About robpegoraro

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

Weekly output: 5G frequency farming, delivery robots, Blacklight privacy assessment of Forbes, pay-TV apps

My major non-work accomplishment this week: voting. The ballot I filled out Monday represented my earliest ever vote in a presidential election. And my easiest choice ever.

9/21/2020: Faster 5G is on its way, and here’s how we’ll get it, Fast Company

This explainer about the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to free up more mid-band 5G spectrum kicked off a useful Twitter conversation about phone compatibility when PCMag’s Sascha Segan questioned the willingness of the carriers to certify existing phones to use on these upcoming 5G bands.

9/22/2020: Contactless delivery robots may soon hit a sidewalk near you, Fast Company

Writing this piece allowed me to circle back to some of the same experts I’d consulted for two earlier features on smart cities for the Urban Land Institute’s magazine.

9/23/2020: A Privacy Watchdog Built A Tool To Show How Sites Track You. Here’s What It Says About Us., Forbes

When the privacy-focused news site The Markup released a Web tool called Blacklight to inspect the tracking practices at news sites, I had to point it at the site where I do most of my writing about media issues these days. The results were not flattering for Forbes. As for this blog, Blacklight found 12 ad trackers and 23 third-party cookies just now but no other tracking–thanks in part to my removing Facebook widgets from here.

9/27/2020: Do you really need to rent a cable box? No, there’s an app for that, USA Today

I revisited an issue I’d last covered in 2017 and was pleased to find serious progress among major TV providers in providing apps that can take the place of rented boxes–especially Comcast, the biggest of them all.

Updated 9/28/2020 to fix a broken link.

A one-man pandemic book club

The past six months have given me exponentially more time at home than I would have thought possible before this pandemic-afflicted year. Normal people would have occupied those hours by catching up on deferred household maintenance or learning a new language, but instead I’ve whiled away many of them by reading two of the denser novels written in English: James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

That was not a quick process. Both doorstop-thick tomes feature their authors free-styling their way through prose as they get lost in the inner worlds of a complex set of characters without any strict reference to time or place, which is a longwinded way of saying they can be intimidating to read.

I tackled Ulysses first, since I’ve had a vintage hardcover copy silently taunting me from a bookshelf for the past 20 years or so. There are deeply poetic moments in Joyce’s Dublin-steeped novel–“history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” resonates too well this year–and parts that suggest the author’s profound conviction that he would get paid by the word for every word. Also, I’m impressed that the censors of the 1920s made it all the way through to the really naughty bits towards the end.

After I tweeted out my victory over Joyce’s title and asked “What famously dense novel should I read next?”, one of the first replies suggested Infinite Jest. I finally accepted that logic and put myself on the Arlington library’s waiting list for an e-book copy, but before I could claim that I saw a paperback copy available for all of $2 at a library used-book sale. Buying in print instead of borrowing in pixels meant I’d have all the time I’d need to digest Wallace’s 1,079 words of prose, endnotes, and footnotes to said endnotes.

(Seriously: Wallace’s endnotes eat up almost 100 pages, and a couple count as chapter-length in their own right. I realized early on I’d need to keep two bookmarks in my copy, one to mark my progress in the text itself and the other to preserve my place in the bits at the end–then saw that this book may be best read with three bookmarks. This may be the most hypertext thing I’ve ever read in print.)

Infinite Jest is even more of an atom-smasher of plotlines than Ulysses–it touches on growing up, tennis, drugs, Boston, digital media, addiction, people’s capacity for needless cruelty, crime, more drugs, pop culture, cinematography, Québeçois separatism, and even a smidgen of tech and media policy. And it does so without the standard narrative scaffolding of chapters. I kept having to flip forward to see when the next break in the story might happen, solely to know how late I’d have to stay up before putting the book down at a point that would not leave me too confused the next morning.

I could not help reading Wallace’s tales of Boston types battling depression and inner demons of various kinds without considering how Wallace himself succumbed to his own, because depression lies. Which made me think also of my late, literary-minded friend Mike Musgrove, who I’m sure read this book a long time ago and would have offered some smart or at least smart-aleck commentary about it.

