Weekly output: Kindle Unlimited, international bandwidth, This Week In Law, HDMI CEC vs. Blu-ray

I enjoyed seeing something I wrote on my own time get a little publicity through no effort of my own.

Yahoo Kindle Unlimited post7/22/2014: The Kindle Conundrum: Should You Rent or Buy Digital Stuff?, Yahoo Tech

I compared Amazon’s new subscription-reading option to the D.C. public library’s e-book catalog and found it wanting.

7/25/2014: A SIM Card Can Be Your New Best Friend When Traveling Abroad, NowU

My second piece for this new Gannett site offered advice about getting connected overseas.

7/25/204:#268: Ease Up Dude!, This Week In Law

I talked about e-book DRM, the fair-use defense, and other intersections of the law and technology on my first appearance on this policy-minded podcast since last year.

7/27/2014: Tips on fixing a buggy Blu-ray player, USA Today

This week’s column was more explanation than solution. If you have a fix for a Sony Blu-ray player that turns on by itself when shut down with a disc inside, please enlighten me.

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The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

Decluttering tip: Hand over home-improvement leftovers to Habitat for Humanity

In the decade we’ve now spent in our home, we’ve had a non-trivial amount of work done on the place, which in turn led to many of the parts that we’d replaced piling up in the basement. Basements are great for that sort of unplanned accumulation, but eventually embarrassment over one’s possible hoarding tendencies encourages finding a better use for the leftovers.

Habitat for Humanity NoVa logoThat’s how I found a way to get rid of them without leaving the house: having Habitat for Humanity’s local ReStore take them away for resale and reuse.

Not all do, but I was lucky that the ReStores for Northern Virginia both accept donations and provide free pick-up from your house. Habitat’s page only lists a number to call (703-360-6700), but the voicemail greeting there advised that I could also send a note to donations@habitatnova.org. My July 3rd e-mail listing the items I had available got a response within 45 minutes; after a few rounds of correspondence over what they could take (an ancient exterior door was out), we scheduled a pickup on the 16th.

I had to get all of these leftovers–four interior doors, one bi-fold closet door, a skylight, two ceiling light fixtures, two motion-sensing exterior light fixtures, one sheet of drywall, a length of HVAC ductwork, a few deadbolt locks and a door knob, plus some cans of paint that I should have known weren’t eligible–out on the driveway that morning, but that was the end of my work. That evening, I was left with the paint, a blank receipt and the need to sweep the corners of the basement that had been cluttered by this stuff.

Computing the tax deduction of my donation involved a few extra steps–Intuit’s ItsDeductible site had no idea what value to place on a used door, skylight or sheet of drywall, so I had to guesstimate from Home Depot prices–but otherwise this was an easy chore that I should have tackled years ago. If you’ve been looking for a worthy home for your own home-improvement leftovers, you’re welcome to follow my example.

Weekly output: Cable WiFi, travel WiFi, Internet governance, phone lanes, Find My iPhone vs. Android

In one way or another, wireless technology figured in all of my stories this week. But why should this week be any different from others?

7/15/2014: With Cable WiFi, Your Modem Is My Hotspot, Yahoo Tech

I’ve been working on this column for a while–my e-mail correspondence for it goes back weeks–and for once, the news cycle obliged by not throwing any breaking tech news at me on a Monday. I’m still trying to figure out how so many people say they hate the idea of Comcast turning their leased modem into a public hot spot but so few (according to Comcast) opt out of it.

7/15/2014: How to Stop (or Start) Sharing Your Internet Connection with Strangers, Yahoo Tech

To go with the column, I wrote a quick explainer about how to turn off Comcast’s Home Hotspot–or set up an openwireless.org guest account for anybody to use.

NowU domestic-bandwidth story7/15/2014: What You Need to Know About Staying Connected in the U.S., NowU

This Gannett site for empty nesters officially launched on Tuesday, but if you’d thought to visit that site on Sunday you could have read my advice on traveling bandwidth then.

7/16/2014: Issues Raised by New Technology: Policy Slam, Internet Governance Forum USA 2014

This part of this daylong conference at George Washington University was an audience-participation event: People were invited to step up to the podium and share their ideas about Internet-governance issues that we ought to focus on, and then I and the other judges picked ones to debate further and offered our own comments about them.

