About Rob Pegoraro

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

PGP and me

If you’ve received an e-mail from me in the past week or so, you may have noticed something extra in the message’s headers: an indication that it was digitally signed with my Pretty Good Privacy key.

GPGTools iconAs yet, no recipient has asked about that, much less complimented my digital hygiene or sent a reply encrypted with my PGP public key. Which is pretty much what I expected: The last time I had a PGP setup in operation, I had to ask Post readers to send me an encrypted message before I got any.

A few weeks later, my inbox once again featured only un-encrypted e-mail.

Then some fumbled corporate transitions and the switch to OS X left the open-source MacGPG as the most appealing option on my Mac–and a slow and slowing pace of updates left it an increasingly awkward fit. Without ever consciously deciding to give up on e-mail encryption, I gave up.

(I should have felt guiltier than I did when I offered a Post colleague a tutorial on crypto that I didn’t bother to operate on my own machine. On that note, if you have a key for robp@washpost.com or rob@twp.com in your own PGP keychain, please delete it.)

I finally returned to the fold two weeks ago, when I ducked into a “crypto party” tutorial at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference. Jon Camfield of Internews explained that things had gotten a lot better and pointed me to a newer, far more elegant open-source implementation called GPGTools. I downloaded it, installed it, and within minutes had a new set of public and private keys plugged into my copy of Mail (no need to copy and paste a message into a separate decryption app as I did in MacGPG), with my public key uploaded to a keyserver for anybody else to use to encrypt mail to me.

My key ID is 03EE085A, my key fingerprint is FD67 6114 46E8 6105 27C3 DD92 673F F960 03EE 085A, and the key itself is after the jump. Do I expect to get a flood of encrypted messages after this post? Not really. But if somebody does want to speak to me with that level of privacy, they now have an option I should have provided all along, and that’s what counts.

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Weekly output: e-mail security (x2), MacBook webcam

This week’s work involved the Virginia countryside, a space capsule, robots playing soccer, and some quality time with drones. And yet none of those things showed up in this week’s articles. But there’s always next week…

Yahoo Tech TLS post6/10/2014: Explained: How ‘TLS’ Keeps Your Email Secure, Yahoo Tech

I enjoyed crafting the photo for this, and not just because it gave me an excuse to flip through old postcards. I did not enjoy reading the comments as much: the repeated assertion there that nothing online can be made secure is both incorrect on a technical level and fundamentally defeatist.

6/10/2014: 4 Ways Your Email Provider Can Encrypt Your Messages, Yahoo Tech

I wrote a short sidebar–something we’ve taken to doing more often at Yahoo Tech–outlining how e-mail encryption has advanced over the last decade or so… at least at some providers.

6/15/2014: Revisiting a fix for your MacBook webcam, USA Today

Yes, you read about this topic earlier this year in my USAT column. But this time around the remedy may work a little more reliably. There’s also a tip about watching Netflix on a computer without Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in–if you’re running Windows 8.1.

Setting the time on a Timex 1440 sports watch: the worst UX ever?

tl:dr: Press and hold the “set” button until you see the seconds count blinking at the top right of the face, then press the “mode” button to switch to hours and then minutes, press the “start/stop” button to advance either. You’re welcome.

Some time ago, my wife bought a Timex 1440 sports watch from an Amazon reseller to wear while playing tennis. Not a bad idea, except she happened to purchase a device with one of the more irritatingly cryptic user experiences around.

Timex 1440 watchI only discovered this recently, when she mentioned that it was off by a few minutes and she had not been able to figure out how to change it. Mind you, my wife has an electrical-engineering degree and works in IT, so I already figured the solution was non-obvious. I just didn’t know how non-obvious it could be–and the Web was not its usual helpful self.

This timepiece features four buttons–”set,” “mode,” “start/stop,” “indiglo”–labeled in vanishingly small type at the very edge of the face. If I’d just monkeyed with them, I might have found the answer sooner. Instead, I searched online for what I thought was the watch’s name and found an entire third-party site with a domain matching that moniker that purported to explain this watch’s workings–a sure sign that a product’s UX sucks. But its instructions did not pan out.

One reason why: The “WR50M” that appears prominently on the face below “TIMEX” is not the name of the watch, but a reference to it being water-resistant down to 50 meters. It’s apparently a “1440″ watch, or “143-T5G891″ if you want to the exact model number.

Timex’s own site showed a different watch when I searched for “1440,” while a query for the model number yielded nothing. (I suppose I can’t rule out this being somebody else’s knock-off product?) A post at Answers.com lived up to that site’s reputation for unreliability by offering an incorrect answer. After further fruitless searching online, I found the correct instructions in the second post on a thread on a site where people trade links for user manuals–a sure sign that the UX of the vendors responsible sucks.

