About Rob Pegoraro

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

My not-so-simple prepaid SIM card

BERLIN–Having repeatedly endorsed using prepaid SIM cards in unlocked phones when traveling overseas (most recently at NowU), I owe it to you to note when this normally-simple transaction goes sideways.

Prepaid SIM cardThat was my story the first day and a half here. The afternoon I arrived, I went to the mall across the street from my hotel and discovered that the electronics store I’d used the last two years of covering IFA had closed. I went downstairs to a small Vodafone store and was told they were out of prepaid SIMs (no, really).

Then it was time for dinner, and by the time we got out all the stores were closed.

The next morning, I remembered I’d seen good reviews of some German wireless resellers at a crowdsourced wiki and another prepaid-data guide as well as on FlyerTalk. Meanwhile, a few of my dinner companions had suggested I check out two other telecom stores at the far end of the mall that I’d missed before.

The first had a decent deal but wanted cash when I only had €10 in my pocket–and the ATM, predictably located near the opposite end of the mall, refused to dispense cash for reasons I could not deduce from the German text. The T-Mobile store a few doors down, however, was happy to take plastic for a Congstar SIM with €9.99 credit.

First problem: After rebooting, the phone didn’t light up with the new signal, instead showing none at all. The shopkeeper pointed out that I had to set up the card online–which sent me back to the hotel to use its WiFi to configure the account. As Congstar’s site is entirely in German, I had to lean on Google to translate each page.

With my account set up and a data plan selected to use up that credit… I still had nothing. This was getting frustrating.

After a friendly but unproductive chat with Congstar’s Twitter account–they suggested trying the SIM in another phone, then referred me to a Web chat I couldn’t enter because the site couldn’t seem to deal with me posing an opening query in English–I gave up for the time being to attend Samsung’s “Unpacked” event.

Back at the hotel, a few other journalists sitting near me were fussing with phones. I asked if any of them had an unlocked phone with a micro-SIM slot. One did. He removed the SIM from his device, rebooted it and saw the phone immediately pick up a signal.

I put the SIM back in my phone, rebooted it, and finally had sweet, blessed mobile bandwidth. And I have absolutely no idea why that happened, or why it didn’t happen over the prior eight hours. Keep that in mind before you place too much trust in my tech advice.

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Weekly output: NYC startup spaces, zero rating (x2), wireless carriers, Internet downtime

My name showed up at a couple of new places this week. FYI: The coming week won’t feature my work on a typical schedule, because Yahoo Tech and I agreed to push my weekly column back from Tuesday so I could offer my take later in the week on the European tech trade show IFA. That, in turn, may explain why I’m posting this so late: I still have to pack.

8/25/2014: Making Space for More Tech Firms in New York City, Urban Land

I combined old and new reporting to generate this piece on the real-estate market for New York-based startups. I dropped a letter out of one source’s last name; we’ve since corrected the mistake

8/26/2014: ‘Zero Rating’: The Pros and Cons of Free Online Access, Yahoo Tech

My thinking on this subject changed radically as I kept talking to people involved in this issue.

8/26/2014: A Recent History of Free ‘Zero Rated’ Online Access in the U.S., Yahoo Tech

This sidebar about domestic efforts by various companies to make mobile access to their services a no-surcharge proposition led me to an interesting, post-column chat with a CEO involved in this market.

Wirecutter wireless-carriers guide8/29/2014: The Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

I have been working on this project for months, meaning I’ve had the pleasure of redoing calculations of two-year costs at the major nationwide wireless carriers more than once, sometimes more than twice. I don’t know why nobody’s found a mathematical error in the piece yet. If you have a question about this lengthy piece, check the comments; I may have answered it already there.

8/31/2014:  How to check your Internet connection, USA Today 

This column topic has been locked inside “Break Glass In Case Of Journalistic Emergency” box for the last two years and change. A cramped schedule and Time Warner Cable’s system-wide outage led me to conclude that this week was the right time for a column about debugging an apparently faulty Internet account.

