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Ads are the New Malware

Until recently, I’ve tolerated web ads because I understood that nothing is really free on the Internet.  For as magical as the web seems, there are thousands of miles of fiber running underground and through the ocean, centers full of power-consuming server clusters, and scores of people whose job it is to keep all this running.  (And that’s a grossly oversimplified summary.)  This is all before we even get to the web designers and content producers out there who build everything on top of this infrastructure.

In other words, I am sympathetic to the very real costs the Internet represents, and how many creators rely on subsidizing their content through sponsorships.

What is unacceptable, however, is that these ads have become increasingly more obnoxious and intrusive, and not just in the creepy way they track you so the advertisers can build demographic profiles — but, to add insult to injury, these ads are stealing more than just your screen real estate and assaulting your senses.  Smartphones are becoming the predominant way the web is consumed (cf. the United Kingdom), and these ads are now causing the web to load slower, stealing CPU cycles and drain you battery faster (tangibly), and even consuming an inordinate amount of data.  Worse still, they pose a serious security risk when malicious code is hidden in them, which is then disseminated across the Internet through ad networks.  See “Malvertising” if you want a good scare.

I am all for the idea of sponsorships (transparent, honest ones), but these privacy invasive eyesores are to this era what worms were to the early 2000s.  Ubiquitous, retarding, and dangerous.  Ad-blockers, which I used to be uncomfortable with, are this generation’s antivirus.

And just as it is with traditional malware1, this whole thing is turning into an arms race.  While one company might institute a Do Not Track preference for cookies, another might find a way to circumvent this.  Jim Gordon’s words about escalation from Batman Begins ring in my ears.

So, what can be done?  Perhaps we need stricter laws, maybe we should boycott sites and services that use these highly questionable tactics, whatever — but under no circumstances should we just accept it.  One bit of good news, in the meantime, is that iOS users will benefit from an important new feature in version 9, set to come out today: Apple has added Content Blockers to mobile Safari, meaning you’ll now be able to download ad-blocking extensions on iPhones and iPads.  I’m beta-testing Purify now, and I’m very pleased with its performance so far.  (I’m also using uBlock for desktop Safari.)  For the Android users out there, extensions of this nature have existed for awhile, but I think you’ll need to do some digging to really pull the tendrils of Google (and your manufacturer, and your carrier) from your phone’s heart.

If there are websites that you really believe in and want to support (especially if they employ tasteful and noninvasive advertising), then you can whitelist them.  That’s great.  But I would rather support sites I love by purchasing merchandise or services from them, rather than play this game we now find ourselves in.

As far as I’m concerned, the time for tolerating this is over.  We need to protect ourselves.


1. I’m comfortable comparing banner, splash, and pop-up ads to malware because they meet most of the criteria: “any software used to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems”.

P.S.  I am keenly aware that WordPress employs ads in order to subsidize free publishing, like this blog uses.  I apologize for the hypocrisy.  If it counts for anything, I’m starting to think seriously about changing this situation.

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Written by Michael

16 September 2015 at 10:00 am

Cellular Contracts vs. Installments

I haven’t dedicated much time on this blog to my day job, as it were, so I thought I might try to explain something that seems to confuse a lot of the customers I interact with at the AT&T Authorized Retailer store where I work.  That subject is AT&T Next (or Verizon Edge, or T-Mobile Jump, or Spring 1UP — whatever), which is where you buy a smartphone at full retail via installment payments.

At first blush, many people wonder why the hell they would want to buy a phone for, say, $649.99 instead of $199.99 on a traditional 2-year contract.  Well, there’s a dirty little secret regarding contracts.  You’re usually paying as much or more anyway, and they offer no flexibility whatsoever.

2-Year Contracts: A Primer

Contracts began as a way to entice American wireless customers to buy into what was once a product with very little use.  I say that because coverage was thin across most of the U.S. for many years.  Now, let’s set the record straight: no phone, even crummy basic flip phones, have ever been so cheap to manufacture that a carrier could give it away.  Even back in the analog days (1G!), that was high technology for the time.  But the carriers understood that few people would be willing to spend hundreds of dollars on devices that only worked in some places.  So those carriers dangled free or cheap phones on contract but priced the rate plans high enough to make that subsidized money back.  Truth be told, there was always a misnomer about how carriers wanted to get you to get new equipment so they could lock you in.  The best customer was the one who didn’t need a subsidy for a new phone but kept paying a rate like he or she had one anyway.  The only time a carrier would jump at putting you into a contract with no reservations is back when it was okay to extend a contract just for making a plan change.  (Thankfully, those days are mostly gone.)

