About Rob Pegoraro

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

DIY doings: components, cables and code

I’ve been playing with gadgets ever since my dad let me and my brother take apart an old calculator for fun, but until last week I had never wielded a soldering iron to connect electronic components.

Hand-soldered LED flashlightMy chance to remedy that oversight came at the end of a tour of a redone Radio Shack store across the street from the Verizon Center Phone Booth in downtown D.C.

After getting the company pitch about its screen-repair services, inspecting some Kodak camera modules made to clip onto phones, and playing with a littleBits synthesizer kit, I was invited to assemble a tiny LED flashlight by soldering the required parts to a small circuit board.

Dripping the molten flux onto the right contacts revealed itself to be a painstakingly precise, hold-your-breath task. I needed coaching from the rep manning that station, after which he had to redo some of my work–making me think this whole project was perhaps more like when our toddler puts together some arts-and-crafts project “with help.” But a few minutes later, I did have my own tiny, battery-powered flashlight.

I had also completed my first hardware tinkering in a while.

The last time I’d cracked a computer’s case was two years ago, when I doubled the memory in my iMac (Apple has since made that at-home upgrade impossible on newer models) and then swapped out my ThinkPad’s hard drive for a solid state drive. Either chore involved less work and anxiety than the multiple transplants I performed on my old Power Computing Mac clone in the ’90s, including two processor upgrades and a cooling fan replacement.

Crimping tool

While we’re keeping score, I last seriously messed with wiring when I strung some Ethernet cable from the basement to an outlet behind our TV to prepare for our Fios install in 2010. Going to that trouble, including terminating the bulk cable and attaching plugs myself, allowed me to use my choice of routers on our Internet-only setup.

The crimping tool I used for that task hasn’t seen much use since, but I’d like to think I’m still capable of moving a phone, power, or coax cable outlet. Especially if given a spare length of cable on which to practice first.

My DIY credentials are weakest when it comes to code. I learned entry-level BASIC in grade school but now recall little of the syntax beyond IF/THEN and GOTO. I used to lean on AppleScript to ease my Mac workflow, but now Automator lets me create shortcuts without having to remember the precise phrasing required after AppleScript statements like “tell application ‘Finder’.” My HTML skills now stretch little further than writing out the “<a href=” hypertext link.

I do, however, still grasp such important basics as the importance of valid input and proper syntax, how easy errors can crop up and how much time it can take to step through functions to figure out what threw the error. For anything more complicated, the usual reporting technique comes into play: Ask as many dumb questions as needed to get a little smarter on the subject.

Weekly output: Facebook Messenger, Evernote business-card scanning, right to be forgotten, Miracast

This week allowed me to cross one tech-related item off my bucket list: operate a soldering iron without injury to myself or anybody else. More on that later…

8/5/2014:Facebook May Be Addicted to Apps, but You Don’t Have to Be, Yahoo Tech

Facebook’s decision to make Android and iPhone users of its regular app install a separate Messenger app to continue chatting with their pals is not earning many Likes. This post compared that move by Facebook to Foursquare moving check-ins to Swarm–but now that Foursquare has shipped a complete rewrite of its core app that reinvents its privacy model, I don’t mind that split as much.

8/5/2014: 3 Flops from Facebook (and 1 from Twitter), Yahoo Tech

Remember when Facebook was going to reinvent e-mail? Yeah, that was awesome. Consider this post my own penance for all the words I wrote about Facebook Messages back in 2010.

VentureBeat Evernote review8/6/2014: Here’s how Evernote’s business card scanning feature tackled 1,333 cards, VentureBeat

I had planned to use Evernote’s card-scanning feature to dispatch all the cards cluttering my desk, then decided I might as well try to sell a review of the experience. If you were wondering about the creature with the oversized eyes shown up close in the app in my photo, it’s a tarsier on the card of O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly.

8/8/2014: Can Europe Force Search Engines to Censor Information You’re Looking for on the Internet? Assessing the Right to be Forgotten, Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee

I enjoyed debating the European Union’s dubious doctrine with Internews’ Mike Godwin, Future of Privacy Forum policy counsel Joe JeromeEmma Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Intel global privacy officer David Hoffman, and moderator Michael Kubayanda. Courtesy of Congress being on recess, this was broadcast on C-SPAN–C-SPAN 1, even.

8/10/2014: Windows can do wireless displays, but watch for glitches, USA Today

Only five days after a reader asked me about this on Twitter, my column answering that query ran. Not unrelated: I’m still awaiting answers on the other topic I’d pitched to my editor, so it was this topic or nothing.

A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

Weekly output: smartwatch etiquette, Kojo Nnamdi Show, Android tips, finding an ISP

With the arrival of August, I’m supposed to be able to slack off now that everybody with more sense temporarily flees D.C. Somehow I doubt things will work out that easily. 7/29/2014: Smartwatch Etiquette: We’re Making It Up as We Go, Yahoo Tech

Does wearing a smartwatch mean I no longer have to be the annoying person who’s always checking his phone, or does it turn me into the annoying person who’s always checking his smartwatch?

7/29/2014: A Short History of Gadget Hate, Yahoo Tech

I enjoyed putting together this sidebar listing past denunciations of wearable technology, from the watch itself to the Sony Walkman.

Kojo Nnamdi travel-tech show7/29/2014: Travel Tech for a Great Vacation, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

I talked about airfare- and hotel-search sites, out-of-town bandwidth, navigation apps and other travel-tech topics with National Geographic Traveler editor Keith Bellows and Washington Post travel writer Andrea Sachs.

8/1/2014: 9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Android, Yahoo Tech

The little Android crash-test-dummy toy in the picture atop this post was a giveaway at last year’s Google I/O conference. More interesting than yet another screen shot, don’t you think?

8/3/2014: How to find the best Internet service provider, USA Today

A friend’s question about replacing his wretched EarthLink DSL led me to realize how the lack of competition in broadband seems to have dried up the market for find-an-ISP sites. (Not that I miss the insane amount of work I sank into compiling directories of local ISPs for the Post.)

Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.

 

 

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.

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.