Weekly output: Verizon Tracfone purchase approved, spectrum-sharing progress, cloud-storage choices

This year’s Thanksgiving, unlike last year’s, did not warrant descriptions like “house arrest.” And now I will follow up that overdue family time by flying almost 5,000 miles away from my own for a tech event, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Tech Summit 2021. I have clients awaiting coverage of this event (and who are fine with Qualcomm covering the airfare and lodging, another departure of sorts for me) and I’m sure I will learn a lot and appreciate connecting with other telecom nerds starting Monday afternoon in Hawaii. But… yeah, if this travel schedule leads you once again to question my life choices, I can only reply “fair.”

11/23/2021: FCC Greenlights Verizon’s Purchase of Tracfone, With Conditions, PCMag

The Federal Communications Commission seems confident that a set of temporary rules can ensure that the nation’s largest wireless carrier buying the nation’s largest wireless reseller will not lead to harm to customers.

11/24/2021: Spectrum-sharing task force chair: ‘It really doesn’t have to be a spectrum fight’, Light Reading

This post offered a welcome chance to get into the weeds about the finer points of freeing up wireless spectrum currently in use by some non-trivial military hardware.

11/27/2021: Apple, Google or Microsoft? How to match cloud storage to your computers – and cut costs, USA Today

Yes, you’ve read a version of this column before, down to its emphasis on picking an online backup service that pairs best with the hardware you’re most likely to take out of the house. But unlike the 2018 release, this one incorporates some money-saving tricks I’ve picked up over the past few years–like checking to see if credit cards have cash-back offers on one company’s cloud storage, or if you can buy a gift card good for that storage at a discount from a third-party retailer.

Thanks, science

Unlike a year ago, I’m not writing a post-Thanksgiving post from my own house. Instead, my family and I were able to travel and spend this holiday with my mom as well as my brother and his family. And one of the many things for which we’re thankful is the unprecedented worldwide effort that allowed us all to get vaccinated, with the two youngest members of this family reunion getting their first doses earlier this month.

That was what I had hoped might somehow be possible once the awfulness of the pandemic broke through my early denial, but there was no guarantee that the scientists of the world could fulfill that hope. And there was even less reason to think that the United States would have three effective vaccines in sufficiently wide distribution to have more than 196 million Americans now fully vaxxed.

I am profoundly grateful to everybody who has spent long days in laboratories, hospitals, clinics and other medical workplaces to get us to this point. They have cleared a path for us all to move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands that Winston Churchill spoke of during another time of worldwide peril.

(Seeing this effort firsthand and making a microscopic contribution to it as an occasional vax-clinic volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps–most recently, a week before Thanksgiving, when I had the welcome sight of parents lining up with under-12 kids–has been a tremendous honor.)

At the same time, a year ago I would not have guessed that an early rush to get vaccinated would fade as people either thought the pandemic was done and they could sit out getting a jab–or believed the conspiracy lies of politicians and propagandists about vaccines. I also would not have thought that vaccine distribution around the world would still be this uneven this far along.

Today’s agonizing news of yet another coronavirus variant is the reminder we shouldn’t have needed that taking our eyes off a moving target will cost us. But while you cannot count out humans’ capacity for stupidity and sloth, the last year and change should also offer more than enough reminder that it’s unwise to bet against human ingenuity.

Weekly output: smartphone plans, online misinformation, Twitter perceptions, SpaceX Starship, cord cutting stats, online-privacy bill

I have a short workweek followed by my first family-reunion Thanksgiving in two years.

Patreon readers got an extra post this week: a look at my attempts to ensure that the panels on which I speak aren’t filled out by people who look more or less like me.

Wirecutter phone-plans guide, as seen in Chrome on a Pixel 3a Android phone11/15/2021 The Best Cell Phone Plans, Wirecutter

This update–the first substantial revision to this guide since the summer of 2020–should not have taken this long, but it’s been a trying year for everybody.

11/15/2021: How Do You Combat Online Misinformation? Katie Couric, Prince Harry Have Some Ideas, PCMag

I wrote about a report on online misinformation from an unusual group of experts.

