About robpegoraro

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

Secondary thoughts on working yet another primary election

Tuesday had a lot in common with the four days I spent last year working as an election officer for Arlington County. Just as in March, June, July and then November, I staggered through a sleep-deprived day that started with a 5 a.m. arrival at the polling place and didn’t end until around 8:30 p.m. As in all of those elections except last March’s Democratic presidential primary, the day left me with a fair amount of downtime to fill with reading a book and chatting with my fellow poll workers. And once again, it felt deeply fulfilling to help my fellow citizens do their part to hire candidates for temporary, taxpayer-funded jobs.

Lillies bloom in the foreground, while the background shows election signs in front of a community center in Arlington, Va.

But since November 3, the subject of election security–a topic I’ve been covering on and off for most of the last two decades–has fallen prey to fever-dream conspiracy theories among Donald Trump followers who refuse to believe that the former president was fired by the largest electorate in American history.

I am tempted to give this post over to yet another rant denouncing those advocates of Trump’s Big Lie–as well as the sedition sympathizers in Congress who kept pandering to those dead-enders after the deadly riot at the Capitol January 6.

But instead, I will talk about my workday Tuesday. Here are some things you should know about how we did our part in Virginia’s primary elections, which I hope map with how elections are run wherever you may read this:

• Trust paper. Arlington uses hand-marked paper ballots that each voter feeds into a scanner that will read the ballot if it’s upside-down, right-side up, forwards or backwards. (We also have ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities.) That paper trail then becomes part of the risk-limiting audit that Virginia now conducts after each election; the audit run after November’s election (but not reported out until March) confirmed that the votes as scanned accurately recorded how people marked their ballots. If your state is among the minority to still use “direct-recording” machines that leave no paper trail (hello, Texas), direct your ire at the elected officials who haven’t fixed that problem.

• Don’t confuse voter identification with TSA Pre. I checked in one voter who did not have a Virginia driver’s license but did appear in our poll-book app as a registered voter, and I saw other voters show up with the same scenario. That was understandable, as the Virginia DMV is struggling to catch up with a pandemic-inflicted backlog. It would be unconscionable to kick those people out of polling places when one government bureaucracy can’t issue ID cards fast enough while another has already confirmed their eligibility. I should note here that this voter brought their voter registration card; should you get stuck in this situation, bringing that other piece of paper will save a tired poll worker a little time.

• Expect software to fail; design for resilience. The most reassuring paper product I saw Tuesday was the printout of the entire pollbook for our precinct, which meant that we did not have to rely on our pollbook app to stay up all day. Fortunately, that software did work, by which I mean it functioned aside from the feature that was supposed to scan the bar code on the back of a Virginia driver’s license but instead failed at least nine out of 10 times in my experience.

• Check everything at least twice. My day started with opening packs of ballots and counting them, 10 at a time. Each shrink-wrapped pack should have held 100 ballots and did, but we checked that anyway–so that there would be no discrepancy between the number of ballots handed out and the number of voters checked in. We also verified each total at the end of every hour; each time, there was no surplus of voters or ballots. And then we made one last check after polls closed to confirm that we had handed out exactly one ballot per voter.

If the above sounds inefficient, you read this right. Election administration has to suffer some inefficiency to accommodate the conflicting demands of allowing voters secret ballots and yielding an auditable paper record. Deal with it.

Weekly output: Mark Vena podcast, Firefox’s redesign

My work calendar for this coming week has a strange event: meeting another person, in-person, to get lunch. It also has me spending all of Tuesday (Virginians, y’all do know we have a primary election then, right?) working once again as an election officer.

6/1/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (6-1-21), Mark Vena

My major contribution to this week’s edition of the podcast hosted by Vena, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, was unpacking Google’s move to start charging for Google Photos storage after you hit the 15 GB cap on your account’s storage. I am okay with the idea of charging for storage, but I do think Google could provide more useful tools for people looking to keep their picture archives under that limit. We (meaning my analyst friend as well as fellow tech scribes John Quain and Stewart Wolpin) also talked about the ongoing ransomware epidemic, Roku’s fight with Google, and the Apple WWDC event that kicks off Monday; in addition to the audio of our banter at the above link, you can watch a video version on YouTube.

