About robpegoraro

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

Weekly output: Google vs. the headphone jack, Voatz blockchain absentee voting

Once again, Columbus Day–or, if you prefer, Indigenous People’s Day–delivered the unwelcome combination of our kid’s school being closed while both my wife and I still had to work. I joked on Twitter about resolving the argument over what to call this fake holiday and also saving Americans billions in day-care costs by abolishing it outright. But on reflection, the widely-tweeted suggestion that we relegate Columbus Day to a trivia question and promote Election Day to actual, don’t-have-to-work holiday status makes much more sense.

10/10/2018: With Google’s new devices, music fans once again don’t get jack, Yahoo Finance

I’ve had this post in mind for a while, ever since conversations at events like Mobile World Congress and IFA revealed their lack of interest in shipping USB-C headphones. I expected that Google wouldn’t retreat from last year’s idiotic move to remove the headphone jack from its flagship smartphones, but I didn’t realize they would pull the same stunt with the new Pixel Slate tablet.

10/11/2018: This startup wants to secure absentee voting with a blockchain, Yahoo Finance

Even after spending a couple of weeks talking to various experts, I still have questions about how Voatz has been securing its blockchain-based voting system and whether states have thought long enough about how to ease absentee voting for faraway citizens. That said, many of the other options for absentee voting look even worse, something upon which I hope to write further in the coming weeks.

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A different default browser with a different default search

Several weeks ago, I switched my laptop to a setting I’d last maintained in the previous decade: Mozilla Firefox as the default browser.

Firefox took the place of Microsoft’s Edge, which I’d decided to give a shot as part of my reintroduction to Windows before seeing Edge crash too often. In another year, I would have made Google’s Chrome the default instead–but a combination of privacy and security trends led me to return to an old favorite.

Firefox had been my default browser in Windows since February of 2004, when it was an obvious pick over the horrific Internet Explorer 6. But a few years after the 2008 introduction of Chrome, Firefox had stopped keeping up, and I began relying on Chrome in Windows.

I kept Safari as the default on my Macs for its better fit with the operating system–although its memory-hogging habits had me close to also dumping it for Chrome until a recent round of improvements.

Last year, however, Mozilla shipped a faster, more memory-efficient version of Firefox. That browser has since finally caught up with Chrome in supporting “U2F” two-step verification, where you plug in a cryptographically signed USB flash drive to confirm a login. And as I realized when writing a browser-comparison columns for USA Today, Firefox comes close to Safari at protecting your privacy across the Web–especially if you install its Facebook Container extension, which blocks Facebook’s tracking at other sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve dropped Chrome outright. I almost always keep both browsers open, with much of my Chrome tabs devoted to such Google services as Gmail and Google Docs. (Confession: I only learned while writing this that Google Docs’ offline mode now works in Firefox.) Chrome continues to do some things better than Firefox–for instance, while it doesn’t offer a simplified page-display option like Firefox’s Reader View, it’s been more aggressive at disciplining intrusive ads.

When I set Firefox as the default in Windows, I also switched its default search from Google to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo. That’s something I’d done in my iPad’s copy of Safari years ago, then recommended to readers last July in a Yahoo post; it seemed a good time to expand that experiment to a browser I use more often.

Since DuckDuckGo doesn’t match such Google features as the option to limit a search to pages published within a range of dates, I’m still flipping over to Chrome reasonably often for more specialized searches. But even there, I’ve reduced my visibility to Google by setting a sync password to encrypt my browsing history.

All this adds up to considerably less Google in my Web life. I can’t say it’s been bad.

Weekly output: wireless plans, cities meet 5G, GM + Honda, Twitter business models, Hack the Capitol, smartphone biometric locks, Tech Night Owl

This week saw a couple of long-running projects finally go online. It also saw a tweet I sent during a combative onstage appearance by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) at the Atlantic Festival go slightly viral, as in 1,651 retweets and 2,843 likes. That one tweet doesn’t fairly capture Graham’s discussion–that’s why I posted it as part of a thread that wound up spanning 11 updates–but I fear most of the 185,556 impressions for the tweet in question did not result in my new readers sticking around to read the rest of that thread. Once again, Twitter is where context goes to die; in other news, water is wet.