11/15/2021: We Read Twitter for Entertainment, Trust It for News (Unless We Vote Republican), PCMag

This post covered a pair of Pew Research Center studies about people’s attitudes towards Twitter. The most susprising finding: how many Twitter users misunderstood their own privacy settings.

11/18/2021: Elon Musk’s Starship rocket may launch to orbit in January, Fast Company

The SpaceX founder was scheduled to speak for 30 minutes but spent more than twice as much time at this virtual National Academy of Science meeting. I could have filed a vastly longer story, but I didn’t want to write myself into a bad per-word rate.

11/18/2021: Cord Cutting’s Latest Toll: 1.34 Million Legacy Pay-TV Subscribers Gone, PCMag

I decided to write up this report on pay-TV subscriptions by comparing the numbers involved to cities. Hence: “The top seven cable operators combined to lose 700,500 subscribers, a figure you may find easier to visualize as ‘almost the population of Denver’.”

11/19/2021: Who Owns Your Data? Calif. Congresswomen Try Again With Online Privacy Act, PCMag

The Online Privacy Act reintroduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D.-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) seems to get a lot of things right, but it lands in a Congress that seems singularly incapable of passing even incremental privacy upgrades.

Reminder to journalists: If you don’t build your own index, nobody else will

Today marks 10 years since I finally got around to self-assigning myself a weekly writing task: sum up where I’d written, spoken or been quoted over the past week. As much as I’ve sometimes resented having to bang out a “Weekly output” post when I’ve been jet-lagged, sick or both, it’s been time well spent.

The immediate upside of that first weekly recap of my work–which I chose to write on a Saturday for reasons that no longer resonate, then shifted to Sundays after a few months–was forcing me to write here more regularly. I’d have to inventory what I’d done to make a living once a week… and then I’d need to find something else to write about each week to avoid having this corner of the Web become a cringe-inducing exercise in self-promotion.

(Whether I have succeeded in that aspiration is a separate question.)

But as weeks of these recaps turned to months and then years, I realized that maintaining my own index of my work was my best defense against search-unfriendly sites and link rot. I can’t stop management at a client from breaking links or shutting down the entire operation, but having the original page addresses here means I can always plug them into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to see if that worthy San Francisco non-profit squirreled away its own copies of the pages.

In more recent years, various services have stepped up to streamline the task of providing an index of your published output. For example, friends of mine seem happy with Authory, which charges $96 a year for automatic backup of your posts, including marketing and analytics features. I remain content with my DIY approach, since it keeps this chronological index on the site Google (and other search engines) most closely associate with me.

But if you write for a living, which tool you pick up to preserve your online work matters much less than your committing to take charge of that. You can’t expect employers or clients to preserve your online work for more than the first several years after publication; you need to do something for yourself, and if you didn’t start that a decade ago, now is still a good time.

Weekly output: farm tech, Firefox in the Microsoft Store, Facebook “sensitive” ad targeting (x2), Mark Vena podcast, the “Facebook is listening” myth

I celebrated testing negative after coming back from an international business trip by getting a booster dose of Moderna Saturday. My Sunday has involved two naps and some overall wooziness, none of which I will regret when I’m at CES less than two months from now.

11/8/2021: Poop sensors, drones, and robots: What automation looks like at the farm of the future, Fast Company

Virginia Tech staged a demo of some of its research into farming robotics at Mount Vernon; in writing that up, I noted a report about the lingering problem of inadequate broadband on farms.

Screenshot of this story, as seen in a copy of Mozilla Firefox installed from the Microsoft Store on my Windows 10 laptop11/9/2021: Firefox Arrives in the Microsoft Store, PCMag

Writing this up allowed me to dust off some my writing from the Microsoft antitrust trial over 20 years ago. It cracks me up that Microsoft has now given the browser that dethroned Internet Explorer a spot in its own app store.

11/10/2021: Facebook to Stop Some ‘Sensitive’ Ad Targeting, PCMag

Starting in January, Facebook won’t let advertisers target ads based on the topics you’re supposed to avoid at the Thanksgiving table–politics, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, among others.

11/10/2021: S01 E17 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

I rejoined this podcast (also available in video form) to talk about the broadband provisions of the infrastructure bill that President Biden will be signing Monday.

