About Rob Pegoraro

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

Snapshots from SXSW

It’s now been three days since I got off the plane at National Airport, officially ending this year’s SXSW itinerary, and it’s taken me that long to catch up on sleep, do laundry and edit and upload pictures. (The traditional post-conference LinkedIn binge remains undone.)  And maybe I’ve gained a smidgeon of perspective on the event too.

Attendees make their way through the convention center.Once again, my primary first-world problem was deciding which panels and talks to attend. I was more ruthless and/or lazy this time, deciding I wouldn’t even try to get to such relatively distant locations as the AT&T Conference Center at the University of Texas’s campus (where my 2012 panel drew maybe 20 people) or the Hyatt Regency at the other end of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

But then I wound up not watching any panels outside the convention center and the Hilton across the street. Of those, remote interviews with Julian AssangeEdward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald topped my list. But I was also fascinated by a debate about net neutrality in which law professor Tim Wu noted our own responsibility in putting a handful of giant companies in charge (“we don’t have a culture on the Internet of preferring alternatives”), a talk about wearable computing that pivoted to discussions of “implantables” and “injectables,” and an honest unpacking of the failure of tech journalists to break the NSA-surveillance story (TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis: “We need to step back from our role as cheerleaders and give a more critical eye to the people we’re surrounded with”).

My geographically-restricted attendance led me to miss many other discussions that had looked interesting beforehand. Not only was this narrow-minded conduct, it stopped me from walking around more to make up for all the food I ate.

It would be hard to avoid putting on a few pounds while in Austin on a normal weekend, but when you don’t have to pay for most of your food, courtesy of pervasive corporate and PR sponsorship, the city becomes a thoroughly enabling environment. And a delicious one! For example: the brisket at La Barbecue (thanks, Pinterest), algorithm-driven cuisine at IBM’s food truck, and breakfast tacos at Pueblo Viejo (that was on my own dime, and you should be happy to spend yours there too when you’re in Austin).

Austin’s nightlife hub on the first night of SXSW Interactive.As for empty calories–um, yeah, they’re not hard to find at SXSW either. This is the single booziest event on my calendar. That can be an immense amount of fun (my Sunday night somehow involved both seeing Willie Nelson play a few songs with Asleep at the Wheel from maybe 20 feet away, followed by the RVIP Lounge’s combination of touring bus, open bar and karaoke machine), but waking up the next morning can be brutal. To anybody who had a 9:30 a.m. panel on Sunday, only hours after the time change cut an hour out of everybody’s schedule: I’m so sorry.

And then the night after I left, some drunk-driving idiot crashed through a police barricade and killed two people.

Even before that, the “do we really need this event now that it’s been overrun by marketing droids?” conversation about SXSW was louder than usual. I have to note that three of the most interesting panels–the Assange, Snowden and Greenwald interviews–featured subjects thousands of miles away; in theory we all could have watched those from home.

But this is also an event where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise see and might not ever meet–a long-ago Post colleague from copy-aide days, Internet activists you should know for future stories, journalists who put up with the same problems as you, entrepreneurs with interesting ideas that might go somewhere, and so on. Maybe this is a colossal character defect on my part, but I enjoy those conversations–even the ones with the marketing droids. And that’s why I do this every year.

(After the jump, my Flickr set from the conference.)

(7:30 p.m.: Tweaked a few sentences because I could.)

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Weekly output: phone unlocking, Gogo talk and text, laptops with dead screens

AUSTIN–I’m here through Wednesday for SXSW, getting my fill of panel discussions, keynotes, tacos, BBQ, beer and more tacos. Having this conference on my schedule is a huge perk of my job. How did I ever get by without it?

3/4/2014: Progress! Soon You May Actually Be Able to Unlock Your Mobile Phone, Yahoo Tech

A lot of tech-policy types hate the phone-unlocking bill that the House passed after some last-minute weakening, but I couldn’t bring myself to kick Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s bill to the curb in this column–it’s just so rare to see Congress turn away from intellectual-property maximalism. (The part of the column I would like to change: Its initial description of unlocking, which glossed over how this is basically limited to GSM phones.)