An Example of a 2-Year Contract

Rate plans across the industry have been a state of flux recently, but before shared data plans came about, plans were quite stable.  Here’s an example of a common plan for a single line I would have sold back then:

Nation 450: four-hundred and fifty anytime minutes, 5000 night and weekend minutes – $39.99

Messaging Unlimited: unlimited messaging – $19.99

DataPro 3GB: three gigabytes of data – $30.00

Total – $89.99/mo + tax

If you consented to a 2-year contract, you would pay whatever the subsidized price of the phone was plus a one-time upgrade or activation fee of $40.  We’ll use an iPhone 5s 16GB, since that was the most common phone I sold before all this upheaval happened.  That phone would cost you $199.99 out of pocket (instead of $649.99 at full retail), and that upgrade or activation fee would be applied to the next bill.  For the sake of argument, let’s call that purchase $239.99.  (My state doesn’t have sales tax, so I’m ignoring that consideration on phone price in these examples.)

After two years passed, if you decided to keep your phone because it worked perfectly well and you didn’t want to lock yourself into another contract, your plan price would stay exactly the same: $89.99/mo + tax.  Okay, right?

Yes.  But that’s a bad thing.

You didn’t see it in your bill, but you were paying back your carrier for that $450 subsidy on the iPhone.  Your wireless company hid it in the cost in the overall price of your plan.  This is why these companies loved it when you kept your phone past the two-years, since it was essentially free money.

An Example of AT&T Next

These days, the carriers have new plans that are specifically built to enumerate the cost of the phone subsidy.  Here’s an example of a common plan I would put someone on today, using AT&T Next:

Mobile Share Value 3GB: three gigabytes of data with rollover, unlimited calling and messaging – $40.00

Line access fee: per-line price for each smartphone not in contract – $25.00

Total – $65.00/mo + tax

Now what happens if you want the newest iPhone and you put it on Next installments? The 24-month installment price for a $649.99 phone (i.e.: $649.99 ÷ 24) ends up being $27.09 per month.  Add that to the $65 plan, and that equals $92.09.  The first thing you might notice is that this price is $2.10 more expensive per month than the old Nation 450 price of $89.99.  Over two years, that would add up to be $50.40.

Remember, however, that with AT&T Next, you are not paying an upfront, subsidized price of $239.99 ($199.99 plus the $40 upgrade or activation fee).  So, you would save $189.59 over the old plan with the 2-year contract ($239.99 – $50.40).

You can extrapolate these numbers with multiple lines.  The pendulum swings further in the favor of the customer who has a 10GB or greater Mobile Share Plan, since the line access fee is $15.00 (compared to $25, as exampled above).

The Future

Not everyone qualifies for installments, credit-wise.  As such, there are still some customers who need to either agree to 2-year contracts, buy new phones at full retail all at once, or acquire used phones instead.  But I think this will change sometime in the future: AT&T recently changed the verbiage on its installment agreements from “there is no downpayment” to “if you have a downpayment”.  Perhaps customers with less than optimal credit will be able to still enter into AT&T Next but need to put some portion of the phone cost down (which would lower the monthly payments anyway).  I can envision a scenario where 2-year contracts disappear altogether after this happens.

Written by Michael

14 May 2015 at 11:44 pm

Camera+

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There are a number of great photography applications for iOS, which is one of the leading reasons I chose the iPhone 4 over the BlackBerrys, Androids, and Windows phones out there.

My current favorite is Camera+, which is probably the most famous of the camera-replacement apps out there. I originally downloaded it because the filters looked really great on there, and I was pleased to see that the viewfinder features a crosshatch grid to help you observe the Rule-of-Thirds.

The greatest feature in the app is one that I found completely by accident. The funny part is that it’s a headline feature of the app if you read about it on the main website (http://camerapl.us).

What I’m referring to is what the developers, Tap Tap Tap, refer to as Touch Exposure. Apple introduced tap-to-focus when the iPhone 4 was announced, which is great, but Tap Tap Tap took this a step further by allowing you to tap out a customer exposure point independent of the focus point.

Camera+ App

Example of Independent Focus and Exposure Points

Why is this significant? Because it’s rarely the case that the focus of your photograph exists right where you want the mid-tones to be. The Touch Exposure option lets you see a live representation of what each of the potential exposure points in your photograph can look like. This allows you to effectively lighten or darken your photo without losing any significant detail.

In a word, this is huge. For all the beautiful filters, for the handiness of Rule-of-Thirds lines, for the ease of the app’s Lightbox feature, the Touch Exposure is the most important important capability I have ever seen in a photography app.

