About robpegoraro

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

Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.

 

Weekly output: Roku pauses live TV, Twitter’s focus, Facebook’s real-names policy

LISBON–For the second year in a row, Web Summit has me far from home in early November. But unlike last year, I’m moderating four panels instead of watching everybody else’s, this conference’s move to Portugal deprives me of a reunion with my Irish relatives, and more is at stake in the election I’m missing than in any other I’ve seen.

That’s why I voted absentee Sept. 23, the first day possible in Arlington. Given the past presidential choices listed on my disclosures page and my general wish to live in the reality-based community, I trust you will not be surprised that I voted for Hillary Clinton.

11/3/2016: Roku’s new pause button turns your TV into a poor man’s DVR, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been wondering for years when the flattening price of flash memory would let even basic TVs ship with enough storage to pause a live broadcast–and now Roku is doing just that with an update to the software for Roku TVs.

yahoo-finance-twitter-features-post11/5/2016: Twitter keeps innovating but isn’t fixing these core problems, Yahoo Finance

This was originally going to be a rant about Twitter’s unexplained decision to opt some users, myself included, into an experiment in which its iOS apps open links in Safari’s Reader Mode. My editors suggested I take a broader look at where Twitter seems to be devoting its attention.

11/6/2016: Facebook’s real-name policy draws line at titles, USA Today

It’s the rare column that lets me reference both Usenet and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Pop quiz: How many of you can still name any of your regular newsgroups?

Virginia voting tip: distrust constitutional amendments

Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.

Newspaper ad for 2016 Virginia constitutional amendmentsOver more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.

This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.

Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.

This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”

On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.

Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.

But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:

“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law

No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.

Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?

We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.

My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.

Weekly output: Windows 10 Creators Update, Apple’s decaying desktop line, IoT security, Google Pixel procurement

This week featured new-product events from Apple and Microsoft–and Redmond impressed me more than Cupertino, which I guess represents yet another way that 2016 has been a bizarre year. Also bizarre: It’s now been more than five weeks since I last flew anywhere for work, but that streak ends Saturday when I start my trip to Lisbon for Web Summit.

Screengrab of Yahoo post about Win 10 Creators Update10/26/2016: The Windows 10 Creators Update could streamline your friendships, Yahoo Finance

I balanced out my tentative praise for an upcoming Windows 10 feature that should help elevate conversations with friends with some complaints about lingering Win 10 flaws. One I could have added to this list but did not: the way you can find yourself staring at dialogs dating to Win 95 if you click or tap deep enough into Win 10’s UI.

(Note that this screengrab shows a Yahoo post at a Google address, an issue with Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages format that I noted last week.)

10/27/2016: Apple once again ignores a big market, Yahoo Finance

Crazy thing here: I wrote a harsh post about Apple’s neglect of the desktop computer, and none of the first 20 comments include any form of “how much did Microsoft pay you to write that?” I’m also irked by the increasingly pricey state of the Mac laptop, but that’s going to have to wait for another post.

10/28/2016: Hackers are taking over your smart devices, here’s how we can stop them, Yahoo Finance

My latest post on the mess that is Internet-of-Things security benefited from informative chats with an Underwriters Laboratories engineer and a Federal Trade Commission commissioner.

10/30/2016: Google Pixel’s ‘Only on Verizon’ pitch isn’t what it seems, USA Today

The misleadingly Verizon-centric marketing for Google’s new smartphones has bugged me for a few weeks, but T-Mobile’s rollout of a marketing campaign that also glossed over some issues gave me a convenient news peg.

R.I.P., Vine: what I learned from sharing 100 six-second clips

I can’t lie: When Vine came into the world in January of 2013, I thought that sharing six-second video clips was ridiculous. My comment at the time was that we had moved one step closer to the blipvert ads of Max Headroom.

vine-app-logoI resolutely avoided the Vine app (not hard to do when my phone was chronically out of space) until a year and a half later, when I found myself staring at a crosswalk sign that kept saying “Change Password” instead of “Walk” or “Don’t Walk.”

There was no other choice. I installed the app and uploaded my first of many six-second clips.

I’ve now shared exactly 100 of them–a nice round number I didn’t quite notice until Twitter announced today that it would kill this video-sharing service.

The most common theme of my Vines has been “weird stuff at tech events”: dancing robots, another dancing robot, a drone herding painted sheep, a bot barista, and a two-faced TV. That last clip, shared from CES this January, has been my most viewed one, thanks to it being embedded in a Yahoo post.

