Unsubsidized words on subsidized travel

Two summers ago, I got an intriguing travel offer in my e-mail that had the added benefit of not being spam: Would I be interested in an expenses-paid trip to Berlin to cover the IFA electronics trade show?

I'm not used to having my country listed on these things. USA! USA!I’d already gotten interested in IFA after reading some of Harry McCracken’s coverage of the 2011 show, and the prospect of having anybody else pay for my travel certainly got my attention. In two years of full-time freelancing, I’ve yet to have a client reimburse airfare or hotel costs.

But being possessed by Catholic guilt, I replied to the sender (a publicist working with the ShowStoppers PR firm that runs IFA’s U.S. outreach) that I’d have to check with my regular editors to see if they’d object.

To my surprise, their responses ranged from “Should be fine” to “say hello to my old haunts!” So I took the mostly-free trip–I paid miles and cash to upgrade to business class on the flight over,  then the subsidy didn’t cover all of the high-end hotel the organizers had booked–filled my notebook, and learned a great deal about the non-U.S. gadget business that’s since informed my coverage back here.

I was also surprised to see the company I had in Berlin that year and again earlier this month after I accepted the same offer. The contingent of maybe two dozen U.S. journalists included full-time staffers for tech-news hubs like ZDNet, PCMag.com, TechNewsDaily and SlashGear as well as freelancers whose outlets include the likes of CBS and the New York Times–not some scruffy bunch of junket-grabbing hacks, in other words. And I got a lot out of comparing notes with writers I’d only known before through Twitter.

Were I still at the Post, none of that would have happened. The career-limiting move wouldn’t have been getting turned down after requesting permission to take a travel stipend–it would have been my being a jerk for asking in the first place. And even as a freelancer, I can’t sell to some places under these circumstances. My occasional client Ars Technica turned down my offer to file something from the show.

I recognize that letting somebody besides an employer or client pay for my travel can look bad. But I think there’s a meaningful difference between a company I cover paying for a flight or a hotel so I can go write something about its event or product, and the money coming from a third party organizing or sponsoring an event.

The first case looks a lot worse to me and would be harder to explain to readers, so I’ve declined the few invitations I’ve received so far. (Two digital camera vendors wanted me to try out their new hardware in scenic settings, and a couple of tech companies offered to cover travel costs to attend events in New York.)

I’m not going to say first-party travel subsidies are always an ethical foul. Cranky Flier blogger Brett Snyder, my favorite chronicler of commercial aviation, covers an industry in which the product can come with a four- or five-digit price tag; his way of dealing with that conflict is to disclose not just the subsidized trips he’s taken but the ones he’s declined. I continue to trust his work.

You can also argue that third-party subsidies are economically indistinguishable from Samsung or Google writing a check. But if you start looking at how money flows in the tech-news business, you’ll never stop–who do you think buys the ads that support tech-news sites? Besides, I already write for a blog sponsored by a tech trade association and before that contributed to a much larger tech lobby’s blog; turning down organizer-paid travel wouldn’t make me any less guilty under that argument.

Transparency is an overrated response to situations like this but still necessary. My disclosures page breaks down my sources of income but also notes speaking fees and paid travel I’ve picked up (usually for participating in one panel discussion or another). But I also remember that if I’m not going to find enough news or networking when I arrive to keep me busy, it’s not worth being apart from my family.

Edited 11/18/2013 to clarify what I see as the difference between a company directly paying for me to cover its event or product and an organizer or sponsor paying travel costs.

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Weekly output: Aereo, 4K TV, Tech Night Owl, public WiFi, personalized Google search

I did a lot more writing from the Consumer Electronics Association’s CE Week conference in New York than I’d expected, considering its small size and attendance. (I posted a few photos on Flickr.) The list below leaves out one other post reported from there, which should be up sometime Monday.

