Weekly output: online-news problems and possibilities, Mark Vena podcast

Sometimes these weekly recaps only feature me talking about my coverage instead of, you know, actual examples of my coverage. This week is one of those times.

Screenshot of CPI page showing my event, with a still frame from the video4/7/2021: The Future of Innovation in News Production, Competition Policy International

I moderated this panel on problems and possibilities for online news publishers, featuring eco – Association of the Internet Industry policy adviser Thomas Bihlmayer, tech-policy lawyer Cathy Gellis, and Public Knowledge competition policy director Charlotte Slaiman. Spoiler alert: We did not solve the media’s business-model problems in the hour we had, but the participants all made great points, and I would be happy to pick up the discussion with any of them.

4/7/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (4-6-21), Mark Vena

The topic I discussed on this week’s installment of this tech analyst’s podcast: the Supreme Court’s termination of Oracle’s attempt to get courts to grant it a new intellectual-property monopoly, a quest that would have had disastrous effects on interoperability and competition in the software industry. As I said on the show (also available in video form): You can hate Google and still like this ruling.

Sore feet for a shot: an afternoon as a Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of the last year feeling helpless against this accursed pandemic–not just because of the existential dread inflicted by a disease that keeps striking people who wear masks and do the other right things, but because I could not do anything to help others beyond wearing a mask myself and writing the occasional article about exposure-notification apps and novel-coronavirus antibody testing.

Add on the guilt I’ve picked up about not getting sick despite the chances I have taken (meaning, gratuitously non-essential travel), and I felt even more that I had to give something else back. Thursday, I finally did.

That opportunity came via the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, a program the state government set up in 2002. Although the MRC emphasizes medical backgrounds, it also welcomes volunteers with zero credentials in the field. I filled out my application in early February, got approved a couple of days later, and then waited to get an e-mail inviting me to an online training session. That didn’t arrive until March 1, at which point I realized I could have watched a prerecorded session any time over the previous three weeks.

Photo showing part of my Virginia MRC badge and COVID-19 vaccination card atop papers relating post-vaccination advice.

That video covered the basics of helping with COVID-19 vaccination clinics–including a mention that at the end of a shift, volunteers may receive leftover doses of the vaccine–but it did not prepare me for how quickly volunteer opportunities would get snapped up. The first few squandered chances pushed me to set up a Gmail filter to star and mark as important every MRC message.

And after weeks of waiting for vaccinations to open up for people in group 1C (my cohort, both because the Centers for Disease Control chose to categorize journalists as “other essential workers” and because I could stand to lose a few pounds), I finally opened one of those “Volunteers Needed” e-mails fast enough on April 1. I quickly signed up for a noon-5 p.m. shift April 8 at a community center in Arlington hosting second-dose vaccinations.

After a quick recap of basic rules Thursday afternoon (the important one being not to guess at answers to people’s questions) and my being issued a badge with my name and photo (as if I had a real job!), I got my assignment of minding the line. It was easy work: Check to make sure that the closest taped stripe on the floor inside the entrance wasn’t occupied, then wave in the next person on the line outside.

After a couple of hours, I took a break to finish gobbling down the sandwich I’d packed, then got moved to an indoor spot at which I could remind people to have their IDs and vaccination cards ready.

Here’s one thing I didn’t expect to get out of that: realizing how many people in so many different demographics were still waiting to finish getting vaccinated. Months after first responders and people over 75 should have all been covered, I saw several senior citizens in wheelchairs and two police officers waiting for their second shots, plus dozens more people visibly older than me.

That instantly silenced my inner monologue of grumbling over seeing younger friends posting vax selfies–and properly relegated my sore feet from hours of standing to the least of everybody’s problems.

The other surprise of this experience: how much I enjoyed brief banter with total strangers, something I last experienced working the election in November. (In retrospect, serving as a poll worker was a gateway drug for MRC volunteering.) I complimented people on the designs of their masks, greeted people wearing UVA caps with “Go Hoos,” made dad jokes about having your boarding pass ready… yeah, I do need to get out more.

