Democracy and Facebook and other depressing news

I’ve mentioned here before that The Interpreter is probably the best email newsletter I get from the NY Times. I’ve been catching up a bit with my “read/review” email folder this morning, and saw a link to their video on democracy, from back in January. The video distills some themes that that have come up in their newsletter/column repeatedly over the last year. It’s all quite worrying.

Following a link on Twitter, I also saw their current article about Facebook use in the developing world, titled Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match. I usually see Facebook from a very first-world perspective, getting annoyed with dumb ads and misleading memes, but those are usually harmless. It’s eye-opening to read about the effect that Facebook can have when it becomes popular in the developing world. I’m not sure how mad I should be at Facebook for this stuff, but they could definitely be doing more to mitigate the worst of it. There’s one quote in the article that states the problem with Facebook more succinctly and poetically than any other statement I’ve seen:

“We don’t completely blame Facebook,” said Harindra Dissanayake, a presidential adviser in Sri Lanka. “The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind, you know?”

Yep.  As I mentioned recently, I use Facebook with a bunch of add-ons that strip out most of the evil stuff. There’s a new tool from Firefox that puts Facebook in a “container,” making it a little harder for them to track you, hopefully. I haven’t tried it, since I’m assuming it would be overkill for me, since I’m already using three add-ons to filter Facebook. There’s still too much good stuff on Facebook for me to consider dropping it, but I definitely don’t feel guilty stripping ads from it and depriving them of a little ad revenue.

Twitter too

After posting about Facebook a couple of days ago, I though I’d follow up with a quick post about Twitter. I’ve been using Twitterrific on both my Mac and iOS devices for some time now. Like Facebook, Twitter also has an “algorithmic” feed, by default. Twitterrific uses a straight chronological feed, with no ads or promoted tweets confusing things.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, has allowed third-party clients to access the service via a supported API and present their own interface to the service. (Facebook’s feed can be altered by monkeying with their web page, via browser add-ons and stuff like that, but there’s no way to write an authorized third-party Facebook client, using a supported API.) But Twitter has been slowly backing off on their support for third-party clients over the last few years. The most recent issue is described here. (The description on that page is clear enough that I won’t try to restate it here.) I hope Twitterrific and other third-party apps remain viable and useful for the foreseeable future. I really kind of like Twitter. I follow some interesting people there, and I’ve found a lot of interesting stuff via my Twitter feed.

On a related but more general topic, the Mozilla Internet Health Report for 2018 is interesting. (Though I think they got a little too creative with their page design…)

I’ve also been following a few threads around alternatives to Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. One thought is that RSS is ready for a comeback. I’ve mentioned that recently. I haven’t really been able to talk myself into checking my The Old Reader page regularly just yet. I need to clean up and organize my feed list before I’d consider it to be really useful. Maybe the next time we get a rainy day, I’ll look into that. I’m mildly curious about things like micro.blog and mastodon, but I’m not sure either of them has enough momentum to really go anywhere.

Facebook adjustments

Even after all the Cambridge Analytica stuff and Zuckerberg’s 10 hours of testimony in DC this week, I’m still using Facebook. I’ve known for a long time that a lot of the free stuff on the Internet involves a tradeoff between privacy and convenience, and I’m generally careful of what I share and what I don’t, and which apps and services I use and which ones I avoid.

On the desktop, I use Facebook in Firefox, with uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, and FB Purity all installed and running. On iOS, until recently, I’ve just been using the regular Facebook app. But I switched to using an app called Friendly recently. It’s pretty good, though it’s got a few rough edges. It does ad blocking (after a $2 in-app purchase), and lets you re-sort your news feed chronologically, and some other little tweaks. I’ve also recently set FB Purity to sort my news feed chronologically, so now I’m seeing stuff that way on both desktop and iOS. It’s funny how different Facebook looks when you’re seeing stuff in simple date/time order, rather than whatever order their algorithm decides to use. I’ve also reviewed and tweaked my privacy settings a bit. This page at iMore has some good advice for that.

I’ve been reading a comic book called The Private Eye recently. It’s a science fiction comic set in a world where there’s been a major internet privacy meltdown, and society has essentially reconfigured itself in a way such that personal privacy is a core value, and is taken to extremes. It’s a really interesting take on the subject of privacy and trust, and it makes me wonder what our world’s going to look like in 100 years.

Ben Thompson has a good overview of the Zuckerberg hearings at his site. A lot of interesting stuff has come out of all this, but I agree with Thompson on the bottom line: “The most likely outcome of Facebook’s current scandal continues to be that nothing will happen.”

