A non-automatic repair of a mysteriously-hapless HP laptop

I went a few days without using my laptop, but that wasn’t actually part of the plan for our kid’s spring break. Having this HP Spectre x360 inoperative did, however, teach me valuable lessons about computing preparedness, which I will now share so that you may benefit from my experience.

(And so that Mac fans can dunk on me for my latest laptop purchase. I know what I’ve got coming…)

As far as I can tell, things started going sideways with the laptop last Wednesday. That’s when it failed to wake from sleep, I force-rebooted it, and it started into a screen saying Windows was “Preparing Automatic Repair.” There it stayed through multiple reboots until I set it aside for a few hours and finally saw it had returned me to the Windows “Recovery Environment.” From there, I could order up a System Restore that brought the PC back to health.

HP laptop stuck on repair

Except the same “Automatic Repair” message reappeared two days later and kept coming back. By then, I had learned that I was not alone in seeing this alleged repair stall a startup.

I gave up and did a “reset” of Windows Sunday. That clean reload of the operating system left my files intact but required reinstalling every app, re-typing every saved Web login, and even redoing things as basic as apps pinned to the taskbar and the Start menu–it reminded me too much of factory-resetting an Android phone three years ago. Alas, that evening, the laptop again failed to wake from sleep, then after another forced restart got stuck on the now-dreaded “Preparing Automatic Repair” screen.

I had thought to create a Windows recovery USB flash drive while my laptop was working Sunday. But the laptop ignored it every time I tried to boot from it.

After two days of fruitless troubleshooting–during which I did work in an incognito window on my mother-in-law’s MacBook Air, as if it were an overpriced Chromebook–I thought to try booting the HP off a USB flash drive loaded with Ubuntu Linux. That got the machine back online, so at least I knew the laptop’s hardware remained sound.

A Twitter conversation with my friend Ed Bott reminded me to try the Windows recovery USB drive on another computer, where it did boot–and on my next try using that in the HP, it finally started up the laptop. (This is not the first time I’ve needed to borrow somebody else’s device to breathe life into an uncooperative bit of circuitry.) Command-line tinkering found no issues with the HP’s solid-state drive or the Windows installation, so I did yet another system restore and finally had my computer back.

I’m typing on the same machine seven hours later, so hopefully things took. But if not, I now have two flash drives that I know can boot the machine. If you have a Windows PC, please learn from my ordeal and take a few minutes today to create a recovery flash drive for your machine.

And if that PC insists over hours that it’s preparing an “Automatic” repair, remember that when Windows keeps using that word, it may not mean what Windows thinks it means.

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My Facebook-apps privacy audit

At some point, I was going to revisit my Facebook-privacy settings, but this weekend’s news about Cambridge Analytica’s exfiltration of some 50 million Facebook users’ data via a personality-quiz app moved up that timetable a bit.

That also sped up my overdue reacquaintance with my Facebook app settings–something I hadn’t paid much attention to since I last added any apps to my profile. The how-to I wrote in late 2013 about Facebook privacy waved away that angle: “Most of the options under the ‘Apps’ heading only apply if you add applications to your profile.”

Alas, I had added a few apps to my profile, especially in the first few years I had an account. Make that a few dozen apps. They fell into a few categories:

  • Apps or site logins (Facebook lists both on the same page) that I didn’t remember adding but could imagine reasons to have done so.
  • Apps that I had once appreciated but hadn’t touched in years (and which, per the new policy Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Wednesday, would now be cut off).
  • Apps that I still appreciated but which had more access to my data than I recalled granting.
  • Apps that I recognized and which didn’t demand information beyond the public-on-Facebook aspects of my profile.

The last category aside, it was an embarrassing exercise. How had I allowed so many apps to see my friends list? Aren’t I supposed to know this stuff?

After that humbling moment, I removed about two-thirds of the apps, with those offering discernable utility cut down to seeing only my basic profile information. I should have done that years ago. But so should most of us.

Bear in mind that I’ve never treated Facebook as a friends-only space. I know that screenshots exist; I hadn’t had a Facebook account for more than a year and change before a now-defunct D.C.-journalism-gossip site posted a sceengrab of it. If I post an update, I try to write it so it won’t look too incriminating when quoted elsewhere out of context.

During this overdue investigation, I also looked at the “Apps Others Use” category that Facebook vaguely explains as a way for friends to bring your info to apps they use. I’d unchecked all 13 of those options, but after seeing most activated in a dummy account I keep for fact-checking purposes–and having people ask if this didn’t mean that Facebook apps could still grab data from friends–I had to ask Facebook to clear this up.

The less-than-conclusive answer I got over two e-mails: That cluster of settings dates to “before we made significant changes to how developers build apps on Facebook” that eliminated its functionality, except that it “still addresses some limited situations like photo sharing.”

So it appears that this absurdly wealthy company has trouble updating and documenting its privacy interface. That’s yet another problem Facebook needs to solve.