Weekly output: Apple One, Apple’s September news, TikTok and WeChat ban, TikTok-Oracle deal

Having Apple news play such a large role in my work this week reminded me a little of older, perhaps simpler times. Having the Trump administration’s clumsy attempts to suppress TikTok and WeChat eat up much of the rest of the past several days made it clear that we live in different times.

9/15/2020: Apple As A Service: With Apple One, Life In Its Orbit Comes With A Monthly Price Tag, Forbes

My take on Apple’s venture into selling bundles of its services: By making iCloud backup the least-generous part of the two cheaper Apple One plans, Apple is putting the entertainment cart before the storage horse.

9/17/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (9-16-20), Mark Vena

I returned to the podcast of one of my tech-analyst friends to unpack Apple’s Tuesday announcements.

9/18/2020: Trump’s Partial TikTok And WeChat Ban Tip-Toes Into Chinese-Style Censorship, Forbes

In addition to letting me vent about the unhelpfulness of the Trump administration’s attempt to punish these two mobile apps, this post provided a useful demonstration of the limits of Twitter to promote a story. As in, having people with a combined follower total well into the hundreds of thousands tweet or retweet links to the post has yet to get its page-view total into four digits.

9/20/2020: What Trump’s TikTok deal means for privacy, Al Jazeera

I asked my interpreter upfront how you’d say “crony capitalism” in Arabic, and then the host only asked about what this deal would further protect the privacy of TikTok users. My answer: it doesn’t appear to do any such thing.

Android 11 first impressions: payments with less stress

My pick for the single most helpful new feature in Android 11 doesn’t even get a description in Google’s highlights of its mobile operating system’s new version.

This addition lurks behind the power button: Press and hold that, and instead of Android 10’s sidebar menu with the “Lockdown” option that disables biometric unlocking and scrubs notifications from the lock screen, you see a full-screen menu with large buttons for that security feature, your Google-linked smart-home gadgets–and the credit cards you have active in Google Pay.

I’ve been a fan of NFC payments for years, but the world has caught up to me since March as merchants have rushed to provide contactless payment options. But until Android 11 landed on my Pixel 3a 11 days ago, matching a purchase with the card offering the best cash-back or points reward required me to open the Android Pay app and switch payment methods. Now, I just mash the power button and tap the card I want.

The Conversations features that do lead off Google’s sales pitch for Android 11 also seem like they’ll simplify my digital life. That’s “seem” because it took me until today to remember to swipe left on a text-message notification to expose the option to make the sender a priority–starring them in the Contacts app doesn’t affect this, nor do I see a way to promote people from within the Messages app. But at least now I know that messages from my wife will show up on my lock screen with her picture.

Android 11 also brings some less-obvious application-privacy enhancements, as detailed Google’s developer guidance. It improves on Android 10’s ability to deny apps background access to your location by letting you give an app only a one-time peek at your location. If you turn off location services altogether, COVID-19 exposure-notification apps like Virginia’s COVIDWISE now still work. And if you don’t open an app for a few months, the system will turn off its permissions automatically.

The biggest problem with Android 11 is one that has existed with every other Android update–but which fortunately doesn’t affect me as a Pixel 3a user. This update will probably take months to reach Android phones outside the small universe of Pixel devices and those from such other, smaller vendors as Nokia and OnePlus that decided to commit to shipping Google’s releases quickly.

Weekly output: Coffee with a Journalist, free PBS streaming, Microsoft report on election meddling, Oracle buying TikTok

After returning to the skies Friday, Sunday saw me return to a part of a bike trail I’d neglected for shamefully long–the Washington & Old Dominion trail west of Arlington. I’m so glad I decided to bike for longer than usual today.

9/8/2020: Coffee with a Journalist: Rob Pegoraro, Fast Company, OnePitch

I recorded my conversation with host Beck Bamberger in mid-August for this PR-service firm’s podcast. Listen in and you’ll learn a few things about how I work, where ideas come from and what sort of PR pitches I find of interest, or at least not annoying.