Hello, Twitter followers; hello, Facebook fans

On Wednesday, Twitter made itself less opaque and a little more understandable when it invited all its users to log into its analytics dashboard and get a detailed breakdown of who had been following them and reading their tweets.

I’ve had access to that feature for a while–I don’t know why, since my unverified account and unwillingness to buy Twitter ads left me outside of the two groups who were supposed to have access to it–but seeing this in the news got me to take a fresh look at my stats.

(To inspect yours, visit analytics.twitter.com when you’re logged in.)

Twitter and Facebook audience analyticsIt also led me to compare this data to the information Facebook provides about users who like my public page there. (People who only have personal profiles get no such report, one of the things I don’t like about Facebook.) Here’s what Twitter’s analytics and Facebook’s Page Insights tell me about my audiences at each social network.

Both are overwhelmingly male. Of my 14,088 Twitter followers, 74 percent are male; for the 2,472 people who like my Facebook page, that figure is 70 percent (while Facebook as a whole is 54 percent male). I don’t know why that is, and I’m not happy about it either. (9/1/14, 12:51 p.m.: If you were wondering how Twitter could determine its users’ gender when it doesn’t ask for that data point, see my friend Glenn Fleishman’s explainer at Boing Boing.)

Facebook seems more globally distributed. The top five cities for Twitter followers are all in the U.S. (Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia), while at Facebook Cairo is in second place after D.C. India is the most popular country after the U.S. on both networks, but citizens of the world’s largest democracy constitute a larger share, about 4.5 percent, of my Facebook audience. Among those U.S. readers, Twitter says California is the most popular state for them while Facebook doesn’t show me state-level data.

Twitter followers are not quite as easy to attract than Facebook fans. From Aug. 3, 2012 to the present, my Facebook page went from 1,798 likes to 2,473, a 37.5 percent increase. From Aug. 1, 2012 to today, my Twitter follower count went from 10,376 to 14,088, a 35.8 percent increase. I didn’t expect that; on Twitter, your poor taste in technology columnists doesn’t get broadcast to your friends the way it does on Facebook.

Tweets can go unread just as easily as Facebook posts, maybe even more so. Over the last week, my most-read tweet was an item about Comcast reviving the hyperlocal news site EveryBlock that netted 4,514 impressions, or less than half of my follower count. At Facebook, my share of a Facebook blog post about clickbait headlines topped the list by reaching 1,783 users, almost three fourths of my page’s fan base.

Neither gives me an ethnic or racial breakdown. So I can only hope that those figures aren’t as unbalanced as the gender split of my social-media audience.

Twitter says you’re here for tech news. Twitter’s analytics include a list of the top 10 interests of your followers; “Technology” and “Tech news” top that list, each with a 79 percent share of my audience. (“Comedy [Movies and television]” appeals to 30 percent of my followers, so maybe I should quote from “Dr. Strangelove” more often.) Facebook doesn’t provide me with this category of insight.

Facebook says you’re probably older than 24. The 18-24 demographic is the largest slice of the Facebook population, but not on my page: men in that age bracket make up 17.9 percent of all of Facebook, but 10.2 percent of my page’s likes. For 18-24 women, the numbers are 14.4 percent and 2.27 percent. Instead, I’m doing best among women and men from 25 to 44. Twitter can’t display this kind of detail, since it doesn’t ask for birthdays.

Not all of this data may be true. Unsaid on either site’s analytics pages: Many users of each choose to provide incorrect data for reasons of privacy or creativity. And even if most of this self-reported information is correct, some of the sample sizes of subsets of my audiences are too small for my conclusions to stand up.

Weekly output: Facebook and Twitter transparency (x2), cord cutting, TV technology, Google Calendar and Microsoft Outlook

This week was looking super-productive until I had two fillings replaced during Wednesday’s visit to the dentist–and then the anesthetic and what looks like an adverse reaction to it had me out of commission for most of the rest of the day.

