About robpegoraro

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

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

Weekly output: Apple silicon, undermining Facebook’s business model (x2), remote teamwork, cybersecurity and privacy (x2), banning strong encryption, Google paying news sites, Washington Apple Pi

I only had a four-day work week, but Tuesday was no day off for me: I worked my second primary election in Arlington. Turnout was exponentially lower than what I saw in March, between this primary being limited to Republican candidates for Senate and the novel-coronavirus pandemic pushing people to vote by mail, but I still appreciated the work and appreciated the voters who showed up.

Patreon subscribers got an (overdue) post from me in which I recap recent reader reports of bad behavior from Comcast, Google, Spectrum and Sprint.

6/23/2020: No Intel inside? What Apple’s change will mean for your Mac, USA Today

I contributed to USAT’s coverage of Apple’s upcoming switch from Intel to ARM-based processors by quizzing a few Mac software developers about how they thought the transition would play out.

6/23/2020: Giving Facebook less data is a good idea. Even better: Just use it less, Fast Company

I filed this story a week or so earlier, but the delay allowed events to catch up to my topic of undermining Facebook’s business model, in the form of the first big-name advertisers saying they’d pull their ads off Facebook properties in July.

6/23/2020: Is it possible to unite a remote team?, Collision

My first panel at this conference that would have had me in Toronto this week before the pandemic forced its move to a virtual format focused, appropriately enough, on the challenges of remote teamwork. We–meaning myself, Aptum CEO Susan Bowen, Vidyard CEO Michael Litt, and Real Ventures managing partner Janet Bannister–recorded the discussion in advance, so my spending all of Tuesday working the election was not a problem.

6/24/2020: Building a paradigm of trust, Collision

My second pre-recorded Collision panel, this time about new challenges in cybersecurity, featured Akamai chief information officer Mani Sundaram, Sumo Logic chief security officer George Gerchow, and Honeywell chief digital technology officer Sheila Jordan.

6/24/2020: These Senators Want To Force Tech Firms To Give The Cops Keys To Our Encrypted Data, Forbes

I really thought a story about a bill that would ban end-to-end encryption across an enormous range of devices and apps–and that got introduced by its Republican sponsors just as Attorney General Bill Barr’s role as President Trump’s political commissar in the Justice Department became even more obvious–would get more readers. My venture into getting paid per click isn’t off to the best start.

6/25/2020: What is the role of the media in covering online security and privacy matters?, Collision

I hosted a roundtable discussion about press coverage of these issues that wound up not drawing many attendees, but I enjoyed the discussion anyway. Getting to talk about the issues you cover with knowledgeable people you hadn’t met before is one of the things I liked about going to conferences, and this part of Collision reminded me of that.

6/26/2020: Google Says It Will Pay News Sites For Their Work—But Not Yet Here, Forbes

My other post for Forbes this week covered a new initiative by Google to pay news publishers to reproduce their stories on some of its properties. I reported it out by checking in with the news types I’d quizzed for a feature last month about Google’s relationship with news publishers.

6/27/2020: Rob Pegoraro Zooms into the Pi, Washington Apple Pi

I talked to this Apple user group via Zoom instead of appearing in person as I did last June. That meant I couldn’t do my usual giveaway of trade-show swag, but not having to drive anywhere also meant I could mow the lawn before this virtual session.

6/27/2020: Advertisers boycotting Facebook, Al Jazeera

I talked about the growing number of advertisers choosing to pull their ads off of Facebook properties, in some cases off of social media entirely.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

Continue reading

Weekly output: Apple’s App Store vs. Hey, cable modems, voice tweets

Happy Father’s Day to all who observe! Fatherhood is probably the worst-paying job I’ve had, but it’s also the best job I’ve had.

6/17/2020: Apple To Basecamp’s Hey: Expect To Pay Us If You Want To Sell Privacy, Forbes

I jumped on the chance to write about Apple hard-balling the Hey e-mail app with a demand that Hey developer Basecamp add Apple’s in-app-payment mechanism–allowing the Cupertino, Calif., company to take 30% of all subscriptions opened that way. Then I discovered that writing for a site that lets me publish immediately does not curb my instinct to fuss over my prose before filing. Another realization with this post: Calling out Apple’s abusive behavior towards an app built along the privacy-optimizing principles it says rank among its core values did not yield page views by the truckload, notwithstanding the history of reader interest in that company.

6/18/2020: Don’t keep paying for that cable modem, Talking Tech

I talked to my USA Today colleague Jefferson Graham about my recent column reminding readers that they should buy their cable modems instead of renting them.

6/18/2020: Voice tweets, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on to explain Twitter’s introduction of audio tweets. I said the upside of this was letting followers pick up on differences in intonation that text alone doesn’t convey, while Twitter will need to be careful about abusive types exploiting this feature. I told my producer that my favorite example of a good use of voice tweets was Liz Phair improvising a song about this product development; since I don’t know if that made its way to TV, I’m sharing that with you all below.

Airports I’ve used

Last Friday set an ignominious personal milestone: I broke a record for consecutive days spent away from airplanes that went back to to 2001.