Firefox story as seen in Firefox, with the browser's privacy report card for Fast Company's site displayed6/4/2021: Firefox still wants to be the ‘Anti-Chrome.’ Can it beat Edge, too?, Fast Company

The release of a fairly major update to Mozilla Firefox’s desktop interface gave me an opportunity to look at how this browser compares to the competition–by which I really mean Microsoft Edge, the other major privacy-optimized browser that you can run in Windows, macOS, Android and iOS. I still find Firefox a better product on privacy grounds; for example, Firefox displays a more comprehensive privacy report card for sites, as seen in the screengrab here, and uses end-to-end encryption to synchronize your search and browsing history between computers while Edge does not. But Microsoft is putting serious effort into the browser that already represents a bigger competitive threat to Google’s Chrome. And it can bring exponentially more resources that Mozilla to closing any feature gaps.

Google’s useless-to-the-self-employed “External” label: another tiny bit of freelancer erasure

The Gmail app on my phone and in my browser looks a lot more yellow when I switch to my work account, and it’s all Google’s fault. Sometime in the last week or so, Google began slapping an “External” label in a shade of deep yellow on every message sent from somebody not in my organization.

Which, since I am self-employed, constitutes the rest of the population of Earth, plus every bot and script capable of sending me e-mail. Google describes the security measure it began enforcing in late April for Google Workspace accounts–the business accounts it once gave away for free as Google Apps, then turned into a paid service in 2012, then renamed to G Suite in 2016, and then renamed once again in 2020 to Workspace–as its way to help employees “avoid unintentionally sharing confidential information with recipients outside of their organization.”

Photo shows a spam message purporting to be from Comcast with Gmail's yellow "External" label, as seen on a Pixel 3a phone in front of graph paper.

But for solo practitioners who have no employees, it’s useless. It cannot teach me anything except that even when self-employed, I can still fall victim to IT department control-freakery–and that freelancers remain invisible to many business app and service developers.

(Fun fact about the obvious phishing message in the image here: Gmail’s spam filter did not catch it.)

A support note from Google indicates that Workspace users can turn off this warning. It does not explain why I don’t see that in my own admin console. But in a Reddit thread–once again, that site proved to be an underrated source of tech supportanother Workspace user said legacy free accounts don’t get that opt-out. A frequent Twitter correspondent with a grandfathered free account has since confirmed that he doesn’t have this setting either.

I suppose Google would like me to upgrade to a paid account, but I’m already paying: $19.99 a year for 100 GB of storage. The cheapest Workspace plan would only give me 30 GB and cost almost four times as much. Since Google apparently can’t be bothered to document this new limit to free accounts, the answer there is a hard nope.

All the time I’ve sunk into investigating this problem has not, however, been without benefits. Thanks to some hints from my fave avgeek blogger Seth Miller, I figured out how to disable the also-useless default warning about replying to external e-mails. To do that, sign into your admin console’s apps list page, click Calendar, click its “Sharing Settings” heading, click the pencil icon that will appear to the right of “External Invitations,” click to clear that checkbox, and click “Save.”

Although Calendar is clearly not Gmail, this settings change seems to apply in the mail app too. At some point while I was futzing around with Workspace settings, I also found an off switch for the comparable warning about sharing Google Docs with outsiders–but now I can’t find it, so maybe that opt-out is now yet another feature reserved for paying users but not documented accordingly.

Weekly output: Scripps’ broadcast bet, AT&T CEO, Discovery downgrade, Betacom, ransomware lessons, Boost Mobile + DraftKings, exploding ISP prices

This month is ending in a flurry of deadlines, and I am profoundly grateful to have tomorrow as a day off to think about people who have had much harder jobs than me.

5/24/2021: Scripps CEO on why he’s bullish on OTA TV, FierceVideo

I talked to E.W. Scripps CEO Adam Symson about his ambitions for distributing the company’s new Newsy channel via old-school broadcast TV.

5/24/2021: AT&T’s Stankey defends WarnerMedia spinoff at J.P. Morgan event, FierceVideo

My editors at Fierce asked if I could fill in to cover some breaking news Monday, and the first result was this recap of AT&T’s CEO defending his decision to unwind the company’s expensive media strategy.

5/24/2021: MoffettNathanson disses Discovery with ratings downgrade, FierceVideo

I also filed this post on a clueful market-research firm’s pessimism about one apparent beneficiary of AT&T’s retreat from media.

5/25/2021: Betacom makes its private-wireless-network bid with $15M in funding, Light Reading

My other trade-pub client wanted me to cover a wireless-infrastructure firm’s pivot.

