About Rob Pegoraro

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

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.

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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.

Weekly output: Facebook experiment (x2), Supreme Court, best tech, Tech Night Owl, extra e-mail addresses

I sure wish July 4 would fall on a Friday more often–although I can deal with it landing on a Thursday too.

BBC WHYS page6/30/2014: Has Facebook done anything wrong?, World Have Your Say

This BBC program (er, programme) had me on via Skype to discuss Facebook’s 2012 experiment in making about 690,000 users’ News Feeds slightly happier or sadder to see how they’d react. The restrained tenor of the conversation had me thinking this story would not be kicking around six days later; that was a mistake.

7/1/2014: Aereo and Cellphone Searches: High Court Goes in Opposite Directions on Two Key Cases, Yahoo Tech

The Supreme Court released its Aereo ruling at about the worst possible time for me–the day after last week’s column ran, and right before the Google I/O keynote. But waiting until this Tuesday to opine allowed me to cover some subsequent developments and develop a comparison of that case with the court’s far more thoughtful treatment of a different tech-policy issue–whether police need a warrant to search the contents of your phone.

7/1/2014: Yahoo Tech’s Absolute Favorite Tech Stuff of 2014 (So Far), Yahoo Tech

I contributed a couple of nominations to this listicle.

7/1/2014: Facebook experiment, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on to talk about Facebook’s “emotional contagion” study. If you had a chance to watch it (sorry, I don’t think the clip is available online), did the live translation make me sound any smarter?

7/5/2014: July 5, 2014 — Kirk McElhearn and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

Shockingly enough, host Gene Steinberg and I did not discuss the Facebook experiment on this week’s episode of his podcast.

7/6/2014: Mail it in: Get a second address for your main account, USA Today

An exchange on the Internet Press Guild mailing list taught me this one weird trick with e-mail that had somehow escaped my attention until now, then led to this how-to column. As I type this, my link to the column from my public Facebook page has gotten vastly more engagement than anything else I’ve posted there lately, and I have no idea why. If only I could conduct some sort of study about people’s emotional responses to Facebook…

Hey, can you be more specific in your Facebook/Google greetings?

What’s a three-letter word for “I want to converse in real-time on a social network, and I will leave it to you to guess what about”?

Hey intro“Hey.”

Somehow, a message consisting only of that vague salutation has become a standard greeting from pals looking to kick off a conversation over Facebook messages or Google+ Hangouts. I wish that were not so.

As conversation-starters go, this is a nonstarter. It tells me nothing about what’s on your mind or the urgency of your request–unless typing it in lower case should be read as indicating a lower priority.

It’s also unoriginal. If you tried to grab my attention with the equally content-free “Ahoy,” at least I’d be thinking “ah, the salutation Alexander Graham Bell wanted us to use on the phone.”

Instead, why not just get to the point and state your question, compliment, complaint or humblebrag? You were going to do that in your next message anyway; why wait? Don’t let me hold you back!

That more direct practice seems to be how we–even those who “hey” me on Facebook or Google–have settled on using Twitter direct messages, like plain old text messaging before them.

At the same time, I have to recognize that these meaningless greetings come from friends who mean well, and that most lead to chats I appreciate. And things could be worse: I could have people trying to get my attention by saying “Yo.”

Weekly output: mobile-app privacy, Google I/O (x5), Fort Reno, TiVo and SDV

One of these links is not like the others; five of them are very much like each other.

6/24/2014: 4 Questions to Ask Before You Give a New App Access to Your Personal Data, Yahoo Tech

I’m used to playing a grumpy old man, but I’m rarely in such a get-off-my-Internet mood as I was when writing this post about overhyped mobile apps.

6/25/2014: Google Announces Two New Directions for Android, Yahoo Tech

The first of three quick posts I wrote during the Google I/O keynote, this one sums up the day’s hardware and software news for Android.

6/25/2014: With Android TV, Google Turns Its Eyes to Larger Screens (Again!), Yahoo Tech

Here, I compared the debut of Android TV to the snakebit launch of Google TV four years ago. (Fun fact: My neighbor across the street is one of the few individuals to have purchased a Google TV box.)

6/25/2014: MIA at I/O: 8 Products That Google Didn’t Mention, Yahoo Tech

It’s good practice to notice what products or principles go unmentioned in a tech company’s keynote.

Google Cardboard post6/25/2014: Move Over, Google Glass: Here Comes Google Cardboard, Yahoo Tech

I wrapped up the day by describing this fun little experiment in cheapskate virtual reality.