TidBITS redesign

I’ve been reading the TidBITS newsletter for years. They’ve been publishing it for 28 years; I’ve been subscribing to it for more than ten. (I’m not sure how long exactly, but at least since 2002.) They just unveiled a new design and back-end after many years under the old design and system. The new system is based on WordPress, which isn’t surprising. Lots of websites (including mine) are running on WordPress these days. The design looks good. I haven’t seen any hiccups with the back-end yet, so hopefully they’ve done a good job with that. TidBITS has always been a good source of Apple news and analysis, better in general than most of the more modern web sites. (I won’t mention specific sites, but I’m thinking of certain sites with a lot of “top ten” listicles, sponsored content, and more space devoted to ads than articles.)

I’m always interested in how sites like TidBITS remain commercially viable. I doubt they make much money from ads these days. They probably get a modest amount of money from their membership program. And they have something called the TidBITS Content Network now too, which is interesting. They used to run Take Control Books also, but they sold that off a while back. I should probably pay them for a one-year membership. I keep meaning to do that, but I never quite get around to it.

I like the newsletter model for this kind of content, and I wish more people would use it. I’d love to find a Windows newsletter that’s as good as TidBITS. Years ago, I used to subscribe to Windows Secrets and that was pretty good for a while. It looks like they’re still around, but as a paid newsletter only, and it appears that none of the original contributors to the site are still involved. I found a recent post on Woody Leonhard’s site that runs through a little of the history of Windows Secrets. It used to have a lot of good content, from people like Woody, and Brian Livingston, and a couple of other good tech writers whose names I can’t remember now.

Digg Reader and other thoughts on RSS and news consumption

I learned today that Digg Reader just shut down. I had set up an account there when they started it up, but wasn’t actively using it. I also have an account with The Old Reader, but I’m not really actively using that one either. Both of those services started up after Google Reader was shut down in 2013. I’ve been thinking about going back to checking RSS feeds semi-regularly, rather than relying on Twitter and Facebook as much as I do now. If I did that, I’d probably just try to check my Old Reader account more often and maybe add/remove some feeds. (Here’s an article with a few other RSS reader alternatives.)

While I haven’t really jumped back into RSS yet, I did download Flipboard to my iPhone and iPad recently. Flipboard isn’t an RSS reader, but it is a way to follow a variety of news sources, similar to Apple News, but maybe better. (Well, Flipboard’s founder thinks it’s better, but he may be biased.) I think Flipboard is interesting, and likely is better than Apple News, but this is another case where the app is free, which makes me wonder about their business model. I think they’re just making money off in-app ads, which is fine, but who knows. (And I’m not really that excited about in-app ads either, to be honest.)

I’m still reading a lot of email newsletters, from the NY Times and a variety of other sources. I’m very far behind though. I’m currently reading news from late December 2017. (Merry Christmas!)

Here’s an interesting article from Farhad Manjoo about an experiment where he switched to getting his news from print newspapers for a couple of months. (Except that he didn’t really unplug like he said he did. Sigh.) I’m not going to switch back to print anytime soon, though I’m occasionally tempted. I’m also a little envious of this guy, who just stopped reading the news entirely after Trump got elected. That just seems irresponsible though. (And wildly impractical too for most people.)

 

Home phone service (for old people)

Last summer, I got a notice that Verizon was going to retire the copper phone lines in my town. And, via my landlord, I’ve been told that our building apparently can’t be upgraded to fiber. So, we won’t really have an option for “traditional” home phone service anymore. I got a follow-up notice from Verizon last month. They still haven’t set a final date for retiring the copper, but it looks like it’ll happen before the end of this year. So I started looking around at alternatives. My cable company has an option for phone service, for $30/month, which is a little less than what I’m paying Verizon now. But I did a little more digging and found that Verizon has a wireless home phone option that’s only $20 a month (assuming you already have Verizon Wireless), plus $30 for the little base station that you need to buy. So that’s not a bad deal.

I know that all the young people have given up on regular home phone service. But I’m an old man, and I’ve had the same home phone number for more than twenty years, and I don’t want to give it up. So I went ahead and signed up for the Verizon wireless home phone service today. I’m hoping that the call quality is reasonable. In theory, it should be about the same as my cell phone, since it’ll be on the same network, but who knows whether the $30 device they give you affects call quality (vs an iPhone) or not.

