-based WiFi can run much faster and works over oceans but is usually no cheaper over the duration of a flight.

(JetBlue offers free satellite WiFi but isn’t convenient for most of my usual destinations. Southwest charges only $8 a day for satellite WiFi but has its own route-map issues.)

Hourly pricing can make this a better proposition–I have paid Gogo’s $5 hourly rate on short flights, though I no longer do since I discovered that my phone’s Google apps work for free on its WiFi. But on its 737s, United Airlines offers hourly prices with a tweak that makes them more valuable to me: a pause button.

I can pay $3.99 for an hour of LiveTV’s satellite-delivered WiFi that actually works–download speeds have exceeded 24 Mbps in my tests–and then stretch out those 60 minutes by pausing it while I eat, nap, read, squeeze myself into the lav or take a moment to appreciate the wonder of occupying a chair in the sky. I can further extend my online time by opening up a batch of pages in new tabs, then pausing the connection to read them as if I were trying to save costs on a dial-up connection.

I can’t do that with Gogo, where you only buy a continuous hour of use. But I also haven’t seen this purchase option on United’s other WiFi-equipped aircraft; this airline’s inconsistent service (its A319s and A320s got WiFi before its 737s but still don’t have in-seat power) extends to a confusing mix of WiFi providers and pricing. I worry the company will “fix” this problem by taking away the pause button–but for now, that has me spending money I might otherwise not ante up.

Weekly output: SXSW panel pitch, Verizon Wireless pricing, TPP, Winvote, retargeted e-mails

For much of this week, I took notes from a seat in a room while somebody else stood before me and others to deliver a lecture about one subject or another. It was a bit like college–except I used a laptop instead of paper, I was never unplugged from the outside world, and there was the prospect of getting paid for what I wrote about those talks instead of Mom and Dad paying for me to attend them.

SXSW panel on panels8/10/2015: A Panel On Panels: Things We’ve Learned Not To Do, SXSW PanelPicker

For the past couple of years, I’ve talked about pitching a SXSW panel about nothing other than the weird performance art that is participating in a panel discussion. I finally went ahead and wrote up a proposal, featuring me as well as ACT | The App Association’s Jonathan Godfrey and Tech.Co’s Jen Consalvo. Please vote for it, if you’re so inclined; if it gets a spot on the SXSW program, you’re welcome to show up in Austin and ask a question that’s more of a comment.

8/11/2015: Verizon Wireless’s new plans, WTOP

I answered a few questions from the news station about VzW’s switch to no-contract prices without phone subsidies–speaking via Skype on some iffy conference WiFi. How scratchy did I sound on the air?

8/11/2015: The Latest US Export: Bad Copyright Laws, Yahoo Tech

I’ve had “write a post about the intellectual-property implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal” on my to-do list for a while, and the leak of a much more current draft gave me a reason to turn that into an actual column. Something tells me this won’t be among my most-read stories this month, but it’s a post I had to write.

8/14/2015: Unlocking Democracy: Inside the Most Insecure Voting Machines in America, Yahoo Tech

I spent most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the USENIX Security Symposium in D.C., which gave me a chance to attend Jeremy Epstein’s entertaining and enraging autopsy of the incomprehensibly insecure voting machines on which I cast my ballot for over a decade. This post got a spot on the Yahoo home page over the weekend, in case you’re wondering how it racked up 665 comments.

8/16/2015: How ‘retargeted’ ads sneak into your inbox, USA Today

This is the column I’d meant to write last week–and could do this week when the reader who’d sent the e-mail I couldn’t find re-sent that message after reading about my holdup here.

A tweet got a little more attention than usual

As I was struggling to finish and fact-check my Yahoo column Monday evening, I stumbled across an enraging story: The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery had been charged in St. Louis County, Mo., for “trespassing and interfering with a police officer” while covering the Ferguson unrest a year ago.

