About robpegoraro

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

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had my flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

Weekly output: World Central Kitchen, Mint renewal, social media vs. Trump (2x), Struum

Last Sunday feels like two weeks ago, but an attempted coup at the Capitol by a violent mob will do that to a seven-day span of time. This afternoon, I biked over to Capitol Hill and saw a changed place, locked down inside fences decorated with the occasional flower.

1/5/2021: The tech that keeps World Central Kitchen cooking in times of disaster, Fast Company

This was one of the last pieces that I filed in 2020 (unless you count today as Dec. 41, 2020). I very much enjoyed a chance to tell a story of how hard-working professionals use technology to help other people eat.

1/6/2021: Here’s Intuit’s plan to get Mint back on track after years of neglect, Fast Company

When Intuit PR got in touch in early December offering a heads-up on these changes, I thought they would involve more at the start than a rewritten iPhone app, so this post reveals a certain amount of disappointment from my perspective as a Web-first Mint user. Note that the copy you see now differs slightly from what we posted Wednesday morning, reflecting a correction of one spelling of a product manager’s name as well as a few other changes to add context about some privacy issues. (I wrote more about this post’s backstory for Patreon subscribers.)

1/7/2021: Social-media platforms limit Trump, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on (overdubbed) to talk about Facebook and Twitter moving to quarantine President Trump’s accounts.

1/7/2021: This Startup Wants To Sell You Hipster A-La-Carte Streaming TV, Forbes

The Wall Street Journal got an exclusive on the launch of a new startup called Struum, but I was able to advance the story in one way: by clarifying how you pronounce that moniker. (“Stroom” or, if you prefer diacritical marks, “Strüm.”)

1/9/2021: Social media platforms banning Trump, Al Jazeera

AJ had me back on after Twitter permanently banned Trump. The two big points I made: Twitter and other social networks may need to reconsider “world leader” policies that give more leeway for incitements to hate or violence to people with the biggest followings, and Trump can get a massive audience anytime during his last days in office by walking over to the White House Press Briefing Room.

Journalistic accountability for seditious legislators

Wednesday’s attempted coup in Washington, as clumsy and stupid as it often looked, gave my city its most frightening day since 9/11 and left our country with sights we should never unsee so we can never forget: a mob of rioters addled by Donald Trump’s lies breaking into the Capitol, attacking police officers (one of whom died Thursday), flaunting fascist and neo-Nazi imagery, prancing around with the Confederate battle flag, looting offices, and posing for sedition selfies.

Photo of the front page of the Jan. 7, 2021 Washington Post with the headline "Trump mob storms Capitol"

It’s also left us with the so-called lawmakers who, hours afterward, continued to support Trump’s attempt to stage a self-coup by somehow persuading both the House and the Senate to reject the electoral-college votes of enough states to punt the election into a state-by-state vote in the House. Eight Republican senators and 139 Republican representatives joined this doomed effort to ignore the decision of American voters as expressed in what federal officials judged the “most secure election in American history” and which dozens of state and federal court rulings upheld as properly run.

These 147 politicians–including all four of Virginia’s Republican representatives–deserve expulsion from public life for this stunt, but instead we are stuck with them until they lose an election. Which, considering some of their districts, may never happen.

Some of these people are also likely stuck in my coverage of tech policy. In particular, Sens. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R.-Mo.), the duo that led Trump’s attack on democracy in the Senate, regularly figure in it for their uninformed rants about alleged social-media mistreatment of right-wing voices and dubious proposals to regulate tech companies. Hawley, who saluted pro-Trump protesters with a raised fist before they became pro-Trump rioters, also has a habit of misstating basic facts about tech policy–my introduction to him was seeing this Yale-educated lawyer lie about the plain language of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The next time those two or any of their 145 Trump-cult colleagues denounce tech companies as dangerous for democracy, do I skip past their own willingness to abandon it to keep an autocratic president in power over the will of voters? No. It would be obscene to do that.

Weekly output: 2021 pay-TV trends, 2020 in review, Comcast drops Norton security bundle

Today is Jan. 3, 2021, but I can’t blame you if it may feel more like Dec. 34, 2020.