Here’s how: Press and hold the “set” button at the top left for about three seconds–as in, two seconds after it beeps for some other reason–until the tiny seconds count on the top right of the face starts to blink, then press the “mode” button at the bottom left so that the hour and then the minutes shown on the bulk of the face blink, then press the “start/stop” button at the top right to advance either digit. When you’re done, press “mode” until you return to a non-blinking time.

You’re welcome. Timex, where’s my check for documenting the workings of your product?

Weekly output: WWDC (x2), FlightCar, laptop shopping

This week’s worth of stories features a new client, which is a pleasant sort of feeling.

6/2/2014: Apple’s WWDC news, WTOP

I talked to the news station about Apple’s news from its developer conference and took a shot at the line that Apple is somehow stalling out in the market because it doesn’t use its public time for demos of products like self-driving cars that are years from shipping.

6/3/2014: How Apple Sees the Cloud: Not Like You Do, Yahoo Tech

You might have seen an earlier version of this post appear briefly on Yahoo’s site, courtesy of a miscommunication in editing. The version that showed up online later in the day benefited (I hope!) from another round or two of revision.

VentureBeat FlightCar review6/7/2014: Taking FlightCar for a SoCal spin: A smooth ride — mostly (review), VentureBeat

I rented somebody else’s Prius through FlightCar during a recent trip to southern California for a friend’s wedding. At the time, I thought that my using a “shared economy” service would at least qualify me to put the cost on my Schedule C as a research expense, but then I wound up selling a post on the experience to VentureBeat. They do good work there, and I’m glad they saw fit to publish mine.

On Sunday, FlightCar announced that if a renter had coverage denied by a credit-card issuer on the grounds that it’s not a standard rental-car agency, it would cover any damage expenses. The company also looked into my own rental and thinks that the phone-number mismatch I reported was due to a typo on my part. The e-mail confirmations that I received didn’t go into that level of detail, so if I did somehow mistype my area code I never would have known until showing up.

6/19: The travel-news site Skift reposted the story the day after it debuted, if you were yearning to read it in a different design.

6/8/2014: Buy or wait: When to pull the trigger on a new computer, USA Today

An old Post colleague e-mailed to ask what factors to consider when shopping for a new MacBook. That query led to this column, in which I note how the computer industry has progressed to the point that you don’t need to agonize so much over what kind of processor or how much storage is comes with.

Getting flamed

You’re never going to please everybody in a job like this.; sometimes you intensely displease somebody. And so Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column unpacking Apple’s WWDC announcements yielded an e-mail Wednesday from a reader with the subject line “Hater.” Here we go, I thought:

You are such an Apple-hater, it’s disgusting. I’m glad the Washington Post fired you. Your tech coverage sucked there. I stumbled across you today on Yahoo. Now I’ll know where to avoid you in the future.

FlamesThat kind of spittle-flecked invective goes by the name of “flaming” (or at least it once did; what do the kids call it these days?). Fortunately, it arrives exceedingly rarely and is vastly outnumbered by non-flame mail. The very next e-mail from a reader Wednesday began: “Glad to have found you on Yahoo Tech. I used to look forward to your Washington Post columns.”

(Note also that my possession of a Y chromosome makes my inbox easier to deal with. As in, I don’t have cretins expressing their disagreement with rape threats.)

And yet. A message like that requires some sort of response, and one of my character flaws is the pleasure I take in crafting a politely snarky reply–one that can withstand publicity if my cranky correspondent thinks posting it online will help his cause. So after reciting a certain line about customers from “Clerks,” I wrote back to note my history of buying and using Apple products (see, I’m a self-loathing hater!) and of complimenting them when warranted. I closed with an observation and a suggestion:

But my overall evaluation of this company’s work—or any other’s—is not a binary state. I am capable of appreciating some things it does while finding fault with others to come up with an assessment that’s neither 0 nor 1 but somewhere in between. I’m sorry you seem to be having trouble with that concept.
BTW, if you’re going to accuse somebody else of being a “hater” you might not want to delight in another person’s unemployment.

Will it persuade my reader? Maybe. About half the time I send back a civil response, the other person realizes they were talking to a fellow human being, not a thumbnail image on a Web page, and apologizes. The other half of the time, there’s no response. We’ll see how this one goes…

Weekly output: tech policy (x2), Kojo Nnamdi Show, baby monitors (x5), hotel WiFi

Five of the stories that figured in earlier allusions here to upcoming work posted this week. It felt great to send the invoice for them.

