2021 in review: return to flight

The course of this year abounded in bumps–from the horrifying sight of an attempted coup at the Capitol six days into January to the stubborn, vaccine-refusal-fueled persistence of the pandemic. But 2021 was still not 2020, and I refuse to brush that aside.

The most important dates on my calendar this year had no equivalent on last year’s: my first, second and booster shots of a coronavirus vaccine. Those Moderna doses helped give me so much of my life back, and I’ve tried to repay that continuing to volunteer at vaccination clinics.

They also allowed my writing to feature something last seen in January of 2020: datelines. My first travel for an assignment came in July, when I set out on a 1,000-plus mile road trip for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks report. That was followed in August by a transatlantic jaunt to Estonia and back, a quick September visit to Miami Beach to moderate my first in-person panels since February of 2020, an October reunion with Online News Association friends, and November trips to Lisbon for Web Summit and to the Big Island of Hawaii for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit (note that organizers paid my travel costs for all of those events except the ONA gathering).

The long days I spent drive testing wireless networks for PCMag paid off a second time when the editors asked if I’d be interested in doing more work there. That solved a problem I had when I ended my experiment in writing for Forbes–where to cover tech-policy developments–but this gig has since allowed me to write about such non-political subjects as a test drive of a $120,000+ battery-electric Mercedes.

This year also saw me write for several new places–always a good thing for a freelancer, also a key factor in 2021’s income exceeding 2020’s by a welcome margin–while last week marked my 10th anniversary as a USA Today tech columnist. That’s approaching the length of my tenure as a Washington Post tech columnist, which is crazy to consider.

Among all of this year’s work, these stories stand out in my mind:

  • In February, I wrote about App Store ratings fraud for Forbes, because a company as self-righteous about its control of a mobile-apps marketplace as Apple should do a better job of policing it.
  • I teed off on exploding prices at Internet providers in a May column for USA Today after being inspired and irked by the poor disclosure I saw during the research for a U.S. News guide to ISPs.
  • In my debut at the Verge in early June, I explained how data-broker sites function as a self-licking ice-cream cone and offered practical advice about how to limit the visibility of your personal details.
  • Family tech support awakened me to the inadequacy of Gmail’s message-storage management, leading to a USA Today column teeing off on Google for that neglected user experience.
  • Who better to quote as a hype-puncturing source about SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband than Elon Musk himself? The reality-check video keynote he did at MWC in late June yielded a Fast Company post that helped inform my subsequent coverage of rural broadband.
  • I combined my notes from the Estonia trip with interviews of U.S. experts afterwards for a Fast Company story explaining that Baltic state’s e-government journey–including why it would be such a heavy lift here.
  • I used my PCMag perch to unpack Apple executive Craig Federighi’s disingenuous Web Summit talk about App Store security.

Having mentioned my business travel here–see after the jump for a map of where I flew for work in 2021–I have to note that the most important flights I took were the ones that reunited me with family members for the first time in well over a year. I hope your 2021 included the same.

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Weekly output: FAA vs. C-Band 5G, CES cancellations, Mark Vena podcast

For all of the stress 2021 has inflicted, its final days still represent a vast improvement over what the end of 2020 felt like.
 

Screenshot of USA Today column as seen on a Pixel 5a's copy of Chrome12/21/2021: How 5G could make a mess of your next flight, USA Today

The latest in a very long series of 5G explainers was more of an aviation-safety story than a mobile-broadband item, so I talked to a different set of sources. And they convinced me that there’s more to this than the Federal Aviation Administration getting persnickety at the last minute. 

12/22/2021: Some Tech Companies (and Tech Journalists) Scrap Plans for In-Person CES 2022 Visit, PCMag

I wrote about the cast of characters–mostly side-stage exhibitors so far, but also a lot of my tech-journalism friends–that had decided to sit out CES 2022 due to concern over the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. After this ran, Lenovo announced that it, too, was canceling plans to show up in Vegas.  

12/23/2021: S01 E23 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast for one last time this year to discuss some Apple-shareholder activism, the log4j server vulnerability, the C-Band 5G fracas, and the status of CES.

Android phone migration has gotten easier–except for Google Pay and Google Voice

Moving from my old Pixel 3a to my new Pixel 5a provided my smoothest Android phone-migration experience yet. I had much less home-screen housekeeping to do on my new device than two years ago, and one key Google app showed a particularly dramatic improvement. But then I had to deal with Google Pay and Google Voice.

