Weekly output: online comments, Chrome and site security

We’re thisclose to the slow days of summer, but we’re not there yet.That’s probably why I’m still taking care of work chores on a Sunday night.

Yahoo Tech online-communities post7/21/2015: Why Online Comments Suck (and How to Fix Them), Yahoo Tech

You know where this essay about the lack of constructive conversation at Reddit and other places online got zero comments? At Reddit. You never know sometimes…

7/26/2015: Why Chrome questions your bank’s security, USA Today

This column became a lot more work to report when financial-industry PR types clammed up after I asked what I thought was a simple question about their sites’ security. And then Google wasn’t much more help itself.

When I will delete your e-mail

I’ve been making one of my periodic attempts to catch up on my e-mail (read: if you wrote me three weeks ago, your odds of getting a reply sometime this coming week are less worse than usual). That process has required me to think about something I normally avoid: deleting e-mail.

Paper in trash canMy usual habit is to keep everything that’s not outright spam, just in case I might need to look it up later on. Messages from friends and family are of obvious importance, reader e-mail may provide early evidence of a problem that becomes widespread months later, and correspondence from co-workers can have documentary value about a company’s progress or decline. Even PR pitches can have lingering usefulness, by providing the contact info that too many companies can’t think to post on their own sites.

And yet if a search will yield hundreds of messages including the same keyword, I’m going to have a hard time locating the one or few messages I had in mind. Something’s got to go.

The easiest items to delete are the automated notifications and reminders I get from various services I’ve signed up–Twitter, Eventbrite and Meetup, I’m looking at you. The utility of those messages to me usually expires within 24 hours, tops. When those notifications duplicate the ones that already pop up on my phone. my tablet or OS X’s Notification Center, they’re pointless from the moment of their arrival.

(You may have seem this kind of requested, not-spam mail labeled bacn. Not long after that term came about, I wrote that “dryer lint” would be more descriptive and less cutesy, but everybody seems to have ignored that suggestion.)

 

Then come newsletters that attempt to recap headlines in various categories. Even if I read these almost every day–the American Press Institute’s Need to Know and Morning Consult’s tech newsletter come to mind–they’re little help to me the day after, much less six months down the road. I look for day- or months-old news headlines on the Web, not in my inbox.

Ideally, I could set a filter in my mail client to delete designated notifications and newsletters 24 or 48 hours after their arrival. But although Gmail will let you construct a search like that using its “older_than” operator to scrub stale Groupon offers from your inbox, its filters don’t seem to include that option. And the filters in Apple’s Mail, which don’t seem to have been touched by any developers in the last five years, are of no use in this case either.

Do any other mail clients offer this capability? If not, any interested mail developers are welcome to consider this post a formal feature request.

 

Weekly output: Comcast Stream, Amazon’s policy footprint, Flash’s fate

I spent two days this week working in large buildings in D.C., as if I had a full-time job or something. The reasons: Access’s Crypto Summit and the D.C. chapter of the Internet Society’s Internet Governance Forum USA. Neither conference gave me anything I had to write about on the spot, but things I learned at each wonkfest will almost certainly wind up in my coverage later on.

7/13/2015: What You Need to Know about Comcast Stream: Cord-Cutting, Kinda, Yahoo Tech

Comcast’s announcement over the weekend of this streaming-only TV service left some key questions unanswered–like, would you save money on this and a standalone Comcast Internet subscription compared to Comcast’s current bundle of broadband, local channels and streaming HBO?–so I tried to address those concerns in this extra post.

Yahoo Tech Amazon policy post7/14/2015: 5 Ways Amazon Has Changed the Web — for Good and Bad, Yahoo Tech

Amazon turned 20 years old on Tuesday, and I marked the occasion by using my regular column spot to assess its footprint on tech policy over those two decades. The verdict, based on conversations with people across the political spectrum: It’s been more of a follower than a leader, and in some cases it’s been part of the problem. Do the 100-plus comments mean my verdict set off an extended debate? No, they mean a lot of people wanted to complain about Amazon’s delivery times.

7/19/2015: How to bid farewell to Flash, USA Today

Two and a half years after I told USAT readers that Flash wasn’t going away as quickly as I’d hoped, I revisited the issue of Adobe’s multimedia plug-in with a different judgment: Yes, you really can live without it. Writing this column also allowed me to revisit the post I did in 2010 questioning Steve Jobs’ views on Flash; I can’t say that post has held up too well.

Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

Weekly output: owning versus renting music, Tech Night Owl, DSL without phone service

This week was relatively easy on my schedule. One result: I finally edited and posted the photos I took at CE Week three weeks ago.

Yahoo Tech owning or renting music post7/7/2015: Sorry, Apple Music —I Want to Own My Tunes, Not Rent Them, Yahoo Tech

I started writing this post in 2005, when I dismissed the rent-your-music argument of Napster To Go and then found similar sales pitches from Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited (remember that?) only slightly more appealing.

7/11/2015: July 11, 2015 — Rob Pegoraro and Bryan Chaffin, Tech Night Owl

I talked about Apple Music’s resurrection of DRM, among other things, with host Gene Steinberg.

7/12/2015: How to get DSL without the phone service, USA Today

I got an update from the reader behind this question on late Saturday night, well after I’d filed the story: He had dumped Verizon, switched to EarthLink DSL, somehow doubled his speed, and finally ported his home number to Ooma. In the bargain, he only had to do without wired Internet access for a couple of days.

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

Weekly output: patent trolls, Apple Music (x3), robots, digital fluency

I had more to show for myself than usual on this holiday-shortened week, and I can thank Apple and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for much of that.

6/30/2015: Why The Tech Industry Hates Patent Trolls, and You Should Too, Yahoo Tech

I’d written and filed this column two weeks earlier, then shelved it so I could turn around a post on LastPass’s security breach. I’m glad we could finally get this thing out, but I fear that not many people read it on the day that Apple Music launched.

WTOP on Apple Music6/30/2015: Apple Music, the newest player in a crowded streaming field, WTOP

Washington’s news station interviewed me about my first impressions of Apple’s new music service. I emphasized how limited Apple Music’s device support is compared to that of Pandora or Spotify–even factoring in Apple’s upcoming, unprecedented shipment of an Android app for the service.

7/1/2015: CE Week Report: Are Robots Limping Forward or Finding Their Stride?, Economy

João-Pierre S. Ruth wrote up last week’s CE Week panel on robots and was kind enough to give me the last word in the story.

7/1/2015: Will Apple Music Kill Your Data Plan?, Yahoo Tech

I had thought that this would be an easy story to write, but then I realized that Apple had not bothered to document the bit rates used by Apple Music’s streaming–which are significantly higher than Pandora’s bit rate, though not as high as some coverage would have you think. I also had to batter my way through some math, an experience that reminded me how many decades it’s been since my last math class.

7/2/2015: We Do Need Digital Fluency, But We Don’t All Need To Code, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this reaction to the previous Friday’s event with McAuliffe at one of Capital One’s Tysons Corner offices on Monday, but my editors elected it to hold it for a slower time in the week. That made sense to me.

7/5/2015: Some restrictions apply to Apple Music song matches, USA Today

I wrote and filed a different Q&A column on Thursday, then decided that Apple’s undocumented imposition of DRM on matched copies of your own music was a timelier topic. That delayed the start of my long weekend until around noon Friday, but in the bargain I have a completed column in the can that we can run whenever I get around to taking a vacation.