Not the best time for a laptop to break, not the worst time either

Not even a day after arriving in Hawaii last week for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Summit, my laptop started showing signs of homesickness: When I opened my aging HP Spectre x360 before the Tuesday-afternoon keynote that led off this conference’s agenda, it would not wake up—or shut down or restart, no matter how long I pressed the power button.

I gave up, shoved the laptop in my bag, grabbed my phone and took my notes on that much smaller screen. Afterwards, I took the laptop out of my bag and it was scorching hot. Holding down the power button one more time finally got it to shut down and restart, after which the computer treated me to a new failure mode: The display snapped into a crazed checkerboard of randomly colored pixels. Then it kept doing that through successive restarts, sometimes with the screen locking into colorful horizontal streaks.

HP Spectre with its screen showing rows of lines filled with randomly-colored pixels.

I retreated to my room to try to work the problem. And after two more cycles of rebooting and having the display go nuts, the laptop seemed to snap out of it, while its hardware diagnostic tools don’t report anything amiss.

Alas, the HP hilarity resumed the next morning when the laptop worked in my room but then refused to wake up for the interviews I had booked with T-Mobile and Verizon network executives. I recorded each on my phone instead, hoping that I could avoid finding some novel way to screw that up.

After my laptop didn’t recover from its stupor back in my hotel room, I sent an apologetic e-mail to my editor at Light Reading asking if he could deal with my filing the two lengthy stories he’d assigned from those interviews after I got home. He could, writing back “It happens to the best of us.”

(Reminder: Qualcomm paid for my airfare and lodging, an arrangement approved in advance by my editor at that telecom-news site.)

I managed to write two more shorter stories from the event without my laptop. The easy one involved a PC borrowed from Qualcomm for a couple of hours Thursday—a Lenovo Thinkpad x13s featuring the Snapdragon 8cx chip introduced at last year’s summit, Qualcomm’s venture into laptop processors having become of more than academic interest over the week.

The hard one was a 500-ish word post that I wrote in the Google Docs app on this phone Friday morning, an experience that left me wanting to ice my thumb afterwards.

On the first of two flights home, the laptop worked again for long enough to allow me to transcribe all of one interview and part of another—and then lapsed into its coma until I came home. Then it resumed working properly as if nothing had happened, or as if it really had been homesick.

But while it’s a relief to have my laptop back, it’s also time I got on with replacing this 2017 purchase. The malfunction that mysteriously went away can return just as mysteriously, and in any case computer design has advanced a bit over the last five years. On the other hand, I hate having to make major electronics purchases barely a month before CES, when I should get a good perspective on what’s coming over the next several months.

My answer: continuing my overdue evaluation of Windows on non-x86 platforms by borrowing a review unit of that Lenovo Thinkpad x13s. I may not always be lucky in my gadget ownership, but when things go wrong I do try to be resourceful.

Whither Twitter

Twitter has occupied an embarrassingly large part of my online existence since the spring of 2008–a span of years that somehow exceeds my active tenure on Usenet. But the past two weeks of Twitter leave me a lot less certain about how much time I will or should spend on that service.

I did not have high expectations in April when Elon Musk–who, never forget, already has two full-time jobs at just Tesla and SpaceX–offered to buy Twitter. He had already revealed a low-resolution understanding of content moderation on social platforms but took the advice of a clique of tech bros and told Twitter’s board that he had the answers: “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

Photo of Twitter's site showing the "fail whale" error graphic and a "Twitter is over capacity" message, as seen in a phone's Web browser at CES 2010.

Seeing Musk then spend months and what could be $100 million in legal fees trying to squirm out of his accepted, above-market offer of $54.20 a share did not elevate those expectations.

Just before a court case he probably would have lost, Musk gave in, threw $44 billion ($13 billion borrowed) on the table and took over Twitter on Oct. 28. He quickly sacked a handful of top executives before firing about half of the workforce with careless cruelty. One friend figured he’d gotten canned when he couldn’t log into his work laptop.

Things have skidded downhill since. On Twitter, Musk keeps showing himself an easy mark for far-right conspiracy liars and the phony complaints of online trolls; in its offices, he’s ordered a rushed rollout of an $8/month subscription scheme that grants the blue-circled checkmark of a verified account, on the assumption that credit-card payment processors will catch fraudsters.

