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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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.

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.

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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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?

This digital life: A reset of the TV set

The joke people used to share about the coming computerization of consumer electronics was that we could all look forward to rebooting the TV. Well, ha ha, because that’s exactly what I did Saturday night.

TV powerAnd I should have seen that coming. For a few days before, the power LED on our 2009-vintage Sony had been blinking red. I ignored it (we watch so little TV it’s almost un-American), and then we decided to change up our toddler’s post-dinner routine by letting her watch the episode of “Cosmos” we’d recorded earlier. (We’re bringing our kid up right!) But only minutes into the show, the TV clicked, shut off and rebooted.

And then it did the same, again and again, until Daddy gave up after having possibly expanded his daughter’s vocabulary.

Some quick searching determined that a flashing red light indicated that “there may be an issue with the TV.” Unplugging the TV for a minute and then plugging it back in didn’t cure the issue, so it was time to reset the set to its factory defaults.

(Before I look like I’m whining too much about Sony, I should note that this TV got free software updates through April 2012, which is far better support than most smartphones get.)

The procedure was uncommonly like resetting a Mac’s NVRAM or System Management Controller: Hold down the up-arrow button on the remote, press and release the power button on the TV, release the remote’s up-arrow button.

A moment later, the TV asked me to go through the setup routine I had not done since unboxing it in the summer of 2009: Zip code for its no-longer-supported over-the-air program guide, date, time, cable or antenna, and so on. I knew it had finished detecting all 30-odd digital broadcasts when salsa music began blasting out of its speakers–courtesy of the sole remaining analog TV broadcast in the Washington area, WDCN’s low-power, audio-only signal.

And I couldn’t lower the volume: With the TV in its setup mode, the remote’s volume buttons didn’t work, while those on the side of the set only stepped forward or backwards through this configuration routine. With our daughter’s bedtime at hand, I gave up, then resumed the effort the next day, when I had to sit, wait and listen as the TV took an improbably long time to detect its wired Internet connection and conclude its setup.

And now everything seems to be fine. I hope it stays that way. But, really, should I even complain that much? One factory reset in five years makes this Linux-based device one of the most reliable computer-ish things I’ve ever owned.

CES tips for rookie reporters (2013 edition)

Will this January really mark my 17th trek to CES? I’m afraid so–I’ve been going to Las Vegas every winter for the annual gadget gathering since 1998.

CES 2013 laptops

What was then known as the Consumer Electronics Show seemed positively overwhelming at the time, but as I’ve wasted an increasing number of brain cells on memorizing the finer points of the show and the city, the Consumer Electronics Association’s annual gathering no longer feels so insurmountable. I hope the following tips (most updated from a Dec. 2011 post) help you profit from that experience.

Planning

The onslaught of PR pitches requesting meetings at CES hasn’t started yet, but it’s only October. Wait until early December! I suggest you be exceedingly conservative in booking appointments: You will be late to most of them (read on for reasons why), and if you’re not the appropriate publicist will probably be somewhere else through no fault of his or her own.

So I usually limit my show-floor meetings to large companies with a diverse product line–the likes of Samsung, Panasonic or Sony. In those cases, scheduling an appointment can yield a better look at unreleased gadgets or a chance to talk shop with a higher-ranking executive. (Hopefully he–almost always a he–hasn’t had so much media training that he can longer converse like a normal human being.) If you really play your cards well, you’ll arrive at somebody’s booth just in time to gobble a quick lunch there.

Packing

The most important item to bring to CES is comfortable walking shoes. I’m partial to Eccos (note to Ecco PR: where’s my endorsement contract?), worn with hiking socks.

Other useful things to pack: Clif Bars, in case you don’t get around to eating lunch; a separate source of bandwidth (either a phone with tethering enabled or a portable WiFi hotspot); a travel-sized surge protector with USB ports (it can make you friends when there’s only one wall outlet left); an Ethernet adapter if your laptop lacks its own wired networking (CES does not take place in the MacBook Air’s magical world of invincible wireless); twice as many business cards as you think you’ll need.

Most important, for the love of all that is holy, do not forget to pack your laptop’s charger.