Overall, Google’s instructions get across how easy process has become. Tap yes in the “Copy apps & data” button on the new phone, unlock the old phone, connect the two with a USB-C cable, tap yes in the old phone’s “Copy data to new phone?” dialog, then wait–about 21 minutes in my case.

A Pixel 5a showing the "Transfer accounts" screen in Google Authenticator sits atop a Pixel 3a showing the same screen in the same app.

Google’s Android-transfer system accurately reproduced my app-icon layout (the contrast with upgrading to iPadOS 15 did not escape my attention) and wallpaper, with the only missing item being a home-screen icon for Android Auto.

I did still have to wait for most individual apps to download off Google’s Play Store, and their new-phone user experience varied awkwardly. Some, such as Feedly, LinkedIn and FlightRadar24, didn’t need me to log back in; most demanded a new entry of usernames and passwords (made much easier by 1Password); a few required extra bouts of authentication.

One Google app pleasantly surprised me, given the sensitivity of its stored data. Google Authenticator previously required renewing each two-step verification code securing a site login as if your old phone had fallen into the ocean, an experience that Google security chief Stephan Somogyi in 2017 apologetically described to me as “a complete, total and unmitigated pain.”

But in 2021, an old phone’s Google Authenticator can generate a catchall QR Code for its saved accounts; scan it with the new phone’s copy of Authenticator, and you’ve got your one-time passcodes for those accounts ready there. Great!

And then two other Google apps showed how awkward this process can remain. Google Pay–not the mobile-payments app that debuted as Google Wallet, but the new release that shipped this spring and then required some non-trivial settings restoration–landed on the new Pixel 5a as if I had never used it before.

I had to start by typing in my cell number because this Google service relies on that for authentication instead of a Google account. As Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo explained/warned back in March, this setup resulted from Google electing to build a new Google Pay off code optimized for the Indian market, where SMS authentication apparently reigns supreme. And then I then had to add back my saved credit cards, one at a time.

The last hiccup, I hope, came with Google Voice. The oft-neglected Internet-telephony app that I use for my work number seemed to be configured properly on the new phone, but then a journalist trying to reach me for a radio interview had her call go to voicemail. Eight times in a row. The answer turned out to be that Google Voice’s account settings had my number associated with two smartphones and two copies of the same number, a level of confusion that the system evidently resolved by not patching calls through to the newest device.

But now that’s squared away, and I think I can make it through the rest of this trying year without further mobile-app troubleshooting. I hope that’s the case for everybody reading this too.

Weekly output: Internet Assocation, Mercedes EQS, NextGen TV in D.C., DJI investment ban, TikTok hysteria

I did not plan to spend so many hours this week in a fruitless search for at-home COVID tests–the worst kind of holiday shopping ever.

12/15/2021: After Microsoft and Uber Flee, The Internet Association Logs Off, PCMag

This post gave me an excuse to dust off some notes from IA events I’d attended in the Before Times.

Screenshot of the PCMag story as seen on an iPad mini 512/16/2021: Like an Electric Spaceship: Hitting the Road in the Mercedes-Benz EQS, PCMag

The EQS 580 I test-drove around Tysons was, at $120,000, easily the most expensive vehicle I have ever taken out for a spin. This was a fun post to write, even if dealing with Tesla fanboys on Twitter afterwards was not so much fun. (Remember, the block button is there for a reason; online malcontents are not entitled to waste your time.)

12/16/2021: ‘NextGen TV’ Broadcasts Now on the Air in DC, PCMag

Almost five years after I first wrote about this upgrade to broadcast television, NextGen TV (originally known as “ATSC 3.0”) is finally on the air in Washington, courtesy of Howard University’s WHUT hosting the signals of the four major network stations here. Another thing that’s changed since the early days of this standard: Compatible sets have gotten much cheaper, even if some major manufacturers continue to sit out NextGen.

12/17/2021: Feds Ground All US Investments in DJI, PCMag

Once the lede for this popped into my head, the rest pretty much wrote itself. Which is a good feeling!

12/18/2021: TikTok school-threat hysteria, Al Jazeera

As my friend Mike Masnick wrote at Techdirt, this wasn’t really a TikTok story but a pack-journalism story: Traditional media outlets raced to cover an alleged post or posts threatening violance against schools without ever pointing to specific posts making such a threat. Note that TikTok says they couldn’t find any such thing.