One of the supervisors had asked early on if I would be interested in a vaccine dose if one were available (my reply amounted to “[bleep] yeah”) and as the last of hundreds of people with booked appointments stood in line, he said the words I’d been waiting to hear since last spring: “We have a shot for you.”

A day after getting my first dose of the Moderna vaccine, I have some soreness in that upper arm and a profound sense of gratitude. Instead of counting up after every exposure risk–five days without symptoms is my rough benchmark for assuming that I haven’t gotten infected–I can now count down. I’m T-minus 13 days until the vaccine should hit 80 percent effectiveness per the CDC study released at the end of March, T-minus 27 days until my second dose, and T-minus 41 days until my immune system has fully processed the vaccine.

I just hope today’s Costco run isn’t the crowded-places errand that gets me sick first.

But if I can get through the next five days and then cross that two-week post-first-dose mark, I’ll be ready to work another volunteer MRC shift. And this time, I’ll wear my hiking boots.

Weekly output: Qwoted, 5G frontiers, T-Mobile turns off TVision, pay-TV-free MLB, Mark Vena podcast, “Other” iOS storage

It’s Easter Sunday, and my favorite sign of reborn life today is the CDC reporting another 3.37 million coronavirus vaccine doses administered yesterday.

3/29/2021: ‘Qwestion’ & Answer with Rob Pegoraro, Freelance Journalist, Qwoted

This platform set up to connect experts to journalists quizzed me over e-mail at the end of last year.

Screengrab of my CCA panel, showing one panelist's cat perching on this chair.

3/30/2021: New Frontiers For 5G, Mobile Carriers Show

A year ago, I was supposed to moderate a panel discussion about 5G wireless possibilities at the Competitive Carriers Association’s spring conference. That event got scrubbed, and then I wound up doing an online panel about 5G at the same organization’s virtual event this spring. My fellow panelists: T-Mobile chief network officer Ulf Ewaldsson, U.S. Cellular chief technology officer Mike Irizarry (his cat makes a cameo in the screengrab here), Ericsson consumer lab head Jasmeet Sethi, and Nex-Tech Wireless director of operations, network and engineering Nathan Sutter (who somehow has his caption swapped with mine in the screengrab above). Two days later, panel host Fierce Wireless wrote up our talk.

3/30/2021: T-Mobile Turning Off TVision, Will Bundle Philo And YouTube TV Instead, Forbes

T-Mobile dumping the streaming TV service it launched half a year ago, and which I wrote up at the time, made this an obvious story candidate. 

4/1/2021: As Streaming Services Drop Baseball Networks, Many Cord-Cutters Can Only Say ‘Wait Till Next Year’, Forbes

This year’s version of what’s become an annual fixture covered how multiple streaming-TV providers have run away from the regional sports networks that carry most baseball games, and which have socked local viewers with regional-sports-network fees that increase a little more every year. 

4/1/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (4-1-21), Mark Vena

This week’s episode of this podcast (also available in video form) involved my gripes about the thin availability of baseball games on streaming TV (see above), Amazon’s clumsy stabs at persuading politicians and their voters via Twitter, and more. 

4/2/2021: What does ‘Other’ mean in your device storage? Dealing with the dark matter of iPhone and iPad data, USA Today

Once again, a family member’s request for tech support led to a tech-support column for USAT.

Updated 4/6/2021 to add a link to the video version of Vena’s podcast.

Your eyes are up there: an unfixed problem with virtual panels

After all of the practice the last year has given me at looking into a camera as if it’s another human being and carrying on a group discussion, I still struggle with one important bit: keeping my eyes focused on the camera.

File this under panel-moderation problems: If you’re going to write an outline of the talk beforehand and then consult that during the panel–as you should–you’ll leave your audience wondering why you keep glancing down.

In a real-world, non-virtual panel, the spectators almost always sit far enough away to not notice a moderator’s checks of their notes. But in a virtual panel, where the optimum distance for the camera is a couple of feet at most, this is hard to hide. Especially if you’re following the virtual-panel best practice of using a dedicated webcam and fastening it to a tripod in whatever spot will leave your face evenly lighted.

