I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.

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Android 10 first impressions: location, location, no you can’t have my location

A dozen days after installing Android 10 on my Pixel 3a, this operating-system update’s major accomplishment has been helping me to chain down a bunch of my apps.

That’s good! The location-privacy improvements in Android 10–starting with the ability to deny an application access to your location when it’s not running in the foreground–more than justify the roughly seven minutes I spent installing this release.

I expected that after seeing Google’s introduction of Android 10, then named Android Q, at Google I/O this May.

But I didn’t know then that Android would actively warn me when individual apps checked my whereabouts when I wasn’t running them, in the form of “[App name] got your location in the background” notifications inviting me to take the background-location keys from that app.

I was already planning on limiting most of the apps on my phone to foreground location access only, but these reminders have sped up that process and helped spotlight the more obvious offenders. (Facebook Messenger, go sit in the corner.) This is an excellent case of Google borrowing from Apple.

There’s much more that’s new in Android 10–if you’re curious and have an hour or so free, Ron Amadeo’s novella-length review at Ars Technica exceeds 2,000 words on the first of nine pages–but its other changes have made less of a difference in my daily use.

• The battery, WiFi and signal-strength icons are now simple outlines, and when swiped down the notifications area shows your remaining battery life in human language instead of a percentage: “1 day, 2 hr.” Less attractive: The text of notifications doesn’t appear in Android’s usual Roboto font, which bugs me to no end.

• The array of icons in the share sheet no longer painstakingly paint their way onto the screen. And the one I employ most often–the copy-to-clipboard icon–always appears first and at the top right of this list.

• The switch to gesture navigation (for instance, swiping up to see all open apps) hasn’t been as confusing as I’d feared… because Android 10 didn’t touch my previous “2-button navigation” system setting, which keeps the back and home buttons one swipe away. I guess I should try the new routine now.

• I still think dark mode is an overrated concept, having had that as my everyday screen environment on too many DOS PCs, but I get that it can be less distracting at night. And on phones with OLED screens, dark modes also extend battery life. So now that dark theme is a supported Android feature–hint, edit your Quick Settings sheet to add a “Dark theme” tile–I would like to see more apps support it. Starting with Google’s own Gmail.

Finally, I have to note that my phone has yet to crash or experience any impaired battery life since updating it to Android 10. I hope I didn’t just jinx this update by writing the preceding sentence.

 

News sites, can you at least stop nagging distant readers to get your local-update newsletters?

With my industry becalmed in its current horrid economic state, you’d expect news sites to strive to make new readers welcome. Instead, they keep resorting to clingy, creepy behavior that must send a large fraction of those new readers lunging for the back button.

I’m speaking, of course, of the giant sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog that pops up as you’ve read a third or half of a story, encouraging you to get that site’s latest updates in your inbox.

This is dumb on strict user-experience grounds–at a minimum, you shouldn’t see this until you’ve read to the end of the story. Would you like NPR affiliates to run their pledge drives by sounding an air horn in the middle of Morning Edition and then asking for your money? No, you would not.

But the newsletter nag looks especially dumb when a local newspaper greets a distant reader with this interruption. The odds that I’m going to want daily updates about developments in Richmond, Buffalo (as seen above), or some other place where I do not live are just about zero. And the fact that I’m reading hundreds or thousands of miles away should be obvious to every one of these sites via basic Internet Protocol address geolocation.

I’m willing to click or tap those dialogs closed and keep reading, because I don’t want to sandbag the journalism business any further. But it’s hard to blame readers who instead respond by switching to the stripped-down reader-view option of Safari or Firefox. Or by running an ad blocker.

iTunes (2001-2019-ish)

With Monday’s news that Apple is finally retiring the Mac version of iTunes, there’s been a lot of “good riddance” chatter about the impending demise of this music/video/download-store/backup/kitchen-sink app.

I get it. For years, iTunes has been a glaring example of Apple forgetting one of Steve Jobs’ rules about the importance of saying no to things. But I also have a long history with this program–I’ve been using it continuously for as long as I have any app, maybe longer. And it hasn’t been all bad.

It’s easy to forget today how bad the music-player landscape was before iTunes, full of apps deliberately limited in features and larded with upsells. If you wanted something decent, you had to pay for it upfront–the app that became iTunes, Casady & Greene’s SoundJamp MP, was a $40 download.

