WeChat, but I can’t

SHANGHAI–It wasn’t until shortly before I left for CES Asia that I realized showing up here without a WeChat account would mark me as some kind of hick. I’m now about to head home, still bereft of a WeChat account. But I tried!

WeChat, for those as uninitiated as I once was, is the service AOL Instant Messenger became in an alternate universe. Tencent’s messaging app not only connects almost one billion users in real time, it functions as a wallet, a business card, a news feed and a great many other things.

So I downloaded the Android app, plugged in my Google Voice number–as the work number on my business card, it’s what I ordinarily use without a problem on phone-linked messaging systems.

But what worked in WhatsApp and Signal did not in WeChat. After creating an account and entering the security code texted to my number, I got this error message:

“This WeChat account has been confirmed of suspicious registration in batch or using plugins and is blocked. Continue to use this account by tapping OK and applying for an account unblock.”

Whoops. I tapped through to a “Self-service unblock allowed” screen, tapped its  “Read and accept” button. That presented me with CAPTCHA prove-you’re-not-a-robot interface that had me tap the letters in one graphic that matched those in another.

But after going through that, I still couldn’t log in. Instead, the app told me to get another WeChat user to verify my existence on their phone. I’ve now tried that a few times with both U.S.-based and local users, and after each try the app has offered a vague error message about the other person not being eligible to vouch for me.

After some further research, I think the problem is my using a Google Voice number. That possibility goes unmentioned in WeChat’s English-language online help, but a Quora post reports that Tencent quashed that option years ago.

And thinking about it, it does make sense: I can’t imagine that the Chinese government would look fondly on any communications service that allows people to use a number likely to be untethered from a billable address.

When I get back to the States, I will see if I can’t get WeChat to work with some kind of a burner number still attached to a real account–maybe from a loaner phone. Otherwise, I guess I’ll have to set up WeChat with my “real” phone number. I can’t stay illiterate in this service forever, right?

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Porting out a Verizon landline number, part 2: my Fios account survives, my Vz mail moves

When I last wrote about my experience porting out a land-line phone number to Ooma’s Internet-calling service, I was still a little antsy that Verizon would cancel our Fios Internet service.

I need not have. A few weeks later–without any further action on my part–Verizon’s online account page no longer listed ours as being disconnected, my next automatic payment had gone through as usual, and I could cash in some accumulated My Rewards+ points for a $10 Amazon gift card. And then I finally got my invitation to migrate my Verizon e-mail to AOL–almost two months after I’d written about that change for USA Today.

I opted to keep my verizon.net account, less because I plan to use it anytime soon and more because I had to experience this switchover firsthand after getting so many reader questions about it.

Verdict: fine. AOL’s site asked me to create a new password, choose from one of four preset (and not all that secure) security questions, and add a mobile number, presumably to confirm any strange logins in the future. AOL suggested I might have to wait a few hours for the messages to appear in my new inbox, but all 7,000-plus spam messages and the 50 or so legitimate e-mails accompanying them were waiting for me moments later.

Two weeks later, the single best part of having AOL manage my mail is having a spam filter that works. When I logged in today, I only had four messages waiting in my inbox, all legit, with 33 junk messages tucked away in the spam folder instead of littering my inbox the way they did on Verizon’s mail system.

The downside is a much tackier login experience, since AOL defaults to showing you its clickbait-stuffed “Today on AOL” page. To fix that and go directly to your inbox, click the Options menu at the top right corner of the page below your e-mail address, choose “Mail Settings,” and uncheck “Show me Today on AOL when signing in.” And for a recurring dose of 1990s nostalgia, check “Play ‘You’ve Got Mail’ alert at login if there are new messages.”

I still need to figure out why Verizon’s site thinks I should pay $127.99 for gigabit Fios, well above its advertised new-customer rates. But solving that (and finding a use case for that  much speed, versus a measly 50 or 100 Mbps) will have to wait for yet another post.

The silent shame of bringing an older Android phone to a Google event

MOUNTAIN VIEW–I really didn’t think my Nexus 5X phone was that old until I saw so many others at Google I/O here–being used by event staff to scan the RFID tags in people’s conference badges before admitting them to talks.

Badge-scanning duty is typically the last lap around the track for a mobile device before it gets put out to pasture. Or sent to the glue factory. But that usually doesn’t happen until years after its debut; for instance, at SXSW this year, I was amused to see volunteers use 2013-vintage Nexus 7 tablets to scan badges.

Google didn’t introduce my phone until September of 2015, after which I waited a month to buy my own.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the hardware milieu at this conference that’s been making my phone look obsolete. Over the past few months, my 5X has gotten into the embarrassing and annoying habit of locking up randomly. Sometimes the thing snaps out of it on its own; sometimes I have to mash down the power button to force a restart.