If I could ever boil down a panel outline to a large-type one-page printout that I could tape to a tripod, I might be in better shape–but then I’d still need to find some way to mount a screen close to the camera.

For those of you who also can’t self-edit panel notes and and also struggle with this first-world problem, here’s a workaround I latched onto today, when the unavailability of the Logitech webcam in the photo above may have been an advantage: After attaching my aging smartphone to the top of a chair with a cheap GorillaPod tripod and using the DroidCam Android app to employ its camera as a higher-quality substitute for my HP laptop’s white-balance-impaired webcam, I flipped that 2-in-1 convertible computer’s screen roughly 270 degrees into “tent mode” and draped it over that top railing with the screen facing towards me.

That left the screen placed just below the phone and allowed me to look more focused on the talk… right up until this recording ran over schedule and into my next appointment, leaving me squirming in my chair as I hoped everybody else would wrap things up already.

Weekly output: talking tech with Mark Vena, laptops, Controlled Digital Lending

Researching the second item in this week’s roundup reminded me at length of how much I miss going to large tech trade shows like CES and IFA to assess new gadgets in person. Seeing a new laptop, tablet, smartphone or any other device in a canned online presentation is a weak substitute for a hands-on inspection, and I look forward to the time when I can resume that part of my work.

3/23/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (3-23-21), Mark Vena

I’ve now been on my industry-analyst pal’s podcast enough times with the same two fellow tech journalists–Stewart Wolpin and John Quain–that Mark decided to make us regulars. This week, we discussed a topics ranging from the new federal subsidies for educational broadband to the Apple event that was supposed to happen this week, and we also ventured a few predictions. In addition to the audio above, you can watch the video version in the YouTube embed below.

3/25/2021: Laptops, U.S. News & World Report

This project followed the lines of the password-managers guide I helped write over the winter: After editors picked a set of contenders to cover, based on a reading of third-party reviews, I wrote profiles of each of them. (As in, you should not read the rankings here as my own judgment.) In this guide, I covered Apple’s Macbook Air M1 and MacBook Pro 16-inch; Asus’s Chromebook Flip, ROG Zephyrus G14, VivoBook S15, and Asus ZenBook 13; Dell’s XPS 13 and XPS 15 9500; Google’s Pixelbook Go; HP’s Elite Dragonfly, Envy x360 13-inch, and Spectre x360 13-inch; Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet and ThinkPad X1 Carbon; and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7. My contributions here also included a piece on what to consider when shopping for a laptop and a Chromebook-basics explainer.

3/27/2021: The Paper-To-Pixels Workaround Activists Want To Use To Keep Libraries Online, Forbes

“CDL” isn’t just shorthand for a commercial driver’s license; it’s also an abbreviation for Controlled Digital Lending, a framework for libraries to digitize printed books they own and then loan out those ebook copies on a one-for-one basis.  

A yard once again in bloom, and in new need of work

This morning, the weeping cherry tree that I planted last spring to try to keep myself occupied as the world shut down showed its first blossoms. By this evening, that little tree was well on its way to surrounding itself with a cloud of white flowers.

After years of being a cherry blossom spectator, I feel like I’m being a good local citizen by making my own tiny contribution to one of the D.C. area’s signature spring sights. What also feels good: seeing the work of a previous year come back to life. It’s one of the most satisfying things in all of gardening.

Photo of cherry blossoms, showing base of the tree and my lawn velow

My yard also features a growing collection of daffodils, with lilies making their way out of the ground to bloom again. The redbud trees and a lilac out front are rapidly budding, and the small raised bed outside the back patio has a crop of arugula seedlings planted two weeks ago that should be providing sandwich fixings in another couple of weeks.

And all the time I’ve put in over the last few springs to root out bittercress and chickweed seems to have resulted in far fewer of those pests to twist out of the ground with a weeding fork.