11/11/2021: Facebook ending “sensitive” ad targeting, Al Jazeera

Writing about Facebook’s upcoming change paid off when I was asked to opine about it on this Arabic-language news network a day later.

11/14/2021: No, Facebook isn’t listening to you on your phone, Al Jazeera

I hope the live translation into Arabic got across how ridiculous I think it is that people are still wondering if Facebook’s apps have somehow been secretly eavesdropping on people despite the increasingly strict privacy controls built into Android and iOS, the torrent of leaks out of Facebook over the last year that have yet to reveal such a thing, and the utter insanity of trying this kind of privacy violation after so many governments have taken an intense interest in Facebook’s conduct.

Android 12 early impressions: improvement via imprecision

Two weeks after I installed Android 12 on my aging, yet well-maintaned Pixel 3a smartphone, the biggest selling point of this release is not the self-tinting interface colors that Google talked up this summer. Instead, I’m appreciating a new option to leave apps a little fuzzier about my whereabouts.

In adding the ability to deny an app access to your precise location, Android 12 returns to the earliest days of Google’s mobile operating system, when an app could ask for either “fine” or “coarse” location. But it also reflects what we’ve learned since then about how location-data brokers will embed location-tracking code in other apps, often without disclosure, and then exploit that harvested info to build vast databases.

Photo shows the Android 12 Settings app open to a page denying the Today Weather access to my precise location; in the background, the print edition of the Nov. 12, 2021 Washington Post reveals a bit of the weather forecast.

So my first move after my phone rebooted into Android 12 was to take the GPS keys away from some apps. I started with one I already paid for, Today Weather. Why bother depriving a paid-for and therefore ad-free app of my exact location? Because the forecast shouldn’t change that much between here and a mile away–but keeping my precise coordinates from a third party means they can’t get exposed if that firm suffers a data breach later on.

My second move was much less exciting, in that I swapped out some of the default screen widgets: I like scallops and I like having a large display of the time on my home screen, but I don’t like the scallop-shaped clock widget that comes standard in Android 12.

My first software-update-induced moment of confusion, meanwhile, came a day after I installed this update when I mashed down the power button to invove the Google Pay shortcut to choose a different stored credit card for a purchase–and nothing happened. That’s because Android 12 moved that from the power-button menu to the Quick Settings menu. Broken muscle memory aside, I get that relocating this setting from a non-obvious spot to a menu that people use all the time should make it more discoverable.

Finally, one Android 12 detail that’s gotten less attention than the others in press coverage just might save me from waking up with a phone at 10% of a charge: When you plug a phone into a charger, a wave of sparkles washes up the screen to confirm that current is flowing to the device. Considering my own record of inattentive device charging, that’s a feature I could have used 10 years ago.

Weekly output: sustainability, Project Kuiper, Frances Haugen, AI benefits, wellness UX, Amazon Sidewalk, less Facebook, Microsoft vs. climate change, Apple vs. sideloading, HBO Max, Nothing, Tim Berners-Lee, Facebook at Web Summit, U.S. vs. NSO Group

Looking at this list makes me feel tired… or maybe that’s just the jet lag talking.

Photo shows the Corporate Innovation Summit program in the library of the Academy of Sciences.11/1/2021: How technology is driving sustainability, Web Summit

My first of four Web Summit panels took place at the Corporate Innovation Summit, an offsite gathering at the Lisbon Academy of Sciences Monday. There, I quizzed Rebecca Parsons, chief technology officer at Thoughtworks; Vincent Clerc, chief executive officer for ocean and logistics at Maersk, and Tolga Kurtoglu, chief technology officer at HP, about how their firms were working to slow global warming.

11/1/2021: Amazon is gearing up to take on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet, Fast Company

I got an advance on the news that Amazon’s Project Kuiper low-Earth-orbit satellite broadband plans to launch its first two prototype satellites towards the end of next year–which will still leave it years behind SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.

11/1/2021: Facebook Whistleblower: ‘I Don’t Hate Facebook’ (But Zuckerberg Should Step Down), PCMag

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen helped open Web Summit with an onstage talk Monday night; writing that up led to me not having dinner until 10 p.m.