6/27/2013: Notes From An Enlightening Interview Of Aereo’s Chet Kanojia, Disruptive Competition Project

To my considerable surprise, an onstage interview of a tech CEO by a trade-association CEO yielded some useful insights about how we view copyright disputes and challenges to entrenched incumbents–thanks also to some unintentionally revealing questions from the audience.

DisCo 4K post6/28/2013: 4K, 3D and How Perfectionism Can Crowd Out Practicality, Disruptive Competition Project

Most of the last day at CE Week was taken up by a series of panels and presentations about “4K” television, so called for its almost four thousand pixels of horizontal resolution. I was a skeptic about 4K’s prospects before getting on the train to NYC Tuesday afternoon, and this show didn’t make me more optimistic.

6/29/2013: June 29, 2013 — Jim Dalrymple, Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, Gabriel Weinberg, and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl Live

I returned to Gene Steinberg’s podcast to talk about 4K but also tech companies’ attempts to push back against NSA surveillance and my recent review of Republic Wireless (which, I should note, was reposted by Mashable a week ago as part of a Discovery content-sharing deal).

6/30/2013: Public Wi-Fi can alarm your browser, don’t let it alarm you, USA Today

Explaining why connecting to a public WiFi network with a Web login initially yields errors for every encrypted page open in your browser seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward job. That was not the case. The tip part of this week’s column covers a simpler topic: having Google show you search results that it hasn’t customized to suit its perception of your interests.

On Sulia, I posted a round of short reports from CE Week (for instance, relatively cheaper prices for 4K sets from Sharp and Toshiba). I also kvetched about the apparent uselessness of a new link-sharing site called Potluck, reminded readers that Big Music’s protests about Pandora shouldn’t ring true, and noted a successful resolution to a complication with repairs to an iPad 2’s cracked screen.

How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.

DMCA exemptions: requesting permission to innovate (2011 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one ran Dec. 16, 2011; it may help explain where the last few months of headlines about phone unlocking came from.)

One of the stranger rituals of U.S. tech policy is now unfolding in Washington: the triennial reassessment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” rules.

In this exercise, the Librarian of Congress considers granting exemptions to the DMCA’s ban on picking digital or electronic locks that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA mandates this review because of the possibility–in retrospect, certainty–of companies abusing their immunity from customer interference with “digital rights management” systems to limit non-infringing uses.

DMCA exemption rulemakingYou may prefer to call this a “requesting permission to innovate” ritual.

In four earlier rounds of exemption proceedings–in 200020032006 and last year–Librarian James H. Billington has inconsistently expanded the range of DMCA exemptions, sometimes taking away earlier permissions.

He legalized hacking into Web-filtering software to inspect lists of blocked sites the first two times but didn’t renew that in 2006. The exemption granted in 2000 for defeating broken DRM mechanisms that wrongly deny access was then narrowed to a loophole for breaking obsolete or malfunctioning “dongle” hardware keys. (A related exemption, covering systems that require presenting an original copy of a program or game in a storage format that has become obsolete, arrived in 2003 but was not renewed in 2010.)

E-book customers won the right in 2003 to hack their DRM if it prevented the use of screen-reader accessibility software and have kept it since, but no equivalent accessibility exemption has been granted for movie viewers. And yet in 2010, the Librarian legalized ripping “protected” DVDs for fair-use criticism and commentary purposes, something still not allowed for DRMed e-books or music.

2006′s exemptions let you unlock a phone to use on a competing network, but 2010′s narrowed that to used phones. But last year’s proceeding also granted the right to jailbreak a phone to install the software of your choice–a big development for iPhone users.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the 20 comments submitted in this year’s proceeding focus on preserving prior gains or ironing out inconsistencies.

For example, a group called the Library Copyright Alliance only wants to renew 2010′s DVD-ripping exemption, while the University of Michigan’s library seeks to have its protected class of students widened beyond those in “film and media studies.”

(Those links and all that follow point to PDF files.)

Public Knowledge wants to see the current DVD rule extended to cover “space shifting” to other formats, noting the increasing number of laptops without DVD drives.