The predictable result: a wave of fake but “verified” accounts impersonating the likes of Eli Lilly, Nintendo, George W. Bush, Lockheed Martin, Telsa and Musk himself.

Also predictable: Twitter advertisers reacting to this chaos and their fear of wobbly content moderation (rejected by Musk) by smashing the Esc key on their spending plans until they can figure out what’s going on. Musk has responded by whining that companies pausing ad campaigns amounts to them “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

As for legacy verified accounts like my own, Musk has oscillated from saying that they’d require the same $8/month charge to suggesting they’d continue to saying they will be dropped–while also introducing, yanking and then resurfacing gray-checkmark icons for certain larger organizations over a 36-hour period. Oh, and not paying your $8 a month might mean your tweets fall down a bit bucket.

After a Thursday that saw Twitter’s chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief complaince officer resign by early morning, Musk told the remaining employees at an all-hands meeting that “Bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” Since Twitter now owes more than $1 billion a year in interest on the debt from Musk’s acquisition, that warning seems reasonable.

I am not writing this out of schadenfreude. As much as Twitter can drive me nuts (what is it with the militantly stupid people in my replies?), I’ve found it enormously helpful as a public notebook, a shortcut to subject-matter experts, an on-demand focus group, and an ongoing exercise in short-form prose. As (I think) my Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens once observed, Twitter lets journalists write the New York City tabloid headlines we couldn’t get away with in our own newsrooms.

A "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12" badge from the 2012 Online News Association conference.

If Twitter really does implode, which now seems a much more real possibility even if a roundtrip through Chapter 11 is more likely, I don’t know how I’d replace it.

Many of the people I follow there are advancing evacuation plans on a federated, non-commercial, somewhat confusing social platform–not Usenet, but Mastodon.

I have taken tentative steps to do likewise, in the sense that I created one account on the well-known server Mastodon.Social and then realized I’d created a separate account on the xoxo.zone server in 2018 after hearing Mastodon talked up at a meetup during the XOXO conference in Portland. Now I need to decide which account to keep and which one to migrate, and indecision over that makes it easier to stay on Twitter and watch it burn.

Meanwhile, seeing Musk’s stark, public display of incompetence continues to leave me baffled when I compare that to the Musk venture I know best, SpaceX. If Musk ran SpaceX this impulsively and with this little willingness to learn from others, multiple launch pads at Cape Canaveral would be smoking holes in the ground.

Instead, SpaceX is the leading provider of launch services in the world, sending Falcon 9 rockets to space and landing their first stages for reuse on a better-than-weekly basis. “Transformational” is not too strong of a word for what SpaceX has accomplished since it first orbited a prototype Dragon capsule in December of 2010; this part of Musk’s career ought to be Presidential Medal of Freedom material, with bipartisan applause.

(I got to see that reentry-singed Dragon capsule up close in July of 2011 when NASA hosted a Tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center for the final Space Shuttle launch, yet another experience I owe in some way to Twitter.)

I keep hoping that I will see this sort of steely-eyed focus in Musk’s stewardship of Twitter. Instead, he appears to be off to an even worse start than I could have imagined. And I can imagine quite a bit.

Moderating from the bullpen

LISBON

My Wednesday got a little more interesting halfway through breakfast when my phone buzzed with an e-mail from my Web Summit speaker coordinator: He’d had a panel moderator drop out after a problem with his flight interrupted his travel to Lisbon, and was there any chance I could cover the session?

Oh, and this “Time to define AI” session was starting in two and a half hours.

I like a challenge, my schedule had room for this panel, and I’ve written at non-trivial length about artificial-intelligence applications, so I said I could do the conference equivalent of pitching out of the bullpen.

Then I learned that the original moderator had not e-mailed an outline for the panel, leaving me with just a short briefing written by the organizers weeks ago.

Fortunately, my new speaking partner–Dataiku CEO Florian Douetteau–had written an essay for VentureBeat about his vision for AI a week ago and then shared it on his LinkedIn profile. As I read that, I thought of a fun question that would work for an opening or closing line (do you put “AI,” “machine learning,” “neural network” or some other buzzword on your pitch deck to investors to get the most money out of them?) and reaffirmed that I could still do this.

We had a quick conversation as we walked to the stage, four large convention-center halls away from the speakers’ lounge, that lodged a few more talking points in my head. I transferred them to a paper notepad as we sat backstage, we got fitted with our microphones–and then the talk went fine.