11/2/2021: Beyond the bottom line: The extra benefits of AI, Web Summit

Tuesday morning, I interviewed David Kiron, editorial director at MIT Sloan Management Review, and François Candelon, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, about research they’d done in how artificial-intelligence software can make organizations smarter.

11/3/2021: How to win at wellness UX, Web Summit

Talking to executives at two health-tech startups–Nevada Sanchez, co-founder and vice president of core technology at Butterfly Network, and Alison Darcy, founder of Woebot Health–I had to ask “How do you convince people that you’re not the next Theranos?” I thought these two people fielded that query well.

11/3/2021: Amazon Sidewalk quietly walks on, Light Reading

This assessment of Amazon’s mesh-network project reflects a correction I requested Saturday after Amazon pointed out that the setup process on a new Echo device now gives people a chance to opt out of Sidewalk.

11/3/2021: Stop bothering me, Facebook: Not ready to quit? Try these 3 tips to quiet it down, USA Today

The last time I wrote a Facebook-diet column for USAT, the social network had yet to give its users a way to opt out of having it analyze their reading habits across the rest of the Web for advertising-tracking purposes.

11/3/2021: How Do You Hit Net Zero? Microsoft President Brad Smith Has an Idea, PCMag

Microsoft president Brad Smith used a Web Summit keynote to explain how the company plans to make itself not just a carbon-neutral operation, but to zero out all the carbon dioxide it’s put into the air since its founding.

11/3/2021: Apple Exec to the EU: Hands Off Our App Store, PCMag

Apple software executive Craig Federighi gave what I thought was a remarkably disingenuous speech at Web Summit urging the European Union to back off on a proposal to require that Apple allow “sideloading” of apps in iOS.

11/4/2021: HBO Max exec emphasizes curation and localization, FierceVideo

I wrote up an interview of HBO Max product-planning senior vice president Melissa Weiner, that took place at a virtual conference hosted by Fierce’s parent firm. I thought I’d have more free time in my calendar when I accepted the story assignment, but an early start to my Thursday allowed me to get this written without putting a dent in my Web Summit schedule.

11/4/2021: Can Europe compete in consumer hardware?, Web Summit

This interview of Akis Evangelidis, co-founder of the gadget startup Nothing, provided me with my introduction to Web Summit’s main stage.

11/4/2021: Tim Berners-Lee Wants to Put Online Privacy on a Solid Foundation, PCMag

Web Summit closed out with the Web’s inventor making a pitch for his privacy-optimizing startup Inrupt.

11/4/2021: Facebook finds few friends at Web Summit as techies turn out to hear from whistleblower, USA Today

I wrote a recap of how so many speakers at this conference teed off on Facebook–er, Meta–even as the social network now recasting itself as a “metaverse” company limited its presence at Web Summit to glitchy appearances via streaming video.

11/7/2021: U.S. blacklists NSO Group, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news network had me on Sunday to discuss the Department of Commerce putting the Israeli surveillance-software firm NSO (and three other offenders) on its Entity List of banned firms for its role in eroding human rights.

Speaking on an arena scale

LISBON–My fourth panel at Web Summit here was not like the other three. Or like any other panel I’ve done since what I’ve taken to calling “the performance art of journalism” became part of my repertoire. Because Thursday I spoke in front of the largest audience and in the largest room of my entire public-speaking life.

The interview I did on the stage of the Altice Arena here of Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis was the last addition to my speaking schedule, and the invitation I was fastest to accept. Every other panel I’ve done at this conference since 2016 has taken place on one of the side stages, where crowds can get into the hundreds; this venue, however, is a 20,000-seat facility, and I could not turn that down. As anxious as standing up there might turn out to be…

Photo of the path leading to the stage of the Altice Arena, with its colored backdrop visible at the end of this passage.

Thursday afternoon came, and with half an hour to go I wrote down my panel outline on the last vacant pair of pages in a paper notebook, nervous energy making my penmanship even sloppier than usual. Then a volunteer walked us over to the backstage, where Web Summit’s illuminated backdrop loomed a few stories above and a sound tech fitted us with wireless headphones. I had a last chug of water before we stood and waited in a small passage leading to the stage.