12/30/2020: Four Pay-TV Plot Twists To Watch In 2021—And For Pay TV To Hate, Forbes

My last Forbes post for 2020 looked at possible future developments in both traditional and streaming pay TV, most of which are bad.

12/31/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (12-31-20), Mark Vena

I joined the podcast of this Moor Insights & Strategy analyst with my fellow tech journalists John Quain and Stewart Wolpin to discuss what pandemic-wracked 2020 taught us about the state of tech. Early on, we pointed to the ability of video calling to replace some face-to-face meetings–and then we kept running into video or audio glitches.

1/3/2021: As Comcast drops one computer security plan, what – if anything – should you replace it with?, USA Today

This column started with an e-mail from a reader asking what he should do about Comcast ending its free bundle of Norton anti-malware apps. I’d seen the advice of my Wirecutter colleagues that paying for anti-virus software is no longer a good idea, but I turned to my friend Sean Gallagher–who edited a little of my earlier writing at Ars Technica and now works as a threat researcher for the security firm Sophos–for added context. The result: a column about a Comcast policy change that can’t really fault everybody’s favorite cable giant for taking something away from subscribers, because it wasn’t doing them that much of a favor in the first place.

2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Weekly output: an expanding public domain

Four days to go in this year, less than 24 days to go in Donald Trump’s term.

12/24/2020: You’ll Be Able To Download A Lot More Stuff For Free—Legally—Jan. 1, Forbes

I had meant to write last year about the overdue reopening of the public domain after 21 years of its expansion being closed off because of the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. But my friend Glenn Fleishman beat me to it with a terrific story for Smithsonian. Fortunately, Congress refrained from passing yet another retroactive extension of copyright terms, allowing me to celebrate the impending unlocking of 1925’s creative works for reuse and remix–and explain how we haven’t seen the old intellectual-property-policy script get yet another remake in Washington.

Home for the holidays–except it’s my own home

We spent Christmas in an unprecedented place: our house. Like many of you (I hope all of you), we scratched our travel plans on account of the pandemic that as of today has killed more than one in every thousand Americans. The end of December has involved travel by plane, train or automobile for me ever year since high school, but that streak finally ended.

Homemade wreath on a front door

I have to admit that it felt oddly calming to wrap up my shopping on the evening of Dec. 23, the latest day I’ve headed out of town, and realize I could take my time browsing at the Downtown Holiday Market instead of worrying about having to pack once I got home. Between this immense simplification of holiday logistics and the absence of the usual barrage of CES PR pitches, it’s been a less stressful season.

Celebrating Christmas at home also allowed our cat to be part of the festivities. It turns out that Abel likes playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, so this worked out well for him and for us.

Plus, we had a few snow flurries, so the day met the technical definition of a white Christmas.

The downside is that it’s now been more than 13 months since I’ve seen my mom and my brother, and it’s been almost as long since my wife saw her parents and her sister. FaceTime and phone calls have been poor substitutes for hugs.

I would very much like to think that by the end of March, enough people will have been vaccinated to have the pandemic rapidly receding and family travel plausible again. But I’ve been wrong so many times in my pandemic forecasts here before that I’m nervous even writing that hope now.

Weekly output: Huawei concerns, talking about 5G, states v. Google, Amazon Sidewalk, Russian hacking

I may not have the usual deluge of CES pitches to remind that the year is almost done, but it’s still comforting to think that the number of stories I still owe to various editors in 2020 is now under five.

12/15/2020: Huawei concerns, Al Jazeera

My appearance on the Arabic-language news channel to discuss concerns over the reliability of Huawei’s hardware and software was cut short when my laptop dropped off my home WiFi. Awkward!

12/15/2020: Top 2020 questions: “Why all the hype about 5G?”, Talking Tech with Jefferson Graham

My USAT colleague is taking a buyout at the end of this year, so I joined his podcast for one last time to discuss–what else?–5G wireless, how far it’s fallen short of the hype, and how it might get better in a year or so.

12/18/2020: Here’s What Google Should Worry About Now That Most States Are Suing It, Forbes

I wrote an explainer about the two multi-state antitrust lawsuits filed against Google this week, both of which allege some disturbing misconduct by Google in its advertising businesses.