In fact, it should be on all modern cameras. In the world of still cameras, the photographer would normally either use a standalone meter to get the numbers he needs to input manually into the camera, or he would point the camera’s viewfinder at what he thinks looks like a mid-tone, half push the shutter to lock it in, and then slide back over to the subject he’s photographing and push the shutter down for the shot.

The problem with the first method is that it’s time consuming and is really only the province of advanced photographers; the problem with the second is that you’re guessing at what’s an accurate representation of the mid-tone, and you’re gambling that the field of focus is the same for your mid-tone sample as the subject (after all, by pushing the shutter button down halfway, you’re usually locking that depth of field in as well).

Here are some examples of what I mean.  The first two photos were taken a couple of minutes before I happened upon the Touch Exposure feature.

Overexposed image of Gibbon Falls

Overexposed because the phone used the canyon wall to set its parameters.

Underexposed image of Gibbons Falls

Underexposed because the camera used the waterfall for its parameters.

I walked down to a different angle of the waterfall and accidentally activated the Touch Exposure.  My first attempt at using it yielded this:

This time I set the exposure point somewhere between the dark canyon wall and the bright waterfall.

A correctly exposed photo is considerably easier to deal with in post because it has much more information at each of the three major levels (high-, mid-, and lowtones).  The only thing lost was the sky, but the only thing that would have saved that was an HDR photo.  (The subject for another time.)

This photo allowed me to run it through some of Camera+’s beautiful filters and create an intentionally false-colored version that evokes memories of old 1960s photography:

Gibbon Falls

Written by Michael

17 June 2011 at 8:17 pm

Quick Thoughts on Wireless Data

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Disclaimer: I work for an authorized AT&T dealer.  My thoughts on this subject are obviously skewed by this fact.

As the industry stands right now, the big two (Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility) have smart phone data packages that look like the following:

Verizon: 1 option: $29.99 unlimited

AT&T: 2 options: $15 200MB, $25 2GB

I’ve had mixed feelings about AT&T’s decision to discontinue its $30 unlimited package because on the one hand, I like not thinking about how much I’m using the Internet on my iPhone, but on the other, most of AT&T customers I interact with really don’t need unlimited.  In fact, despite being a fairly heavy user, I only managed to go through 1.8GB last month, although I’ve already used 625MB during the first 8 days of this bill cycle.  I’m not sure how this happened exactly.

In any case, rumors are flying that Verizon is going to move away from that $30 unlimited data package this summer.  This got me thinking about how I’d like to see data charged in the future:

1. Don’t insult customers by charging them a lot for very little data, like AT&T does with the $15 package for 200MB.  I think a much fairer system would be to simply charge $10 per gigabyte, where most people would pay either the $10/month, or $20/month if they’re heavy users.  Even needier customers will pay $30 or more.  The carriers could throttle users speeds past 5GB if necessary.*

2. One of the problems presented by the first item on this list is that it will almost certainly mean reduced revenue for the carriers.  Since most users would be fine with 1GB or less, that would drop Verizon customers by $19.99 and AT&T customers by $5 or $10, depending on the plan.  An alternative would be to still charge a higher rate (say $20 for 2GB minimum), but allow the customer to roll data over into future months.  AT&T has done this with minutes going back to the Cingular days, but I’ve never heard of either company considering this feature for Internet packages.

3. My last thought on data is something Verizon is rumored to bring out this summer, and that is family data packages.  Both AT&T and Verizon offer voice and messaging plans that cover the entire family (up to 5 lines), but data has long been a per-line charge.  I think a $50/month for 5GB of shared data would play well with both companies’ pricing structures, especially if overages were only $10/GB.  (In fact, that is AT&T’s exact pricing structure for its MiFi Hotspot product as well as its 4G Internet Cards.)**

* I know it sounds odd that I’m okay with throttling, but I understand the capacitance issues the carriers are facing and why completely unlimited and uncapped speeds are impractical in large population centers.  Since Sprint and T-Mobile are already in the habit of doing this (if you pass 2GB even, from what I understand), we might as well not be surprised by it.

** Oddly enough, this rate is considerably better than what AT&T offers for it’s older 3G Internet Cards.  Those products (just like Verizon’s) are $60/month for 5GB, and the overages are $0.05/MB — which is obscene.  Effectively, every gigabyte of overage under this plan is just over $51.  I believe AT&T is phasing these cards out, which is perhaps why they have such an unfavorable plan.  Either way, Verizon has no comparable option to AT&T’s MiFi or 4G Internet Cards, which are priced at the aforementioned $50/month for 5GB with $10/GB overages.