Having read Lowery’s account of his arrest and brief incarceration–his alleged crime was not clearing out of a McDonald’s in which he’d been charging his phone as fast as a cop wanted–I thought that charge was bullshit. And then I remembered another place where a Post reporter has been wrongfully detained: Tehran, where Jason Rezaian has spent more than 365 times as much time in jail on a trumped-up charge of espionage.

I noted the parallel in a tweet:

Twitter analytics screengrabThen I got back to work, or tried to as my phone began constantly buzzing with Twitter notifications. Within a few hours, my comment had been retweeted about 500 times, which would easily make it the most-read thing I’d ever shared on Twitter, and it’s now past 700 RTs. For the first time ever, I found it helpful to use Twitter’s option of showing only interactions from other verified users.

That’s flattering. But I’d rather that Lowery (whom I was pleased to meet briefly at last year’s Online News Association conference) and the two other journalists similarly charged not have to deal with this nonsense. And I can’t help noticing how few people clicked on the Post link I’d shared: when I started writing this post, 2,014 out of 111,591 total “impressions.”

And then there were the minority of ignorant replies that suggested the problem was reporters acting “disrespectful” (should I read that as “uppity”) or merely attempting to document the workings of law enforcement, among other bits of right-wing nuttery. That’s a downside of outsized attention on Twitter or any other social network: You will bring out the crazies.

It’s a good thing I retain a sense of humor about such things. I guess I owe the Post some credit for developing that over the days when the crazies would call the city or national desks, and it was my job to pick up the phone.

Weekly output: Apple’s cloud services, iPhone discounts

In addition to these two stories, I filed another that happens to be the first piece I’ve done for the client in question. That debut status means I can only guess if the editing will entail more or less punishment for my prose than it deserves.

8/4/2015: Why Are Apple’s Cloud Services So Weak?, Yahoo Tech

I look at the near-absence of comments on an Apple-centric story–especially one finding fault, at length, with the company’s efforts–and I can only wonder what I did wrong.

USAT iPhone-discounts column8/9/2015: Discounted iPhone the unicorn of smartphones, USA Today

I had another topic in mind for this weekend’s column but couldn’t find the reader e-mail asking the question–either I deleted it by mistake or, more likely, my failure to flag it for follow-up combined with all the correspondence I get about Web ads made this message search-proof. (If you sent me a note about retargeted ads, this could be your e-mail; please re-send!) Anyway, as I was going through my inbox, one item at a time, to try to find that query, I came across a different reader question that I realized would also work for my Q&A column.

How I went to an event at the White House and didn’t file anything

As you might have seen on Twitter, I was at the White House Tuesday for the Obama administration’s first Demo Day. (Yes, I should have added #humblebrag to some of those tweets.) This event was both a diversity-boosting exercise for the president and a chance for the 32 startups in the spotlight, many not founded by the usual crop of twenty-something white dudes, to get some wider exposure.

White House Demo Day Obama entranceMy Yahoo colleague Alyssa Bereznak was already set to write about the diversity angle–it’s a real problem for the industry, as you can see in the testimony from some of these female and minority founders in her story. I had RSVPed after her but figured I could file something profiling some of the more interesting startups.

But then after 35 minutes spent standing the East Room of the White House and watching live video of President Obama talk to various startups in an adjacent room, then hearing Obama’s speech (key line: “the next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban”) and singing “Happy Birthday” to the president (it being his 54th birthday), we were all ushered out past the startups and back to the press room. Oops.

I did manage to get back in, courtesy of Alyssa and I running into a press contact we knew, but by then some of these companies had packed up their exhibits. I wound up only talking to five of them, just three of which were on my own list of exhibitors to check out, before I was again ushered out. That was less reporting time than I expected–nothing compared to last summer’s Maker Faire at the White House— and did not yield enough material for a story.

Am I bothered by that? Not really. Some of the people I did meet will be worth talking to later on, I was only out $4 and change in Metro fare, and confusing friends by wearing a suit for work was its own reward.