Press conferences and other events 

The day before the show opens consists of a grueling slog of press conferences, almost all at the Mandalay Bay convention center at the south end of the Strip. Unless you get VIP access, you can rarely get into more than every other press conference–the lines outside stretch on too long. And except for Sony’s customary event on the show floor, the CES press conference rarely permits hands-on time with the hardware or Q&A with the people involved. As tech scribe Roy Choi told me in January: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

The opening keynote takes place on the evening of press-conference day. Microsoft owned that for years but gave up the slot after 2012. Last year Qualcomm took its place, with epically awful results.

Put two offsite evening events on your schedule: Pepcom’s Digital Experience right after the opening keynote, and ShowStoppers the following night. (Disclosure: The latter crew helped put together my last two trips to IFA in Berlin.) At each, you’ll get access to a ballroom full of vendors showing off their wares, plus a good standing-up meal and sufficient adult beverages to dull the pain.

Power and bandwidth

Both are in pitifully short supply. “ABC” here stands for “always be charging,” or at least anytime you’re sitting down and near an outlet. Don’t feel bad if at other times, you must use your laptop as a giant external battery for your phone.

Don’t expect wireless to work with so many gadgets in use, although you may find the occasional exhibit space with a more robust wireless network than usual. Remember that you’re sharing the airwaves with a small city–152,759 attendees in 2013. If you can find a wired connection, use that instead.

The LVCC and other exhibit areas

The massive Las Vegas Convention Center, home to most of CES’s exhibit space, could double as an assembly line for other, lesser convention centers. Budget 15 minutes to get from one of its three halls to the next, 25 to hustle from one end to the other. The Central Hall, where most of the big-ticket vendors exhibit, eats up a day by itself. The North Hall, home to automotive electronics, satellite radio and a grab-bag of iDevice accessories, takes less time, as does the South Hall and its collection of smartphone and tablet vendors, camera manufacturers and–well, everybody else.

There’s also some exhibit space in the convention center’s parking lot, in the LVH hotel (about a 10-minute walk from the North Hall), and in the Sands Expo and the next-door Venetian about a mile and a half southwest.

Some companies also have off-site meetings in nearby hotels. Don’t even think of trying to stop by those places in the middle of the day; visit them before or after everything else.

CES 2013 monorailGetting around

The Las Vegas Monorail flies over traffic to and from the convention center. But you often have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to board in the morning or evening, a delay compounded by management’s unwillingness to accept D.C.-level crush loads.

The monorail also fails to stop at the Sands or the Venetian–what seems a regrettable result of its private funding by participating casinos–so to get there you’ll have to exit at the Harrah’s/The Quad station and walk north.

Alas, the alternatives to the monorail can be even worse. Shuttle buses run between the official show hotels, the LVCC and the Sands but suffer from excruciatingly long lines, especially departing from the LVCC on the first two evenings of the show. You can spend half an hour waiting for a bus to have room, then lose another 30 minutes to crawl three miles. Only the taxi lines can make this delay seem tolerable.

Some evening events happen at the Wynn or the Encore, slightly closer to the LVCC. Remember my advice about walking shoes? Spare yourself a tedious queue for a shuttle or taxi and use them to hike the mile and change from the convention center to the hotel.

Las Vegas also has public buses, and they can be convenient for travel up or down the Strip–or, should you magically get a few hours free, a field trip to the downtown neighborhood Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh is spending $350 million to terraform into a walkable community.

The RTC can get to or from McCarran as well, once you realize two quirks. One is the horrendous signage in Terminal 1′s baggage-claim area; I had to go downstairs to “Level Zero” to see any indication of public transit. The other is no direct service to the new Terminal 3–but if don’t check bags (a smart move at CES anyway), you should be able to clear security at T1 and then have a slightly longer tram ride to your gate.

Any other tips? Let me know in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Help me help you: tech-support support

Your computer vendor may charge you for technical help, but I won’t. And I don’t mind–really. The Q&A column I used to write for the Post and the one I do for USA Today both require readers to ask me how to get their computer/phone/TV/app/service working properly.

Question-mark key

But there are a few things you can do to make my work easier.

One thing I’ve harped on before is being specific. There are a million ways something can “not work” in a computer, so I’ll need to know more about how things failed. What was the text of the error message you saw? What’s the last thing that happened before things went awry? What exactly did the service rep tell you?

