The conference that got away: Viva Tech 2018

In an alternate universe, Sunday’s recap of my last week’s work would have included a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, the growing tech gathering that’s now in its third year. In 2016 and 2017, I moderated a round of discussions and got my travel covered, which was an excellent way to go to one of my favorite cities.

That didn’t happen this year, and I’m the reason why. I didn’t think to e-mail anybody involved with the conference until a third of the way through April, which in retrospect was absurdly late for an event of this size. I got a reply a few days later, saying they were “quite advanced” in assigning panels but wanted to know if there were particular topics I could handle.

My response emphasized my flexibility, which may have been a mistake in that it didn’t say “give me everything open on this topic.” In any case, I didn’t get another e-mail back and then ensured I wouldn’t be going to Viva Tech by not sending any more myself.

(If you listen closely, you may now be able to pick out the sound of a rather small violin playing for me.)

The lesson here is nothing new: Sitting back and waiting for good things to happen is more likely to result in nothing happening. Which in this case not only foreclosed any chance of organizer-paid airfare and lodging but also meant I didn’t get to cover Viva Tech talks by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

I did, however, avoid having four weeks in a row of business travel, and being around this weekend meant I could catch up with an old friend from my college paper at a gathering on the roof of his apartment building. That wasn’t so bad.

I will try to be more assertive for next year’s Viva Tech… although its mid-May scheduling may overlap with Google I/O. In which case: le sigh.


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.

Conference-app feature request: block out my schedule as I pick panels

NEW ORLEANS–My calendar includes a lot of conferences (especially this month), and as a result my phone features a lot of conference apps.

Collision app schedulingThe conference that has me here, Collision, has one such app. As these things go–meaning, let’s set aside how many of their features could be done just as well by Web apps–it’s not bad. But the personalization tool that lets you cobble together a schedule of talks that appeal to you is deeply broken.

The schedule at Collision, as at other conferences with multiple stages and venues, is packed with events that happen at the same time. The app should clear up that clutter by not letting me be in two places at once–meaning, when I add a talk to my schedule, it should gray out every other talk overlapping with that timeslot.

That way, I’d immediately see the opportunity cost of going to one talk versus another. But the Collision app does not do that. And although it is smart enough to stick an orange “Priority” label next to my own panels, it doesn’t even block out talks overlapping with the most important items on my agenda.

This is a common failing with conference apps. I don’t recall the SXSW app doing this kind of schedule triage, even though that’s even more vital at an event with so many more overlapping tracks. The app for Google I/O, my destination next week, definitely omits this function. And since the Web Summit app is built from the same template as the Collision app, it will repeat this omission… unless somebody in management is sufficiently moved by this post. Can y’all hear me out on this?



My Windows laptop doesn’t seem to want to run Windows anymore

A week ago, I was sure I could cure the squirrelly behavior of the laptop I bought less than six months ago the hard way–by wiping the hard drive and reinstalling Windows from scratch. And for at least two days, that worked.

But then the laptop failed to wake from sleep, and when I force-rebooted it, the machine got stuck in the same “Preparing Automatic Repair” state that left this HP Spectre x360 unusable for a few days last month.

And this time, the laptop was back to refusing to recognize the USB recovery drive I’d created on it–even while it did boot up my ancient ThinkPad.

A chat session with HP’s tech support didn’t unearth any fixes for the problem, so the rep said he’d send me a second USB recovery drive. To HP’s credit, that drive arrived the next day.

But while this “Recovery Media” can erase the hard drive and reload all the necessary installation files on its recovery partition, the computer can’t then load Windows off that partition. At some point into the installation process, it gets stuck at a blank screen that features only Windows’ spinning circle of dots.

The Kafkaesque angle to all this: Installing Ubuntu Linux off a flash drive was no problem at all. Alas, this distribution of the open-source operating system doesn’t seem to recognize my laptop’s touchscreen, fingerprint sensor or Windows Hello facial-recognition cameras, so it’s not a long-term solution.

My next attempt will be to create a Windows recovery drive from the disc image you can download off Microsoft’s site. But if that doesn’t work either, this laptop’s next business trip will involve it going back to HP in a box.