10/1/2018: The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

We posted yet another update to the guide to reflect the addition of tiered “unlimited”-data plans at all four carriers and tried to streamline the text a bit. And by the end of this work, we realized we would need to update the guide yet again in a few months, should changes we’re seeing in usage levels continue showing up in third-party studies.

10/2/2018: Why 5G Internet Is a Policy Minefield for Cities, CityLab

When I started interviewing people for this story, 5G wireless deployment was months away, but now it’s a commercial reality in four U.S. cities. Appropriately enough, I wrapped up work on this piece for this subsidiary of The Atlantic’s parent firm while attending that magazine’s conference in Washington.

10/3/2018: GM’s self-driving-car project will have Honda riding shotgun, Yahoo Finance

This writeup of GM’s Cruise Automation’s deal with Honda to co-develop its second self-driving electric car benefited from a quick interview with Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt I did right after their press call Wednesday morning.

10/3/2018: Twitter business models, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me to discuss this subject, inspired by the “We can’t believe this website is free” joke tweeted by Twitter’s own Twitter account. Right before I went on the air, I though to ask the interpreter if there was an Arabic term for “freemium”; he told me there was not, so we agreed that I would take a minute to describe that concept so he could translate it correctly.

10/4/2018: Hack the Capitol event reminds lawmakers that IoT security needs help, The Parallax

I wrote about this brief conference in D.C. about the security of industrial control systems from the week before in the light of… wait for it… Congress not acting on a vital tech-policy issue.

10/5/2018: Unlock your phone with your face or fingerprint? Here’s how to shut that off – quickly, USA Today

This how-to walks readers through quickly disabling the facial- or fingerprint-recognition unlock features in iOS and Android. A reader wrote to me afterwards to ask why I didn’t mention just restarting the phone, which will also disable those biometric unlocks; that would not be as quick to do, but I should have included that anyway.

10/6/2018: October 6, 2018 — Rob Pegoraro and Bryan Chaffin, Tech Night Owl

I talked with host Gene Steinberg about the puzzling mismatch between Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s story alleging a long-running Chinese campaign to hide spy chips on server circuit boards with increasingly direct denials by Apple, Amazon and others. There’s also some banter about transit in our roughly hour-long discussion.

It’s been a trying week to keep a politically open mind

For years, one of the non-obvious pleasures of writing about tech policy has been knowing that the good and bad ideas don’t fall along the usual right/left lines.

I might not want to hear Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) say a single word about Benghazi, but they were right on a lot of intellectual-property issues. At the same time, I have not enjoyed seeing Democrats I otherwise find clueful like Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) repeat entertainment-industry talking points.

But as the past couple of years and these past few days in particular have reminded me, the GOP looks different these days. When a Supreme Court nominee can snarl about left-wing conspiracies in a way that invites the description “Justice Brett Kavanaugh (R)” as the White House rushes through an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against him, and then all but one Senate Republican approves… well, that didn’t happen under President George W. Bush, as awful as things got then.

As a voter, I find nothing to like about what’s now the party of Trump. I’m struggling to think when I might once again cast a contrarian vote for a Republican for Congress in my deep-blue district–especially since my current representative lacks his predecessor’s history of questionable financial transactions.

But at the same time, it’s not good for my health to turn into a ball of rage, and I don’t want to respond to a bout of tribalism on the Republican side by returning the favor. So I’ve been trying to keep a few thoughts in mind.

One is that coherent political philosophies can deserve respect, but blind loyalty, an unprincipled will to power or rank bigotry do not. I may not agree with your notions on government power or individual responsibility, but if I see you speaking and acting in accordance with them, I can at least try to understand where you’re coming from. If, however, you’ve abandoned past positions because they conflict with fact-starved Trump talking points, why should I take you seriously?

