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.

Late or never Android updates remain a problem

Here’s yet another unintentional benefit of my shattering my Pixel 5a’s screen last weekend: an opportunity to reacquaint myself with how slowly many Android smartphone manufacturers still ooze out Google’s system updates.

This is not a new problem, as I can see from re-reading a piece I wrote almost 10 years ago that’s aged a little too well. I had thought that architectural changes Google made to Android starting back in 2017 would have put a dent into this problem by removing much of the recoding work from manufacturers. But dusting off the budget-priced Android phones I reviewed for CNN Underscored early this year (most of which I had not yet returned to the companies responsible, because my desk is a mess) revealed the error of that thought.

Photo shows Android phones stacked on a wooden floor, each showing their software-information screen. The Samsung Galaxy A13's screen is most visible, showing it's running Android 12 with the July 1 security patch.

After multiple cycles of checking for updates on these six phones, installing these updates, rebooting these phones, and checking for updates again until every device reported it was current, here’s where they wound up:

  • Moto G Power: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • Nokia X100: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • OnePlus Nord N200 5G: Android 12, September 5 security update
  • Samsung Galaxy A13 5G: Android 12, July 1security update
  • TCL 20 SE: Android 11, August 1 security update
  • TCL 20 Pro 5G: Android 11, April security update

The current month is October and the current Android version is 13, so the problem should be immediately obvious. And not only did none of these devices have the Android release that I installed on my beloved, now battered Pixel 5a in the middle of August, only one of these devices had Google’s latest security fixes–and only two had the Android release that Google shipped a year ago.

The good news, such as it may be, is that a low price doesn’t condem an Android phone to obsolescence. The A13 sells for $250 and the N200 $240, but both have aged better, software-wise, than the pricier Android devices in that review. You may want to consider that a factor in favor of OnePlus and Samsung if you’re shopping for a low-cost Android phone–while the lagging performance of those other vendors should rate as a serious strike against them.

Some Time Machine backup-volume trial and error

The Mac-maintenance task that has taken care of itself for most of the last four years brought itself to my attention Wednesday, and I wish it had not. Two days of troubleshooting later, I think I once again have a working backup routine–but I still don’t know what went wrong here.

My first hint that Apple’s Time Machine backup system had shifted out of its usual orbit was an error message Wednesday night reporting that my backup volume had become read-only, making further backup cycles impossible.

The drive in question, a 2-terabyte Seagate portable drive that I’d bought in 2018, seemed too young to be suffering from disk corruption. Especially since other partitions on this hard drive remained readable and writeable.

So I opened Apple’s Disk Utility, selected the Time Machine backup partition, and clicked “First Aid.” Several minutes later, this app returned an inscrutable, no-can-do result:

The volume Time Machine backups could not be repaired. 

File system check exit code is 8.

Well, then.

Disk Utility’s help was of no help, reporting “No Results Found” when I searched for that error message and shorter versions of it. Googling for “check exit code is 8” yielded nothing at Apple’s support site (a fruitless result confirmed by Apple’s own search) but did surface a data-recovery firm’s explainer that this was “one of the most frustrating file system errors to encounter, and it is difficult to know if you are experiencing a logical or physical fault on the hard drive.”

Trying to repair the volume a few more times with Disk Utility–a suggestion in a Stack Exchange thread that seemed worth testing–didn’t yield a better outcome. An attempt to copy the entire Time Machine volume to the partition that I’d created on this Seagate drive last year to usher my data from my old iMac to my current Mac mini stopped early; Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper app was less informative than usual, saying it “Failed to copy files.”

Then I realized that I was looking right at a short-term answer: wiping that no-longer-needed iMac disk-image partition, then making it my new Time Machine backup volume while leaving the old Time Machine partition alone. After a timeout to unplug the drive and then plug it back in, without which Disk Utility would not reformat the partition, this fix seems to be working. But just in case, I’ve also plugged a 1-terabyte SSD into my Mac mini as a backup to my backup.

It would be great if Apple would provide clearer explanations and more usable fixes to disk errors like this. But considering that Time Machine’s starfield file-restore interface hasn’t changed since it debuted in 2007, I will not stay up late waiting for those updates.

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.

Google-induced mail migration malaise

A week ago, I learned that one of my longest-running online freebies would end this summer. The seven days since haven’t been enough time for me to decide how to replace the no-charge Google account that’s hosted my home e-mail since early 2010–but they have allowed me to find a reason to dislike each obvious alternative.