Back then, the post-9/11 shutdown of commercial aviation and my own relaxed travel schedule ensured I wouldn’t board a plane between early August, when I landed at National Airport after a summer vacation in California, and early January, when I took off DCA for my first Macworld Expo. This time, the novel-coronavirus pandemic has grounded me, and it’s unclear when I’ll once again feel jet engines shove me back in my seat and watch the ground fall away from the wing.

So I might as well document the airports I used in the Before Times, having already done the research for my friend Craig Fifer’s Flight Quest project to track who among his friends had taken off from or landed at more airports. As an inveterate list-maker and avgeek, how could I not have taken part in that competition?

So here you go: the 94 airports I’ve used listed by IATA and ICAO code, plus my comments about each.

This almost certainly isn’t complete, as before 1997 I’m limited to incomplete paper records and my own memory. But I don’t think anybody can question my lifelong effort to pop up commercial aviation.

Weekly output: ShowStoppers TV, AT&T zero-rating HBO Max

Pro tip: Weekends are good for home-improvement projects, but not if you wait until after 5 p.m. on a Sunday to start them. Bonus tip: Expecting uncluttered wiring in an old house is always foolish.

6/11/2020: Dads & Grads, ShowStoppers TV

My role in this gig with this PR agency (the one that’s helped arrange my prior trips to the IFA and CEATEC tech events) was that of an emcee, not an endorser. As in, I introduced each company presenting and then threw out a question or two of my own before inviting the remotely-connected journalists and analysts to ask their own queries. I enjoyed playing a sort of game-show host, and it was nice to hear the voices of a few people I’d last met at CES.

6/13/2020: AT&T’s Trashing Net Neutrality Probably Won’t Help HBO Max, Forbes

My first post for this site offered a skeptical take on AT&T’s attempt to growth-hack its HBO Max streaming-video service–not to be confused with HBO Go or HBO Now–by exempting it from its wireless service’s data caps and throttling thresholds.

I’m finally getting paid by the click, more or less

My byline showed up at a new place this morning: Forbes, where I’m going to be covering the intersections of media, policy and technology. My first post unpacks AT&T’s probably-doomed attempt to boost its HBO Max streaming video service by exempting it from its data caps.

Writing about tech policy is nothing new for me, but this freelance client brings a different model of compensation, plus some self-inflicted dents to its reputation.

The publication I once knew as a glossy magazine that branded itself a “Capitalist Tool” did not cover itself with glory as it transitioned to the Web. It leaned way too far into the outside-contributor model under former editor Lewis D’Vorkin, flooding its pages with content churned out by writers who were often unvetted and unpaid and sometimes flat-out unqualified.

So when my friend Wayne Rash started writing there last year and encouraged me to come along, I had to quiz him at length about his experience. Then I talked to another recent addition to the site, analyst Carolina Milanesi, as well as one of its more senior contributors, tech journalist Larry Magid. They all pronounced Forbes a worthwhile outlet that was no longer a churnalism warehouse.

So I got on the phone with Dawn Chmielewski, the media editor there. I’ve known Dawn since she was covering tech at the Los Angeles Times when I was doing the same at the Washington Post, and seeing Forbes hire her last January had already raised my estimation of the place. She explained the steps they’d taken to professionalize their contributor system, including booting a bunch of the old contributors, as well as the pay structure.

That aspect, of particular importance to me, involves a minimum payment for five posts a month that would represent… a per-word rate I wouldn’t want to talk about. But traffic above a certain level brings a steady increase in income, and the page views that come from repeat visitors count for considerably more.

Aside from the short-lived micro-blogging platform Sulia, no other clients have paid me along these lines. But I can tell you that at almost every place I’ve written, including the Post, I’ve had editors cite my page views as a key metric in my value as a journalist and send me spreadsheets showing just how my stuff had done in recent months. And I’ve had editors turn down pitches explicitly because previous posts on the same topics did not get enough clicks.

Remember that every time you see journalists huff that they don’t get paid by the click. Stories get assigned on the basis of traffic all the time, and journalists can lose their jobs for the same reason. Making this a direct component of compensation is at least more transparent–as is the fact that each story at Forbes shows its page views above the headline.

As I write this, my debut only has 408 views. In the context of a Saturday-morning post that didn’t break news, I’d rate that as not great, not terrible. And I have time to figure this out, given that business at other clients has slowed or, in the case of Yahoo Finance, ground to a halt.

In six months, I may decide that this experiment–and its key benefit of letting me write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy–was worth it. Or I may put this down as another case of my successfully finding something that didn’t work. Either way, I suspect I’ll know a lot more about the dynamics of online readership after seeing my metrics move in real time on a site with an exponentially larger audience than this blog.

Weekly output: Palestinians on Facebook, buying a cable modem

I biked into downtown D.C. this afternoon–my first time there since March–and was pleased to see how protesters have turned the wall now surrounding the White House compound into a canvas for protest signs.