A coalition of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet University and the Participatory Culture Foundation propose granting a broader exemption to make movie downloads, streams and discs accessible to those with hearing or sight impairments.

A group led by the International Documentary Association proposes to expand the same provision to cover Blu-ray discs and movie downloads and streams so that future filmmakers can incorporate fair-use excerpts in documentary or fictional works. A set of professors at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere make the same request for educational use and are echoed by the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab.

The American Council of the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind, meanwhile, want to maintain an exemption for making e-books accessible to readers with limited vision. The Open Book Alliance wants another for removing DRM from books that are already in the public domain.

Mobile devices figure in over a quarter of these submissions. Small wireless firms MetroPCS CommunicationsYoughiogheny Communications and a trade group called RCA – the Competitive Carriers Association all want to renew and expand 2010′s phone-unlocking exemption to cover mobile devices in general, not just phones. Consumers Union concurs.

The Software Freedom Law Center also favors allowing device owners to install the operating system of their choice. It also wants to permit desktop users to bypass any mandatory app stores–although neither Windows nor Mac OS X impose that restriction today.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sent in an all-of-the-above brief backing exemptions for jailbreaking phones, tablets and video-game consoles and another set for unlocking DVDs, downloads and streams to extract fair-use clips.

Four submissions from individuals request blanket waivers on circumvention for personal use; a fifth seeks one for the narrow category of DRMed e-books in the Mobipocket format Amazon no longer supports on its Kindle readers.

We’ll have to wait until sometime in February to see which of these requests get a favorable hearing, or if any of 2010′s exemptions will disappear. That’s plenty of time to contemplate a broader question: If a far-reaching provision of a law carries such a high risk of collateral damage that an unelected official must drill holes into it every three years–and those holes seem to get bigger over time–shouldn’t we think about rebooting that rule?

A bout of broken links at CEA’s blog

The Consumer Electronics Association recently moved its Digital Dialogue blog over to a new content management system. That wouldn’t be a news item to me, except that when CEA switched its blog to the same CMS that runs the rest of the site, they elected not to bring over entries older than November.

CEA Digital Dialogue logoThat means that along with CEA posts going back to the blog’s debut in March 2008, all of my own work there has gone down the bit bucket. (That’s not the first time this kind of link rot has happened; when Discovery News changed CMSes and redid its design in January, my car2go review somehow vanished; they were able to repost it, but not at the same address.) That’s not what I would have done; it’s also not my server.

You can still find most of my CEA contributions through the Internet Archive, but only if you know the original address of each. So I asked the folks at CEA if they’d mind me reposting some of that stuff here–I had to ask because my contract, like too many freelance arrangements, had a “work for hire” clause assigning copyright to them–and they said that would be fine as long as I noted where and when the work first appeared.

I said “some” and not all because I don’t have the time or motivation to rescue 50-plus contributions, not all of that material retains its relevance, and some of it is, you know, not that good. Four I have in mind: a December 2011 post unpacking the odd ritual of granting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s anti-circumvention clause, an April 2012 rant about how “digital rights management” restrictions in e-books preserve Amazon’s dominance, a June 2012 confession of how I overestimated the appeal of the DVD recorder, and a July 2012 protest against sacrificing compatibility or connectivity to make phones and laptops fractionally smaller or thinner.

But if there are others you’d like to see restored here, please let me know. To help with that, I’ve gathered a more-or-less complete list after the jump of the posts, podcasts and chats I did for CEA, with Internet Archive links when available.

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Packing and planning for CES

Here we go again: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to board a plane and fly to Las Vegas for my 16th consecutive year of covering CES.