Screengrab of ransomware post5/26/2021: Why the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack is a sign of things to come, Fast Company

I spent a fair amount of the previous week watching panel discussions at the RSA Conference, and a series of talks about the ransomware plague at that information-security event yielded this piece.

5/27/2021: Boost Mobile bets on DraftKings as a partner, FierceWireless

FierceVideo’s sister publication requested my help in covering another bit of breaking news: an unusual marketing tie-in between an online sportsbook and an ambitious reseller of T-Mobile’s service.

5/30/2021: Buyer, beware: Internet providers may have ‘exploding prices’ after year one or two, USA Today

As I wrote to my editor when I filed this piece: “After I invoice USAT for this, I would like to invoice Comcast for pointing out their broken Web design.” It’s one thing to offer promotional prices that end after a set period of time, but it’s another to send a would-be customer on a dark-pattern detour to figure out what the real price will be after the new-subscriber honeymoon ends.

A virtual-event hobby: desktop Easter eggs

This week involved two panels I recorded from my desk, which made it like a great many weeks since February of 2020. But the specifics of my appearances Thursday and Friday represented a serious advance overall compared to the virtual-panel game I brought last March–and not just because my camera setup is now much less crummy.

My earliest upgrade was to improve the art on the wall visible behind me when I sit facing the windows for optimal lighting. Meaning, I filled a spot I’d left open by framing a cue sheet from one of the century rides I completed as a younger cyclist. That continues to offer the bonus of reminding me that difficult things are doable with enough practice, time, and rest stops that involve volunteers handing you bagels.

It took me longer to realize that my usual camera angle–a phone and then a webcam mounted on a tripod between the windows and me–left space on my desk to fill with something besides the vintage Bell System Trimline phone I keep parked there (but no longer have plugged into our VoIP service, because having robocalls interrupt an interview is no good).

First, I realized that if I was going to be talking about information security, I should leave the printed program from 2019’s DEF CON hacker conference resting against the wall behind me as a visual credential. Then I figured that parking a spare Rubik’s Cube in front of that would provide a little visual contrast and confirm that I’m a child of the ’80s. My service as an election officer last year left me with a badge from working the general election, and that seemed like another good totem to leave visible for anyone doubting my civic dedication. Still later, I decided that I couldn’t possibly hide the ThinkGeek Millennium Falcon multi-tool kit (don’t ask, just covet) that my brother gave me years ago.

Because I am slow, I eventually further thought that I could spotlight event-specific flair. For example, in a virtual panel about cruise-ship apps, I arranged a set of my dad’s old passports on that corner of the desk. An interview of a Major League Baseball executive gave me an excuse to park a Livan Hernandez bobblehead on the desk. I was tempted to display a pair of drumsticks I got as a conference souvenir years ago for the panel I recorded Friday morning with a music-app executive–but I didn’t want to suggest skills I lack, so I broke out the sticks for the sound check before that recording.

I hope some of you have enjoyed seeing these little tchotchkes, but if not at least they’ve injected a little variety to my own virtual-panel routine. I’ll enjoy that while it lasts, because at some point–that’s now looking like the third quarter of this year–I will go back to moderating in-person panels and will have to return to hoping anybody in the room notices the panel socks I’m wearing.

Weekly output: Celona, streaming TV, social media moderation, Android 12, Google’s privacy pitch, Mark Vena podcast

This afternoon, I went to a baseball game for the first time since Oct. 27, 2019. I also brought a much better camera than usual, thanks to my neighbor across the street loaning me a Panasonic point-and-shoot model with a 30x zoom, and you can now see the results in the Flickr album I just posted.

5/18/2021: Celona unveils ‘edgeless enterprise’ architecture, Light Reading

My new trade-pub client asked me to write up embargoed news from this business-wireless firm, allowing me to reacquaint myself with that branch of industry jargon.

5/19/2021: Streaming Services, WWL First News with Tommy Tucker

I spent about 40 minutes talking about streaming-TV services with this New Orleans radio station. A major theme of the host’s questions: Why is all this so complicated?

5/19/2021: Social media moderation, Al Jazeera

I made a rare phone-only appearance on the Arabic-language news channel to talk about reports of social-media companies suppressing Palestinian and Arabic voices.  I emphasized, as I have before, that on one hand, content moderation gets increasingly difficult as social platforms get larger; on the other hand, Facebook has a history of waiving its own rules only for right-wing voices in the U.S.

