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.

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Weekly output: Facebook ads, tech policy in Washington, Facebook tracking

My tweets the past few days have been coming at weird times because I was in Rome from Thursday through this morning for the IFA Global Press Conference. That’s a small spring event hosted by the organizers of the IFA tech trade show that runs in Berlin each summer. They invite a few hundred journalists and analysts–covering their travel costs–and put on a program of product introductions and a panel discussion or two. I’m not quite sure about how this works for the hosts as a business model, but for me it affords an advance look at some interesting gadgets (look for my writeup of Sharp’s pitch for 8K television soon) and quality networking. And, sure, the chance to spend a few days in a pleasant location.

4/16/2018: How advertisers target you on Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I’ve been meaning to write a longer explanation of how exactly Facebook lets an advertiser target its users (you’ve read short versions of that here), and the confusion many members of Congress expressed in their questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave this topic a handy news peg. I also used this story to get some firsthand acquaintance with Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” feature, which lets you upload a customer list and have Facebook show ads to users it matches up with the data in your list.

4/18/2018: Tech News in Washington, D.C. with Rob Pegoraro, Tech Policy Institute

I was a guest on this think tank’s Two Think Minimum podcast, discussing the history of tech policy and tech lobbying in D.C. with TPI communications director Chris McGurn and TPI fellows Scott Wallsten and Sarah Oh.

4/18/2018: Facebook tracking at other sites, Al Jazeera

The Arabic news channel had me do a Skype interview from home about how Facebook tracks people–and in particular, those who don’t have Facebook accounts–at other sites. My takeaway: While Facebook tracking people who aren’t on Facebook can sound creepy, that’s what every ad network does.

Updated 4/23/2018 to add TPI’s podcast. I’m blaming jet lag on making me forget to include that yesterday.

Yes, I still use Flickr

My oldest social-media hangout is no longer the property of my biggest client’s corporate parent, and I am okay with that.

Flickr Android appLast night brought word that Verizon’s Oath division had sold Flickr to the photo-sharing site SmugMug. Jessica Guynn’s USA Today story breaking the news calls Flickr a “faded social networking pioneer,” which is both uncomplimentary and correct.

My Flickr account dates to 2005, and over the subsequent 13 years I’ve seen Flickr suffer a lot of neglect–especially during Yahoo’s pre-Marissa Mayer years, when a succession of inept CEOs let Instagram run away with the mobile market.

Yet not only have I kept on uploading, editing and captioning pictures on Flickr (edit: with the occasional lag in sharing anything), since 2011 I’ve paid for a Flickr Pro membership. That first got me out from under the free version’s 100-megabyte monthly upload cap, but since Yahoo ditched that stingy limit in 2013… well, it’s a tiny monthly cost, and I like the idea of having a social-media account on which I’m not an advertising target with eyeballs to monetize.

Meanwhile, Flickr has continued to do a few things well: welcome both pictures taken with a standalone camera and those shot with a phone; make it easy to present and browse albums of photos (“photosets” if you’re old); support Creative Commons licensing so I can permit non-commercial sharing but prohibit commercial reuse (which required USA Today to pay me for one Flickr photo); and let people share their work in pools (for instance, Greater Greater Washington’s, which has occasionally resulted in my shots getting featured on that blog).

Instagram, where my active presence only dates to February of 2017, is easy, fun and great for engagement–slap #travel on a shot and you’ll get 15 likes in an hour. But it doesn’t do those things. And it’s a Facebook property, which raises the question of just how much of my online identity I need on that company’s servers.

Google Photos offers a fantastic private-backup service, but it, too, belongs to a company that already hosts much of my digital life.

SmugMug hasn’t said much about its plans for Flickr beyond promising not to merge Flickr and SmugMug. But unlike Oath, it has no other lines of business besides photo sharing. And as a privately-owned firm that hasn’t taken outside investments, SmugMug doesn’t need to meet impatient expectations from Wall Street or Silicon Valley. I feel pretty good about this transition, and I doubt I’ll have any big hangups about paying for my next Flickr Pro bill.

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.

Weekly output: Facebook privacy, social media vs. disinformation, mobile-app privacy, data breaches

The Facebook-privacy news cycle doesn’t seem to be letting up, with every other day bringing some ugly new revelation about the social network’s stewardship of our data. I feel like I’m getting the tiniest taste of life as a White House correspondent these days.

4/2/2018: How Facebook should fix its privacy problem, Yahoo Finance

My key suggestions: collect less data, don’t try so hard to maximize engagement, and give U.S. users the same privacy controls that European users will get in May as required by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. On Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to extending GDPR controls to the U.S.; on Wednesday, he said he would do just that.

4/2/2018: How Facebook should fight fake news, Yahoo Finance

Headline notwithstanding, this column is as much about Twitter as it is about Facebook–and a lot of it covers how large social networks like those two can’t necessarily adopt the strategies that have helped Wikipedia deter disinformation.

4/3/2018: After you delete old Facebook apps, take a hard look at Uber and Snapchat settings, USA Today

I would have written this piece faster if I hadn’t had the chance to see how the Samsung-ified Settings app on a Galaxy S7 buried a crucial app-permissions interface. Then I spent more journalistic processor cycles rewriting an explanation of how old versions of Facebook’s Android apps collected call and SMS logs.

4/4/2018: We need a federal law protecting consumers from data leaks, Yahoo Finance

This column inspired by Panera Bread’s data breach started in my head with the tweet I used to promote it. Reporting it involved an intersection of my college and professional lives: Stephanie Martz, the National Retail Federation lawyer I interviewed, is a fellow Georgetown Voice alum who graduated two years before me.

Playing hooky for home openers

I watched the Nationals lose a winnable baseball game Thursday. I’ve done that a lot since 2005, but this 8-2 defeat wasn’t just any home game. It was the Nats’ home opener–as far as I can figure out, the 13th that I’ve seen in person, starting with our team’s debut at RFK in 2005.

(The exception was 2007. According to an e-mail I sent to my wife, I listened to the game on the radio from home.)

That also makes this spring pastime one of the few consistent examples of me taking advantage of the flexible scheduling that I should theoretically enjoy as a work-from-home freelancer.

As in: When I wandered into this lifestyle, I had delusions of being able to devote the occasional morning or afternoon to a movie or a museum. Nope!

The reality has been one of compressed chores. My schedule affords enough idle time to let me get in some gardening or expedite a Costco run, but tearing myself away from other obligations for a few hours in a row seems impossible… except for this one rite of spring. I should not complain about that, even when the game in question has us getting lit up by the Mets.