About robpegoraro

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

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

Weekly output: patent trolls, Apple Music (x3), robots, digital fluency

I had more to show for myself than usual on this holiday-shortened week, and I can thank Apple and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for much of that.

6/30/2015: Why The Tech Industry Hates Patent Trolls, and You Should Too, Yahoo Tech

I’d written and filed this column two weeks earlier, then shelved it so I could turn around a post on LastPass’s security breach. I’m glad we could finally get this thing out, but I fear that not many people read it on the day that Apple Music launched.

WTOP on Apple Music6/30/2015: Apple Music, the newest player in a crowded streaming field, WTOP

Washington’s news station interviewed me about my first impressions of Apple’s new music service. I emphasized how limited Apple Music’s device support is compared to that of Pandora or Spotify–even factoring in Apple’s upcoming, unprecedented shipment of an Android app for the service.

7/1/2015: CE Week Report: Are Robots Limping Forward or Finding Their Stride?, Economy

João-Pierre S. Ruth wrote up last week’s CE Week panel on robots and was kind enough to give me the last word in the story.

7/1/2015: Will Apple Music Kill Your Data Plan?, Yahoo Tech

I had thought that this would be an easy story to write, but then I realized that Apple had not bothered to document the bit rates used by Apple Music’s streaming–which are significantly higher than Pandora’s bit rate, though not as high as some coverage would have you think. I also had to batter my way through some math, an experience that reminded me how many decades it’s been since my last math class.

7/2/2015: We Do Need Digital Fluency, But We Don’t All Need To Code, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this reaction to the previous Friday’s event with McAuliffe at one of Capital One’s Tysons Corner offices on Monday, but my editors elected it to hold it for a slower time in the week. That made sense to me.

7/5/2015: Some restrictions apply to Apple Music song matches, USA Today

I wrote and filed a different Q&A column on Thursday, then decided that Apple’s undocumented imposition of DRM on matched copies of your own music was a timelier topic. That delayed the start of my long weekend until around noon Friday, but in the bargain I have a completed column in the can that we can run whenever I get around to taking a vacation.

The fine art of viewing fireworks in D.C.

It’s July 4th, and if you’re in the nation’s capital you (or at least, those of you without small children in tow) have one job: Find a way to see the fireworks that doesn’t involve dealing with the hordes on or near the Mall and the transportation chaos before and after.

Fireworks from rooftopThe single best option I’ve found is either the roof of somebody’s house or the balcony of somebody’s apartment. Either way, you’ve got a maximum of personal space with food, beverages and a bathroom close by–and you’ll be with friends or at least friends of friends. And if you’re really lucky, some pyro a few doors down will be setting off fireworks from his own roof, a sight my wife and I were treated to in 2009 atop one pal’s Logan Circle row house.

Second comes the roof deck of an apartment or office. That was our go-to solution for a few years when friends of ours lived in a high-rise a few blocks away from our abode, and I’m sure people who work in buildings downtown with roof decks become a lot more popular this time of year.

But buildings aren’t the only way to see the fireworks. In 2006, we rented a canoe with two friends of ours from the late, great Jack’s Boathouse, then watched the pyrotechnics from the Potomac as we shared a bottle of wine, a baguette and some cheese. This required a few compromises (like having no bathroom option short of paddling over to Theodore Roosevelt Island and running into the woods, something nobody had to do) but was pretty great overall.

These days, though, having an almost five-year-old means we have to look for simpler solutions. Like our front porch, from where we can sort of see the fireworks through the trees across the street. Or even falling back to watching them on TV. And that’s okay too; the important thing about America’s birthday is to take a minute to appreciate this good country we live in.

Weekly output: Who has your back, robots, CE Week, Washington Apple Pi, travel WiFi blacklists

Beyond a trip to New York for CE Week, the last seven days also brought me back to 1150 15th Street NW for a Washington Post alumni reunion Thursday night. That will be the last such gathering at that address, because the paper is moving to rented space in a much better-looking building on K Street.

6/23/2015: Tech Firms Trust Our Government Even Less Than You Do, Yahoo Tech

I though the fifth release of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual “Who Has Your Back?” report on how tech companies stand up to government requests for data about their customers was a newsworthy moment. I did not realize until starting to write this piece how much the tech industry has moved since just 2013, as I realized when I re-read some of my first Disruptive Competition Project posts.

CE Week panel description6/24/2015: The March of the Robots, CE Week

I enjoyed talking about the progress and continued problems of the consumer robotics business–from floor-cleaning robots and toys for kids to driverless cars and drones–at this CE Week panel with Engadget editor Devindra Hardawar, Spin Master designer Andres Garza, Ozobot CEO Nader Hamda, and WowWee CTO Davin Sufer. As the screengrab shows, I was checking my phone pretty often to consult my notes and look for any Twitter feedback; I don’t know how annoying that looked from the seats.