Good Old Email

I’m a big fan of email. Say what you will, it’s still pretty darn useful. There was news this week about Google wanting to use AMP with email. I ignored this, since I don’t use Gmail anymore, and it didn’t seem like a big thing, on the surface. But there’s a post on the FastMail blog today titled Email is your electronic memory that’s pretty interesting. (FastMail is my current email provider.) They talk about how email should be “immutable.” (Apparently, the AMP thing is more about making email interactive rather than making it faster.) I haven’t thought about it too much, but the immutable nature of email is one of the most useful things about it. The web, in general, is very mutable. Web sites and web pages come and go. URLs change. But, if I’ve got an email in my mailbox, then the text (at least) of that email is fixed. I can search for it and find it and do stuff with it.

I subscribe to a bunch of email newsletters. One of the things I notice in these newsletters is whether they contain actual content, or just links to content. In general, newsletters that actually contain content are more useful than those that are just link collections. Warren Ellis’ newsletter is a good example. He includes a lot of text content within the body of the newsletter. He also includes links out to other stuff, which is unavoidable, but the main content of the newsletter is actually in the newsletter, as text. The newsletter for Tor.com goes the other way. It’s mostly just a list of recent articles on the site, with short text summaries and links out to the articles. The annoying thing about that newsletter is that the links expire. They use a link redirection service that, I assume, gives them analytics about how many times the links are clicked and stuff like that. But the links expire after a month or two. And I’m usually a month or two behind in reading those emails. So, if I click any of the links, they just go to an error page. To find the article I wanted to read, I have to search for it. That actually discourages me from reading most of the articles. I have to really want to read it to bother copying and pasting the title into DuckDuckGo or Google.

I also subscribe to a bunch of newsletters from the NY Times. Those are somewhere in between; there’s usually some content right in the newsletter, but also short article summaries and links out to the Times site for the full articles. One of the best newsletters they have is the one for The Interpreter. It generally contains a good well-written article in the body of the email, plus links out to related articles at the Times site and other sites.

And I use an alert service from the Times to get email notifications when new articles are published on certain subjects that I’m interested in. I have alerts set up for articles about comic books, sci-fi books & movies, and a couple of my favorite museums. These are really useful, since they frequently surface articles that I wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. But I was disappointed to see today that they have apparently discontinued that service. I haven’t seen an announcement about it, but there’s no longer a link to the alerts page from the account settings, and if you go directly to the alerts page, it’s now a static page that says “The New York Times has discontinued the My Alerts feature.” So that sucks.

Prior to setting up the alerts through the NY Times site itself, I had them set up through IFTTT. They were useful, but sometimes they’d stop working for no discernible reason, and they weren’t nearly as good as the official NY Times alerts at finding relevant articles. But I guess I might have to go back to IFTTT now. We’ll see. There’s probably some other fancy way for me to get alerts about NY Times articles, through a different third-party service, but I haven’t done any research into that yet.

Anyway, this was originally going to be a short post about how I need to catch up with my newsletters and news alerts, since I’m three or four months behind now. I only just read an article about how great the Michelangelo exhibit at the Met is, and it ended two days ago, and I didn’t get a chance to see it. Oh well.

John Perry Barlow, RIP

According to a post on the EFF website, John Perry Barlow has just passed away. I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about him personally, but I admired and respected him for his role in co-founding the EFF.

I’ve been following links to a few other articles related to him.

  • The NY Times also has an obituary.
  • His 25 Principles of Adult Behavior is an interesting list and worth reading.
  • And here’s a bit from This American Life, where he talks about meeting his fiancée Cynthia, and their subsequent relationship. (Warning: it’s heartbreaking.)
  • An obituary on reason.com refers to him as “The Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace,” which sounds a bit hyperbolic to me, but I guess isn’t too far wrong.

FastMail migration follow-up

I started switching from Gmail to FastMail back in May of last year. I’ve been using FastMail as my main personal email account now for about six months, and it’s been working fine. I’ve got no regrets about switching. I was actively working on switching my many online accounts over to using my FastMail address through most of May and June. I hit a few snags, but I’d say that I got about 90% of them switched over by the end of June. After that, I’d switch over a straggler here and there, as they came up, but I was about 90% on FastMail.

To start this year off, I thought I’d go the next step and finally migrate all of my old Gmail messages over into my FastMail account. I did that on New Year’s day, using FastMail’s import tool. It took about 4.5 hours. I had a little over 40,000 emails in my Gmail account. That’s a little over 2 GB. My FastMail account now has about 2.5 GB used, so about 10% of my 25 GB limit. The migration went smoothly, and everything (as far as I can tell) got pulled over cleanly, with no obvious issues. I definitely have some duplicate emails in there, since I had messages with multiple Gmail tags on them, and FastMail sees tags as folders. But I have enough room that I don’t really need to worry about that.

