Weekly output: credit checks for wireless service, Carpenter v. U.S., Safari security, Facebook listening patent

The second quarter of the year is in the books. Or to put this in less financial terms: Happy almost Fourth of July! Please take a moment during this holiday to remember that democracy is not a spectator sport.

6/25/2018: Sprint’s $15 unlimited data plan required a ‘hard pull’ credit report, and it’s not the only one, USA Today

The Collision conference gets an assist here for introducing me to CreditKarma co-founder Nichole Mustard, who on short notice provided a concise explanation of different levels of credit inquiries.

6/25/2018: Four things to note about the Supreme Court’s location privacy ruling, The Parallax

I applaud the Supreme Court ruling that the government has to get a search warrant to see my location history as tracked by my wireless carrier. But it also left many things unclear, like the validity of the “third-party doctrine” that originally allowed warrantless access to that location data.

6/29/2018: Apple’s Safari has dropped the ball on security, Yahoo Finance

News that Twitter would finally support two-step verification based on cryptographically-signed “U2F” USB keys gave me a timely peg for a piece recounting how Apple’s browser has been late to implement many security advances–even as Safari has led the industry in adding privacy protection.

6/30/2018: Facebook’s listening patent, Al Jazeera

I got a call from a producer as I was walking to Metro to meet friends for brunch, asking if I could talk about recent reports of Facebook obtaining a patent that appears to describe turning on a phone’s microphone when an ad broadcasts a special, inaudible-to-humans tone. I said this patent only showed that Facebook has aggressive patent lawyers. Why? See Nilay Patel’s debunking of this allegation in the Verge, based on a close reading of the claims in the actual patent.

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Weekly output: net neutrality, Web browsers compared, Last Gadget Standing, China’s autonomous-vehicle ambitions, Sprint and Verizon “unlimited” data

My most-distant business trip of the year is in the books, and I don’t even feel that tired after getting home Friday evening. Falling asleep in my own bed remains the single best cure for jet lag that I know. I’m traveling again this year coming week, but I’m only going about 3 percent as far–I’m in New York from Tuesday night through Friday afternoon for the CE Week show.

6/11/2018: Why the death of net-neutrality rules will be a big campaign issue, Yahoo Finance

I started writing this from Newark International Airport, then finished it and filed it from the plane–worrying I’d lose the satellite link as the plane got farther and farther north. My thanks to United for not leaving me in the lurch… and for opening some upgrade space just in time for my longest flight this year.

6/12/2018: Stuck on Chrome? Always use Safari? It may be time to break up with your default web browser, USA Today

Apple’s WWDC news about online privacy got my editor interested in a post comparing the virtues of the Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. If you still run Microsoft Internet Explorer, my advice in this column remains unchanged from prior years: stop.

6/13/2018: Last Gadget Standing, CES Asia

I helped emcee this competition along with my former Yahoo colleague Dan Tynan and Last Gadget’s impresario-in-chief Robin Raskin. I introduced and briefly quizzed the people behind three finalists: iGlass ARAction One, and the Wahe nuclear living room machine V. Alas, my joke about the name of that last device–a streaming-media player with gaming aspirations–becoming “nucular living room machine” in the American South was never going to make it through translation.

6/16/2018: How self-driving cars will take to China’s roads, Yahoo Finance

I wrote most of this from my hotel, then filed it from my flight home–except that when edits came back, we were still too far north to have a reliable signal. And since I had stupidly neglected to e-mail photos before taking off, I also had to deal with the horribly slow uploads of satellite Internet.

For more from CES Asia, have a look at my Flickr album from the trip.

6/17/2018: Sprint and Verizon’s latest deals offer still more definitions of “Unlimited“, USA Today

Verizon decided that having two different flavors of unlimited wasn’t enough, so it added three–while Sprint elected to mix up its own offerings with a quickly-expiring offer that amounted to a Basic Economy level of unlimited data.

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.

An iOS mystery: Where and when will Gboard not appear?

The fact that I own an Android phone has rarely been more obvious than when I use my iPad–and I try to “gesture type” as if I were using my smaller mobile device’s onscreen keyboard.

The arrival of iOS 8 and its support of third-party keyboards made tracing a path from letter to letter to enter text not just a pointless exercise but a possibility. And with iOS 9’s less buggy support, it’s become a less annoying possibility, but still not a sure thing.

Gboard app iconThat’s become clear to me since Google shipped its Gboard keyboard app in May and, after a satisfactory tryout, I made that free app the default keyboard on my iPad mini 4.

Most of the time, Gboard appears whenever I touch a text field. I can gesture-type with ease (except when I’m holding the tablet sideways), and I could season my prose with emojis and GIFs were I, you know, 20 years younger.

But Apple’s built-in keyboard keeps on surprising me by resurfacing on its own. To get a better sense of how often that happens, I tried taking notes on this behavior this week and reached three conclusions:

• The system works more often than I gave it credit for. The departures from the norm stick out, but keeping track of them made me realize how rare they are.

• In certain cases, the stock keyboard shows up because it’s supposed to. As an Apple tech-support note explains, iOS’s keyboard automatically takes over in secure data-entry fields like the password dialogs of the App Store and Amazon apps.

• In rare occasions, iOS does get confused about keyboards for no apparent reason. A tap of the address bar in Safari would sometimes invoke the stock keyboard instead of Gboard, while the Duolingo language-tutorial app proved itself capable of alternating between the iOS and Google keyboards in a single session.

It’s tempting to blame Apple, given the iffy quality of much of its software. But I can’t rule out this being Google’s fault. I mean, as good as Gboard is, I still had to do a copy-and-paste job from a Web site to enter the symbol that best captures my latest diagnosis of the situation:

 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Possible upside of Safari’s memory-hogging ways? Teaching me to appreciate inner peace.

Sometime in the last year or two, my least favorite three-word phrase in all of computing became “Safari Web Content.” That’s the component of Apple’s browser that appears red in OS X’s Activity Monitor app–normally, you see the address of the Web page being displayed by this process–when it stops responding and starts locking up the rest of the Mac.

OS X Activity Monitor Safari run amokWhich it does all the time, even in the El Capitan release that was supposed to be all about bug fixes. Having spent more than decade in the “classic” Mac OS, in which we just accepted that any errant application could take out the computer, I find it intensely annoying to meet the same problem over 15 years after the advent of OS X and its move to “preemptive multitasking.”

My usual routine when I see OS X once again seize up is to flip over to Activity Monitor–which sometimes requires a wait for Safari to loosen its death grip on the system–and start force-quitting the stuck Safari Web Content processes, if I’m not looking at a screenful of them. If I do see a screenful, I’ll force-quit the whole damn browser.

(Before you say “switch to Chrome,” I find that Safari integrates with OS X better in some ways–and Google’s browser can be a memory hog too.)

This usually leads to lengthy bouts of swearing, about which I’m getting increasingly embarrassed. Yes, I work from home and nobody is around to object to a stream of curses (which was not the case in the Post’s newsroom; sorry, Posties), but I also realize I’m being an idiot. The computer has no feelings; it doesn’t care how many f-bombs I direct at it. And all this nerd rage can’t be good for my health anyway.

So while I wait and wait for Apple’s developers to bring their browser to heel, I am trying to learn to chill. To slowly inhale and exhale and to listen to the sound of my breathing, to look up from the screen so I can gaze at the trees and the sky outside, to stand up and stretch, to in general not give in to the Dark Side. Do you have any advice about how I might better do that? Please share it in the comments.

 

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.

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.