If the logic of your current policy positions boils down to “this will help my team,” the same response applies. And if you spout racist or misogynistic nonsense, crawl back under your rock.
A second is that today’s Republican Party and conservatism aren’t the same thing, as one of this year’s dumber tech-policy debates illustrates. It’s become fashionable to describe (groundless) GOP complaints over social-network bias in terms of unfairness to “conservatives,” but the people doing the whining are solidly in Trump’s corner and back such Trump moves as imposing a hidden tax through massive tariffs and propping up dying resource-extraction industries–neither the stuff of small-c conservatism.

A third is that Democrats left alone can still screw things up. Living in D.C. in the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of helping to pay Marion Barry’s salary with my taxes; I know the risks of unchecked one-party rule. We still need a party that can point out that market forces can solve some problems on their own and that abuse of power isn’t just a sport for big business.

I assume it will take at least one electoral wipeout to break Trump’s spell on the Republican Party and let it try to recover that role–as that bomb-throwing liberal George Will wrote in June. In the interest of not trying to pretend I have no opinion on things I see everyday, I will admit that seeing such a beatdown would not make me sad.

Weekly output: Senate privacy hearings (x2), a split Internet, Chrome vs. Flash, cord cutting, D.C. tech, Chrome sync, Facebook hack

The last few days of Brett Kavanaugh drama in the Senate really took a hammer to my productivity. Yours too, I’m sure.

9/24/2018: What to expect when Apple, Amazon, and Google get grilled in Congress this week, Yahoo Finance

This was what you saw me talk about the previous Friday on Yahoo Finance’s Midday Movers show. One point I wish I’d made in this post: the absence of customer voices in this hearing.

9/24/2018: China’s Internet, Al Jazeera

I come on at about the 5:30 mark in the linked video to discuss remarks by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt that China’s increasingly-tight control of the Internet inside its borders means we’re now dealing with two Internets.

9/24/2018: Google’s latest Chrome update tightens the locks on Adobe Flash, USA Today

With Chrome now making it harder than ever to run Flash content, I checked in with two Flash holdouts: Intuit’s Mint.com, which requires it to view stock charts, and United Airlines’ “personal device entertainment” inflight service, which demands it to stream most TV shows and movies to a browser.

9/25/2018: Your wireless carrier may stop you from dumping cable TV, Yahoo Finance

I got an advance look at two studies that came out Tuesday: one looking at cord cutters’ motivations, another at how reliably wireless carriers deliver streaming video. The second provided important context to complaints cited in the first, so I wrote up both in this post.

9/26/2018: Are you ready for the spotlight?, DC Startup Week

SilverStrategy founder Tara Silver quizzed me, Technical.ly DC‘s Michelai Graham, and DC Inno’s Kieran McQuilkin about how startups try to get media attention, the state of the D.C.-tech scene, and this region’s odds of landing Amazon’s second headquarters. Update, 10/8: The organizers posted video of our panel to their Facebook page.

9/27/2018: Why now is a good time to reconsider browser-sync options on Google Chrome, USA Today

The latest Chrome release’s barely-documented switch to logging you into the browser if you log into any Google sites both upset some information-security types and gave me an opportunity to write this post, reminding readers that you can add a sync password to stop Google from monitoring and monetizing your Web activity and that Mozilla Firefox’s own Web-activity synchronization comes encrypted end-to-end.

9/27/2018: Tech execs to senators: Regulate us, but not too much, The Parallax

I wrote up Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee tech-privacy hearings, noting the questions the senators asked of executives with Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Charter, Google, and Twitter as well as the queries that didn’t come up.