7/17/2014: Cellphone Talkers Get Their Own Sidewalk Lane in D.C., Yahoo Tech

A bit of an experiment staged for an upcoming National Geographic TV show led to this extra post (so, my thanks to NatGeo for the upcoming extra income). The piece got a blurb on the Yahoo home page, so this may have been seen by more people than anything else I’ve written. And then it got a BeyondDC/Greater Greater Washington writeup, which was also nice.

7/20/2014: Get a browser to work where it’s not welcome, USA Today

This column pretty much wrote itself once I realized Apple’s short-sighted and easily-circumvented decision to block Android browsers from its Find My iPhone page matched the New York Post’s foolish attempt to keep iPad users from reading its Web site.

The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

Weekly output: NSA and Facebook, phone and tablet storage

I had my name appear in boldface type below a photo of me on Wednesday (at the bottom of a recap about a book party I attended Tuesday), and on Saturday I finally ended my long streak of not posting any video clips on Twitter’s Vine service. Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet week, with much of my efforts going into stories that won’t surface until next week or later.

7/8/2014: When You’re Tired of Being Mad at Facebook, Remember the NSA, Yahoo Tech

The outsized attention paid to Facebook’s 2012 experiment with manipulating the News Feeds of some users seemed misplaced after the Washington Post’s scoop Saturday that the National Security Agency has been not just collecting but keeping personal data about potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent Internet users. I was pretty confident that mentioning these two controversial topics in the same piece would yield hundreds of comments, but that did not happen.

USAT mobile-device storage column7/13/2014:  Delete it: How to free up space on your phone, USA Today

This column, meanwhile, did not strike me as telling people things they didn’t know–aside from, maybe, that an update to Twitter’s Android app fixes a horrendous storage-eating bug unmentioned in its eight-word release notes. And yet it’s gotten a ridiculous amount of Facebook shares, without the benefit any push from USAT’s own Facebook page. I’m not saying this to brag so much as to admit that sometimes, I have only a foggy idea of what motivates people to read or skip my stuff, much less recommend it to others. I should remember that the next time I’m thinking an editor’s suggestion for a story topic won’t attract an audience.

My (cheap!) three-plant formula for gardening adequacy

This upcoming week will mark the 10-year anniversary of our moving into our house, which also means I’ve now spent almost 10 years obsessively gardening around the yard.

LiliesThis pastime has had its expensive and inefficient moments (apparently, grass seed has grown to hate me over the past decade), but overall my gardening problem has cost me a lot less than I’d initially feared.

Credit for that goes to generous neighbors who invited us to thin out some of their plantings, but also to my early realization that three plants in particular would have a coveted combination of looking nice, growing like weeds and needing zero maintenance: lilies, hostas and liriope.

The first might as well be an official flower of the greater Washington area. Lilies–in my yard, mostly tigerlilies–rebound from the worst frosts, laugh at droughts, can easily be divided, and spread thickly enough to form a three-foot flowering fence. As far as I can tell, nothing eats them. (We don’t have deer in our neighborhood, but squirrels and rabbits are regulars and foxes show up every now and then.)

HostasThe second doesn’t colonize a yard quite as aggressively and cares a little more about details like getting enough water, but hostas are so easy to divide and transplant that it doesn’t matter all that much. Plus, they offer more variety than lilies; I would recommend individual species, but my recordkeeping has been way too sloppy to allow for that. Were that not the case, I could also tell you what species attracts the bunnies that hop through our yard instead of saying “the short kind with small, narrow, unvariegated green leaves.”

Finally, liriope: It’s a gardening cliche, but it also spreads like crazy as long as it’s not too dry. During the spring and summer, it’s mostly background vegetation, but in late summer it sprouts tiny purple flowers. The usual directions call for cutting its leaves to the ground in late winter to help the spring’s growth, but I forgot/skipped that step this year and it made zero difference.

So if you’ve just moved into a house or are about to do so and don’t know what to do about the yard, here’s my advice: Get two of each of those plants, as if you were loading a horticultural Noah’s Ark, divide and transplant each spring, and in a few short years most of those edges of the yard where grass refuses to grow should transform into lush beds of self-maintaining, self-replicating foliage. Also known as: areas you no longer have to mow.