If in doubt, take a screenshot. In Windows, hit the Print Screen key and then paste into an e-mail in Windows; on a Mac, hit Shift-Command-3 and look for the new image file on your desktop; in iOS press the home and power buttons; in Android hold down the power and volume-down buttons. I won’t share that image with anybody else unless you’re okay with that.

If I don’t have those details, I’ll probably answer your first e-mail with a round of follow-up queries to elicit that extra information.

But I also need to know if my suggested remedy worked for you, and I’ve had a couple of readers leave me hanging in recent weeks. Sometimes I can try to recreate the issue on my own hardware and software, but in other cases that’s impossible–for example, I can’t subscribe to an Internet service not available anywhere near D.C. to see what’s wrong with its e-mail.

And on a personal level, I like hearing from readers that I was able to help them out. So please don’t forget to send that last “it worked, thanks” message you might think unnecessary.

Old reviewer learns new review tricks

I wrote about a couple of new smartphones earlier this week. That’s not an unusual development, but the client–PCMag.com–was new. And so were the review guidelines by which I wrote my assessments of the AT&T Terrain and the HTC 8XT.

PCmag logoFor that matter, having review guidelines at all was different. For all the other gadget writeups I’ve done lately, I’ve had the latitude to make up my own criteria. So I elected to test battery life by playing Web radio instead of placing phone calls, write a lot about picture quality but not much about a phone’s video output, and spend little time discussing how voice calls sound.

The risk in that scenario is that I wind up writing reviews optimized for one reader: me.

At PCMag.com, however, they’ve been doing this for a while and have their own ideas about what readers need to know. As you can see in those two writeups–the first of which I expect will be a few posts a month there–they include things like observing call quality in indoor and outdoor settings, running a traditional talk-time test, recording video clips from both the front and back cameras and running benchmark tests to get a sense of the phone’s overall rank.

After I filed each review, my editors there had further questions: How was call quality over the speakerphone? What sort of frame rates did you get in your video clips? Does the touchscreen work with gloves on?

It was more detail work than I’m used to, but it helped me a spot a few issues I wouldn’t have noticed doing things my way. (For instance, the Terrain couldn’t connect to 5 GHz WiFi.) And now I’ve learned a few more things to watch for when inspecting phones–and that I haven’t finished learning how to evaluate technology.

(On a personal note. PC Magazine was the computing publication my dad subscribed to from the mid-’80s on, and therefore the one I read through high school. It’s neat to see my name on its site.)

Corrections and changes can’t be clandestine

In the bad old days of paper-only journalism, you couldn’t change the text in an already-printed story, but at least newspapers almost always ran the correction in the same spot (usually, a box on A2 quietly dreaded by all in the newsroom). We’ve now flipped around the problem: It’s trivially easy to fix a story that’s already online, but you can no longer count on getting notice that it was corrected.

WordPress update buttonAnd while I’d much rather see stories get updated early and often to fix mistakes and incorporate breaking news, to do so without telling the reader you changed them is… kind of a lie. It suggests that you never made any mistakes in the piece when you really did. And since somebody will always notice the change, if not take a screengrab of the original copy, you risk trust rot setting in among readers.

Ideally, the content-management systems in use at news sites would automatically time-stamp each update and let readers browse older versions, as you can with the “View history” button on any good wiki. But some three years after online-journalism pioneer Scott Rosenberg urged just that and heralded the arrival of a WordPress plug-in to automate public revision tracking, I see few sites following that practice. More often, the bad copy goes down the memory hole.

If you run your own site, the lack of built-in version-browsing can’t stop you from telling readers you changed the copy–just strikethrough the offending text if it’s a minor fix or add a date- or time-stamped note to the end of the piece calling out the correction. (Since WordPress.com doesn’t provide a way for readers to compare revisions like what blog admins get in the editing interface, that’s what I do here.) That’s also how I handle things at the few freelance clients that allow me to sign into their CMS.

What do you do if you lack that access and a “CX” might otherwise go unremarked? Here’s my fix: Once your editor updates your post, leave a comment on it, linked back to a page or social-media account publicly recognized as you, that notes the error and the correction. Readers may not see that comment, especially if some relevance algorithm hides it by default, but at least you’ve documented the change in the closest possible spot to the original mistake.