Better pizza at home with steel and paper

The last 20 months of enforced home cooking have allowed me more opportunities than usual to make one of my favorites, pizza. I’ve made my dad’s recipe, I’ve figured out deep dish–and lately the unlikely combination of a slab of metal and parchment paper has figured into my pizza adventures.

Pizza just out of the oven and still on the parchment paper, topped with sausage.

It all started years ago when my wife gave me a Baking Steel, a quarter-inch-thick steel plate that addresses a major weakness of baking pizza at home: Your oven can’t get hot enough to yield a crispy crust. Metal this thick, however, both soaks up heat and conducts it to whatever’s touching it–so preheating this slab in a 500-degree oven for 45 minutes ensures that pizza dough will get much closer to the crispy, lightly charred crust of a legit pizzeria.

The catch with this technique is that you need to transfer a fully-assembled pizza to this furnace of a surface as quickly as possible. But sliding a pizza off a wooden or metal peel risks part of the raw dough getting stuck halfway through–an anxiety-inducing scenario after you’ve sunk a couple of hours into this culinary project.

That’s where the parchment paper comes in. After finally thinking to look up if the 420-degree maximum temperature listed on the box meant all that much, I saw that Cook’s Illustrated pronounced parchment paper safe for up to 20 minutes of 500-degree heat–and pizza on a Baking Steel needs just nine minutes.

This belated insight radically simplified the whole production. I flatten out the dough and top the pizza right on a piece of parchment paper, slide a metal peel underneath that, have the pizza slide effortlessly off that onto the steel, and then retrieve the finished product. Bonus: The steel stays clean, requiring only a just-in-case swipe with paper towel after this heat sink cools off… some two hours later.

Weekly output: Devin Nunes, Mark Vena podast, tech journalists about tech PR, Instagram and kid safety, your data for sale, Charter CEO

As I wrote on my Patreon page Thursday, I continue to be happy to be off the gadget-gift-guide treadmill.

12/7/2021: Devin Nunes Quits Congress to Run Trump’s Social Media Venture, PCMag

I enjoyed noting how this famously litigious representative will now get to square his dislike of online mockery with running a social platform that touts its opposition to censorship.

12/8/2021: S01 E21 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

My contribution to this week’s episode was unpacking Qualcomm’s attempts to sell an “always-on camera” as a privacy upgrade for smartphones.

12/8/2021: NPC Lunch & Learn: Meet the Technology Media, National Press Club

I joined fellow panelists Musadiq Bidar of CBS News and CIO Dive and Cybersecurity Dive editor Naomi Eide in this Zoom panel, in which we discussed our interactions with tech-PR types.

12/8/2021: Instagram kid-safety moves, Al Jazeera

I joined the Arabic-language news network via Skype to discuss the Facebook-owned app’s moves to tamp down overindulgence by teenage users. One early thought: I’d like to see more like that from YouTube.

12/9/2021: Guess What? The Cops Can Buy Your Data Instead of Going to Court for It, PCMag

I wrote up a new report from the Center for Democracy & Technology about how often and easily government agencies can get the information they want by buying it from data brokers instead of getting a search warrant. The piece closes with a reminder that Android and iOS include useful tools to limit how an app can get your location; if you haven’t looked at those settings, please do so now.

12/9/2021: Charter CEO: Wireless is the future, video is not yet the past, FierceVideo

I’m getting tired of seeing cable CEOs profess that they’ve moved past from relying on video subscriptions even as their pricing continues to favor TV subscribers.

It’s not the same old Rock Creek Park trail these days

I went for a bike ride through Rock Creek Park this afternoon. That doesn’t set this Saturday apart from a great many others over my last 25-plus years–but the state of this long-neglected trail is finally changing from the cycling route I’ve known since I was a much younger man with far fewer gray hairs and a considerably faster average speed on a bike.

A long-overdue rehabilitation project led by the National Park Service and the D.C. Department of Transportation kicked off this spring, and it’s already yielded some impressive benefits and applause from cyclists. The Western Ridge Trail–the stretch from from the intersection of Beach Drive and Broad Branch Road to Klingle Road–is no longer a narrow, pothole-pockmarked relic. Further south, the Rose Park Trail, a spur that links the Rock Creek trail to M Street and Georgetown, has received the same upgrade.

But the really exciting work is still in progress: a new hiker/cyclist bridge over the creek just south of the Zoo tunnel. That will replace a shamefully narrow sidepath on the existing Beach Drive bridge that requires cyclists to walk their bikes unless nobody is coming in the other direction.