But I’ve also found that six seconds is just the right amount of time to illustrate an inefficiency in a smartphone interface, document an obnoxious abuse of Web coding, and catch a smartwatch failing to keep up with the time.

Vine turned out to be a crafty way to share non-tech tidbits too: the tide going out, the view from the front of a Barcelona Metro train, the American flag in a breeze over the Mississippi, butterflies flapping their wings, a plane taking off from National Airport.

I realized that having a completely artificial constraint can force you to be creative–just like Twitter’s 140-character count or a print headline’s two-column cap impose their own discipline. And I learned that having only minimal editing options pushed me to get a clip in one take instead of thinking I could clean it up later (meaning I would never get around to doing so).

Meanwhile, you all who shared your own Vines helped keep me entertained, informed, and sometimes weirded out.

Now that’s all winding down. Why? Twitter’s post announcing the impending shutdown of Vine’s apps–but not the vine.co site archiving our clips–said nothing about that. Twitter’s struggles to monetize Vine had to have been an issue, but I’d like to think that the Vine below may also help explain what went wrong.

 

Weekly output: Hackable “IoT” devices (x2), AMP, Tech Night Owl

I’m taking a week off from my USA Today column, this being a month that would have had me writing five Sunday pieces instead of the usual four. That ends a streak that had started in late 2011–but was probably never going to get close to the 566-week run of weekly Washington Post column-ization that lasted from September of 1999 through July of 2010.

yahoo-finance-hackable-iot-post10/20/2016: Hackers could use your smart home devices to launch web attacks, Yahoo Finance

This column benefited from some extraordinarily fortuitous timing: The day after it ran, unknown attackers used hacked “Internet of Things” gadgets to launch a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against the domain-name-service firm Dyn that left large chunks of the Internet inaccessible through much of Friday.

10/22/2016: How Google is remaking the mobile web, Yahoo Finance

A co-worker suggested I write about Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, and that turned out to be a good idea. I don’t think Google realizes the level of annoyance some readers feel over seeing news stories served from a google.com cache, but I doubt this post alone will lead to any sudden enlightenment in Mountain View.

10/22/2016: October 22, 2016 — Rob Pegoraro and Jeff Gamet, Tech Night Owl

I talked about the long wait for Apple to ship some new Macs, my experience so far with macOS Sierra, WikiLeaks, Google’s Pixel phones, and a few other things.

10/22/2016: Consumer News with Michael Finney, KGO

I spent about 10 minutes talking to Finney about the risks posed by easily-hacked IoT devices. In a fit of blatant pandering to distant listeners, I compared DDoS attacks to traffic jams on the Bay Bridge’s toll plaza.

Thematic tension

Since yesterday afternoon, this blog hasn’t quite looked the same: After over five years of my sticking with the same themeTwenty Eleven, as in the year I started this blog–I finally changed that out for something newer.

I’m blaming my work for that change: Researching today’s Yahoo Finance post about Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project led me to realize that although WordPress had added AMP support in February, my own blog’s settings had no mention that mobile-friendly option.

wordpress-themes-chooserI figured it was time for a change, opened the theme browser and activated the Twenty Sixteen theme, the closest thing to a current default.

After some customizing of the theme, I’m not sure I made a good choice. The font selection bugs me–there’s nothing close to the clean look of the Helvetica (or the Helvetica look-alike) that Twenty Eleven used. I’m also not a fan of how the simple list of links to my static pages (About, Contact, Disclosures, Portfolio) at the top right gets swapped out for an oversized menu link in mobile browsers.

On the upside, this makeover has forced me to look at the list of widgets that graces the right side of this page for the first time in years. I had no idea that the old Twitter widget was on its way out; now there’s one that displays images I’ve shared and lets you scroll through more tweets. I was also overdue to rearrange the order of those widgets–considering how badly I’ve neglected Flickr, I shouldn’t have had that listed above the link to my Facebook page.

At some point, I should poke around the theme showcase to see if I can’t do better. But seeing as I’m typing this at 5:30 on a Saturday, now is not that time. So I’ll just ask: What’s your assessment of the current decor around here? Got any suggestions on what theme should replace it?

And if you usually read this on a phone, has it loaded any faster since Friday afternoon?

Update, 11/13: As some of you may have noticed a week or so ago, I decided to revert back to the Twenty Eleven theme–and I see that the settings for it now include an AMP category.