Screen grab of the article as seen in an Android phone's Chrome browser5/20/2021: Here’s what’s new in Android 12, from big changes to subtle tweaks, Fast Company

Google’s I/O developer conference returned in an online-only form after last year’s pandemic-forced cancellation, and in this post I covered the key features in the next version of its Android mobile operating system. The screen grab you see here was taken in a loaner Pixel 4 XL phone on which I’d installed the beta release of Android 12; if you have any questions about how this release works, please ask and I’ll try to answer them here.

5/20/2021: Google touts ‘privacy by design’ at I/O conference, but privacy from whom?, USA Today

Two years ago, I wrote a USAT column about the somewhat nebulous privacy pitch at Google I/O 2019; this column advances that story and finds more cause for optimism in Android than in Chrome.

5/21/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (5-20-21), Mark Vena

This week’s edition of this podcast from my tech-analyst pal at Moor Insights & Strategy initially featured two other tech journalists, but John Quain’s Starlink satellite-Internet connection dropped out too many times, leading Vena to decide to continue the podcast with just me and my fellow tech journalist (and baseball fan) Stewart Wolpin.

All vaxxed up and nowhere to go (especially for work)

Thursday was my V-day: two weeks elapsed since my second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, and therefore cleared for takeoff into a normal life. But I still feel like I’m on the runway, if not still on the taxiway waiting for my clearance.

I’m blaming work. I had thought it would be nice to celebrate this milestone Friday by having a drink at an actual bar indoors, but I had deadlines to meet that kept me at the keyboard until almost dinnertime. One reason why I still had fingers at the keyboard that late: I spent part of Friday afternoon volunteering at a vaccination clinic, which was arguably a better way to mark the occasion anyway. I did at least wear only one cloth mask instead of doubling up as I had before.

Photo shows my COVID-19 vaccination card atop my new passport and a route map from United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine.

(Another difference between now and my first volunteer shift in early April: Positive test rates have plummeted to well under 2% in Arlington and D.C.)

Work also factors into this in-between feeling, because it’s become so obvious that business gatherings will be a trailing indicator of America’s victory over this disease. As I type this, my also-fully-vaccinated neighbors are having people over on their back deck and that seems completely normal, but I have no idea when the first (non-pandemic-denying) think tank, trade association, PR firm or other corporate outpost around here will dare to host an in-person briefing, luncheon or reception.

The forecast is also fuzzy for in-person conferences. Wednesday, the management of the IFA trade show announced that they had to cancel this year’s edition of that electronics event in Berlin. I had thought they had good odds of pulling it off, considering how fast Germany is getting vaccine doses into arms. But IFA is a global show, and many of the countries that would be sending companies there remain far behind in vaccinations.

(MWC Barcelona, the first tech event to succumb to the pandemic, is somehow still set to happen next month, albeit on a grossly exhibitor-deprived scale. I don’t know what the thinking is there.)

Conferences that take place in the U.S. and draw a mostly-American audience look more likely to happen as planned, which on my calendar would probably make the first such IRL event the Black Hat information-security conference. Subjecting oneself to the blast-furnace heat of Las Vegas in August is not most people’s idea of fun–but after a year and change of only experiencing events through a screen, I legit would enjoy it. Besides, it really is a dry heat there.

Weekly output: Mark Vena podcast, Discovery’s streaming video ambitions

Ten years ago today, I finally crossed “see a space launch” off my to-do list, and I’m still working on the best words to describe what it was like to see, hear and feel Endeavour rocket into a cloudy Florida sky. Sometimes, I can’t quite believe that I did that–or that I’ve since had the immense privilege of returning to the Kennedy Space Center’s press site for two other launches. Fortunately, I have a framed print of the photo I took of the shuttle’s liftoff hanging on the far wall of my home office to remind me that I really did accomplish the goal I’d had in my head since I was 10.

5/11/2021: SmartTechCheck Podcast (5-11-21), Mark Vena

After a couple of weeks off, I returned to this podcast to talk about the tech business with our host from Moor Insights & Strategy and fellow tech scribes John Quain and Stewart Wolpin. Among this week’s topics: the legal battle between Apple and Epic over the former’s App Store governance, a newly announced smart-home standard, and the plague of ransomware.