It helped greatly that Douetteau showed himself to be a practiced speaker, easing my job of panel clock management by holding forth on whatever topic I threw out. To put it in D.C.-radio terms, he spoke in NPR-affiliate WAMU paragraphs instead of commercial news-radio WTOP sentences.

We wrapped up the panel within seconds of the scheduled length, the audience applauded, Douetteau and I shook hands, and I had relearned an old lesson: When in doubt but always when it’s reasonably easy, be the person who solves your client’s problems.

A humbling gadget-handling lesson

The past four weeks have involved four work trips that took me to events in two other countries and two other states, with travel fatigue compounded by unchacteristically bad sleep in hotel rooms and jet lag from going five time zones to the right, twice, and then three to the left–so of course the place where I would break my phone was less than a mile from my home.

On my walk to Metro to go to Saturday afternoon’s Nationals game, as a drizzle started to turn into real rain, I thought I’d check to see if the team had announced a rain delay. I grabbed my Pixel 5a, opened Twitter, checked the Nats’ Twitter feed and saw an announcement that the game would start half an hour late, and one-handed the phone back into my pocket–except the rain-slicked device slipped free and fell to the sidewalk with a sickening little splat.

A Pixel 5a's screen shows a wide-ranging web of cracks, with trees above reflected in the glass.

Cursing too loudly at myself, I picked up the phone and saw a web of cracks sparkling out from the bottom right, plus a smaller crack on the right above the power button.

First thoughts: You dumbass! You couldn’t have waited until you were in the station and out of the rain?! I mean, I had somehow never shattered a phone’s screen before; the worst I’ve done is drop my Nexus 4 years ago at just the right angle to put a crack in its glass back cover.

Second thoughts: Now what?

The phone that I bought barely 10 months ago not only looks hopelessly janky but makes any sort of onscreen interaction a trying experience. It is usable only under duress.

(Having my phone borderline offline did at least force me to experience the game much more in the moment, in between hearing my friend Anthony recount his recent experience hiking to the top of Kilimanjaro.)

Then I remembered the deal Google announced with iFixit in April to provide “genuine parts” for Pixel devices. Alas, that DIY hub’s $99.99 Pixel 5a repair kit is out of stock at the moment. And while I could obviously pay any third-party shop to fix my phone, that would probably cost more and certainly wouldn’t yield any how-to recap for me to sell somewhere afterwards.

Google no longer lists the Pixel 5a in its online store, and while the Pixel 6a that replaced it seems to be a fine phone in its own right, it lacks a headphone jack and otherwise doesn’t represent a huge advance over the 2021-vintage 5a. There’s also the upcoming, also headphone-jack-deprived Pixel 7–but as I trust I’ve made clear, I’m not a fan of buying the next high-profile phone on the day it ships.

Speaking two weeks ago at a conference hosted by the refurbished-device marketplace BackMarket reminded me that buying a refurb Pixel 5a is an option as well. But unless my phone abuse inflicted injuries beyond my 5a’s screen, I’d feel a little dirty spending a large fraction of the original device’s purchase price when it only needs that one major component replaced.

(No, the iPhone 14 is not an option. Neither is any other iPhone until Apple kills off its Lightning cable. I am so done needing proprietary charging cables.)

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide just yet. My old Pixel 3a continues to gather dust at home as a backup device, and I also still happen to have too many of the budget-priced phones I tested for CNN Underscored at the start of the year. And since it’s been a while since I’ve drunk deeply of Samsung’s flavor of Android, that makes my temporary decision for me: I’ll spend a few weeks, hopefully not more, with a Galaxy A52 A13 5G (I forgot that I’d already shipped back the A52) as my daily phone. And I will do my utmost not to drop the damn thing.

I forgot my laptop’s charging cable–and it wasn’t disastrous

NEW YORK

My e travel scenario revealed itself a few minutes after my train pulled out of Union Station Wednesday morning: My gadget-accessories bag was missing the USB-C-to-USB-C cable that I was counting on to connect my compact travel charger to my laptop and phone.

HP Spectre x360 laptop trickle-charging off a USB cable plugged into an aging Palm Pixi charger.

And yet I freaked out less than I would have imagined after realizing I’d forgotten to reclaim the cable that I’d handed to my wife for her Android phone migration–and then deciding to leave my laptop’s heavier charger at home to travel a little lighter.

