About robpegoraro

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

Crystal City wasn’t so enticing in 1993

With the news Tuesday morning that Amazon will put one of its “HQ2” locations in Arlington, Crystal City–or “National Landing,” the name picked to encompass an Amazon realm that will reach some adjacent blocks in Pentagon City and Alexandria–has suddenly become one of the D.C. area’s most interesting neighborhoods.

That was very much not the case when I moved there with three friends in 1993. For a single guy in his early 20s, there was one word for the neighborhood then: Loserville.

Then as now, Crystal City was bisected by a partly-elevated highway, with superblocks filled by bland, boxy buildings on either side. But in 1993, most of these office and apartment structures couldn’t be bothered to engage the street: Aside from a few scattered exceptions, retail and dining establishments huddled in the Crystal City Underground.

My walk to Metro from our apartment on South 23rd Street–a hulking structure with concrete-comb balcony railings that evoked Communist Bloc architecture–either took me through those climate-controlled corridors or along sidewalks with immaculate landscaping but few human life forms, as you can see in pictures I took that summer.

(My Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens later wrote a feature about Crystal City that ran under the headline “Habitrail For Humanity” and featured this wonderful line from Sen. John McCain, a resident then: “You can start to feel more like a mole than a human.”)

Shopping was not an issue, with a Safeway a short stroll into the Underground and other everyday retail spots not much further along. I had an easy Metro commute to the Post and other places in D.C., and we were close enough to National Airport that I once hiked home from it. But the only affordable nightlife-ish spot I remember on our side of U.S. 1 was a Hamburger Hamlet.

Crossing the other side of the road shamefully called “Jefferson Davis Highway” (and which marred our building’s mailing address) would get you to a short little strip of restaurants in older storefronts on South 23rd Street. But first you had to choose between a long wait for a crosswalk signal or holding your nose as you briskly strolled through a pedestrian tunnel that reeked of piss.

Meanwhile, all the cool kids lived in apartments or group homes in Adams-Morgan, Cleveland Park, Dupont, Georgetown or Woodley Park. Going to parties at their places–nobody ever headed in the other direction–meant dreading the question “where do you live?”

After 15 months, I was delighted to move to an apartment in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood and be able to walk to cheap, delicious Vietnamese food and some moderately-hipster bars.

Crystal City has grown less ugly in the 21st century. A series of redevelopments turned the west side of Crystal Drive into a great stretch of restaurants and bars, a few new and less-bland buildings have sprouted around the neighborhood, and the brownfield to the north that mainly served as an impound lot for towed cars has become the terrific Long Bridge Park. Even most Jefferson Davis Highway addresses are gone, now that Arlington decided in 2004 to reassign buildings street addresses that mapped to their front doors.

The people quoted in a Post piece Tuesday voicing complaints along the lines of Crystal City having “no nightlife” must not realize how bad things used to be.

Amazon’s arrival should make them better still, replacing more of those ’60s and ’70s-vintage hulks with taller, shinier structures. And unlike Amazon’s other HQ2 spot, NYC’s Long Island City neighborhood, Crystal City will also see serious infrastructure improvements: Current and future Metro stops will get new entrances, its Virginia Railway Express station will be expanded, the walk to National will take place on a pedestrian bridge, and the long-term vision involves turning U.S. 1 into a surface-level, human-scaled boulevard.

But Arlington’s plans don’t include another upgrade that’s out of the county’s hands until the General Assembly notices the current century: rechristening that highway so it’s no longer an exercise in Confederacy whitewashing. Click “Okay” already, Richmond.

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Weekly output: credit-card fraud, SaaS developers, Amazon and Crystal City, digital marketing, CTO life, Roborace, For The Web, DMCA exemptions

I fell seriously behind on tweeting out new stories this week, as Web Summit occupied most of my mental processor cycles during my stay in Lisbon. I also didn’t keep up with headlines in my RSS feed or even setting aside a minute or two a day to plod along in Spanish tutorials in the Duolingo app.

The Summit organizers usually post video of every session not long after the conference, but that hasn’t happened yet; when it does, I’ll embed those clips below. They now have.

11/5/2018: Why those chips in your credit cards don’t stop fraud online, Yahoo Finance

The story assignment came from inside the house, in the form of my having to call up a bank to have our cards reissued after somebody spent close to a thousand dollars on that account at Lenovo’s online store.