Then it was show time. The emcee called out our names, the entrance music I’ve heard before so many other center-stage Web Summit panels played, and we walked past a camera operator who was there to get video of our entrance–a little bit of rock-star treatment.

I waved hello to the crowd, sat down in my chair, and immediately realized that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn’t see more than a third of the way into the audience, although I could at least confirm that they were mostly on the floor and not in the stands. (The picture I took then came out so ill-exposed that even Google Photos couldn’t do much with it.) And without my glasses, I couldn’t hope to read people’s facial expressions. Hearing the audience was also tricky, with our own amplified voices clanging back at us off the arena’s concrete.

But I had my outline on paper before me and an engaging conversation partner to my right to answer my questions about the gadget startup he co-founded with other veterans of the Android-phone firm OnePlus. The 13 minutes on the countdown clock before us ticked down to 11 and 9 and 7 and 5 as our verbal tennis continued… at which point I realized that with one question left unasked on my notepad, I’d need to improvise. Panel clock management is always trickiest when you have only one other person up there.

That’s when it helped that we’d had sat down yesterday to go over the panel and then had another chat in the speakers’ lounge before heading backstage. We ended up finishing maybe 20 seconds over.

I might as well have had fireworks going off in my head as the audience applauded and Akis and I shook hands before exiting the stage. It was a moment the 2001-vintage me would have struggled to imagine, much less the grade-school version of me who dreaded giving a speech before a classroom. And it’s something I won’t be able to keep out of my mind the next time I’m doing a virtual panel and wishing I had a human audience’s feedback.

Weekly output: Biden FCC nominations, Google opt-out for images of kids, Mark Vena podcast, Facebook Papers, Nielsen accreditation, Facebook renames itself Meta, Congress votes to veto Huawei and ZTE, Internet Archive

LISBON–After only experiencing the Web Summit through various screens last year, I returned to that conference’s host city this morning. I have four panels to moderate this week, which don’t seem like that much of a challenge after all the copy I filed this week.

PCMag FCC-noms post10/26/2021: Biden Nominates Rosenworcel as FCC Chair, PCMag

I really didn’t think I’d have to wait until almost November to write about President Biden picking a full-time chair of the Federal Communications Commission and filling the seat that’s been left open since January. Neither nomination–acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel to become permanent chair, former FCC advisor Gigi Sohn to take the vacant seat–is a surprise, so I’m still wondering what took the White House so long. 

10/27/2021: Google Adds Option to Wipe Images of Kids From Search Results, PCMag

Writing this allowed me to revisit the “right to be forgotten” debate and how Google users where I’m writing this have far more rights to have certain results hidden from queries than Google’s U.S. users do.

10/27/2021: S01 E15 – SmartTechCheck Podcast, Mark Vena

This week’s podcast had us talking up the FCC nominations as well as Facebook’s reliance on algorithms and Samsung moving to support the Matter smart-home standard. The video version suggests I should invest in some smart window blinds; I had mine closed to avoid bright sunlight oversaturating my home office, but halfway through the recording clouds rolled in, leaving me in the dark.  

10/27/2021: The Facebook Papers revelations, WWL

I talked to this New Orleans station (the folks there had me on in May to discuss streaming TV) about all of the bad news about Facebook we’ve gotten this week. 

10/28/2021: Nielsen on regaining accreditation: stay tuned, FierceVideo

I filled in at my trade-pub client to cover Nielsen’s earnings call, on which executives for the audience-measurement firm gave… measured answers to questions about how they would regain accreditation for their TV ratings service from an industry group.

10/28/2021: Facebook renames itself to Meta, Al Jazeera

Speaking of Facebook news, the news channel quizzed me about my take on Facebook renaming itself to Meta and recasting itself as a metaverse-first developer. I hope my skepticism came across fully in overdubbed Arabic.

10/29/2021: In Rare Bipartisan Move, Congress Votes to Crack Down on Huawei, ZTE, PCMag

It’s nice to know that even in these hyper-partisan times, Democrats and Republicans can still agree on some things–like their profound distrust of these large Chinese telecom firms.