8/19/2014: Facebook, Twitter, and What a Social Network Owes Its Members, Yahoo Tech

This column followed up on extensive complaints about a perceived lack of visibility of news from Ferguson, Mo., on Facebook by suggesting how much Facebook and Twitter had to learn about being more transparent and accountable in how they filter and display information. The very day it ran, Twitter changed how it presents tweets to include those that had only been favorited by people you follow, plus others that it might deem interesting. And the sole announcement of this major shift was a revised tech-support note–not a blog post, not a tweet. Very funny, Twitter.

8/19/2014: How to Turn Off Facebook’s Algorithm … Temporarily, Yahoo Tech

This sidebar outlines a few ways to opt out of algorithmic filtering on Facebook and Twitter. With Twitter’s shift Tuesday, the post already looks out of date.

NowU cord-cutting post8/19/2014: How to untie yourself from cable TV, NowU

This long explainer is only about the 10th or 15th piece I’ve written about cord cutting, but it also benefits from a lot more experience with getting TV only via an antenna and various Internet sites, services and apps.

8/19/2014: The big picture: Choosing your next TV, NowU

The tl;dr version of this companion piece: Don’t worry too much, most TV sets are pretty good these days.

8/21/2014: Facebook and Twitter, Alice’s Coffee House With Johnny Molson

Listeners in the Springfield, Ill., market got to hear me talk about the transparency of these two social networks on Thursday morning with host Johnny Molson.

8/24/2014: How to get Google Calendar, Outlook to sync up, USA Today

This column–at least the third I’ve written about the changing state of sync between Google Calendar and third-party calendar apps–started with a message a reader sent to my Facebook page. See, I actually do read that stuff!

Call me crazy, but I’m warming to the smartwatch concept

From the thumbs-down I handed out to a Microsoft “SPOT Watch” in 2004 to last year’s “try again” dismissal of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, I have not looked too favorably on the idea of wearing a smartwatch with a data stream of its own.

Android Wear watchBut now that I’m wearing yet another one of these devices, the Samsung Gear Live loaned to me at Google I/O, I find myself thinking of reasons why I’ll miss this thing when I have to send it back to Google PR.

Here’s the key thing it does right: provide a no-hands-required external display for my phone’s notifications list. If I’m cooking, gardening, biking or holding my daughter’s hand as we cross the street, I often have no ready way to get at the phone and so can only wonder if the beep or buzz of a notification is something I need to check or not.

Now I can see for myself. In some cases, I can dictate a reply by voice, but I’ve only done that once or twice; just knowing if what’s new on my phone is important enough to require taking it out of my pocket is good enough.

(I have, however, been surprised by how often I’ve leaned on Android Wear’s voice control while grilling: “OK Google, set a timer for five minutes.”)

Android Wear’s unavoidable updates are not always advantageous. As I noted in a Yahoo Tech column, I did not need or appreciate having the watch light up to alert me of a new e-mail (of course, spam) as I was putting our daughter to bed.

And that’s where Google could do a better job. Gmail has multiple ways to prioritize your e-mail–starring messages, marking conversations as important, displaying them in the “Primary” inbox tab–but none of them seem to inform what pops up on an Android Wear watch’s screen.

Should Apple surprise absolutely nobody by introducing an “iWatch” next month, I trust that such a timepiece will have an option to only notify you of new mail from people on your “VIP” list.

I also expect that any Apple smartwatch will be thinner than the Gear Live–which at roughly 3/8th of an inch thick, itself represents a welcome advance over the nearly half-inch thick Galaxy Gear and the 3/4-inch thick Microsoft-powered Suunto I hated in 2004.

That, in turn, should push the next Android Wear–or Pebble smartwatch, another promising contender–to get smarter and sleeker. And with these things costing $200 and change, that may be enough to get me to buy. And then you all can point and laugh at the nerd who decided he had to walk around with not one but two interactive gadgets.

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.