On the downside, an unusually damp February has left large, low-lying swaths of lawn reduced to shoe-grabbing, clay-dense dirt. I would like to think that the grass will make a springtime recovery, but realistically, I need to regrade those parts. And after so many years of low-maintenance lawn care–including 16 years and counting with the same electric lawnmower–it bothers to me think that I’ll have to pay for dirt. But if I do my job right now and them remember to reseed in the fall, next spring I won’t be looking at caked clay in those parts of the lawn. Right? Please tell me I’m right?

Weekly output: homework-gap help, Facebook and the media, Apple’s app-tracking prompt

I’m writing this under a moderate amount of duress, in that WordPress has demoted the “Classic Editor” to a block you can invoke in the middle of a post written with the Block Editor about which I continue to grumble. One reason why: The Block Editor, notwithstanding improvements in its image-handling functions, still doesn’t appear to offer an indent feature, forcing me to switch gears one paragraph at a time to use the Classic block in this post.

3/16/2021: Two new bills could put a dent in technology’s ‘homework gap’, Fast Company

One of the better reasons to use (and pay for) a note-taking app is the ability to dredge up a quote from two years ago that shows one of the people you’re writing about was tuned into a problem before a pandemic put it in a harsh spotlight.

3/19/2021: Facebook Wants To Put News Back On Its Friends List, Forbes

You can see from the page-view totals shown atop this post that not many people read it. On the other hand, reporting this out gave me a chance to check in with a couple of my favorite journalism-conference people. And my including a link to my Patreon page was followed by a new reader signing up there. 

3/20/2021: What an upcoming Apple privacy prompt will mean for you – and the apps you use, USA Today

Apple’s App Tracking Transparency prompt–your invitation to ask apps not to track your usage across other apps–drew full-page-newspaper-ad opposition from Facebook a few months ago, but since then other large tech giants have responded to it with a remarkable level of equanimity. This post also quotes a mobile-marketing consultant who warns that smaller developers have much more to lose.

Reminder: Don’t overlook Reddit for crowdsourced tech support

Two weeks ago, I spent too much time on T-Mobile’s site because I didn’t go to Reddit’s first. I was trying to opt out of my wireless carrier’s new targeted-advertising scheme, but I could not find any way to do so when logged into my business account–and like any dummy perplexed by an unintuitive interface, I kept trying the same thing over and over instead of asking for help.

Screenshot of the icon for Reddit's r/tmobile subreddit: Snoo the alien, but wearing a magenta T-Mobile t-shirt under a jacket while holding a cell phone.

The answer I needed was waiting in a thread on Reddit’s r/tmobile subreddit, in which one T-Mo customer replied to a comment about the unhelpfulness of the carrier’s site for this opt-out by saying “I had to use the app and eventually found it in the privacy section.” As in, the T-Mobile app I’d had on my phone all long but had forgotten about, and which coverage I’d read about this issue had not clarified would be the only way for a business customer to adjust this setting.

(In case you’re still puzzling this through, open the app, sign in, tap the “More” button at the bottom right, and then tap “Advertising & Analytics.”)

This wasn’t the first time I’ve found Reddit’s company- or service-specific forums exceptionally useful for tech support. While smart companies maintain their own forums where people can sort out problems and share tips, Reddit has three things going for it that many other discussion boards lack: scale, a search that works, and crowdsourced measures of the value of a comment and its author.

Reddit upvotes, downvotes and the karma score they feed into can be abused like any other social-media system to protect toxic behavior–it was only last June that Reddit nuked r/The_Donald and some 2,000 other subreddits for repeated hate-speech violations. (Of course, there’s a subreddit on which you can debate those risks of abuse at length.) But in the context of a subreddit set up for users of the same app, service or gadget to solve each other’s problems, these collective accountability features seem to function well enough. I also keep wondering if Twitter could use some version of a karma score–and that, decades ago, Usenet could have had one as well.

Plus, many of these product-specific subreddits also feature wikis maintained by their more-frequent contributors, something you almost never see at the forums a company maintains for its customers.