And even after iTunes arrived, competitors didn’t take the hint. Typical headline, from a 2006 review of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11: “Nice Features, But It’s No iTunes.” So when I finally set aside time to rip every CD I owned, iTunes did the job. And it was through iTunes that I bought the vast majority of my music downloads–and then paid $25 for iTunes Match to get legit copies of the MP3s I’d downloaded off Usenet newsgroups and file-sharing apps in the days before paying $1 a song was an option.

Most of two decades since my introduction to this app, I no longer use one of its original flagship features, easy music sync. I don’t own an iPhone, and since Apple has held fast to ignoring other mobile devices in this app, I copy the songs I want to store on my Android phone via the Finder.

The new Music app that will replace iTunes may be just as good at the core tasks of music organization and playback, but I won’t know for a while. The iMac on which I’m typing this–kept in service largely because I replaced its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state drive last year–can’t even run the current Mojave edition, much less the upcoming Catalina.

And iTunes for Windows will remain–but that app looks like such a stranger in Windows 10, I can’t deal with it. Instead, it looks like I’m stuck with two other choices with their own issues: Microsoft’s Groove Music, effectively retired after a series of feature removals, and the privacy-hostile Spotify. It looks like Apple isn’t the only large tech company that needs to reboot its desktop music-player strategy.

First impressions of 1Password

After several years using the same password-manager service–and then paying for its premium version–I’ve spent the last few weeks trying an alternative.

I can credit a sales pitch that included the italicized phrase “completely free” for this departure: 1Password’s offer of a free membership to journalists, in celebration of World Press Freedom Day this May 3. But I was also overdue to spend some time in a password manager besides LastPass.

So far, I’m impressed by the elegance of the interface but a little put off by how persnickety 1Password can be to set up. You don’t just create a username and password, you also have to type in a complex and random secret key to get going.

Having read this Toronto-based firm’s documentation of how this extra step helps ensure that a successful guess of your password still won’t compromise your account, I get where they’re coming from. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it to just anybody, especially not when LastPass’s free version suffices for many casual users.

Further time with 1Password’s Mac, Windows and Android apps has revealed other things I like:

This time has also surfaced one thing I don’t like: an incomplete approach to two-step verification that seems to require choosing between running an authenticator app on your smartphone or employing a weird Yubikey implementation that requires running a separate app instead of just plugging a standard USB security key. That’s no better than LastPass’s inflexible notion of two-step verification.

I’d like to see 1Password improve that and support the WebAuthn standard for security-key confirmation. But I’m prepared to give them some time, based on everything else I’ve seen so far.

Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

Finally, an obvious upgrade from Apple

No computer I own has aged better than the iPad mini 4 I bought at the end of 2015. But that device’s days as my work tablet are now unquestionably dwindling.

That’s Apple’s fault and to Apple’s credit. The updated iPad mini the company announced last week may look almost identical (I’ll know for sure when I can inspect it in a store), but it includes a much faster processor and a better screen and camera. Reviewers I trust have essentially been saying “yes, buy this.”

The new iPad mini also doesn’t exhibit two of Apple’s least-attractive habits, in that the company resisted the temptations to remove the headphone jack and sell it with inadequate entry-level storage. So instead of paying extra for a 64-gigabyte model as I did before, that’s now the base configuration.

I wish the new tablet retired the proprietary Lightning cable for a USB-C connector that would let me recharge it with my laptop or phone chargers. But if I must choose, I’d rather be inconvenienced by having to fish out a different cable once every other day than have to remember to bring a headphone-jack dongle everywhere I take the tablet.

If only the the Mac part of Apple would learn from the mobile-device part of it and not gouge buyers who want a reasonable amount of storage! I’m typing these words on a 2009-vintage iMac that I have yet to replace because of this problem. The finally-revived Mac mini would be a logical successor to this iMac–I can’t see buying another all-in-one when its 4K screen should far outlast its computer components–but it starts with a 128 GB solid-state drive. And upgrading that joke of an SSD to a 512 GB model costs an insulting $400.

So I continue to trudge along with a desktop that will turn 10 years old this November–although the 512 GB SSD now inside it is only a year old–instead of paying that Apple Tax. With the new iPad mini, meanwhile, the only real question will be which retailer gets my money.