Yahoo Tech Gogo post3/7/2014: I’m Calling You From A Chair In The Sky, Yahoo Tech

I had my most improbable product demo yet: a ride in Gogo’s corporate jet to see how its next-generation inflight WiFi system allows you to text and talk from a plane.

The plane itself, in case you were asking, was comfortable but compact, and it wasn’t even the most interesting aircraft on the ramp at AUS. That honor goes to Zero G’s 727 and the two T-38 supersonic trainers that rocketed off the runway before us.

3/9/2014: How to get data off a laptop with a dead screen, USA Today 

This column was a last-minute substitution when I realized that writing a column on my original topic required a FireWire adapter cable that I own but could not find anywhere in my house. (If I once loaned you a FireWire 400-to-800 cable and never asked for it back, please leave a comment.) Happily, I had this idea right after that one in the queue.

So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–”ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

Weekly output: Mobile World Congress, cross-country skiing, SIM cards

One of these things is not like the others.

2/25/2014: Why Some of 2014’s Most Intriguing Gadgets Will Never Reach American Stores, Yahoo Tech

My Mobile World Congress report represents a sequel to the post I wrote for the Disruptive Competition Project from last year’s MWC, except I’m now more optimistic about the market for unlocked, unsubsidized phones. Even if a lot of people in the media still can’t grasp how to compare unsubsidized and subsidized prices.

Medium cross-country skiing post2/26/2014: Ski(d) Marks, The Magazine on Medium

I’d been meaning to write something for The Magazine’s outpost on Medium–in part because I like writing for that outfit, in part because I wanted to try the editing interface I’d heard so much about without writing for free. This essay about the joys and trials of cross-country skiing in the city–something I originally thought I’d write here–turned out to be that opportunity.

3/2/2014: It’s not so SIM-ple to trim a SIM card, but here’s how, USA Today

A reader asked a while back about whether she could pop the micro-SIM from a work-issued iPhone 4S into her own iPhone 5′s nano-SIM slot. I decided to wait to answer it until MWC, so I could see how much traction the nano-SIM was getting in the market. Answer: not much.

Sulia was all about MWC this week: my impressions of Nokia’s don’t-call-it Android X phones, a recap of the debut of the privacy-optimized Blackphone, how Samsung’s new Galaxy S 5 gets a little closer to the stock Android interface, an inspection of a $25 smartphone prototype running Firefox OS, why the developers of a phone version of the Ubuntu version of Linux think carriers will like it, and an update on the cordless-charging standards battle.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the show and its surroundings.

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International upgrades: plugs, phone, passport

Preparing for an overseas event like Mobile World Congress or IFA isn’t too different from getting ready for CES, except that your power adapters and phone won’t work like usual, and you can find yourself waiting a whole lot longer to escape the airport when you return.

Plug adapter, SIM and passportTo address the first issue at MWC, I packed a small power-plug adapter from Monoprice. I picked that not because the Cube2 cost $15 and change at the time, but because it includes two USB ports to charge other devices. This is actually the second one of these I’ve used; the first had its USB ports go dead, but Monoprice sent a replacement after I returned the old one at their expense.

To fix the second problem, I once again bought a prepaid SIM–which at Barcelona’s airport, I was able to do before even reaching baggage claim. (Making this purchase is not so easy elsewhere; Berlin’s Tegel airport has no such retailer.) I opted for an Orange prepaid SIM, $21.05 at the current exchange rate, with 1 gigabyte of data but no included calling or texting.

I was fine with that, since I could always place a VoIP call using the GrooVe IP app, while texts to and from my Google Voice number continued to travel over the Internet. And the one time somebody did phone me from D.C., I happened to be in the press room with my laptop open, so I took the call via Google Plus’s Hangouts app—and broke it to a TV producer that I couldn’t make it into the studio that evening to discuss OS X’s “gotofail” vulnerability.

