About robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

A dark pattern at work: the overseas ATM that quotes a price in dollars

Being a user-interface nerd means you can’t stop critiquing everyday objects like signs and doors. Most of the time, the quirks you notice will only waste people’s time, but those that cost money deserve extra attention.

Last week’s trip to Lisbon for the IFA Global Press Conference offered a fine example of the second kind: an ATM that offered to price my withdrawal in dollars instead of euros. Its screen helpfully listed the exact price I’d pay to take out €50: $58.10. The only possible answer to that: nope!

The ATM was offering what’s called “dynamic currency conversion”–best understood, in UI-nerd terms, as a “dark pattern” set up to part the uninformed from their money. This offer amounts to an invitation to pay a premium for knowing upfront exactly how much you paid for that transaction, and you should always decline it. Even if you’re paying with a credit-card that would charge a foreign currency conversion fee.

I pressed the button next to “Accept Without Conversion,” and when I checked my bank account a few days later I saw that my withdrawal amounted to $54.22. My $3.88 in savings isn’t much, but it does represent an exceptional rate of return for a few seconds of work.

If only I’d always been that smart: Two years ago, jet lag caused me to lose situational awareness while buying a transit pass in Dublin’s airport, so I unthinkingly tapped the button to run the transaction in dollars instead of euros. I can only hope Transport For Ireland appreciated my generous donation of a dollar or two.

 

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Bonus of an unwinter: a spring surplus of parsley and spinach

I really did think that the 2016 gardening season had ended in December with the first hard frost. But then the parsley and the spinach refused to die. Even the few inches of snow we got in March wasn’t enough to kill them, as I found out when I removed some chunks of hard-packed snow two days after I got home from SXSW to expose intact spinach leaves that promptly wound up in a creamy pasta sauce.

Now that the ground has warmed up and the arugula and lettuce seeds have germinated and gone to work, I suddenly have more parsley and spinach than I know what to do with–although I’m trying by throwing some into every stir-fry, stew and sauce I can put together.

I guess I’ll also be making a lot of tabbouleh and parsley-walnut pesto weeks earlier than my usual gardening schedule would suggest.

(The sage also kept going through the winter in less robust form, although there aren’t as many obvious applications for that herb.)

As much as I appreciate living in a place with actual seasons, this does look like a pleasant bonus for having a fake winter. Now if I could just get basil to be half as productive, or at least to stop taunting me with a lack of productivity…

 

Weekly output: border device searches, airline angst, Twitter bots, German cybersecurity

Happy Easter!

4/10/2017: The government might stop searching your phone at the border, but things could still get worse, Yahoo Finance

I haven’t had many reasons to worry about hangups returning to the United States since I got Global Entry, but any increase in the small chance that Customs and Border Protection officials might detain my devices for a search alarms me.

4/12/2017: The airline industry has never been better for customers, Yahoo Finance

You’ll get no argument from me that United Airlines screwed up by summoning police to drag a passenger off a plane to make room for a crew needed to work a flight the next day. But the idea that we’ve now descended into the worst era of commercial aviation is ridiculous. I’ll admit that the headline here may oversell the story slightly–but it’s nowhere as out-there as Wired’s “How United Turned the Friendly Skies Into a Flying Hellscape.”

4/13/2017: Twitter bots, Al Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to discuss a recent study finding a strikingly high percentage of Twitter accounts did not seem to have a human behind them.

4/15/2017: Germany’s cyber corps, Al Jazeera

I appeared via Skype to discuss Germany’s move to launch a new cyber command. My main reaction: moderate confusion as to why did Berlin only decide now that they needed such a thing, when America set up its own cybersecurity branch in 2009 and Israel’s 8200 unit has become a talent pipeline to private industry.

FYI, Microsoft: Time-zone support isn’t a luxury feature in a calendar app

A day into trying out the shipping version, Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creators Update doesn’t look too different from the prior release.

That’s not all bad–already, Win 10 was at best the most pleasant and at worst the least annoying version of Windows I’ve used. But in addition to leaving out some advertised features hyped by me and others, Creators Update doesn’t fix a problem Microsoft shouldn’t have shipped in the first place: no time-zone support in the calendar app.

When I add an event outside of Eastern time, I have to factor in the time-zone offset before typing in its start and end times to see my appointment shown accurately away from the East Coast. And if there’s one task computers are supposed to free us from doing, it’s basic math.

I’ve seen this movie before, but the last time featured a quicker resolution. In the spring of 2010, I teed off on Google Calendar for the same feature failure–but by the end of that year, Google had fixed that and earned my forgiveness.

Microsoft’s intentions have remained a mystery for much longer. In October, I asked a publicist about the absence of time-zone support in the calendar app and got this mealy-mouthed answer:

“We are always exploring new features for Windows 10 and will continue to add new features and updates over time to help users get more done. We have nothing more to share at this time.”

It turns out that Microsoft really did “have nothing more to share.”

I could fix this issue by paying for Microsoft’s Outlook app as part of an Office 365 subscription, but that would feel like paying ransom. And it would unquestionably represent signing up for “groupware” features I don’t need as a sole proprietor. Or I could make my next laptop a MacBook Air–except that’s another case of an unfeeling company ignoring clear customer desires, this time with more money at stake and a longer history of neglect.