5/27/2014: Why Congress Keeps Screwing Up Tech Policy, Yahoo Tech

My first draft of this piece got sent back to the kitchen; not for the first time, an editor was correct in saying I was trying to cover too much ground in one story. Before you read the comments: I apologize for the ageist nonsense on display there, which I did my best to smack down in moderation and replies.

5/27/2014: Five Tech Policy Bugs Congress Needs to Fix, Yahoo Tech

News flash: Bad laws have a long half-life, especially when they won’t get fixed unless the tech industry unites to ask Congress to do its job.

5/27/2014: Tech Gifts for Grads and Dads, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

I doled out advice with CNET’s Maggie Reardon on various gadget-guidance topics. Big surprise: how many Microsoft Surface fans called in.

5/27/2014: Infant Optics DXR-8, PCMag

I reviewed five baby monitors for PCMag, and this one got posted a day before the other four. If you don’t want any form of Internet connectivity in a monitor, this is the one I’d recommend out of this batch.

5/28/2014: Summer Infant Baby Touch, PCMag

This system’s display unit and Android and iOS apps had some singularly weird interface quirks that set me off.

PCMag Withings baby-monitor review5/28/2014: Withings Smart Baby Monitor, PCMag

My editors judged this Internet-connected model worthy of an “Editors’ Choice” nod. The weak quality of Withings’ Android app bothers me, but this was one device I didn’t like to send back–my daughter had grown attached to its lullaby feature.

5/28/2014: Philips Avent SCD603, PCMag

This thing combined thoughtful hardware design with woeful interference with my home WiFi network as well as my phone’s tethering option. And yet Amazon shoppers have made almost no mention of that problem. I’m still not sure that I didn’t run into some freak interaction.

5/28/2014: Motorola MBP36, PCMag

This model didn’t do much for me–certainly not at the current price. I might as well note here that for a couple of years, my wife and I relied on a hand-me-down monitor we got for free.

6/1/2014: Grrr. What’s up with hotel WiFi login pages?, USA Today

A tweet about an awkward hotel WiFi setup led to a question from a reader, which in turn led to this explainer about why establishments can’t just use standard password authentication. See the comments for one from me that relays two tips that readers shared over e-mail: one about coaxing a hotel with a Web WiFi-login scheme into offering connectivity to a Chromecast or Apple TV, another about running an older version of Apple’s AirPort Utility on a current Mac.

Where does the time go?

When I committed myself to writing one post a week recounting where I’d written, spoken or been quoted over the past seven days, an unspoken part of that deal was that I’d find something else to write about here each week–so as to not have this blog look even more transparently self-promotional.

OS X clockNow here it is, well into a Saturday night, and I have yet to blog about anything since last Sunday’s weekly-output post. I had a couple of ideas for more involved items that would have required extra cogitation or illustration more complicated than a quick screenshot, but time ran out.

And when I thought I’d have time earlier this afternoon–wait, Twitter Facebook e-mail, not to mention this whole parenting thing.

Looking beyond this week’s example, I’ve also grown more reluctant to write about a topic if I think I could sell a story on it to somebody else–which is to say that I’m trying to be a better capitalist.

That doesn’t mean I’m packing it in here, but it does suggest I need to call my shots better. Should I discuss a reader query/complaint/suggestion? Should I spotlight a photo I’ve taken in the last few days? Or should I just try to remember that I don’t have to crank out 500 words every time I click the “Add New” button here?

(This sorry-I-have-nothing-to-say post runs under 250 words. Does that represent progress?)

 

Weekly output: “right to be forgotten” (x2), Facebook privacy, travel bags, Pandora, Tech Night Owl, downloading Flickr and Facebook photos

Two things I’d written a while back–weeks ago in one case, last year in the other–made their appearance this week.

5/20/2014: The ‘Right to be Forgotten’: A Right to Endless Argument, Yahoo Tech

In this week’s column, I tried to untangle the logic behind a European court’s ruling that EU citizens can petition search engines to have unflattering links not be shown in queries for their names.

5/20/2014: How to See Yourself as the Web Sees You: 5 Tips, Yahoo Tech

To go with that column, I wrote a short sidebar about how to check up on the picture of you that search engines and Facebook present to strangers.

5/22/2014: Facebook privacy, WTOP

The news station interviewed me about Facebook’s unprecedented but welcome move to less-public default settings. As I said on the air: With this change, it’s definitely not throwback Thursday at Facebook HQ.

5/23/2014: Nerd Bags: How 5 Yahoo Tech Writers Keep It All Together, Yahoo Tech

Read on to see what kind of bags I and four Yahoo Tech colleagues–Rafe NeedlemanRob WalkerAlyssa Bereznak, and Dan Tynan–use when we travel for business.