Despite being on my phone all the time, I only used up 313 megabytes of data. Almost 100 megs came from tethering: I loaned my connection to a Yahoo Tech colleague who needed to finish a few edits after the WiFi was turned off at an event. It’s always nice to be able to give the gift of free bandwidth.

Finally, my return to the U.S. did not involve the usual wait to show my passport and get it stamped, courtesy of Global Entry. After years of hearing friends rave about this trusted-traveler program, I finally signed up at the end of last year (it helped that my frequent-flyer status meant United covered the $100 application fee). It was kind of magical to exit customs 12 minutes after getting off the plane at Newark; doing so by having a machine scan my fingerprints and then report a match with a government database added the faintest whiff of dystopian sci-fi. Having spent more than an hour to clear customs at Dulles, I think I can live with that.

Time-zone arbitrage

Spending the past five days in Barcelona, six hours ahead of the East Coast, has me thinking anew about the finer points of having different digits on your clock and those of editors and readers. 

World clockYes, jet lag sucked. I woke up Monday at 4:30 a.m. and then couldn’t get back to sleep, leading to a couple of naps in the press room. (A laptop does not make a good pillow.) But a day later, my eyelids no longer felt like they weighed 200 pounds, and I realized again that the time-zone gap can also be my friend.

Specifically, it turns the morning into—not an accountability-free zone, but at least a self-directed time, thanks to almost nobody in a position to direct my coverage being awake. Then it allows my copy to arrive early in an editor’s day for a change. If my editor is based in the Bay Area, I look even more prompt: The story sent at 5 p.m. arrives at 9 a.m.

At some point, this equation will flip and I’ll have an evening upended when an editor decides my copy needs another run through the typewriter. But so far, the worst that’s happened is me turning into that annoying guy who answers e-mails on his phone during dinner.

Social media also highlights that temporal shift: Twitter and Facebook look a lot quieter than usual until lunchtime, to the point where I question the wisdom of tweeting out observations that will get lost in the timelines of most of my usual audience. But then I  have my phone pinging with notifications until I go to sleep myself.

Back at home, the three-hour gap between the East and West Coast should also benefit me when dealing with editors there. But it’s too easy to waste that advantage until it’s 6 p.m. here and I have a different deadline looming in my own time zone: cooking dinner.

Flying to the West Coast, meanwhile, permits jet lag to work for me: On the first couple of days, I usually snap awake not much later than 5 a.m., and I am never more productive than in those hours before I finally get breakfast. And if the event I’m covering won’t have people committing news after lunch—for example, Google I/O keynotes usually start at 9 a.m. and run until about noon—my workday will also end earlier than usual.

But then I also have to deal with the 7-9 p.m. keynote that opens each CES. Not only does it throw a wrench in my scheduling machinery, it ensures I can’t eat until a time that feels more like 11 p.m. At least I don’t have to write stories about those things anymore.

Weekly output: Comcast-TWC, disk corruption

BARCELONA–One of the nicer things about this line of work is having to go here for Mobile World Congress. I’m in this city through Thursday to cover that show and see what it tells me about where the phone business is headed; look for my first take on that Tuesday at Yahoo Tech.

Yahoo Comcast-TWC post

2/18/2014: The Comcast/TWC Merger: As Big Cable Gets Bigger, Your Bill Will, Too, Yahoo Tech

Yahoo got an excellent value for their money with this column–at least in the money-per-word sense. It ballooned to 1,500 or so words as I kept writing; after some pruning, it still clocked in at 1,341 words. Biggest surprise since the column posted: no reader e-mail on this issue at all.

2/23/2014: How to salvage data from a hard drive, USA Today

This week’s question came from a reader I’ve known online since Post days, and whom I finally met in person last year; I was glad I could provide useful suggestions when he asked for help with a failing hard drive. There’s also a tip about using a wireless router to host a backup volume, leavened with a warning about a remote-access vulnerability in one well-regarded model that I happen to own.