Screenshot of the article as seen on an iPad5/12/2021: Discovery CEO says SVOD success won’t end its TV-bundle role, FierceVideo

My trade-pub client asked me to write up Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s interview at a conference hosted by the market-analysis firm MoffettNathanson. I figured Zaslav would wax optimistic about the company’s Discovery+ subscription video on demand (SVOD) service, but I didn’t expect him to explain that Discovery makes as much or more money off a D+ streaming subscriber than a cable or satellite viewer–and yet he expects no pay-TV provider will be able to get away with dropping Discovery from its lineup. I don’t imagine that many of you are feeling terribly sorry for those cable and satellite operators at this point.

Waiting for the cicadas

The neighborhood is about to get a lot more crowded for the next month or so. The mid-Atlantic’s 17-year cicadas are now emerging–first as holes they make in the ground while crawling out as nymphs, then as exoskeletons left on branches and leaves after molting, and soon as hordes of bugs with beady red eyes.

Around my neighborhood, the local ambassadors of Brood X haven’t yet reached that third stage. Every day I see more of their cast-off exoskeletons (exuviae, if you didn’t know) clinging to foliage like little beige bug bookmarks, but until tonight I hadn’t seen any of this year’s cicadas alive. That’s when I learned that you can hear them molting–a sort of quiet, slow and moist clicking–then spot them slowly tugging their pale selves out of their old shells.

Yes, that is slightly alarming to witness.

But it’s nowhere close to the freakout potential of having thousands of cicadas within a block–meaning you have to watch where you step, and that going for a jog or a bike ride ensures some will bounce off of you. Plus, there is the vaguely extraterrestrial racket generated by their mating calls.

I am fairly tolerant of insects overall (except for mosquitoes, which should be genetically engineered into extinction), but gardening may lose much of its charms until the middle of June.

I learned this in 2004, the previous emergence of Brood X and my own introduction to the evolutionary freakshow that is the periodical cicadas’ survival strategy. Instead of trying to hide or escape from predators, cicadas arrive in such massive numbers that other animals get full and have to take a break from this free buffet. The surviving cicadas can then make millions of cicada eggs that the females deposit in trees–from which larvae will drop to the ground, burrow underground and wait 17 years before emerging to fascinate or frighten the children of 2038.

People have been writing about this ritual of life in the mid-Atlantic for centuries, but this year’s cicada onslaught will be different from previous emergences because of a different plague: social media. If you suffer from any sort of arthropod anxiety, you’re not going to enjoy all the cicada Facebook status updates, cicada tweets, cicada Instagram pics and stories, cicada TikToks, and other social testimony that will soon be swarming screens. This could be a really good time to give those apps a rest and instead start reading an intimidatingly long book.

Weekly output: Boost Mobile bundles telemedicine, Tegna’s local-ads sales pitch, Facebook Oversight Board (x2), dark patterns

This week’s biggest accomplishment doesn’t appear on the list below: getting my second dose of the Moderna novel-coronavirus vaccine Thursday morning.

5/4/2021: Dish’s Boost Mobile to add telemedicine to the bundle, Light Reading

My newest client asked me to write up the news that Dish Network’s T-Mobile reseller Boost Mobile will bundle K Health’s telemedicine service–an interesting departure from marketing as usual in the wireless industry.

5/4/2021: Tegna outlines local-content strategy at NewFronts, FierceVideo

My other regular trade-pub client then asked me to fill in with coverage of the ad-industry group IAB’s conference. I was struck to see the TV company spun out of Gannett several years ago sound so confident about the ad prospects for local news when so many local Gannett papers seem to feel otherwise.

5/5/2021: Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump ruling, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on for the first time in a while to discuss the Facebook Oversight Board’s May 5 ruling that while Facebook was right to kick Donald Trump off the platform after the January 6 riots at the Capital, suspending him indefinitely instead of just deleting his account was without precedent.

Fast Company FTC dark-patterns post5/6/2021: Can the FTC stop the tech industry’s use of ‘dark patterns’?, Fast Company

I “attended”–meaning I watched from my home office–a conference the Federal Trade Commission held at the end of April about the abuse of “dark pattern” interfaces by tech companies to push customers into making decisions against their own interests. The FTC had a great lineup of speakers, I learned a lot, and at the end I really wished I could have walked over, said hi and asked follow-up questions like in the Before Times.

5/6/2021: (Face)book ’em Donno!, Bipodisan

My friend Robert Schlesinger had me back on the podcast he co-hosts with Jean Card for the first time since last May. We mostly talked about the Facebook Oversight Board’s decision–in particular, its implicit scolding of Facebook’s habit of letting its policy shop override the content-policy enforcement calls–but also discussed broader concerns about the influence of Facebook and what political and technological developments might help check that.