11/6/2018: Disrupting the traditional SaaS business model: The rise of the developer, Web Summit

My first panel at Web Summit featured two people running software-as-a-service shops: Nicolas Dessaigne of Algolia, and Adam FitzGerald of Amazon Web Services. This topic was well outside of my usual consumer-tech coverage, but a 20-minute panel isn’t too much airtime to fill if you do some basic research.

 

11/6/2018: Why Crystal City would be the right call for Amazon’s HQ2, Yahoo Finance

When I saw the Post’s scoop about Amazon getting exceedingly close to anointing Crystal City, I e-mailed my Yahoo editors volunteering to write any sort of “10 things to know about Arlington” post they might need. They didn’t require that, but they did ask me to write a summary of my county’s advantages–and some of its disadvantages, as noted in a few grafs that reveal the nerdiest bit of verbiage you’ll hear around Arlington.

11/8/2018: Marketing performance in a digital age – complexity to clarity, reaction to action, Web Summit

This was my most difficult panel at this conference, thanks to some reshuffling of questions late in the game and poor acoustics onstage that left me and my conversations partners Vincent Stuhlen (L’Oreal) and Catherine Wong (Domo) struggling to hear each other.

 

11/8/2018: CTO panel discussion: A day in life, Web Summit

Barely 30 minutes later, I had my second panel of Thursday, and this conversation with Cisco’s Susie Wee and Allianz SE’s Markus Löffler went much better.

 

11/8/2018: The human-machine race for the future, Web Summit

What’s not to like about interviewing the head of a robot-racecar company onstage? As a nice little bonus, this chat with Roborace CEO Lucas Di Grassi got introduced by my conference-nerd friend Adam Zuckerman.

 

11/8/2018: The man who created the World Wide Web needs you to help fix it, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s Monday-night keynote about his initiative to improve his creation, as informed by a conversation Thursday with the CEO of his World Wide Web Foundation.

11/9/2018: Primer: What new DMCA exemptions mean for hackers, The Parallax

It had been a few years since I’d last unpacked the government’s ability to tell companies and researchers not to worry about the thou-shalt-not-mess-with-DRM provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Spoiler alert: I remain a skeptic of this ill-drafted law.

Updated 11/16/2018 with embedded YouTube clips.

This changing Commonwealth of Virginia

This January, Virginia’s congressional delegation will look different: Four of its 11 members will be women, up from one now. And seven will be Democrats, versus four today.

Along with last year’s Democratic landslide in Virginia’s state elections, these results provide part of the answer I wanted to see after 2016’s meltdown: Virginia voters aren’t buying the sales pitch of a Republican Party decomposing into a Trump personality cult.

But it’s also worth remembering what politics in my adopted state looked like only eight years ago. The GOP had swept races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and maintained majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Some of those Republicans… fell short of the examples of such former Virginia GOP office-holders as Rep. Tom Davis and Sen. John Warner, to phrase things kindly.

Gov. Bob McDonnell showed a fondness for gifts from donors and floated laughably bad ideas about transportation funding before accepting a deal to raise the gas tax. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was exponentially worse, wasting taxpayer dollars on doomed, grandstanding lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and climate-change research at the University of Virginia.

In the House, Republican delegates like Prince William County’s Bob Marshall pushed measures like an invasive abortion-restriction bill that made “transvaginal ultrasound” a TV punch line.

And even well into Northern Virginia, the ignorant, corrupt, homophobic Eugene Delgaudio kept winning elections to the Loudoun County Board.

Since the entire state had voted in 2006 for a cruel amendment to the state constitution banning even “approximate” legal status for same-sex marriages, this balance of political power looked like something we’d see for a long time.

Now McDonnell, Cuccinelli, Marshall and Delgaudio and others like them are gone from elected politics. Last year’s rout led by Gov. Ralph Northam convinced the Virginia GOP to end its massive resistance against expanding Medicaid–a position that had set it against even hospital and business lobbies. Campaigning on keeping Confederate memorials up will not get you elected, as last year’s failed gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and this year’s even-more-failed senate candidate Corey Stewart found. And campaigning against the NRA and its gun worship no longer sets you back here, as incoming representatives Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton can attest.