9/8/2020: You Can Now (Probably) Stream Your Local PBS Station For Free, Forbes

I came to this story a few days late, but so did everybody else, thanks to the apparent absence of any PR effort by PBS on behalf of its introduction of free live streaming of its affiliates in almost 90 markets. I updated the post after publication to note PBS’s quick addition of support for Apple TV as well as its iOS, Android and Kindle Fire apps and to correct one error in the original writeup.

9/11/2020: Microsoft: Hackers from Russia, China and Iran targeted the presidential elections, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network asked if I could comment on Thursday’s report from Microsoft finding continued attempts by Russia, China and Iran to meddle with the election. As you may be able to tell from the background, I recorded this in an airport–Columbus, the midpoint of Friday’s 9/11 observance. Without a tripod handy, I realized I could use the outside pocket on the old United Airlines amenity kit I use to stash cables and chargers to hold my phone steady.

9/13/2020: Oracle buying TikTok, Al Jazeera

AJ’s English-language news network had me on live Sunday night to talk about the unexpected outcome of the Trump administration’s campaign to force a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations: Oracle will make that purchase, despite its lack of experience running consumer apps, much less a social network. I don’t see how that can rate as good news for any TikTok user.

Updated 9/16/2020 to add my Coffee with a Journalist appearance, which I’d forgotten to add mainly because it had been that long since I recorded my spot. 

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

Weekly output: a 5G reality check, sports network fees without sports

Yesterday afforded us the rare privilege of several hours spent in a different part of the greater Washington area–Harpers Ferry. That historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah is as picturesque they say, and it’s close enough that I have zero excuse not to have visited it before. On the other hand, it’s good that after 30-plus years around here I’m still discovering new places.

9/4/2020: Two promising 5G trends: $200 5G phones and unlimited home broadband, Fast Company

My coverage of the scaled-back IFA tech show got an unexpected boost when Qualcomm offered Fast Company a chance to quiz their president Cristiano Amon about their announcements at that event. I enjoyed my conversation with the executive I’d met IRL at an IFA reception last year, and I also appreciated getting some realistic talk about which parts of the 5G formula actually look to be mass-market material on a global scale.

9/6/2020: NBA, NHL, MLB fans sidelined: Will TV subscribers ever get money back after coronavirus shortened seasons?, USA Today

I wrote an update to the column I did in April that didn’t break an enormous amount of news–AT&T’s reply almost matched the one they provided then word-for-word. But I did get some more specific assurances from Comcast about when subscribers might get compensation for months of paying sports-network fees that have not brought anywhere near the usual quota of live sports.

I, cat herder

Sunday will mark our fourth month in the cat-American demographic. Adopting a cat is only one of the many unanticipated consequences of pandemic life, but no other has left the same dent in my afternoons.

As in, getting a cat means I can’t enjoy my usual catnapping. The lounge chair that has served me so well for postprandial repose is now largely the property of the newest member of our family… and like any good cat daddy, I am okay with that, I guess.

We didn’t have cat adoption on our to-do list back in March, but as the weeks ground on, our daughter kept making the case for a pet. We understood that a cat would be on the low-maintenance end of the spectrum, so when the Humane Rescue Alliance’s site listed a domestic shorthair up for adoption, we proceeded.

The first few weeks with Abel home were tricky. (We don’t know the backstory to the name, but I assume it means he’s down to eight lives.) He was extremely skittish and spent most of his time in the safe space we’d set up in a closet–and we all paid for getting too close with scratches. But then he warmed up to our abode and has since shown a remarkable ability to find different spots in which to nap.

One of his favorite locations continues to be the chair I used to call mine. Abel will curl up there, soak in the afternoon light, and then settle into a sort of squeaky snoring. For at least an hour. The feline social engineering that cats have developed to get humans to dote on them is really something to see.

When Abel is awake, he enjoys pouncing on various household objects. Despite a lack of depth perception from one eye never developing properly, he can be remarkably fierce in attack mode; if he ever finds any of the mice that have occasionally surfaced in the basement, they’re goners. Abel also likes playing with cables and wires of any sort, so I can’t go a day without having to shoo him away from trying to paw at or nibble on my laptop’s charging cable.