In addition to T-Mobile tech support, I’ve found Reddit a good resource for help with my HP laptop, and some of my earlier smartphones. Reddit’s also proved useful as a journalistic resource when I’ve needed to find people using a service with limited availability, like Verizon’s 5G Home fixed-wireless service or SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband. I try to pay that assistance back by showing up in threads other people have started about my own stories–yes, “robpegoraro” there is me–and offering to answer whatever questions people have.

Writing this post made me realize I’ve probably neglected Reddit’s potential to help me puzzle through one app I use all the time: this blogging platform. Maybe r/Wordpress can help me feel less grumpy about the Block Editor?

Weekly output: video gaming booms, Locast expands, Sheryl Sandberg defends Facebook

A time shift caused by the start or end of Daylight Saving Time means one thing around here: a boomlet of page views for the rant I wrote about the unintuitive interface on a sports watch my wife used to wear. Not too many of you still have this Timex model, to judge from the declining stats for that post compared to five years ago, but it remains the most-read post on this blog with 123,612 views–almost twice as many as the second-place post, a how-to about setting up Lotus Notes to forward all your work e-mail to Gmail.

3/10/2021: Limelight survey: The pandemic is driving a boom in gaming, FierceVideo

I spent Wednesday morning filling in at my trade-pub client to cover breaking news, and as part of that wrote up this eight-country survey conducted for the content-delivery firm Limelight Networks.

Screenshot of my Locast story as seen in my Android phone's Chrome browser.3/10/2021: Locast expands service to Cleveland area, now reaches more than 50% of U.S. viewers, FierceVideo

The first piece I filed Wednesday got published second, because reasons. Covering the expansion of Locast to northeast Ohio gave me a chance to introduce myself properly to the PR people at this non-profit that streams local TV stations–this won’t be the last time I cover this interesting option for cord cutters and the legal challenges it faces from broadcasters who don’t appreciate its reading of copyright law.

3/11/2021: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg: Trust Us, You Still Want Personalized Ads, Forbes

An appearance by Facebook’s chief operating officer at the ad-industry group IAB’s virtual event left me scratching my head about the vast gap between the picture Sandberg painted of Facebook and what I’ve seen and read over the past year.

Back to school, after almost a year

Today marked a year and a day since my last work event outside home. It also brought our daughter’s first day at school–meaning in school–since last March.

What a long, strange, painful trip around the sun it’s been. The headlines in Arlington and across the region–not to mention the nation–have documented how dismally distance learning has failed in practice. It’s just hard for kids to pay attention and ask for help through a screen. And while it’s been difficult for everybody to spend a year mostly cut off from people, that’s especially harsh for kids who have had a large fraction of their childhoods stolen from them by this pandemic.

Picture of a side of a school bus, showing the word "Schools"

I don’t blame any of that on the teachers who have also had their worlds upended and have since been working harder than ever to do their jobs. I mean, I struggle to stay tuned into virtual events, and I’m a 50-year-old man with a college degree and decades of taking notes while staring at screens. Just how well should a 10-year-old be expected to tackle this problem?

Were my wife and I both people of full-time leisure, this might not have been that bad. We could have fielded our daughter’s questions, worked through problems with her, tried to cheer her up whenever necessary, and in essence acted like semi-competent substitute teachers. But this mortgage and these property taxes won’t pay themselves, so we have been reduced to doubling as incompetent, distracted substitute teachers.

The remote-learning technology involved hasn’t helped. I know a lot more about our schools’ software stack than I used to, and much of it has made me angry–such as the layer of mobile-device-management software that made updating iPad apps a Windows XP-esque experience, and the classroom-management app that seems designed against the idea of showing students or their parents a simple list of what work is due and overdue.

School isn’t back in a full-time sense for us; IRL classes are still only two days a week to keep class sizes unusually small (backed up by extra ventilation in classrooms), with the other three on the same dreadful virtual basis. But that’s two days a week our kid can have something of a normal 10-year-old’s life, just with a lot more masks. When so many people I know are still waiting for even a partial restoration of their kids’ lives, I’ll take that.