Covering conference costs

My travel for work often involves a four-word question with a one-word answer. As in, somebody asks me “Who’s sending you here?”, and I reply by saying “me.”

Self-employment usually means self-financing of travel. Except for when speaking somewhere gets my travel comped or a conference organizer offers a travel subsidy (or the very rare times that a client covers my travel costs), I have to pay my own way.

When I started freelancing in 2011, I didn’t worry too much about how. I was blessed with clients overpaying me, and I was so tired of having the Post deny my travel requests–like the three years in a row they wouldn’t send me to South By Southwest–that I chose to spend some money to see what I’d missed.

I’m more practical these days: If I go somewhere, I should sell enough work based on things I learn during that trip to cover my costs. As long as I can find a scarcity to exploit, that should be doable. Google I/O and Mobile World Congress, for example, either limit press access or take place in locations where tech-news sites don’t have anybody based full-time–leaving me less competition. So did the Falcon Heavy launch.

To be honest in my accounting, I also have to consider how much I would have written and sold on a normal week at home, when my expenses amount to Metro fare and part of the utilities bills. In other words, I didn’t write five Yahoo posts from CES just for my health.

Most of the time, I do sell enough from out of town to get my above-baseline income to meet travel costs that I already try to ratchet down with my Airbnb and public-transit habits. What I still need to address: not slacking off the week after a mega-gathering like CES or MWC, a pattern you’ve probably noticed in my weekly recaps of my work.

Some trips, however, are worth doing even at a loss, and I appreciate that self-employment lets me make that choice.

For example, the XOXO conference in Portland was so mind-expandingly great in 2013 and 2015 that I paid not just for airfare and lodging but even for the conference pass–and I only sold a single post from it each time. Friday, the organizers tweeted that after taking 2017 off, the conference would return this September… so, you know, my financial realism may have to take a break that week.

The wrong kind of practice with power and bandwidth management

After a week of having to worry about electricity and connectivity, I’ve spent today doing the same thing–but worse.

Tree down on wiresToday’s villains are not Mobile World Congress venues with inconsistent power-outlet placement and WiFi dead zones, but moving air molecules and a tree that wasn’t as solidly rooted as we thought.

Sometime before 6 a.m., the hurricane-force winds that have descended on the Northeast knocked over the large spruce tree in our front yard that had withstood the derecho and Sandy, and which an arborist last August had said only needed fertilizer and some treatment to curb mites.

Things could have been worse. The tree didn’t fall onto the front porch or our car, and it avoided smashing a neighbor’s vehicle on the street–because after its tumbling trunk snapped the power lines, the telecom wires below them held and broke its fall.

But that left me starting the workday with one fully charged laptop and another on its last 22 percent of a charge, a phone that was down to 75% from early-morning checks of the weather and news, an iPad at 20%, a loaner AT&T hotspot (for an upcoming update to the Wirecutter LTE-hotspots guide) below half a charge, and a few mostly-drained external chargers.

Windows 10 battery-life gaugeThinking that I should stick around our house to answer any questions from workers restoring power, I made it until around 3 p.m.

First I set the HP laptop that I had fortuitously remembered to plug in last night to the most conservative power settings Windows offered. I turned on the AT&T hotspot and signed the laptop and iPad onto its WiFi. Then I plugged the hotspot and my usual phone charger into the USB ports of the MacBook Air that had been mostly collecting dust since November’s laptop upgrade, but which could still serve as a backup charger.

After running down the Air, I dusted off two higher-capacity Mophie chargers that had shown up unbidden from different PR firms. They had next to no electricity left, because I’d stashed them in my home office’s closet after deciding to give them away to readers someday. But each trickled a little more of a charge into my phone and the hotspot, and the larger of the two also had a power outlet that afforded my laptop a little more time.

All of this let me limp along and get a column researched and partially written by around 3–with the last bit of work done in Google Docs’ offline mode after the hotspot died. By then, three things were apparent: My laptop would not make it another 30 minutes, nobody would show up to restore electricity while the winds were still hitting 50 mph, and I should have thought to recharge all of my gadgets last night at the first reports of a coming storm.

So I retreated to the same still-online neighbor’s house that my wife and our daughter had adjourned to Friday morning. We’ll sleep there tonight as our now-dead tree twists on wires in the wind and our house stays dark and cold. I would like to see all these things change Saturday.

Last-minute MWC advice

Having to spend a week in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress ranks as one of the easier problems to manage in the tech industry. I mean, would you rather go to CES?

But if you’re new to MWC, as I was only five years ago, the wireless industry’s global gathering can have its confusing moments. If so, the following advice may help you navigate your way around this trade show.

Fira Gran Via: MWC’s primary venue is a set of eight large halls that you can traverse much faster than the Las Vegas Convention Center, thanks to the overhead passages–most with moving walkways–that knit the Fira together. To get there, take the train: The L9 Sud Metro stops at the Europa | Fira and Fira stations, to the north and south of the Fira, while frequent commuter-rail trains from Espanya also stop at Europa | Fira.

