About robpegoraro

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

Weekly output: credit checks for wireless service, Carpenter v. U.S., Safari security, Facebook listening patent

The second quarter of the year is in the books. Or to put this in less financial terms: Happy almost Fourth of July! Please take a moment during this holiday to remember that democracy is not a spectator sport.

6/25/2018: Sprint’s $15 unlimited data plan required a ‘hard pull’ credit report, and it’s not the only one, USA Today

The Collision conference gets an assist here for introducing me to CreditKarma co-founder Nichole Mustard, who on short notice provided a concise explanation of different levels of credit inquiries.

6/25/2018: Four things to note about the Supreme Court’s location privacy ruling, The Parallax

I applaud the Supreme Court ruling that the government has to get a search warrant to see my location history as tracked by my wireless carrier. But it also left many things unclear, like the validity of the “third-party doctrine” that originally allowed warrantless access to that location data.

6/29/2018: Apple’s Safari has dropped the ball on security, Yahoo Finance

News that Twitter would finally support two-step verification based on cryptographically-signed “U2F” USB keys gave me a timely peg for a piece recounting how Apple’s browser has been late to implement many security advances–even as Safari has led the industry in adding privacy protection.

6/30/2018: Facebook’s listening patent, Al Jazeera

I got a call from a producer as I was walking to Metro to meet friends for brunch, asking if I could talk about recent reports of Facebook obtaining a patent that appears to describe turning on a phone’s microphone when an ad broadcasts a special, inaudible-to-humans tone. I said this patent only showed that Facebook has aggressive patent lawyers. Why? See Nilay Patel’s debunking of this allegation in the Verge, based on a close reading of the claims in the actual patent.

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Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

Weekly output: Inside the Media Minds, EU copyright control-freakery, WeChat, 5G and IoT, Facebook political-ad rules

In addition to the exposure below, I may or may not have been on New York’s Fox affiliate WNYW Monday–I did a Skype interview about the music industry’s move away from downloads, but I have no idea if they used it or not. If you happened to watch them Monday night, please let me know either way in a comment.

6/19/2018: EP 7 – Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Finance/USA Today, Inside the Media Minds

I sat down for this interview with W2 Communications‘ host Christine Blake a month ago–but since I spent most of the time talking about longer-term stuff like my coverage priorities and my worries about technology, it aged reasonably well.

6/20/2018: How Europe’s proposed copyright laws could ruin your search engines, Yahoo Finance

It’s now been over five and a half years since I first wrote about the inane idea of letting newspapers charge search engines for the privilege of indexing their content, and I’ve been covering Hollywood’s demands that the tech industry nerd harder and create some magic solution to copyright infringement since at least 2002. That the European Union is seriously considering copyright-law revisions that would add a link tax and upload filtering suggests that no tech-policy idea is too dumb not to be exhumed and put forth as a sober-minded solution.

6/21/2018: Meet WeChat, the app that’s ‘everything’ in China, The Parallax

I wrote a lengthy explainer about WeChat, the do-it-all social-media platform that largely defines the mobile Internet for Chinese users–Facebook Messenger could only dream of folding in so many functions. Then again, Facebook Messenger offers end-to-end encryption while WeChat offers no such thing.

6/21/2018: 5G and the Internet of Things: How much? How fast? How soon?, CE Week

I led a panel discussion at the CE Week conference with Owl CEO Andrew Hodge, I Luv Wireless managing member Michael Dean, and SureCall sales vice president Frankie Smith. The takeaway: forget latency and bandwidth, better battery life will be the real reward of 5G in connected devices.

6/22/2018: Facebook’s push to kill bad political ads is also hiding regular posts, Yahoo Finance

Facebook now requires ads that address political issues to meet a higher standard of transparency—but in practice, its system has been classifying ads promoting news stories and even everyday commercial offerings as political.

Waiting for Moynihan to arrive at Penn

One of D.C.’s strongest points of civic superiority over New York can be encapsulated in four words: Union Station, Penn Station.

We have a Greek temple of a train station built around a beautiful vaulted hall, with a view of the Capitol dome out one door and Metro out another. (We’d rather not talk about Union Station’s Carter-era years of decay.) They have a dreary, subterranean space that hasn’t seen sunlight in over half a century–courtesy of the Pennsylvania Railroad tearing down the original Penn Station starting in 1963 to clear room for Madison Square Garden atop what was left of its waiting rooms.

That “monumental act of vandalism,” as the New York Times said in an editorial at the start of demolition, not only didn’t save the Pennsy from financial ruin but soon became a source of lasting civic shame in NYC.

The most straightforward fix possible has been obvious since the 1990s, when then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.) championed building a new train hall in the James A. Farley Post Office building across 8th Avenue from Penn. That edifice not only sits atop Penn’s train platforms but was built in the same neoclassical style as the original Penn–and designed by the same architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.

But the deal that seemed done in 1997 died multiple deaths and experienced multiple resurrections over the subsequent years. New York did build a concourse under Farley for Long Island Rail Road passengers–it’s much less bleak than the rest of Penn–but I doubted things would progress further until the state announced a signed deal last June to build a Moynihan Trail Hall in the Farley building.