There’s still work to do. GOP gerrymandering remains an issue–and the fix can’t involve lurching to the other extreme like Maryland Democrats. The state senate’s Republican delegation still includes Loudoun’s Dick Black, who literally pals around with serial-killing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Too many things in the Commonwealth are still named after Confederate leaders who deserve no such honor. And while 2006’s hate amendment has been ruled unconstitutional, it continues to stain the constitution.

But that’s what the 2019 state elections can help fix. Unless voters here go back to sleep the way they did after 2008.

Weekly output: new Macs, online absentee voting, Tech Night Owl, DuckDuckGo

LISBON–I’m here for my fourth Web Summit, which is also my third in a row to have me moderating panels and away from the U.S. during election day. I like this conference, but I’m missing the experience of casting a ballot in person on the big day. American citizens reading this: You will be doing just that Tuesday if you haven’t already voted early or absentee, right? Because if you don’t, you’re inviting the dumbest person in your precinct to vote in your place.

10/29/2018: Why it’s a big deal that Apple is finally updating its computers, Yahoo Finance

When I wrote this curtain-raiser post for Apple’s news this week, I didn’t factor in Apple charging so much more for memory and storage upgrades. I will try to revisit that topic sometime soon.

11/1/2018: Experts disagree on how to secure absentee votes, The Parallax

This article started as questions I had left over after writing a post about the Voatz blockchain absentee-voting app a few weeks ago.

11/3/2018: November 3, 2018 — Rob Pegoraro and Jeff Gamet, Tech Night Owl

I talked to host Gene Steinberg about some puzzling aspects of Apple’s finally-updated computer lineup, along with its decision to stop revealing unit-sales numbers in future earnings releases.

11/4/2018: What it’s like to use a search engine that’s more private than Google, Yahoo Finance

Not for the first time, a topic I tried out as a post here became a separate story for a paying client. Did that piece get you to set the default search in one of your browsers to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo? I’ll take your answer in the comments.

The D.C. area’s token skyscrapers

Informed travelers don’t come here to see skyscrapers. But after years of having the Washington Monument be the highest structure in sight after a couple of radio towers, the Washington area now features some edifices outside D.C. and its self-defeating height limit that… okay, wouldn’t look embarrassingly small in Manhattan.

It’s a start!

I spent this morning visiting what’s now the highest building in the area, Capital One’s 470-foot-tall headquarters in Tysons. Having watched this grow on my way to Dulles Airport over the last few years, it was fascinating to see the views from the 19th floor and on up to the roof.

It was also somewhat frustrating, in that I hadn’t thought to bring binoculars on a day a little too hazy for me to make out the District’s taller buildings. I still had a fantastic perspective of Tysons and how Metro’s Silver Line is leading it to grow upwards.

(You can get a sense of what I saw up there in my Flickr album from this tour.)

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get that same aerial perspective again anytime soon. Capital One Tower does have event space available for outside events, but it’s clustered on the lower levels.

The second-highest building around D.C., however, features an observation deck almost 400 feet up and open to the public–tickets are $21 online, free for Arlington residents. And because the CEB Tower in Rosslyn, 390 feet tall, sits part way up a hill from the Potomac, it seems about eye level with the Washington Monument and almost that high relative to planes on their way into National Airport.

That outstanding location also lets you look down on what used to be the tallest buildings near D.C., the twin 381-foot-tall towers built in the early 1980s after a federal lawsuit sought to end their construction.

“These monsters would ruin the skyline,” Carter-administration Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus said at the time. That was a foolish thing to say then and is even more so now. Taller buildings in Rosslyn like those two and the pyramid-topped 1812 N. Moore St. help hide the ugly ’60s and ’70s-vintage boxes that defined its skyline until recently, but they still leave plenty of space for the Washington Monument and the Capitol to stand out on their own.

The other reason to applaud skyscrapers: Beyond giving you a neat view of the surroundings, they let transit and walking work in a way that sprawled-out corporate campuses can’t. And if designed right, they should also look a hell of a lot better. I’ll admit that neither Capital One Tower nor CEB Tower has quite the grace and style to get kids drawing sketches of them from memory–but we should look at these somewhat boxy assemblages as a chance to do better.

Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on building heights in Rosslyn mean we’re unlikely to get anything bigger there. But back in Tysons, there’s now a proposal for a 600-foot-tall building by the Spring Hill Metro stop. If approved and built, that would surpass a Westin in Virginia Beach to become the tallest building in the commonwealth. I would be okay with that.

Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.