This work will also include rebuilding the trail’s Zoo bypass, closed since 2018 after part of it washed into the creek. Since then, cyclists have had to ride on a five-foot-wide sidepath in the tunnel that takes Beach Drive past the zoo–which, as tricky as that can be, is not outright terrifying like the two-foot-wide curb that cyclists had to white-knuckle their way along until an earlier renovation wrapped up in 2017.

From the state of construction I saw today, with piers for the bridge partially complete on either side of the creek, I’d like to think I will be able to enjoy this bridge no later than next summer. By then, the stretch of the trail south of the Taft Bridge should also have reopened, ending the need for a steep climb out of the creek’s valley up to Woodley Park. (Since that detour then sends me down Connecticut Avenue, past an old apartment of mine and through some of my favorite parts of the District, I don’t mind it that much.)

There’s a lot about 2022 that’s up in the air at the moment, but at least I have these little things to look forward to.

Weekly output: Russia’s tech-hostage law, Mark Vena podcast, Qualcomm’s always-on camera, T-Mobile 5G plans,

This week featured exponentially more air travel than a typical post-Thanksgiving week–about 9.570 miles’ worth–thanks to my attending Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit on the Big Island of Hawaii. And with that trip in the books, 2021’s business travel is done.

11/30/2021: Russia to Top US Tech Firms: Set Up Shop Here or Get Out, PCMag

Russia now requires that large U.S. tech companies establish a physical presence in the country–which I must read as a demand that these firms name hostages that Putin’s authoritarian regime can threaten if they don’t comply with its demands.

12/3/2021: S01 E20 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I joined this podcast from my hotel room in some downtime at Qualcomm’s event, which gave me an excuse to wear a Hawaiian shirt to the proceedings; my setup for the recording, however, also somehow resulted in repeated audio glitches.

Screenshot of story as seen in Firefox for Windows 1012/3/2021: Are you ready for Qualcomm’s new “always-on” smartphone camera?, Fast Company

It appears that Qualcomm did not expect that announcing an “always-on camera” feature as a privacy upgrade would yield much blowback. Hours after this post was published, a publicist with that firm e-mailed to provide some useful details–for example, this locked-down sub-system only captures 640-by-480-pixel images–that company executives had not through to mention in prior briefings.

12/3/2021: T-Mobile debuts new 5G layer cake, Light Reading

I spent half an hour at Qualcomm’s event quizzing two T-Mobile executives about the carrier’s plans for building out its 5G network. For another take on T-Mo’s 5G agenda, see this writeup from PCMag’s Sascha Segan, who talked to the same execs not long after I did.

A long-distance tech-nerd reunion

WAIMEA, Hawaii–One major upside of flying almost 4,800 miles to attend a tech event here was finally catching up with a lot of tech-journalism friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years… many of whom live only 235 miles north of my home.

Two torches lit on a beach, with the ocean and a post-sunset sky in shades of coral beyond it.

But for whatever reason, New York has yet to host any high-profile tech events that would have given all of us an excuse to meet somewhere in NYC. Instead, Qualcomm staged its Snapdragon Tech Summit at a resort here and covered lodging and airfare for invited journalists and analysts (me included, something I discussed in more length in a post for Patreon readers). And so in between keynotes and demos, I’ve had versions of the following conversations:

  • remembering how much work it was to get vaccinated early in this year and the continued frustration of having friends or family members who still refuse to get vaxxed;
  • testimony about surviving COVID-19 infections; one friend recalled being barely able to breathe at the worst moments, something that sounds utterly horrifying;
  • shared sighs over the psychic damage a year of pandemic-enforced isolation has done to our kids (usually followed by me feeling guilty over leaving my wife alone to deal with that);
  • recaps of what it was like reunite with distant family members after months of living a coronavirus-cloistered existence;
  • comparing when we started traveling for work again, to where, and for what purposes;
  • discussions of who will be at CES and MWC, and if those events will happen at all given the rapid spread and unclear risk of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus..

That last question felt somewhat safe to contemplate on an island that requires either a negative test or proof of vaccination if visitors want to avoid a mandatory quarantine–see, who says a vaccination mandate for air travel is impossible here?–but now we’re going home to uncertain futures.

My next travel will be for Christmas, after which I’ve got flights and lodging booked for Las Vegas and Barcelona, all refundable. I would like to be able to proceed with those plans and see at least some of my tech-nerd friends in those cities, but it’s not up to me.