I have also, finally, set Gmail to forward new email to FastMail, so I don’t really need to check my Gmail account at all anymore. At some point, I’m going to go into Gmail and delete all the old mail out of the account, but I’m not in a big hurry to do that. I also haven’t set Gmail to delete new mail after forwarding it, though I might do that eventually.

As long as I was going along this path, I decided to also look into consolidating my other accounts into FastMail. I have way too many email accounts, honestly. I have a POP3 account from my cable internet provider. That used to be my primary email account, years ago, before Gmail even existed. They have no built-in way to forward it to another account, so I have FastMail set up to collect mail from it via POP3, periodically. That works fine. I get very little mail in that account these days.

Then there’s my outlook.com account. I briefly considered switching to Outlook.com Premium rather than FastMail, but decided against it. Premium was a half-baked product when I first evaluated it. It appears to have gotten a little better, but I still wouldn’t recommend it. I went as far as actually setting it up with my own domain (the same one I’m using with FastMail now). That was a mistake, since there was no way to unhook it once it was set up. So, ever since then, outlook.com has assumed it was handling that domain, and that I simply had it misconfigured (rather than having purposely pointed it to FastMail). They have, finally, added the ability to unlink a custom domain, so I did that last week. And I set the account to forward to FastMail and delete forwarded messages. So I can stop worrying about that account now, I think. (I don’t actually want to delete the account, since I’m not sure if I can do that without messing up my Microsoft ID, which I do actually need, for my Office 365 subscription and other stuff.)

I also have an iCloud account. I’ve had that one since back when it was “.Mac”. (2002 maybe?) I’ve never really used it for anything other than Apple-related email. This is another one I probably can’t rid of, since it’s tied to my Apple ID and all that stuff. But I’ve now set that one to forward to FastMail, and migrated what little mail I had in there to FastMail. (i’d have a lot more mail in there if I hadn’t lost a bunch of it a few years ago, but that’s another story.)

I have a Yahoo mail address too, which is the address I give out when I need to give my address to someone I really don’t want to get email from. (For instance, most retail stores.) So that one just sits there piling up with spam from Foot Locker and other random stores I bought a pair of socks from once. I don’t really want to forward that one to FastMail, so I’ll just leave it as it is.

So now I’m largely in control of my email, with my own domain, under a paid account from a stable provider whose main business is email. (Which was the main idea of this whole thing, though I kind of lost track of that at some point.)

I’ve also added my FastMail account to Outlook 2016 on my PC and the Apple Mail client on my MacBook. I’ve been primarily interacting with FastMail through their web interface (and through their iOS app), but I thought it would be useful to link it to a couple of desktop email programs, as a bit of a backup. Since it’s an IMAP account, though, a desktop email program really doesn’t count as much of a backup. The program is just reflecting what’s on the server, so if a bunch of mail was accidentally deleted, the program would just mirror that when it synced. I’m thinking about various email archive and backup solutions, both for PC and Mac. On the PC side, MailStore Home seems to be the obvious candidate. Or I could just create a .PST archive file in Outlook and copy my old mail to it. I have a few .PST archive files already, from old POP3 accounts (from back in the good old dial-up internet days). On the Mac side, EagleFiler looks interesting, though not exactly what I want. Email Archiver Pro is also a possibility, and maybe a little closer to what I need.

 

New SSL certificate

This blog should now have a new, slightly less fancy, SSL certificate. I had been using a $49/year certificate from 1&1, my hosting provider. It was issued via GeoTrust, and worked fine. A while back, 1&1 switched me to a slightly more expensive plan that included a free SSL cert. But of course they didn’t automatically move the paid one over. And there wasn’t an obvious way to do it from the control panel. I meant to call them about it, and didn’t get around to it before the cert renewed in June. So I had planned on doing that at some point next year before it renewed again. But I got an email this week telling me that it would renew this month. I do have an invoice from them saying that I renewed it through June 2018, so I’m not sure why they think it’s expiring now. But that finally motivated me to call them and get the cert moved over to the free one. The call was pretty simple and easy: only a short hold time, and the rep I got spoke English well, fixed things quickly, and didn’t try to sell me on any new services. Looking at the cert in Firefox now, It looks like a perfectly good DigiCert certificate, good through December 2018. Now let’s see if they really canceled the old one, or if they try to bill me for the renewal next month.