Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

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Advanced Mac tinkering: performing a drive transplant on a 9-year-old machine

Friday’s work toolkit got a little weird. It included two suction cups, multiple sizes of Torx screwdriver bits, a pair of tweezers, a can of spray air, a microfiber cloth and a lot of patience.

Were Apple a company that updated its computers on a regular and predictable pattern, I would have replaced this desktop long ago. But first it spent years neglecting its desktops, then my laptop needed replacing first, and now the “new” iMac has gone almost a year without an update.

iMac SSD in placeInstead, two other things got to upgrade my desktop the cheap but hard way. First my backup hard drive died without warning, then I noticed that an SSD upgrade kit was down to $200 and change at the longtime aftermarket-Mac-hardware vendor Other World Computing. That would be a cheap price for a vastly faster storage system, and anyway I couldn’t resist the challenge here. So I placed my order… and then waited two weeks as the Postal Service somehow lost and then recovered the package that it only had to run from the nearest UPS to our front porch.

In the meantime, I did a complete Time Machine on my new backup drive, then used Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper to put a bootable copy of the iMac’s entire drive on a second partition of that external volume. With those redundant backups done and my schedule somewhat clear Friday, it was time to risk breaking my desktop computer with the sort of involved tinkering I last seriously attempted around the turn of the century, when I owned a Mac clone in which almost everything inside was user-accessible.

Step one–as explained in a how-to video that would have been more effective as written instructions illustrated with animated GIFs–was to get the iMac’s LCD out of the way. I used the suction cups to lift the outer glass off the magnets holding it in place (you can imagine my relief at not having to battle with any glue), then removed eight Torx screws holding the LCD assembly, using the tweezers to ensure they wouldn’t get lost inside the iMac. I carefully tilted that out and held it away from the rest of the computer, then detached four ribbon cables from their sockets inside the computer–each time feeling a little like I was about to fail to defuse a bomb.

The next step was to extract the old hard drive. After removing another two screws and plucking out a further three cables, I just had to undo four other screws to get the hard drive out of its mounting bracket… which is when I realized that the second screwdriver included in OWC’s kit wasn’t the right size.

iMac LCD attachmentFortunately, the second neighbor I checked with had an extensive set of Torx screwdriver bits. After finding one properly sized to liberate the drive bracket, I used the spray air to knock nine years’ worth of dust out of the innards of the computer, then completed the drive transfer by securing the SSD to the bracket, connecting it to the original cables and fastening the new drive to the computer. I did the same routine with the LCD assembly, wiped it and the glass panel with the microfiber cloth, then finally clicked that outer glass back onto its magnets.

With the computer once again whole, I plugged it in, attached the backup drive, pressed the power button–and was delighted to see it boot properly off that external drive.

Installing macOS High Sierra from the backup drive to the SSD went remarkably fast; running a complete Time Machine restore of all my data and apps did not. But by the end of Friday, I had an old computer that no longer felt so old. And the pleasant sense that I haven’t completely lost my DIY-tech skills.

My growing transit-card collection

TORONTO–I’m coming home from here with an unusual souvenir: a plastic card with embedded electronics.

Transit cards in TorontoThis city made me do it. Buying a Presto Card to pay for transit, even with its $6 purchase fee, made sense factoring in the slight discount it gets on the Toronto Transit Commission’s streetcars and subways and the much larger break it gives on the Union Pearson Express airport train. With the Collision conference ensuring I’ll travel here for the next three years, I would be crazy to pay cash fares.

The same logic has led me to build a collection of transit smart cards beyond my Metro SmarTrip card. I’ve got a CharlieCard for the T in Boston, a Clipper card for BART and other Bay Area transit agencies, and a TAP card for L.A.’s Metro. The MetroCard I keep for the NYC subway and the Viva Viagem card I use on Lisbon’s Metro aren’t as smart, but they do the same job of freeing me from fumbling with cash at faregates.

And having all these cards handy doesn’t just feed my transit snobbery; eliminating a barrier to hopping on a subway, streetcar or bus saves me real money when I travel.

This isn’t quite the future of transit payments I had in mind when Metro rolled out the SmarTrip card in 1999. But until more transit systems follow the examples of Chicago and London and let passengers pay via NFC with their phones, I’m stuck on this track.

A sick Spectre returns, apparently healthy

About a month after it fell ill, the HP Spectre x360 laptop I bought in November seems once again fine–thanks to a little cybernetic surgery bracketed by free air travel.

Spectre hinge close-upI thought repair might be necessary after my last post on this subject, when even reinstalling Windows from a clean recovery image failed. I jumped on HP’s tech-support chat (I’ve never had to call for help, which is nice), and after a quick recap of my situation to date (the rep didn’t ask me to reboot the computer, which is nice), my remote interlocutor agreed that the laptop would require hands-on care.

The next morning, FedEx delivered a box, prepaid return label included, in which I could ship the x360 for repair. The laptop was on its way back that afternoon, and the next day I got an e-mail predicting a return on April 26th. It came back on the 24th, something I found out first from a phone call from FedEx the evening before.

Parts of this machine have been replaced, but I’m not entirely sure which. A printout in the box reported the following details:

“Operating System Reloaded: NO”

“Parts Replaced: LCD DISPLAY”

“Other Repair Actions: PART REPLACED”

Well okay, then! But I do know that the laptop has been working properly since, so I am going to tell myself that the PART REPLACED was, in fact, a part that needed to be replaced.

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.

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.