I’ve looked for free or paid alternative calendar apps with time-zone support in the Windows Store but have yet to find one. Is this a giant collective blind spot among Windows 10 developers? Do they all work in one time zone? I know Microsoft employees don’t.

I guess I’ll have to continue grumbling intermittently whenever I use Win 10. Fortunately, I have plenty of practice with that.

Weekly output: watching baseball online, broadband privacy, Apple secrecy, Comcast wireless, Tech Night Owl

This week saw me at two Opening Days: On Monday, I attended the Nats’ home opener, and today I kicked off the 2017 lawn-mowing season. In both cases, I’m worried we’re going to fade down the stretch.

4/3/2017: The cheapest way to watch baseball online, Yahoo Finance

For once, I had good things to say about the availability of sports programming online, thanks to many regional sports networks now showing up on services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now. Alas, the Nats’ Mid-Atlantic Sports Network is not among them.

4/5/2017: Broadband privacy, Al Jazeera

I talked about the swift, Republican-led dispatch of privacy regulations for the Arabic news network.

4/6/2017: How Apple’s secrecy can hurt consumers, Yahoo Finance

Apple’s unprecedented revelation of even broad details about the next Mac Pro and iMac kicked off this post about the unhelpful hangup many tech companies–no, not just Apple–have about keeping customers in the loop.

4/7/2017: The hidden details in Comcast’s wireless plan, USA Today

The amount of interest in Comcast’s upcoming Xfinity Mobile wireless service–which will run off Verizon’s network as well as Comcast’s network of WiFi hot spots–is remarkable, given that you’ll need to subscribe to Comcast Internet to use it. Also remarkable: how many details Comcast left out of its opening sales pitch for Xfinity Mobile. 

If you look at the comments, you’ll see a complaint from a reader that an accompanying chart didn’t list the correct price for Google’s Project Fi wireless service. That chart now lists the right rate–yes, I do try to read comments, and in this case I sent a quick note to my editors advising them of the error.

4/8/2017: April 8, 2017 — John Martellaro and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I returned to this podcast for the first time since August (had it really been that long?) to talk about Apple’s tepid gesture at transparency, Xfinity Mobile, and the state of broadband privacy and competition.

Keeping Fios while porting out a landline phone number can be tricky

For years, my secret shame has been that we still have a landline phone at home. Why? The number dates to 1997, so all my relatives know it and some of them still call it. Besides, I find the robocalls it attracts in campaign seasons weirdly fascinating.

Those things, however, weren’t worth the $15 Verizon charged us for the most minimal level of phone service. The obvious fix, one I endorsed in a 2015 USA Today column, was to port our number to an Internet-calling service. But months after third-party reviews and some testing of my own led me to pick Ooma‘s free service as that VoIP alternative, we were still wasting $15 a month–because I am sometimes slow and always easily distracted.

Finally, a Costco sale on a bundle of Ooma’s Telo VoIP adapter, a WiFi/Bluetooth module for it, and Ooma’s cordless handset got me to get moving on this transition.

After I put in the order on March 18 to port out our number (for which Ooma charges $40), it was active in Ooma’s system on the 22nd, allowing us to place and receive calls through the Telo. The next day I logged into our Verizon account to confirm the transfer.

That’s where things got interesting, as that site said our account had been disconnected.

Prior reports from Ooma users in various forums as well as Verizon PR’s own statements had led me to expect an industry-standard porting experience: You start the port with the new service, and there’s no need to talk to the old one until your number’s out of their grasp.

Perhaps I was wrong? I called Verizon to find out. That March 23 call was a model of how phone customer-support should work–I only had to provide my account number once, I wasn’t left on hold, and the rep said my Internet service should be fine.

Alas, other parts of Verizon had other ideas. A day later, a recorded message advised us to contact Verizon by April 14 to discuss new service options or risk disconnection a second robocall a week later cited the same April 14 deadline.

On April 4, our Internet went out.

The error page that interrupted my Web browsing told me to set up automatic payments to reactivate my service, but each attempt (using the same credit card as before) yielded a generic error message. It was time to call Verizon again.

Thirty-one minutes later, another pleasant rep was as confused as me, saying she couldn’t get the auto-pay setup to go through either. She said she’d get a specialist to work on my case and would call back with an update.

In the meantime, I enjoyed the unfair advantage of having two LTE hotspots in the house–required research to update a Wirecutter guide–that I could lean on for free in place of our inert Internet connection.

By the next evening, our Fios connection was back online, in keeping with the second rep’s “you should be all set” voicemail that afternoon. But Verizon’s site still listed our account as disconnected.

A third call Friday deepened the mystery. This rep said she saw two account numbers–and the one she could access listed our service as pending disconnection. Then I took another look at the e-mail Verizon sent after the second phone rep had pushed through my auto-pay enrollment: It cited an account number ending with seven digits that did not match my old one.

My best guess here, based only on my dealing with Verizon since it was Bell Atlantic, is that Verizon’s system has created a new account for me because the old one was somehow too intertwined with the phone number to keep around.

If so, I should be getting a letter with the new account number in the next day or so, after which I may or may not need to set up a new account online. Sound right? Or am I in for another long phone call?

Either way, I suspect I have not written my last post here on this subject.