I also now have a much better grasp of the unintentional comedic potential of cats. Abel and I have figured out how to play a form of soccer that involves me rolling a wine cork to him, him gnawing on it and then rolling it back, and then me passing it back to repeat the cycle. He’s also learned how to vault himself onto my desk, then slouch behind the computer and ignore my entreaties to vacate my workspace.

I would like to have contributed more cat imagery to the Internet by now. But another thing I’ve realized in my new cat-person lifestyle is that getting a non-blurry shot of an animal that embodies “short attention span” is not as easy as the pros make it look.

Weekly output: password managers, exposure-notification apps, talking tech with Mark Vena

Six months ago, I expected to be busy tonight packing for the IFA tech trade show. But although that conference in Berlin is proceeding on a drastically-scaled-down basis, I’m not flying to Germany tomorrow because of the European Union’s ban on Americans traveling to the EU. Given how thoroughly we’ve botched this pandemic, I can’t blame them for imposing that restriction.

8/24/2020: Extra security or extra risk? Pros and cons of password managers, TechRepublic

I shared my experience with password managers–mainly LastPass and 1Password–with TechRepublic’s Veronica Combs for this overview of the advantages and disadvantages of these services.

8/25/2020: COVID-19 tracking apps, supported by Apple and Google, begin showing up in app stores, USA Today

Writing a lengthy report for O’Reilly about contact-tracing apps did not mean I could write this much shorter piece from memory and my existing notes. In addition to getting useful adoption data from Virginia’s Department of Public Health about its COVIDWISE app, I also reported that VDH plans to support a national key-server project from the Association of Public Health Laboratories that will let these state-developed apps relay and receive warnings of potential COVID-19 exposure across state lines.

8/28/2020: SmartTechCheck Podcast (8-28-20), Mark Vena

I talked about exposure-notification apps, the future of tech events like IFA, 5G wireless and Apple silicon with my analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy–another tech type who would have been packing for Berlin tonight but is instead grounded. You may notice a break in the recording about halfway through, when I had to get a glass of water so I could resume speaking normally. Note to self: Before sitting down to record a 45-minute podcast, make sure a glass of water is on the desk.

Same t-shirt, different day

Wednesday was like Sunday for one unlikely reason: I wore the same t-shirt both days without a wash day in between. The same situation applies to today, except I don’t remember which day I had put aside the barely worn t-shirt that I threw on this morning.

Folded t-shirts in a drawerThis kind of clothing recycling is usually unthinkable in August here. But between the novel-coronavirus pandemic having nuked all of my work social schedule, most of my other excuses to leave home vanishing, and the weather being so unseasonably cool it lets me pretend I’ve traveled someplace, I can get away with this sad little lifehack.

It may be somewhat sadder that I’m not taking advantage of this sartorial judgment-free zone to get into some deep cuts from a t-shirt set that goes back to the 1980s. (Learning the Marie Kondo t-shirt fold spared me from having to cull this collection… which I know is completely antithetical to the KonMari ethos.) But breaking out a Reagan Decade-vintage concert t-shirt for anything short of an ’80s-tied gathering seems wrong.

Instead, I keep going back to favorites from the last 15 or so years: the not-really-free shirts I got for going to conferences like the Online News Association’s gatherings and XOXO, the less expensive freebies I’ve picked up at Nats games and at running or cycling events, even some shirts I’ve paid for. That includes the most recent acquisition you can see in the photo here: one from the late, great Post Pub.

(I don’t know why I didn’t make the effort to buy an Iota t-shirt when I had the chance.)

None of these t-shirts make much of a fashion statement, but they all feel comfortable and comforting after years of wear and impose almost no cognitive load. Collectively, they’re my low-budget answer to Steve Jobs’ black mock turtleneck.

Unlike Jobs, I can’t expect to make this look work for my occasional professional appearance. Fortunately, it’s difficult to put much wear into a button-down t-shirt in a 10-minute TV hit via Skype or even an hour-long Zoom panel. So I just might be able to get through summer without having to wash those shirts at all.