Written by Michael

21 May 2011 at 2:07 am

Posted in Technology

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The Daily

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I think a lot of people will scoff at the idea of The Daily when they hear it’s a News Corp venture: one of the major News Corp properties, Fox News, is widely regarded to be soapbox for right-wing politics with heavily slanted coverage.  Whether this distinction is completely fair I find hard to say, since most people seem to cite the opinion shows in the (i.e. Hannity, The O’Reilly Factor, Huckabee, and Glenn Beck), as opposed to the regular newscasters during the day, but I have no problem seeing the station as being sensationalist and entertainment driven, just like CNN and MSNBC.

News Corp also owns The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, and it feels like The Daily sits in between the two in terms of its integrity, seriousness, and quality.  The Journal one of the two premiere newspapers in the country (alongside of The New York Times), whereas the Post is only a notch or two above being a rag.

The articles in The Daily are well written if a bit random: I agree with others’ interpretations that it’s difficult to pin down just who this digital newspaper is for.  Another reviewer noted that it’s especially odd that it doesn’t even contain a true Tech Section, which would be wonderfully appropriate for this endeavor.  (There are nice iPad app reviews, however.)

Overall, it’s beautiful and ugly all at the same time, featuring a clever layout but serious lag in carousel mode.  The carousel view also features previews of the articles, but those are horribly compressed pictures.  This is also true of the video overview one sees at the start of each day’s paper.

The Daily is free right now, but it will be either $0.99 a week $39.99 a year, which is incredibly fair for a well-written, daily paper.  But this publication needs to find its focus and fix the weird issues it’s having first, before it can justify charging for its content.

To Rupert Murdoch’s credit, either way, he immediately bought into the credibility of the iPad and the future that tablet computing is ushering in.  I love that he believes that The Daily needs to combine the qualities of traditional journalism and marry them to modern technology.  We’ll see if he succeeds.

For now, I’m excited to download each new edition every morning and see where it goes.

Written by Michael

6 February 2011 at 11:09 pm

Posted in News, Technology

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Drobo

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So, when I say, “I’ll have a write-up detailing my backup strategies in the near future,” I’m playing a little loose with the word “near.”  I originally wrote about The Importance of Backing Up on January 23, 2010, but I’ve only now approached a major goal in backing up my data.

In order to protect my data as well as possible locally, I finally got around to purchasing a Drobo.  I got the regular FireWire 800 model, with four drive-bays, in which I have filled two so far — both with 2TB HDDs.

Because this device offers built-in redundancy (even insofar as being able to sustain a sudden drive death), this sort of array is perfect.  But there was another reason I needed a large, redundant back-up solution: I’ve slimmed down my primary drive by quite a bit.

I finally took the plunge and got my hands on a 160GB solid state drive, which incredibly fast, but is so at the expense of storage space.  My previous HDD was 320GB, so I needed a place to put all of my large files.  Images and videos are the biggest concern (literally and emotionally), so the Drobo is where all those files now live.

I’ve only owned the product briefly, but so far so good.

Here are three ups and downs on it so far:

Up

  1. Magnetically held front cover for easy drive access.  This is extremely cool, since the very idea of the Drobo is that you can pull drives in and out as you need to expand storage or replace bad drives.
  2. FireWire Daisy Chaining.  What this means in that there are two FireWire ports on the back of the Drobo, which allows me to hook up my dedicated Time Machine backup drive (which is also FireWire) to the Drobo, which in turn passes that through to my MacBook Pro.
  3. Relatively Small Size.  It still has to fit four 3.5” drives and the silicon necessary to control those drives, but as far as hard drive arrays go, this is pretty reasonable.

Down

  1. Fan noise.  It’s not super loud, but that fan goes off and on quite a bit, and this is still very noticeable to me.
  2. Drobo Dashboard.  The software is functionally very useful but kind of inelegant.
  3. Cost.  Buying one of these and filling it with hard drives would be enormously expensive for a regular consumer to do.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to pay for my Drobo because I had rewards to spend from the company I work for, but the two hard drives I put in it ran me over $160.  And there are still two more bays for me to fill eventually.

In referring back to my original post on the importance of backing up, here is my strategy:

Primary: shared by the solid state drive (which is highly resistant to the problems regular hard drives are vulnerable too, especially physical shock) and the Drobo.

Local backup: shared by the Drobo (which is internally redundant) as well as a Time Machine drive (500GB in size, whose task is to maintain a history of all the major documents, applications, and music.  Larger media like photos and videos reside on the Drobo.