On Sulia, I questioned Comcast’s “fastest in-home WiFi” sales pitch, suggested the FCC’s passing reference to investigating barriers to municipal broadband was the most interesting part of its revived net-neutrality agenda, mocked some impressively ill-targeted ads on Facebook, complained about United’s primitive routine for cashing in a discount companion-travel certificate, and then complimented the airline for providing a workaround through its Twitter customer service.

Travel checklists

Sometime after I made the horrifyingly stupid mistake of going to CES without my laptop’s charger (leading to a couple of days of frantic power management that had me feeling a tiny bit like an Apollo 13 mission controller), I added a “Travel checklists” note to my phone to remind me of things I’d need to pack or do at home before heading out.

Travel itemsAside from “phone and laptop chargers,” it had a short list of other things I could see myself forgetting: business cards, snacks, headphones, earplugs and an eye mask for an overnight flight, a spare flash drive (now that they’re a standard PR giveaway, that’s not so important), turning down the heat or air conditioning at home, stopping delivery of the Post, watering the plants, and so on.

The stuff-to-take list has grown increasingly specialized in recent years: a microfiber cloth to clean dirt and fingerprints off gadgets I’m going to photograph, a travel power strip, an external battery pack for my phone, a short ruler to check the dimensions of devices, transit-payment cards for other cities, and Ethernet and HDMI adapters for my MacBook Air. For an international itinerary like tonight’s departure for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, add in a power-plug converter, the tiny tool I need to pop out my phone’s SIM-card tray, a couple of roaming SIMs and any leftover currency from my last trip to the same part of the world.

My ability to stay on top of all those items got a huge upgrade a few years ago when my wife got me this great messenger bag: It may not be as professional-looking as the black Lands’ End canvas attache I carry around town (along with a large fraction of other working Washingtonians), but it’s a lot more comfortable to wear all day. So it’s become my go bag for any travel; almost all of the things itemized above live in it full-time, freeing me from having to think much about them.

The things-to-do-before-departure list, however, has grown more involved since our daughter’s arrival. I try to ease the single-parenting duty that falls to my wife by ensuring the fridge is full of leftovers, preferably ones our little one will eat (good thing she loves risotto too), the laundry basket is nearly empty, and no bills are left waiting to be paid. I hope that helps, but I always think there’s some chore I’m forgetting–just like I always think there’s something I’ve forgotten to pack.

Weekly output: e-mail hijacking, orphaned apps

Thursday’s delightful snowfall took a chunk out of my productivity this week, like that bothered me all that much. Except it kind of does–Saturday evening, I start my journey to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. Which means Monday can’t be much of a holiday for me.

2/10/2014: Why the Bad Guys Want Your Email, Yahoo Tech

This was originally going to explain the business models behind e-mail hijacking (I felt vaguely insulted to be told that in most cases, a hijacked e-mail gets used for nothing more ambitious than sending spam) and then critique the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But my editor said the CFAA parts read like a separate column, and I had to admit he was right. I’ll get back to that, but not next week: There’s a certain gigantic proposed cable merger that calls for my attention first.

USAT orphaned-app column2/16/2014: How to hang on to an orphaned app, USA Today

This was a somewhat shameless case of my taking advantage of the fuss over Flappy Bird (sorry, I don’t care about that game) to address a reader query I’d received months earlier about a different app. But Apple’s decision to boot a Bitcoin-wallet app from the App Store also factored into the timing here. The tip here about how developers keep less of the price of an app sold at the Mac App Store revisits a topic I’d last addressed in a January 2011 Post blog post.

At Sulia, I shared two sets of quotes from a great panel discussion among teenage social-media users led by my Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan, recounted a tech startup’s testimony about its experience beating a patent troll in court, listed two questions left up in the air about Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, complained about NBC Washington’s reportedly strong but now-unwatchable over-the-air signal, and provided an update about the fake Facebook account I’d set up when writing a privacy cheat sheet about the social network for Yahoo.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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