6/24/2015: CE Week TV: Rob Pegoraro, CE Week

Later that afternoon, I did a quick interview about our robotics discussion with Judie Stanford.

6/27/2015: Rob Pegoraro on personal technology, Washington Apple Pi

I returned to this Apple user group for the first time since 2013 and talked about the increasing amount of convergent evolution between iOS and Android and how that doesn’t seem to have cooled down the usual mobile-OS bigotry. Most of the questions I got from the audience afterward were not about those issues; instead, people wanted to know about their choices in broadband Internet access and what they could do to get away from traditional pay-TV subscriptions.

6/28/2015: Wi-Fi wrongly blocking sites? Blame humans, USA Today

I enjoyed the irony of using my column to unpack a problem that a longtime competitor (re/Code’s outstanding Walt Mossberg) had complained about on Twitter.

History moves fast sometimes

I spent four years studying history in college, and the big takeaway was that progress is a slow game that requires the ability to get up after getting knocked down, over and over.

A slightly worn American flag flutters in a spring breeze.

The exceptions to that rule are rare and delightful. My freshman year, we watched Communism crumble across Eastern Europe so fast that one professor told us to put aside the assigned textbooks and instead read the paper each morning and come prepared to discuss the latest news from Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and beyond.

The past week in America has felt like that. Within a few days, the vile cruelty of the Charleston shootings finally awakened many Southern whites to the reality that the Confederate battle flag is far too stained by hate to deserve a place of honor on the people’s property. It and other salutes to the Confederacy’s war against the United States now look set to vanish from government facilities as fast as statues of Lenin in the Warsaw Pact’s client states.

(Note to Virginia: Now would be a swell time to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve already e-mailed my state senator and delegate to say as much.)

And then on Friday, less than two years after throwing out the insultingly ill-named “Defense of Marriage Act,” the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law. This case of justice arriving like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said, could not have happened without decades of effort.

And yet: It came less than 11 years after Karl Rove made ballot initiatives against gay marriage part of a winning Republican strategy. It was nine years since a Virginia constitutional amendment banning any state recognition of same-sex unions passed the commonwealth by a large margin. It happened seven years after Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, and people like me didn’t think that was a huge problem. Not even a year and a half ago, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who refused to defend the gay-marriage ban he’d voted for in 2006) defeated his opponent Mark Obenshain (who had not changed his mind about that now-defunct law) by only 907 votes.

Thinking about all that, I sent a celebratory e-mail to my wife with a single-character subject line: “=”

Weekly output: LastPass, wireless bridges

At the start of this week, I had different topics in mind for each of these two columns, and then things happened. I also made a quick run up to New York Thursday for a few tech events, then wrapped up the visit with a pilgrimage to the top of One World Trade Center. I’ll repeat the D.C.-NYC trip tomorrow but will stick around longer–CE Week runs Tuesday through Thursday.

6/16/2015: My Password-Manager Service Got Hacked. Things Could Be Much Worse., Yahoo Tech

I had filed a different column by the time my editor and I separately decided: Hey, this news about a password-manager service’s security breach is column-worthy. After this piece went up, LastPass updated its original blog post with a clearer explanation that’s worth reading.

USA Today wireless-bridge post6/21/2015: Wonky Wi-Fi on one device? Take it to the bridge, USA Today

In this case, I hadn’t filed anything–I couldn’t, because I was waiting for an answer to a reasonably simple technical query from a company that had already exhibited… let’s say, a slow PR metabolism. Fortunately, a reader had e-mailed a question that I could answer without needing any spokespeople to chime in first. It didn’t hurt that the headline came to mind almost instantly.

Dealing with your work disappearing

If you were going to look up any of the tech-guide stories I wrote for Gannett’s NowU last year, don’t. NowU has become more like NotForU: Gannett stopped updating the site in the spring and shut it down a few weeks ago.

NowU closing noticeThis wasn’t the first time I’ve had my work vanish from the Web. My blog posts for the Consumer Electronics Association evaporated after a CMS switch, and all of the short updates I wrote for Sulia disappeared when that site closed. This time around, however, was better in one important way: My editor e-mailed me in late April to give me a heads-up about the impending closure of the site.

That note gave me more than enough time to save my stories as PDFs. At CEA, I had to rely on Internet Archive copies when management there let me repost some of those pieces here. At Sulia, I had neither a backup elsewhere on the Web nor advance notice of its demise, not that I was going to try to reproduce a few hundred microblog entries.

(The Internet Archive couldn’t preserve my stories at Gannett’s would-be hub for 45-and-over empty-nesters because NowU’s site was apparently coded to block it. That’s not how I would have run things, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.)

What I’m left with, then, is the enjoyment I derived from researching and writing those stories, the new sources I discovered in the process, the (generous!) payments that arrived on time–and, not least, the chance to sell stories about those topics all over again. If you’ve got a freelance budget and could use a how-to about WiFi and travel, international smartphone roaming, TV technology, or cutting the cord, please get in touch.