Yes, I should have seen this coming. The Google that launched “Google Apps for Your Domain” as a free service in 2006 was a much scrappier firm that could not assume potential customers’ attention. Even in 2010, when I moved my home e-mail to a Google Apps account under a custom domain and set up (just in case!) a work e-mail address under a different custom domain at another Google Apps account, Google hadn’t risen to become an obvious choice for business collaboration.

The Gmail logo under an "Apps" banner, taken from a 2008 Google presentation.

Google did end signups for this free option in December of 2012, but it let existing Apps customers keep their free accounts. That grandfathered, privileged status continued as Google Apps became G Suite in 2016 and then Google Workspace in 2020.

The Google of 2022, however, is a different entity that’s been unplugging other free services. So I was not too surprised to learn that starting July 1, I’d have to pay to keep these two mail accounts hosted–just annoyed to read about this at the 9to5Google blog instead of in an e-mail from Google to me.

I’m fine with paying Google for my work account–make that, paying more on top of what I’ve been spending for extra storage since 2016. A Google Workspace Business Starter account will cost another $6 a month, which is reasonable considering how many other Google services I have tied to this account and how $72 a year would still rank among my cheaper business expenses.

But my home account is just an e-mail account. I don’t use it with Google’s other “workspace” tools; because I keep a separate, standard Gmail account for shopping, banking and other non-work stuff, my home account barely gets used as an e-mail service. Paying $72 a year makes a lot less sense, much less spending that much on addresses I’ve set up for family members who use them even less.

But the options I’ve evaluated first have their own issues:

iCloud+: Since my wife is already paying for extra storage on Apple’s cloud service, I could set up a custom domain there for free. But by associating my home e-mail address with iCloud, I would revive the problem of iPhone-using friends who think they’re using the Messages app to text me on my phone and instead have Apple’s iMessage system silently divert that to the Messages app on my iPad.

Microsoft 365: I already pay for Microsoft’s cloud storage to back up my Windows laptop, and adding multiple e-mail accounts by upgrading to Microsoft 365 Family would add only $30 to my yearly cost. Except Microsoft, for some inane reason that probably looked sharp on a marketing PowerPoint, limits this option to domains hosted with GoDaddy, and that’s not the registar I’ve been content with using for this domain. (One thing I don’t like about this registrar: Their own mail hosting only covers 1 gigabyte of storage per address, which is why they don’t make this list.)

Fastmail: This mail-first service isn’t tied to any larger cloud platform, a simplicity of mission that I appreciate. I also like how I could use this with 1Password to generate “masked,” disposable e-mail addresses for individual services. But with pricing for a custom domain starting at $50 a year per user for 30 GB of storage, this, too, feels like overkill for my own little use case.

Meanwhile, Google may have realized the foolishness of treating every user as one type of business customer. Wednesday afternoon, Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo flagged an addition to Google’s support note inviting input from people who don’t use legacy Google Apps accounts for work.

Will Google offer a cheaper tier for personal use, and how long will we have to wait to find out? The May 1 deadline Google set for ex-Apps users to choose between upgrading to Workspace or moving their mail elsewhere leaves plenty of time for the indecision-making process to grind on at this company. And among perplexed customers like me.

Android phone migration has gotten easier–except for Google Pay and Google Voice

Moving from my old Pixel 3a to my new Pixel 5a provided my smoothest Android phone-migration experience yet. I had much less home-screen housekeeping to do on my new device than two years ago, and one key Google app showed a particularly dramatic improvement. But then I had to deal with Google Pay and Google Voice.

Overall, Google’s instructions get across how easy process has become. Tap yes in the “Copy apps & data” button on the new phone, unlock the old phone, connect the two with a USB-C cable, tap yes in the old phone’s “Copy data to new phone?” dialog, then wait–about 21 minutes in my case.

A Pixel 5a showing the "Transfer accounts" screen in Google Authenticator sits atop a Pixel 3a showing the same screen in the same app.

Google’s Android-transfer system accurately reproduced my app-icon layout (the contrast with upgrading to iPadOS 15 did not escape my attention) and wallpaper, with the only missing item being a home-screen icon for Android Auto.

I did still have to wait for most individual apps to download off Google’s Play Store, and their new-phone user experience varied awkwardly. Some, such as Feedly, LinkedIn and FlightRadar24, didn’t need me to log back in; most demanded a new entry of usernames and passwords (made much easier by 1Password); a few required extra bouts of authentication.