And the crazy thing is, construction is now, finally, underway. On my way to Penn Friday, I couldn’t miss the construction cranes perched above the Farley building. And after I got home, I read that workers have begun installing gigantic canopies over that structure’s courtyards.

That’s exciting to me, even if Amtrak says I’ll have to wait until 2021 to see the finished product. (And if I’ll have to give up a bit of D.C. snobbery.) It’s also exciting to my mother, who grew up in New York and remembers what the original looked like, even before its pre-demolition decline. When they finally open the new hall, I know what I want to do: take the train into a reborn Penn Station with Mom, then have her tell me if they did the place justice.

Weekly output: net neutrality, Web browsers compared, Last Gadget Standing, China’s autonomous-vehicle ambitions, Sprint and Verizon “unlimited” data

My most-distant business trip of the year is in the books, and I don’t even feel that tired after getting home Friday evening. Falling asleep in my own bed remains the single best cure for jet lag that I know. I’m traveling again this year coming week, but I’m only going about 3 percent as far–I’m in New York from Tuesday night through Friday afternoon for the CE Week show.

6/11/2018: Why the death of net-neutrality rules will be a big campaign issue, Yahoo Finance

I started writing this from Newark International Airport, then finished it and filed it from the plane–worrying I’d lose the satellite link as the plane got farther and farther north. My thanks to United for not leaving me in the lurch… and for opening some upgrade space just in time for my longest flight this year.

6/12/2018: Stuck on Chrome? Always use Safari? It may be time to break up with your default web browser, USA Today

Apple’s WWDC news about online privacy got my editor interested in a post comparing the virtues of the Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. If you still run Microsoft Internet Explorer, my advice in this column remains unchanged from prior years: stop.

6/13/2018: Last Gadget Standing, CES Asia

I helped emcee this competition along with my former Yahoo colleague Dan Tynan and Last Gadget’s impresario-in-chief Robin Raskin. I introduced and briefly quizzed the people behind three finalists: iGlass ARAction One, and the Wahe nuclear living room machine V. Alas, my joke about the name of that last device–a streaming-media player with gaming aspirations–becoming “nucular living room machine” in the American South was never going to make it through translation.

6/16/2018: How self-driving cars will take to China’s roads, Yahoo Finance

I wrote most of this from my hotel, then filed it from my flight home–except that when edits came back, we were still too far north to have a reliable signal. And since I had stupidly neglected to e-mail photos before taking off, I also had to deal with the horribly slow uploads of satellite Internet.

For more from CES Asia, have a look at my Flickr album from the trip.

6/17/2018: Sprint and Verizon’s latest deals offer still more definitions of “Unlimited“, USA Today

Verizon decided that having two different flavors of unlimited wasn’t enough, so it added three–while Sprint elected to mix up its own offerings with a quickly-expiring offer that amounted to a Basic Economy level of unlimited data.

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

Weekly output: dead hard drive, Mac Observer, Safari vs. Facebook Like and Share buttons, Twitter bots (x2)

My last long-haul business travel for the first half of this year starts early Monday morning, when I head to National Airport to start my journey to Shanghai for CES Asia. Like last year, I’m helping emcee the Last Gadget Standing show there; unlike last year, I imagine I’ll be hearing more pronounced reactions in China to President Trump’s increasingly angry outbursts about international trade.

6/5/2018: This Morning with Gordon Deal June 05, 2018, This Morning with Gordon Deal

I talked to this show’s host about my experience destroying a dead backup hard drive with a crowbar, as recounted in my earlier USA Today column. My spot comes up about 13:30 into the show.

6/5/2018: TMO Background Mode Interview with Freelance Tech Journalist Rob Pegoraro, The Mac Observer

I talked to TMO’s John Martellaro about my experience doing a drive transplant on an old iMac, Google’s I/O news, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and more.

6/6/2018: Apple’s Safari to Facebook’s Like and Share buttons: Dislike, The Parallax

I wrote an explainer for my newest client about how Safari will block Facebook’s Like and Share buttons–along with those of other social networks–to stop a common form of Web tracking. Along the way, Apple might wind up boosting two of its own lines of business.

6/6/2018: Twitter bots, Al Jazeera

A late-in-the-day request from an AJ producer meant I had to do this interview via Skype off my laptop in the middle of attending a panel discussion at New America. For future reference, if you need to do a TV hit via Skype at that D.C. think tank: They have a couple of phone-booth-sized rooms with backdrops that look techie enough on TV, in which you can get a laptop webcam at a respectable angle by putting that booth’s trash can on its table and then raising its chair as high as possible.

6/7/2018: Twitter bots, Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera was sufficiently interested in this post on the Washington Post’s site about the use of Twitter bots by Qatar’s Gulf rivals that they had me on for a second day, where I had the chance to speak at a greater length and wear a solid-color, TV-friendly shirt. I don’t have a link to either hit because they roll off AJ’s site within two days, and I forgot to copy those links when I could.