Off-site backup: important documents are kept in the cloud on Dropbox.  In the future, I would like to back up my music, video, and pictures in this manner, but I haven’t yet invested in a more robust service.

Written by Michael

7 December 2010 at 10:46 pm

Posted in Technology

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1st Gen iPad Verdict

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I’ve now owned the iPad since the 3G model launched April 30, 2010.  Here is a list of things the iPad does really well, and some things it doesn’t.

Positives

  1. Battery life is still amazing.  As a habit, I usually place my iPad on charge at night before I go to sleep; that said, it’s almost always north of 50% when I do, meaning I could usually get two days of life out of it.  Considering that I tend to use it a lot, this statistic is amazing.
  2. Web surfing is more natural and comfortable than a computer.  I don’t often run into any limitations with it being a “mobile” browser (i.e. no plugins, like Flash), though I’ve noticed it has a hard time rendering all of the pictures in a photo album on Facebook.  It’ll give up after about 30 and just show pictureless boxes.  I’m not sure if it’s a bug in the way that mobile Safari handles the code on this page, or if it’s actually a matter of memory (only 256MB of RAM, after all).
  3. It’s a perfect news aggregator for me.  I use NetNewsWire, which scrapes all of my RSS feeds to assemble only the news that matters to me.  I also check in with Flipboard and Pulse News, which are both lovely.
  4. Multitasking and folders really take the iPad up a couple of notches.  These features launch with iOS 4.2, which comes out in November, but I’ve been using a beta build and I couldn’t go back.
  5. The multitude of apps is a blessing (and a curse).  I’ve had to moderate myself on how many apps I purchase in a month to avoid going bankrupt.  The advantage of Apple’s curated store is that there seems to be a higher percentage of great apps for the iOS platform than others.

Negatives

  1. Video playback.  This is a tough one to criticize because there is a lot of great video content available for the iPad, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, iTunes, etc.  If, however, you get video that’s encoded in some other way besides H.264, at a resolution the iPad is comfortable with, then you’re going to have to run through the sometimes painful process of transcoding.  I can’t fully blame Apple for this: there is dedicated H.264 decoding hardware in this device, which is how you can get away with watching 10 hours of video before killing the battery.  If you were to play any other kind of video back somehow, it wouldn’t be hardware decoded, but rather software decoded.  Which would peg the processor and eat the battery alive.  This was kind of proven by the VLC app, which does just that when viewing HD files.
  2. It’s a bit heavy at times.  Not ridiculously so, and I rarely have a problem with it.  But this is one of the reasons why the iPad is only a good e-reader, not a great one.  Pick up a Kindle and you’ll see that it’s not only lighter and easy to hold in one hand, it also doesn’t get overwhelmed by sunlight.  And while it’s true that the backlighting on the iPad allows you to read in the dark, it can be eye-straining to do so.
  3. That beautiful aluminum and glass design is striking, but you need to protect it.  I do not use a screen shield, but I have placed a carbon-fiber sticker on the back to protect the anodized aluminum from scratching (because it will).
  4. The lack of a camera on the first-gen model seemed like a minor oversight to me.  Honestly, the idea of video chatting on the iPad seemed uncomfortable.  But now Apple has launched FaceTime on two marquee items (the iPhone and iPod touch, and even added the ability to Macs), so now it’s obvious the iPad will need it too.
  5. Data throughput speeds seem to be noticeable slower than a computer (by about 38%).  Oddly, this has no impact on Netflix, which continues to deliver good looking video despite this fact, but YouTube has its occasional problems.  (I’ve read that Google has a different set of servers for mobile content, and that they get overloaded.  I’m not sure how true this is.)
  6. The iPad requires iTunes to activate, and really, really wants to use iTunes to sync and backup its data.  I think this is an umbilical cord that needs to be cut someday soon, especially if Apple believes the iPad will be a kind of consumer appliance computer.

Overall, the iPad is a great device and one I highly recommend.  It won’t do heavy lifting for you, typically, but I have a hard time imaging a better Internet browsing device, especially one so portable.  And its media capabilities (namely video viewing) are unparalleled — the idea that you could view two feature length movies and still have several hours of web browsing ahead of you if truly amazing.

The one challenge I foresee if how it will compliment my future iPhone.  Since both devices do many of the same things, and indeed run the exact same software, I wonder if I’ll be compelled to not bring my iPad to work as often.  I will post my experiences in that regard in late January, once I have said iPhone.

Written by Michael

5 November 2010 at 12:48 am

Posted in Reviews, Technology

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