12/19/2020: Amazon wants your devices to talk to each other. Should you take a walk on Sidewalk?, USA Today

I talked to a few experts–two briefed by Amazon, one a longstanding expert in Internet-of-Things security–about the peer-to-peer network that Amazon is now activating on its smart-home gadgets.

12/19/2020: Russian hacking allegations, Al Jazeera

My producer in AJ’s D.C. bureau evidently had no hard feelings about my WiFi dropout on Tuesday, since he had me back on Saturday evening to discuss revelations of a massive hacking carried out by Russian intelligence.

2020 gardening report card: a very small hill of beans

This year has given me more time to garden than any other in my adult life. Now that the gardening season is officially over, courtesy of multiple below-freezing days and the season’s first snowfall, I’m once again grading myself on how well I did at growing some of my own food–and I’m left wondering how I didn’t make better use of that extra time to play with plants.

(For your reference: my 20192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Beans: A-

The pandemic arrived in the middle of both planting season and my realization that we had a lot of leftover bean seed packages lying around. So we went a little crazy–in addition to planting seeds in the usual spots in the shabbier raised bed in the side yard, my wife and I repurposed a few random pots we had laying around for bean-growing purposes. For a while, we had more beans than we could eat; although the bean plants in the raised bed didn’t make it past summer, most of the others kept growing through fall, if at a slower pace.

Arugula: B+

I can usually count on two growing seasons for this salad green, but most of the seeds I planted in September got washed out by heavy rains, and then the survivors failed to yield more than a few tiny plants. So I wound up spending more on lettuce at the farmers’ market than I’d hoped, which was somewhat frustrating.

Herbs: B

Flat-leaf parsley once again grew like crazy all spring and summer, enabling me to make multiple batches of parsley-walnut pesto, but then it failed to resume growing in the fall. Rosemary made a comeback: After last year’s rosemary died, I planted a fresh batch in a new pot, and those plants are still going strong. Mint was also its usual reliable self. But the sage plants died sometime in late summer, and basil underperformed, if not as badly as last year. I did finally get thyme to grow–indoors, in a pot in a sunny corner of the dining room.

Spinach: B-

I enjoyed modest success with this in the spring–by which I mean, some of last year’s plants hung on until then, and not all of the seeds I planted this year vanished into the dirt.

Lettuce: C+

See the above entry for spinach, but make everything 20 percent worse.

Tomatoes: C-

Unlike last year, I was able to treat myself to the sublime pleasure of a BLT sandwich made with a just-plucked-off-the-vine tomato. Well, once or twice.

Weekly output: Discovery hire, vaccine disinfo on social media, Moody’s pay-TV forecast,

This week saw the quiet demise of Uber’s flying-taxi ambitions, in the form of the company  selling that operation to Joby Aviation. I feel relieved that my earlier coverage of Uber Elevate included skeptical notes from aviation-security analyst Robert Mann.

12/7/2020: Discovery hires Hulu’s Jim Keller to helm digital ads, FierceVideo

I spent Monday filling in at my trade-pub client to write breaking news. This post covered a Discovery hire in advance of its new Discovery+ streaming-video service.

12/7/2020: Vaccine disinformation on social media, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me to discuss what social networks should do about anti-vax lies now that coronavirus vaccines are finally in distribution.

12/7/2020: Moody’s forecast shows no end to pay TV’s problems, FierceVideo

My other piece at Fierce Monday covered a new report from Moody’s Investors Service that predicts an acceleration of cord cutting.

12/9/2020: Google Will Pay For Some Paywalled News Stories—Just Not Here, Forbes

Google paying for the first click at a paywalled site in a few other countries represents a major turnaround from it demanding that paywalled sites give that first click for free. But with this initiative confined to the News Showcase Google is launching outside the U.S., it offers no help to American publishers that, in turn, continue to neglect revenue possibilities for occasional readers. (In a post here yesterday, I suggested two ideas of my own for that scenario.)

12/10/2020: Meet The Web’s New Second-Place Tracker: Not Facebook, It’s Amazon, New Report Finds, Forbes

A study from the online-privacy firm Ghostery found that Amazon’s trackers now show up on more U.S. sites than Facebook’s–although not all of these trackers serve its retail business. Meanwhile, Google continues to do the most tracking by an enormous margin.