Fortunately, unlike the could’ve-been-disastrous CES trip that started with me leaving without a proprietary charger for my Washington Post-issued Dell laptop, my HP laptop uses the same charger as most new laptops, Apple’s included. I assumed that would mean I’d have no trouble borrowing chargers after arriviing in NYC, or at least I’d have less trouble than when my old MacBook Air’s power cable fatally frayed at SXSW years ago.

But while I quickly plugged in my computer at my Wednesday-afternoon stop at gadget-reseller Back Market’s Brooklyn offcies–where I led a panel discussion about people’s rights to repair the things they’ve bought–I had to get more creative afterwards.

The front desk at my hotel near Madison Square Park (disclosure: paid for by Qualcomm as part of an event for press and investor types that I attended Thursday) did not have a spare cable, so I tried using the USB-A to USB-C connector that I did have to plug the laptop into the USB charging port next to a nightstand in my room. To my pleasant surprise, that worked, sort of: The computer charged, so slowly that the taskbar icon didn’t even indicate that it was plugged in.

For regular use, this hack of a solution wuold not fly–the trickle of current it provides is so slight that the battery only drains a little more slowly when in active use. But in sleep mode overnight, that slow drip brought the batttery back to full. I repeated this exercise during some idle time Thursday, using the ancient but tiny Palm charger that I had long ago tucked into my gadget-accessories bag on just-in-case grounds.

Once again, it helpd that I’d replaced the battery on this HP last fall, allowing a vastly better battery life than what I would have suffered with a year and a half ago.

Now that I’ve made it through this unplanned exercise in power management and am headed back to home and a full set of chargers and cables, one thing’s for sure: I will not repeat my mistake Wednesday of leaving home without consulting the travel checklist that I’d prepared years ago to avoid this exact situation.

I still don’t get the iPhone pre-order feeding frenzy

Today, Apple started taking pre-orders for a new lineup of smartphones–the same thing it’s done every year since 2007. And just as they have every year since 2007, enough people tried throwing their credit cards at Apple that the company’s online store struggled to respond, leading to one of the more entitled forms of tweeting: Apple won’t let me buy its new smartphone right away!

I don’t get it. But I also didn’t get this customer behavior a dozen years ago, when about the same thing happened at the debut of the iPhone 4. After having seen this kind of self-defeating crowd psychology yield predictable results over the previous three years, I had to vent in my blog at the Post:

So why do people put themselves through the cybernetic equivalent of driving to Tysons Corner Center at 5 p.m. on a Friday in mid-December? A new iPhone–or any other device–isn’t like a ticket to Stephen Strasburg’s pitching debut; your opportunity to buy it does not expire within hours. Nor will they stop making the thing after meeting an initial quota. What’s the point of joining yet another “OMG must buy now!!” shopping stampede?

And yet after 12 more years in which we all should have learned definitively that Apple will crank out new iPhones by the tens of millions, many smartphone shoppers seem to have learned little.

(You can argue that Apple has learned just as little about building an online retail system that can scale to meet this level of demand. But I can understand the company not going too crazy to optimize its retail infrastructure for a one-day-a-year corner case.)

To be clear, I’m not talking about people who have been limping along with damaged smartphones because they didn’t want to buy last year’s Apple gadget weeks or days before its replacement by a shinier successor. I’m also not talking about people who evaluate gadgets for a living–I did once buy a new iPhone on the day of its in-store debut because CNNMoney.com paid me to do that as part of a review.

But if you set an alarm on your completely functional smartphone for 8 a.m. EDT Friday so you could spend $799 and up for a new model that you have not seen or touched and know only from Apple’s staged presentation and the hands-on reports of journalists and analysts at its product-launch event Wednesday, and then you found yourself repeatedly refreshing Apple’s online store to see if your order went through… I hope you’re not asking for sympathy after gadget-hype water once again turned out to be wet.

Conference VOD: one half-decent thing we’ve gotten out of the pandemic

LAS VEGAS

The Black Hat security conference that wrapped up here once again left me wishing I could clone myself for a few days. Its info-dense schedule put as many as nine briefings in the same timeslot, requiring me to make some tough choices and hope that I’d picked a presentation that would yield enough news and insights to turn into an article.

(Spoiler alert: I did not always choose wisely.)