I’ve factory-reset the phone once, with all the reconfiguration of apps and redoing of Google Authenticator two-step verification that requires, and that doesn’t seem to have made a difference. It’s been good today, but yesterday I had to force-reboot it twice. I only hope fellow attendees didn’t notice the Android logo on its startup screen and start judging me and my janky phone accordingly.

I tried targeting you all with a Facebook ad. It didn’t work well.

Last Sunday, I finally saw something new on Facebook: an invitation to run an ad campaign on the social network and pay for the whole thing with a $30 coupon. Since other people’s money is one of my preferred payment methods–and since I’d been meaning to see what the Facebook ad mechanism looks like from the inside–I accepted the offer.

I couldn’t choose a post to promote, as the coupon was limited to the post I wrote here about money-losing prompts at ATMs and credit-card readers overseas that had become unexpectedly popular when shared automatically to my public page. But I could pick who would see the ad, as identified in a few different ways. In case you’ve wondered just what Facebook advertisers can know about you, here are the options I saw:

• Target people who like your page, people who like your page as well as those people’s friends, or people you choose through targeting. I picked the last, in the interest of science.

• Reach people at a region or at an address. The default was the District. I could have picked an address, but since I’m not promoting a business at a fixed location I didn’t see the point. But with this post’s travel-centric focus, I should have picked Dulles Airport–right?

• Choose interests (as expressed by people on Facebook in things like Likes). For this post, I selected “Air travel,” “Europe,” “credit cards,” and “personal finance.”

• Pick an age range and a gender.

• Pick a duration and a total budget for the ad campaign.

I could have gone deeper into some of these options, but since I was navigating this dialog on my phone during our daughter’s dance class, I didn’t have unlimited time. I submitted the ad, got an e-mail saying it was under review for compliance with Facebook’s ad standards, and got a second e-mail 16 minutes later saying the ad passed.

Three days later, Facebook sent me a summary. Their $30 had brought the Facebook share of my post here to another 2,516 people, of which 56 had clicked on the link and one had left a comment on my page.

This report also informed me that the ad’s audience was 95% male, which is both confusing and unsettling. Maybe I should have targeted only women, considering that my page’s audience already skews so heavily male? Age-wise, the ad found its biggest audience among the 25-34 demographic. I’m not clear about that either.

What I do know is that my WordAds ad revenue here doesn’t support spending $30 to reel in 56 views, so I doubt I’ll be running this experiment with my own money anytime soon.

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.

 

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.

Old-school browser debugging seems to have made Safari a little less bloated

I’ve written/ranted before here about Safari’s horrific abuse of memory without then doing anything about about it beyond getting in the habit of force-quitting Apple’s Mac browser every day or so to stop it from locking up my laptop or my desktop.

Safari iconBut given enough time feeling lost, I will eventually stop and ask for directions. A few weeks ago, that led me to a corner of the browser I’d forgotten about: the plug-ins dialog in Safari’s preferences. As this OS X Daily post reminded me, opening Safari’s prefs, then clicking the Security tab and then its “Plug-in Settings…” button will reveal which random bits of code are active in the browser.

I had forgotten about that because I haven’t intentionally installed a plug-in in years and, long after banishing Oracle’s Java and Adobe’s Flash from this browser, thought I had a clean configuration. Nope! On my iMac, it revealed a Cisco plug-in that I could only blame on a long-ago WebEx session, a SharePoint plug-in or two that my wife might have used for work, a couple of Google Talk plug-ins that I remembered from the occasional “do you want to trust” dialogs, and maybe one for Apple’s QuickTime software.

Isafari-prefs-plug-ins-button deactivated every one of them, then went into the systemwide Library’s Internet Plug-Ins folder to delete the Cisco and SharePoint offenders, both of which I was sure I would not use again.

The results so far have exceeded the placebo effect I expected from changing a setting in an app. The browser is much less likely to jam up my Mac and leave the Activity Monitor app filled with “Safari Web Content” processes lit in red to indicate their unfriendly unresponsiveness.

I’m not done wishing that macOS Sierra would exercise some competent memory management, though. The occasional miscreant page can still zoom to the top of Activity Monitor’s memory-usage graph, while Twitter’s site continues to slowly eat RAM and forces me into a browser restart after maybe two or three days.

But having Safari not devour my computer’s memory much more than Chrome has to count as a victory, since Apple’s browser continues to integrate better with some core Mac features. My exercise in bug management has made using an old Mac less painful… which is good, since Apple seems in no rush to update the iMac or the MacBook Air.