6/1/2020: After banning Palestinian content, is Facebook biased to Israel?, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on for almost an hour to discuss allegations that Facebook has gone out of its way to silence Palestinian advocates. That’s not a subject I’ve researched in detail, so I stuck to talking about the times I’ve seen Facebook enforce its rules unevenly in the U.S., where its mistakes should be a lot more obvious. A few days later, the Guardian reported a disturbing pattern of Facebook deleting the accounts of Tunisian democracy advocates.

6/7/2020:  How to save money on your cable modem costs, USA Today

My research for this column on buying a cable modem instead of paying an ever-escalating rent (in Comcast’s case, it’s gone from $8 a month in 2016 to $14 today) included firsthand experience, in the form of my buying my in-laws a modem last summer. I posted a complete writeup of my notes from that exercise for Patreon readers last Sunday.

Protests, vicariously

Donald Trump’s administration began with American cities packed with protesters, and today–150 days before Election Day–their streets are again overflowing with people exercising their First Amendment rights.

The situation in 2020 is more grave than in 2017. People aren’t marching to show their rejection of one new president and the prospect of his authoritarian misrule, but their anger about an entire system that tolerates the killing of black people by police and neighbors for little more than living in their American skin. These protests are happening while a global pandemic makes large gatherings dangerous, especially for those not wearing a mask.

And too many police have greeted these protesters–and sometimes journalists–with beatings, tear gas, bullets sold as non-lethal, and even bike theft. These alleged law-enforcement professionals could have picked no surer way to show that people denouncing police abuse of power have a point.

But as I did three and a half years ago, I stayed home today to perform the modern-parenting task of watching our kid while my wife marched.

My entire experience of what’s going on around the newly-fortified area formerly known as the White House grounds, just a few miles from my home, has been weirdly distant. About the only difference in my daily routine has been hearing what might be a few more sirens, which could reflect a response to protests or the occasional and disgraceful outbreak of looting or could have been first-responder business as usual.

The one protest I’ve seen firsthand happened Tuesday around the Clarendon Metro; it was peaceful, and the Arlington County police officers watching it did not wear riot gear. At another protest in Arlington last weekend, my spouse (a county government employee with no role in law enforcement) noted that ACPD officers cleared a lane of traffic and handed out water bottles.

Some of the same officers, however, responded Monday to a mutual-aid-agreement request by the U.S. Park Police and helped forcibly clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so President Trump could have his picture taken fondling a Bible outside St. John’s Church.

Arlington’s police leadership has since shown itself willing to hear constructive criticism, and once again I feel insulated from the problems around me. 

All of which is to say, the past two weeks have provided the opportunity and the need for me to consider my own privilege in this society and how each of the few times I’ve been pulled over by a cop, it’s left me to fear little beyond getting points on my insurance.

Weekly output: WiFi help, SpaceX and NASA, cybersecurity issues and the coronavirus (x2), Trump’s social-media executive order (x3)

This weekend has shown some of the ugliest sides of the United States, from systemic racism to abuse of police power to wanton destructiveness. It would have been even worse without Saturday’s reminder from SpaceX and NASA that we can also do great things together.

5/25/2020: Think you are ready for a new router? First, try these free home Wi-Fi fixes, USA Today

I borrowed the expertise of my friends Tom Bridge and Glenn Fleishman for this column about no-cost tweaks to a home network that may improve your experience.

5/27/2020: SpaceX’s Dragon launch ushers in a new era for Americans in space, Fast Company

I’d meant to write this story from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site. Instead, I wrote it from my desk at home–below a picture I took of the last shuttle launch that STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson signed for me at a later NASA Tweetup.

5/27/2020: The Thought Leadership Summit, Webit Virtual

This conference was once going to take place in Spain next month and have me moderate some panels. Webit’s had to go virtual like every other large event, so my first spot involved a panel on cybersecurity issues in the novel-coronavirus pandemic that featured Webit executive chairman Plamen Russev, Siemens chief cybersecurity officer Natalia Oropeza, Inrupt security-architecture chief Bruce Schneier, and VMWare security vice president Tom Corn.

5/27/2020: Trump vs. Twitter, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on to talk about President Trump’s temper tantrum of executive order that makes a lot of noise about Twitter’s alleged unfairness but contains almost nothing in the way of a legally-valid signal.

5/28/2020: The Leading Media Forum, Webit Virtual

My second appearance for Webit featured an extended discussion about media coverage of cybersecurity issues with Webit’s Russev, Wired Italia’s Luca Zorloni, Forbes’ Monica Melton, and Euronews’ Salim Essaid. The video on this should look much better than the earlier panel, because I realized that my laptop’s camera had the white balance so hideously bad that my navy-blue shirt looked purple. With only a couple of minutes to go before showtime, I grabbed my iPad, braced it between my laptop keyboard and screen, and used that instead.

5/28/2020: Trump’s social-media executive order, Al Araby

My second TV hit about the Trump executive order came right after he signed that document, which meant my interpreter on this Arabic-language network and I had to wait for him to stop talking.

5/29/2020: Trump’s Twitter Tantrum; Hong Kong Crackdown, Bipodisan

My first tweets about the Trump order caught the eye of my friend Robert Schlesinger, who then invited me to join him and his co-host Jean Card on this political podcast. We had much more fun than you might expect from a chat about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.