Boing Boing Pandora post5/24/2014: Pandora’s “Music Genome Project” explores the cold hard facts of how we interact with music, Boing Boing

This story had an exceptionally prolonged gestation: I waited way too long to file the thing, and then my editor wanted to hold off running it until the site could launch its redesign. That redesign, in turn, took months longer than expected (I don’t know the details, nor do I want to know the details). There are a couple of references in the piece that show its age–for example, iTunes Radio is no longer an “upcoming” product–and should be fixed soon.

5/24/2014: May 24, 2014 — Dorothy Pomerantz, Daniel Eran Dilger and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked about the right-to-be-forgotten ruling, AT&T’s proposal to buy DirecTV, and Apple’s “never mind” settlement of a patent suit against Google on Gene Steinberg’s podcast.

5/25/2014: Grab it: Download photos in bulk from Flickr, Facebook, USA Today

I was unpleasantly surprised by the poor quality of the apps I tried for downloading multiple photos from Flickr and Facebook. (Hint: Adobe Flash is not a good middleware layer to build an app on these days.) The tip part of the column suggests that readers take another look at OS X’s Preview utility and the Paint app in Windows for basic image editing.

Mail merge? Work, home and other e-mail addresses

I keep telling myself that one of ways I maintain what’s left of my work/life balance is to have separate home and work e-mail addresses. And yet I have to ask who I’m kidding when these two Google Apps accounts, each at its own domain name, constitute separate lines or windows in a mail client, and when I’m sometimes corresponding with the same person from each address on alternate days. Meanwhile, many people I know seem to function perfectly fine with one all-purpose e-mail address.

MailboxIn a prior millennium, it was an easier call. After having lost a bunch of messages from friends during a transition from one e-mail system to another at the Post–and then discerning the dreadfulness of the new Lotus Notes system–I had little interest in trusting personal correspondence to my employer’s IT department.

I also figured that I would have less trouble staying on top of friends-and-family e-mail if it weren’t competing for space and attention in the first screen of my inbox with random PR pitches, interoffice memos and chit-chat with other journalists. And the address that wasn’t listed on a major newspaper’s Web site should, in theory, get vastly less spam.

(Because I am this persnickety about my communications tools, I also have a regular Gmail account that I use for almost all of my online commerce, financial transactions and other things that are neither personal- nor work-related. I don’t mind the ads there, while my Google Apps inboxes have no such distractions, courtesy of Google ending ad scanning for Apps users–even those on the free version it no longer offers to new users.)

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about IT-inflicted mail misery. What about the other virtues of this split setup?

  • Being able to flag messages for follow-up means I’m now less likely to forget to answer an important message, whatever address it was sent to.
  • But I don’t need 11 different folders to sort my home e-mail after I’ve dealt with it. Less cognitive load is a good thing.
  • Having to ask myself nit-pick questions like “since I’m asking a friend about something that may lead to him being quoted in a story, should I send this message from my work address?” increases my cognitive load.
  • Searching for messages and then looking over the results is faster when I’m excluding an entire account’s worth of e-mail. But when I ask Mail for OS X to query all of the gigabytes of messages that have accumulated at both addresses… ugh.
  • My anti-spam strategy has been a total bust. When I checked earlier this morning, Google had quarantined almost 1,500 spam messages in my home account, about 100 of which were messages on my neighborhood mailing list that shouldn’t have been screened as junk.

On that last note, here’s a question for you all to ponder: That mailing list will soon be moving to a commercial hosting service subsidized by ads, and of course I haven’t yet read its privacy policy. Should I switch my subscription to my Gmail address, where I can read those messages alongside those from my neighborhood’s smaller Nextdoor group, or should I keep using my home address there?

 

Weekly output: copyright and APIs, 5 GHz WiFi

Beyond what you see here, I also filed 4,000-plus words’ worth of reviews that have yet to be posted. You can imagine my relief at getting them off the to-do list.

Yahoo Tech API-copyright post5/13/2014: How the Government Can Improve Tech: Stop Reinventing Intellectual Property, Yahoo Tech

In this week’s column, I teed off on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s dangerously foolish ruling that you can copyright the workings of an application programming interface–a judgment that, if the Supreme Court somehow doesn’t toss it in the trash, will make a lot of reverse engineering illegal. I was not surprised in the least to see a few IP maximalists surface in the comments to contest my opinion, but I thought they would try to offer a counterargument more sophisticated than the likes of “this guy wants to make everything free.”

5/18/2014: How to fix pokey WiFi at home, USA Today

In yet another Q&A based on a relative’s computing travails, I explained how switching a WiFi network from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz could end interference issues caused by a surplus of other WiFi networks and baby monitors but require adding a second router to ensure the same coverage as before.