6/27/2014: Man in Screamingly Loud Paisley Shirt Explains Google’s Subtle New Design Language, Yahoo Tech

I talked about Google’s new “Material Design” initiative for about half an hour with Google design v.p. Matias Duarte. I wish I could take credit for that memorable headline, but I can’t.

6/27/2014: D.C. Reflects: What Fort Reno’s Concert Series Meant To Us, D.C. Music Download

After the organizers of these annual free concerts in Northwest D.C. said they wouldn’t happen this year, courtesy of a last-minute demand by the U.S. Park Police that they pay to keep an officer onsite for each concert, I griped about the news on Twitter. Writer Stephanie Williams then e-mailed to ask if I could comment further, and so there I am next to all these people whose indie-rock creed goes beyond seeing Fugazi play Fort Reno two or three times.

6/29/2014: How to use TiVo with Time Warner Cable, USA Today

A query from a friend’s dad that I thought would be simple turned out to be complicated. And maybe even my abbreviation-dense answer was itself not complex enough; after the story ran, veteran gadget blogger Dave Zatz tweeted that TWC’s control-freak application of a copying restriction blocks a remote-viewing feature in newer TiVo DVRs.

I left my conference badge in San Francisco

If business travel has helped ruin Las Vegas for me (downtown LV excluded), it’s had the opposite effect with San Francisco. With this week’s trek to Google I/O in the books, I’ve now had at least one work trip a year there for the past dozen years–and the only part of the experience I dread is being reminded that the days of quality $100-a-night hotels near Union Square are gone.

Departing SFOAs a city, San Francisco has many of the qualities I look for: walkability, history, beautiful architectural and natural scenery, diverse dining from food trucks to white-tablecloth establishments, a pleasant climate, and a subway that goes direct to the airport.

Even the flights are good: The approach up the Bay to SFO offers one of the best arrival vistas around even when your plane isn’t landing in parallel with another. (Bonus: When I fly United’s nonstop home to National I have a 50-50 chance of getting the River Visual approach’s even-better rooftop views of the District or Arlington.)

As a journalistic destination, San Francisco allows me the chance to see job-relevant people I otherwise only meet on social media or e-mail.

On the other hand, those job-relevant folks aren’t all newly-wealthy founders or long-wealthy investors. Some are fellow tech reporters who, unlike me, must cope with a frighteningly expensive real-estate market that keeps getting more toxic, courtesy of deranged housing policies founded on entitlement and denial. One unsurprising result: In May, a friend and his family were served with an eviction notice after their landlord elected to cash out by selling their place.

So while I enjoy going to the Bay Area as much as ever, I don’t feel so bad about my home being some 2,400 miles east. I do, however, feel bad about judging one of my favorite travel destinations with a version of “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.”

Weekly output: drones (x2), White House Maker Faire, proxy servers and online video

I went to the White House this week for the first time since visiting it as a tourist sometime in high school–this time around, with a press pass. That was kind of neat.

6/17/2014: Regulations Could Ground Drones Before Takeoff, Yahoo Tech

I wrote about the completely inconsistent regulatory climate around drones–recreational use is essentially wide open below 400 feet altitude, but commercial use is banned outright. The fearful if not paranoid nature of many readers’ comments bugged me, as you may tell from the tone of my replies. Thought I had afterwards: “I’ve been around drones enough, and all of the drone users I know play by the rules. Is this what it’s like to be a responsible gun owner and have strangers see you as a loon like Wayne LaPierre?”

6/17/2014: 4 Ways to Use Drones for Good (None of Which Is Amazon Delivery), Yahoo Tech

I talked to a few people–including my long-ago Washington Post colleague Dan Pacheco, now a journalism professor at Syracuse–about peaceful, profitable uses for drones that tend to get overlooked as people throw around the specter of snooping in people’s backyards.

Yahoo Tech White House Maker Faire report6/18/2014: White House Hosts Its First Maker Faire, with Robotic Giraffe in Attendance, Yahoo Tech

I covered the White House’s debut Maker Faire–somehow, also the first story I’ve written around a presidential speech–with this photo gallery. There’s more in my Flickr album.

6/22/2014: Geo-fakeout: Use a proxy for online video, USA Today

A neighbor wanted to know how he could have watched Netflix during a recent trip to Morroco; answering that also allowed me to give a tutorial in using proxy servers to watch World Cup coverage online. There’s also a tip about checking for “TLS” encryption at your mail service (something I covered at greater length at Yahoo Tech the other week), making this one of the more technically involved columns I’ve written for USAT.