10/29/2021:  In case you missed it: The Internet Archive turns 25, USA Today

This was a neat column to write–both because I learned some new things about how to use the Archive’s Wayback Machine, and because it let me remind readers of the time I wrote up my visit to the Archive’s offices in San Francisco for the Washington Post and then had Archive founder Brewster Kahle show up in that story’s comments. That 2010 piece, appropriately enough, now seems readable only via the Archive.

Repairability FTW, or how I bought an old laptop some new life by replacing its battery

My four-year-old laptop now feels a little less ancient and my bank account still only has one new-computer-sized dent in it for this year, thanks to one replacement component that proved to be harder to shop for than to install.

This 2017 HP Specte x360 shouldn’t have needed a new battery at all, given how infrequently it’s left the house or even been unplugged from a power outlet since March of 2020.

But over the last 18 months it had exhibited increasingly bad battery life, to the point that I could not reasonably expect it to last more than hour away from an outlet. HP’s hardware diagnostics app outright labeled the battery “failed” and advised a replacement–even though its logs showed this component had only gone through 387 charge cycles out of its design life of 1,000 and still had a capacity of 25 watt-hours instead of the original 60.

Photo shows the replacement battery on top of the original one, with part of the laptop's circuitry visible behind both.

(Then again, my old MacBook Air also began reporting battery issues well short of that 1,000-cycle mark.)

For a while, I considered toughing out this problem until I could buy a new laptop. But between the chip shortage bogging down laptop shipments and my trip to Web Summit coming up next week, I decided it would be stupid to keep limping along.

Annoyingly enough, HP’s parts store did not carry a replacement battery for my model. I checked the company’s list of authorized vendors next; only one, ITPAS, seemed to sell the battery I needed.

They listed a $99.80 price for the battery, which seemed a bit steep. I found other vendors selling what was at least identified as a compatible “CP03XL” battery on Amazon and NewEgg’s storefronts that advertised much cheaper prices. But none had nearly enough good and at least not-obviously-fake reviews to make me want to trust them all that much. I tried asking on Reddit for further guidance, but this usually reliable source of crowdsourced tech support did not come through here.

So I decided to go with the most-legitimate retailer, and after a pleasant chat with an ITPAS customer-service rep that cleared up some details left vague on the site (notwithstanding the “Available to special order” note on the battery page, they had it in stock, and “FedEx Home Delivery” would mean only a few days), I placed my order Friday and hoped to see the battery arrive before the middle of this week.

It arrived the next day, before I’d even received a shipping-notification e-mail–and then a few days later, a second battery arrived, a generous glitch the company couldn’t explain when I reported it but quickly responded by e-mailing a FedEx shipping label with which I could return the duplicate.

The bigger delay here turned out to be me, in that I didn’t think to ask a friend to borrow his set of Torx screwdrivers until he’d already left for the weekend. Arguably, I should already own my own set, but the last time I needed these tools was when I replaced my old iMac’s hard drive with a solid state drive in 2018.

Anyway, with the right implements at hand, HP’s maintenance and service manual revealed the battery replacement to be a fairly simple procedure. Shut down the laptop, remove six screws holding the bottom lid (two of which were underneath a strip of plastic on the underside that once held its rubber feet in place), and pop off that lower lid. Then detach the old battery’s power cable from the system, gently tug the speaker cable out of the bracket at one end of the battery, undo four more tiny screws to free the battery. and lift it out. 

I did those steps in reverse to connect and secure the new battery, then found myself struggling to get the bottom lid to close up properly. After a second try with the six outer screws, there’s still some flex at its front, underneath the trackpad. Was that there all along? I can’t tell, not having thought to take beforehand photos to document this laptop’s condition as if it were a rental car I’d need to return later to a nervous agency.

The re-empowered laptop them rebooted into an screen reporting a CMOS checksum error that I could fix by resetting it to its defaults, I did, and the laptop has not complained further. That HP diagnostics app now reports the the battery state as “passed,” which is nice–and when I set the laptop to run a battery-life test in which it would stream NASA TV via YouTube, it ran a full five hours and 40 minutes.

I’ll take that–at least as far as Lisbon next week and Las Vegas in January, but maybe even for a few more months after.