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.

I finally remembered to ski

Taking a weekday off to go skiing is one of the more underrated perks of working a flexible schedule around D.C. So I enjoyed it Tuesday for the first time since 2015.

When I started freelancing, that was not the plan. Even at the Post, I was able to carve out a personal day a year for the short drive to one of the two closest ski areas, Ski Liberty (about an hour and 15 minutes away) or Whitetail (roughly an hour and 40).

But parenthood, not getting paid unless I write something and the mid-Atlantic’s increasingly chaotic winters confined my skiing in 2016 and 2017 to my neighborhood–courtesy of snow storms that left just enough accumulation for me to break out my already-trashed cross-country skis.

This season’s scant snowfall has lent no hope of even that. But last weekend, I saw that the forecast called for temperatures in the 30s Tuesday–an appointment-free day. I worked for a couple of hours that morning, grabbed my skis, boots and poles, enjoyed the unlikely driving pleasure of a traffic-free Beltway and I-270, and was on the chairlift at Liberty by noon.

Yes, the only snow in sight had been shot out of machines, and 620 feet of vertical goes by quickly. But with no lift lines in sight either, I could easily get get in seven runs an hour. It felt fantastic to realize that the years off hadn’t left me too rusty, test myself on the most difficult runs, then catch a little air coming off bumps. For a day when I would have been happy merely to avoid injuring myself or others, that was pretty great.

After three hours and change with only brief pauses to check my e-mail (of course), I headed back and once again felt spoiled by my commute. Even after sitting in some Beltway congestion, I pulled into our driveway by 5:10, leaving plenty of time to savor the pleasant soreness of this overdue workout. And to wonder what had gone wrong with my priorities the last two winters.

How I screwed up a Strava story

A story I wrote weeks ago started to go bad last Saturday, before it had even been published and posted.

That’s when an Australian student named Nathan Ruser tweeted out an interesting discovery: The Global Heatmap provided by the activity-tracking social network Strava revealed the locations of both documented and secret foreign military bases, as outlined by the running and walking paths of service members that Strava’s apps had recorded.

The feature I had filed for the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s Trajectory Magazine–posted Wednesday and landing in print subscribers’ mailboxes this week–also covered Strava, but in a different light.

As part of an overview of interesting applications of “geoint,” I wrote about Strava Metro, the database of activities over time available to local governments and cyclist-advocacy organizations (but not commercial buyers). In that part of the story, I quoted Strava executive Brian Devaney explaining the company’s efforts to keep its users anonymous in both Metro and the heatmap.

Looking at Strava from the perspective of “will this show where people live?”, I didn’t even think about how Strava users might unwittingly map temporary workplaces abroad. I had my chance to clue in on Strava’s military user base from looking around D.C.–that’s Joint Base Andrews precisely outlined southeast of the District in the screengrab above–but I failed to draw any conclusions from that.

Apparently, so did everybody else in the months after the Nov. 1 debut of the heatmap, heralded in a post by Strava engineer Drew Robb that touted how “our platform has numerous privacy rules that must be respected.”

You can blame Strava for making it difficult to set a geofence around a sensitive area. But it’s less fair to hound a privately-run service built to share workout data–remember, it calls itself “the social network for athletes”–for not maintaining a database of classified military locations to be blacked out on its heatmap.

After Ruser’s first tweets, however, developer Steve Loughran poked around Strava’s system and found that he could correlate the heatmap with the records of individual people by uploading a fabricated GPS file of a workout to spoof the site into thinking he’d jogged along the same path. That’s a deeper problem, and one that appears to be Strava’s fault.

After I asked Strava to explain these new findings, spokesman Andrew Vontz pointed me to a Jan. 29 post by CEO James Quarles pledging action to make privacy a simpler choice in its system.

I hope that they do so forthwith. Meanwhile, a fourth of a magazine feature with my name on it (at least it’s the last fourth!) looks dumb. It’s true that every other journalist to write about Strava between November and last week also missed these angles–but I may be unique in having a positive piece about Strava land this week. That’s not a great feeling.