One Google app pleasantly surprised me, given the sensitivity of its stored data. Google Authenticator previously required renewing each two-step verification code securing a site login as if your old phone had fallen into the ocean, an experience that Google security chief Stephan Somogyi in 2017 apologetically described to me as “a complete, total and unmitigated pain.”

But in 2021, an old phone’s Google Authenticator can generate a catchall QR Code for its saved accounts; scan it with the new phone’s copy of Authenticator, and you’ve got your one-time passcodes for those accounts ready there. Great!

And then two other Google apps showed how awkward this process can remain. Google Pay–not the mobile-payments app that debuted as Google Wallet, but the new release that shipped this spring and then required some non-trivial settings restoration–landed on the new Pixel 5a as if I had never used it before.

I had to start by typing in my cell number because this Google service relies on that for authentication instead of a Google account. As Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo explained/warned back in March, this setup resulted from Google electing to build a new Google Pay off code optimized for the Indian market, where SMS authentication apparently reigns supreme. And then I then had to add back my saved credit cards, one at a time.

The last hiccup, I hope, came with Google Voice. The oft-neglected Internet-telephony app that I use for my work number seemed to be configured properly on the new phone, but then a journalist trying to reach me for a radio interview had her call go to voicemail. Eight times in a row. The answer turned out to be that Google Voice’s account settings had my number associated with two smartphones and two copies of the same number, a level of confusion that the system evidently resolved by not patching calls through to the newest device.

But now that’s squared away, and I think I can make it through the rest of this trying year without further mobile-app troubleshooting. I hope that’s the case for everybody reading this too.

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.

Keeping a Facebook page would be less work if Facebook were less tolerant of scammers tagging my Facebook page with other Facebook pages impersonating Facebook

Living a public work life on social media can be tiresome under many conditions, but my occupational outpost on Facebook–facebook.com/robpegoraro–has been feeling especially tedious lately.

And I can’t even blame random Facebook commenters for that! Instead, it’s the random Facebook scammers that have been nibbling away at my social-media attention span by staking out fake Facebook pages that impersonate Facebook itself, and which then tag my page with grammatically-iffy posts threatening to have my page suspended (for example, “someone has reported you with non-compliance with the terms of service”) if I don’t click/tap to verify my page ownership at a site that is obviously not at Facebook.

(Pro tip: Facebook is an American company and, AFAIK, does not have any substantial presence in Vanuatu that would require it to point users to a .vu domain name for terms-of-service compliance.)

I resent being treated like an idiot and I resent having my time wasted, but I also resent seeing a gigantic social network with country-sized resources fail so badly at stopping its own tenants from impersonating it. Every single time, the scam page has a big blue “f” icon matching Facebook’s and calls itself something like “Pages Identity Policy Issue,” which combined should seem like easy bait for a company with Facebook’s machine-learning capacity to quash or at least quarantine.

Instead, I get to play Whac-a-Mole with these idiotic impostors, and Facebook doesn’t even make that efficient.

Here’s the workflow on my iPad if I want to report the tagging post itself: Tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find support or report post,” select “False information” from the menu (“impersonation” isn’t an option), select “Social Issue,” (other choices being “Health,” “Politics,” “Something Else”), confirm that the post goes against community standards, then tap “Submit.” That last step doesn’t remove the tag, which takes another tap or two to zap.

If, however, I tap the fake page itself (which, in the most recent incident, had been set up for a construction firm in 2013 and then renamed this week, presumably after a hack), I tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find Support or Report Page,” select “Scams and Fake Pages,” then choose “Misleading Page Name Change” (had I not seen that switcheroo, I would have picked “Pretending to be Another Business” or “Fake Page”). Then it took another tap to block the page’s tag from my own page.

My gripe here isn’t so much with the number of clicks Facebook required but with the gap between its apathetic enforcement against con artists ripping off its own identity and its aggressive and punitive reaction against the New York University researchers who invited readers to install a browser extension that would track which ads Facebook served them, so that we might learn a little more about how that advertising gets targeted. What’s the priority at Facebook?

It’s yet another reason–on top of of the recurring nags to spend money on Facebook ads–to make me wonder why I keep up that Facebook marketing output when it’s so much more work than my other social-media presences. And yet if I want to see how the advertising machinery works, I feel like I have to stick around, scammers and all.