In the Before Times, the panels that I had to skip would have been lost to me until the event organizers uploaded video of them to Black Hat’s YouTube channel, often months later. But this year’s conference, run like last year’s as a hybrid in-person/online event, came with both streaming access to panels as they happened and video-on-demand playback 48 hours later for attendees.

This conference, unlike too many I’ve attended, also continues to post the presentations of speakers, so attendees don’t need to take pictures of every statistic-filled slide for posterity.

So I can treat my conference FOMO and see what I missed much sooner than I could have before. That’s one small side benefit of conferences having to make themselves open to remote attendees, a welcome democratization of events that in a better world would have happened without the pressure of a worldwide pandemic. It’s also personally convenient today because I’m already getting asked on Twitter about Black Hat briefings that I did not get to.

I do, however, still need to remember to catch up on these briefings before the 30-day window to watch them expires–the mistake I made last summer, when I had a much less busy schedule.

8/14/2022: I updated this to add a compliment to the Black Hat organizers for posting speakers’ presenations.

Black Hat pitches increasingly resemble CES pitches

When I’m spending a sunny Saturday in front of my computer, the usual reason is that it’s beastly hot outside. But today I have an additional, also seasonally-specific reason: I’m overdue to look over and make some decisions about all of the Black Hat meeting requests that have been piling up in my inbox.

A view of the Las Vegas Strip from the Foundation Room atop the Mandalay Bay hotel--a common event venue for both CES and Black Hat receptions.

Unlike last summer, I actually am going to this information-security conference in Las Vegas. And many more infosec companies seem to have made the same decision, leading to a flood of e-mails from their publicists asking if I’d like to set up a meeting while I’m in Vegas. How many? Over the last month, I’ve received 134 messages mentioning Black Hat, a number that makes me think of the annual deluge of CES PR pitches.

(Sorry, the total is now 135.)

Just like at CES, accepting even half of these invitations would leave me almost no time to do anything else at the conference. But where at CES I need to save time to gawk at gadgets on and off the show floor–and to get from venue to venue at that sprawling event–at Black Hat I want to save time to watch this conference’s briefings.

In the two prior years I’ve gone to Black Hat, I’ve found that the talks there have an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio. And since a coherent and entertaining explanation of a vulnerability in a widely used app, service or device is something that’s relatively easy to sell as a story, I also have an economic incentive to hold off on taking any meeting requests until the organizers post the briefings schedule–which this year only happened barely two weeks ago.

In other words, now I’m out of excuses to deal with these pitches. Which I could have done this afternoon had I not waited until this afternoon to write this post…

8/24/2022: Fixed the typo in the headline that nobody seems to have noticed until my wife asked about it today.

The bureaucratic burden of telling clients “pay me”

It’s the first day of a new month, and that can only mean one thing for my e-mail: more .pdf attachments than usual in my outgoing messages, in the form of invoices for one freelance client or another.

Close-up of the 4 / $ key on a Mac keyboard, without which I would struggle to invoice anybody.

Instructing these companies to pay me for work done over the previous month should be easy after 11-plus years of not having a real job, but there’s still some struggle attached to this chore during and after the invoicing process.

The easiest part of it involves longer-running clients, where I just need to open the invoice document from the previous month, change the invoice number and the date, update the work done and the sum due, and attach the new file to an email.

But with less-frequent clients, I need to remember if there’s some wonkiness with a P.O. number or payment instructions that I may or may not have remembered to save in a previous version of the invoice file.

Others require their own format, usually a Google document or form or an Excel spreadsheet. Not knowing what kind of file a company will want me to produce before it will send me money is one of the things that’s kept me from following advice to use a professional accounting app like QuickBooks… another thing being my own apathy.

This routine can get more complicated if I’m away from home, since all of these invoice templates live on my Mac and since my Windows laptop doesn’t have a PDF-editing app equivalent to Apple’s Preview (sorry, Drawboard PDF). But keeping these financial documents in one folder on one computer allows for a simple accounting system: Right before I e-mail an invoice, I save it to an “Invoices – owed” folder, and once it gets paid I move it to an “Invoices – paid” folder.

It’s not the most sophisticated system, but it still seems to work after 11 years and change. At least when I remember to prepare and send the invoice in the first place. Which reminds me that I still have one invoice to finish for one client and a second to create for another, and of course they’re not in the same format.