9/29/2018: Facebook hacked, Al Jazeera

I made a second appearance on AJ’s Arabic-language channel (overdubbed live as usual) to talk about the series of bugs that could have let unknown attackers into 50 million Facebook accounts. Unlike my earlier appearance this week, this show doesn’t seem to be online.

Twitter Moments: where context goes to die even more

Two articles recounting politicians not telling the truth caught my eye Tuesday morning. That would have made it another day ending in “y,” except that the story each candidate sold didn’t make them look that much better or worse than the reality documented in contemporary records–why stick to the unsupportable story?

So I tweeted that thought and linked to these pieces about Democratic senatorial candidates: a report by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin on how Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D.-Ariz.) tales of childhood homelessness didn’t square with her family’s utility bills from those years of grinding poverty, and a fact-check by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ruling out a debate claim by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D.-Tex.) that he did not try to flee a 1998 DWI arrest that he has otherwise owned up to as inexcusable.

Four hours later, Twitter’s app notified me that this tweet had been added to a Moment–a curated collection of tweets on a topic that can show up in the timelines of people who don’t follow you. You can’t opt out of this publicity without blocking the account that created the Moment, which seems impossible if Twitter’s editors were behind it.

Then my notifications started getting a little weird.

I got a bunch of retweets and likes from people who had stuck #MAGA hashtags in their bios (as in, the acronym for President Trump’s favorite slogan) or added a red X to their name (a protest against Twitter “shadow-banning” right-wing voices, an allegation that has yet to survive independent scrutiny). Maybe they thought they’d found a kindred spirit; if so, they could not possibly have looked at my other recent political tweets.

But I also received shout-outs from a few people with Resistance hashtags or blue-wave emojis conveying their outrage at Trump’s GOP. They might have approved of my overall output on Twitter, but they could not possibly have read the reports I shared in that tweet–maybe they thought I was talking about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

This kind of context asphyxiation can happen any time on Twitter, but a Moment’s ability to catapult a tweet far out of your normal audience and its usual context magnifies the odds enormously. I got a sense of that from watching Helen Rosner’s XOXO talk three weeks ago, but now I understand this from firsthand experience. Thanks, I guess?

Weekly output: whither the small smartphone, medical-device security, Senate privacy hearings

I watched my last Nats game of the year this afternoon and had scant company in the ballpark, thanks to the chilly temperatures, near-constant rain, and yesterday’s elimination of the team from postseason contention. But even in those crummy circumstances, baseball still offers its less-likely rewards: seeing us turn a 5-2-3 double play, then watching Trea Turner break the franchise record for stolen bases.

(Confession: I wasn’t in the stands after the 5th. I believe that staying for all 18 innings of game 2 of the 2014 NLDS gives me a pass to leave the very-occasional game early.)

9/19/2018: With Apple maxing out iPhone sizes, the small smartphone looks even more endangered, USA Today

If you’re a fan of smartphones small enough to allow easy one-handed use–and to fit into what passes for pockets on many women’s clothing–then the big part of Apple’s iPhone news this year was the quiet discontinuation of the compact iPhone SE. Unfortunately, Android vendors appear even more set on ignoring market demand for smaller devices.

9/20/2018: How weak IoT gadgets can sicken a hospital’s network, The Parallax

I wrote an explainer about how badly-configured or insecure-by-default connected devices can allow remote exploitation, then traversal of a hospital’s network. To get a fuller sense of your risks, replace “hospital’s network” with “your home’s network.”

9/21/2018: Midday Movers: Stocks mixed after a day of record highs, Yahoo Finance

Yahoo Finance runs four live video shows each weekday, and I made an appearance on one of them after an editor basically asked what was taking me so long. I had already been planning on attending Yahoo’s All Markets Summit conference Thursday (I hope my livetweeting from it didn’t get too annoying), so this gave me even more reason to head up to NYC for a few days. I come on at the 40-minute mark, when I talk about a post I have coming up that outlines the questions I hope will be asked at Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee tech-privacy hearings–plus what I’m afraid we’ll hear instead.