CES 2012 South HallI should have the packing routine down by now–if you’re going to the show and haven’t read the cheat sheet I wrote in late 2011, it’s not too late to check it out–but I’m still not sure that I do. This year’s gear doesn’t stray too much from last year’s:

  • 13-inch MacBook Air
  • Ethernet adapter to make up for the Air’s lack of wired networking (has nobody at Apple ever tried to use the WiFi at most tech events?)
  • unlocked loaner Galaxy Nexus phone overdue to return to Google; in the meantime, I’ve got a prepaid T-Mobile account on it
  • Verizon-loaned HTC 8X, since I haven’t given Windows Phone 8 a real torture test yet
  • My own pathetically obsolete phone
  • aging Canon point-and-shoot camera (I need to upgrade and hope I’ll get a sense of what I should buy at CES)
  • charger and spare AA batteries for the camera
  • Belkin travel power strip
  • compact USB hub, in case the two USB ports on the power strip aren’t enough to power nearby devices

I’ll be in Vegas through Friday morning, meaning I have all of Monday to hop between press conferences, followed by three days on and around the show floor. Beyond incessantly tweeting out whatever I see, I’ll be writing a CES recap for Discovery, a couple of posts for the Disruptive Competition Project, and some sort of contribution to the PBS NewsHour’s site.

I’ve got a couple of video interviews on tap as well–the Motley Fool wants to get my thoughts on the show, and I’m supposed to chat with tech journalists Cali Lewis and Jordan Burchette on Panasonic’s Live@CES video stream Tuesday at 3:30 Pacific. And I’m going to try an additional experiment: posting too-long-for-tweets updates at Sulia, a “subject-based social network” that aims to provide more depth and context than Twitter.

I will not be at all surprised if this to-do list expands over the next few days.

If there’s anything in particular that you’d like me to look for or check out while I’m at CES, now would be an excellent time to leave a comment.

Weekly output: Android security, CES answers, SOPA, Web chat, interview

This week was about a million times easier than my post-CES week last year–when two days after coming from Vegas, I was on the 7 a.m. Acela to New York to cover the introduction of the Verizon iPhone, followed by an 8 a.m. TV appearance the next morning. This time, I had time to linger at the State of the Net conference Tuesday and Wednesday (where I did a radio interview about SOPA that, sadly, doesn’t seem to be anywhere online) and edit, sort and caption my CES pictures into a semi-coherent photoset on Flickr.

1/15/2012: Security tip: Assess Android apps wisely, USA Today

The week’s summarizes the ways you can assess the quality of an Android app before installing it on the phone, then shares a lesson learned from my Christmas tech troubleshooting of an iPhoto problem on my mother-in-law’s computer.

1/18/2012: Why The Web Is Sick Of SOPA, Discovery News

Wednesday’s online protests provided a handy news peg to summarize the things I and many other Internet users hate about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. One of them is the greedy, control-freak mindset behind these exercises in copyright overreach, as recently documented by News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch in a series of delusional tweets.

1/18/2012: CES 2012: Answers To Your Electronics Questions – Not All That You’ll Like, CEA Digital Dialogue

I’ve done a lot of CES recaps–including last week’s for Discovery–that focus on the new hardware on display at the electronics show. For this one, I opted to assess what sort of answers CES provided to some of the questions I hear most often about gadgets. Sorry, you won’t like the response the show coughed up about the future of smartphone battery life.

1/20/2012: Rob’s CES Recap, CEA Digital Dialogue

I did my first Web chat since my goodbye Q&A at the Post in April for CEA on Friday. (This was also my introduction to the CoverIt Live app I’ve seen used at many other sites.) About 10 minutes in, I realized how much I’d missed the experience–it’s good to be back in the saddle. The plan is to do these once a month at CEA’s site, although if there’s sufficient interest I wouldn’t have a problem with stepping up that frequency.

1/21/2012: January 21, 2012 — Kirk McElhearn, Daniel Eran Dilger, and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl Live

I was a guest on Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Live podcast. He interviewed me about Apple’s new iPad e-textbooks initiative (don’t put too much weight on my answers, since we spoke only an hour or so after the announcement and I hadn’t had much time to digest the details) and then my favorite political punching bag, SOPA. (This episode isn’t live on that page yet but should be sometime Saturday night. 1/22, 1:04 p.m. Now it is; I’ve added that link and corrected the title.)