Power and bandwidth: In addition to a plug adapter (you already have that in your bag, right?), you should also pack your laptop’s charger’s extension cord if it came with one. Distance from an outlet has nothing to do with that; a laptop power brick plugged into a plug adapter plugged into a wall outlet can easily fall out, but the extension cord will distribute that weight away from the outlet.

I hope you won’t show up to MWC with a locked phone that will prevent you from popping in a cheap prepaid SIM. But if your locked device is on Sprint or T-Mobile, you at least get free, slow and adequate roaming.

Eating and dining: Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities to eat and drink. Unfortunately, the press room in the Fira does not provide lunch, so you’ll have to forage elsewhere on the show floor (FYI, Ericsson’s exhibit in Hall 2 has offered a great free lunch the last few years). The press room does, however, offer an apparently inexhaustible supply of coffee from a bank of Nespresso machines, and plates of cookies occasionally show up there too.

Remember that dinner happens late in Spain, so don’t turn down a late-afternoon snack.

Getting around: Your MWC registration comes with a transit pass good Monday through Thursday; don’t just use it to commute to the Fira. Railfan tip: Because the L9 Sud line is automated, standing in the front of the train lets you enjoy the view of the tunnel ahead. Cheapskate tip: That line is also the most cost-effective way to and from the airport.

If you normally rely on Apple Maps, set it aside for the duration of MWC. This app still doesn’t offer transit directions in Barcelona–two and a half years after Apple bragged about adding transit navigation, which itself came nearly eight years after Google integrated the same in its own maps.

Barcelona has a not-undeserved reputation for pickpocketing. Don’t leave your wallet in an exposed and open pocket, and hang on to your bag or purse.

Other details:

If you’ve never seen Whit Stillman’s 1994 indie classic Barcelona, try to fix that before you depart. It’s not available on Netflix and Amazon’s free streaming, but you can rent it on Amazon, Google, iTunes and Vudu.

If you have some free time–by which I mean, if being six to nine time zones ahead of your editors gives you unsupervised time–try to spend some of it visiting architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpieces. The Casa Milà apartment building and the Sagrada Família basilica aren’t as far out of your way from MWC as Park Güell; they all have a kind of magic about them.

On your way home, if you have mid-tier or higher status on American, Delta or United or have a Priority Pass membership, you’re eligible to visit the Sala VIP Miro lounge at BCN, upstairs to the left and downstairs after passport control for non-EU flights. Nobody will mistake it for a Lufthansa Senator Lounge, but it works for a pre-departure snack and a drink or two before a long day spent over the Atlantic.

Updated 3/1/2018 to correct and expand lounge-access directions.

Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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Sharing stories from Apple News considered harmful

Last Tuesday, Google delivered some news that open-Web advocates have long awaited: Stories posted in the speedy, Google-developed Accelerated Mobile Pages format and served up via its even-faster caching service won’t zap onto the screens of mobile devices at google.com addresses, not the domain name of their publisher.

The avoidable but common facet of the AMP experience has bothered me since my early encounters with Google’s attempt to make the mobile Web less janky–it led the explainer I wrote for Yahoo two years ago. Google is now moving to fix the problem it helped create, which is welcome news in any publishing format.

(Specifically, Google will adopt a new page-packaging standard to preserve site domain names. In last Tuesday’s post, AMP project tech lead Malte Ubl says we should start seeing the results on our phones in the second half of this year.)

This, however, leaves another address-eating annoyance on the mobile Web: Apple News. This iOS app is a pleasant way to browse and read stories; like the open-source AMP, this proprietary format cuts out the cruft that can clog mobile reading.

But when you tap its “Share” button, Apple News serves up an apple.news address. And unlike even Googled-up AMP addresses, this one offers no hint after the domain name of where you’ll go.

The text Apple News pre-populates in a tweet or Facebook update–the story headline, an em-dash, and then the publication name–does. But on Twitter and Facebook, many people decide to replace that text with their own words, leaving users to guess what’s behind that apple.news address.

Apple appears to be doing this to ensure that other iOS users can read the story you shared in Apple News as well–its developer documentation even lists a story’s canonical address as a “not required” bit of metadata. But in the context of a button that can share a story on the public Web, that’s an absurd inversion of priorities.

Apple could fix this by coding Apple News to share a story’s original address when available, perhaps with an identifier to tell iOS devices to open it in Apple News. But knowing this company, I wouldn’t expect that any sooner than the arrival of a reborn Mac mini at my neighborhood’s Apple Store.

Instead, you’ll have to solve this problem yourself. If you’re sharing a story from Apple News, keep some reference to the publisher in your description. If that would cramp your social-media style, please take a moment to tap the share sheet’s “Open in Safari” button–then share the story from that browser, from whence it will have its real address.