Free Internet vs Internet of Free Stuff

This weekend’s Sunday New York Times magazine featured an article about buying your way into a “cleaner” Internet experience by Kevin Roose. The article’s message that the internet is just furthering the divide between the haves and have-nots is untrue and based entirely on Roose’s limited view of the Internet that completely ignores what is perhaps the most useful piece of the internet: the personal website.

Roose writes as if the personal website—which arguably is the wellspring of the Internet’s promise of informational equality—either never existed or no longer exists.

For those too young to remember, in the very early days of the web it felt like HTML was this easy-to-use tool that allowed a whole bunch of people to share their knowledge with the world. Personal websites could be goldmines of really arcane knowledge that, fueled by HTML and web hosting allowed people to make websites and share their knowledge.

 

This website, about 20 years ago where I wrote about stuff that I was interested in.

If you wanted to know how to fix a guitar effects pedal, there was probably a guy who was writing up some HTML with instructions on how he fixed his own pedal complete with lousy digital photos from his cell phone. But that free sharing of knowledge was what filled me with such hope about the internet.


Roose refers to . . . the ad-based model that powers the free internet . . .

I think we need some kind of distinction here between the Free Internet and the internet of free stuff. The former is that virtual space where there is a balance of making and taking and it is populated by internet citizens who care deeply about maintaining the personal and individual side of the web.

The internet of free stuff is what happened when tools like Napster were unleashed on the world. When Roose writes about the Free Internet he’s really talking about the internet of free stuff. They’re two very different things.

We moved from the Free Internet to the internet of free stuff when sharing by makers got sort of twisted and distorted and the circumference of the circle around what was given away for free kept getting wider and wider.

Soon it wasn’t just instructions on how to fix guitar effects pedals or replace the speedo in your Volkswagen but it was albums and tv shows and movies.

And that’s when things got weird.


Today’s internet is full of premium subscriptions, walled gardens and virtual V.I.P. rooms, all of which promise a cleaner, more pleasant experience than their free counterparts. The pay walls have been rebuilt, and the artists no longer work for tips. Hundreds of millions of people shell out for Netflix accounts, Patreon podcasts, Twitch streams, Spotify and news subscriptions. The average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.

But like a superhighway that gets built up through an old neighborhood, these two internets live side by side now. These subscription services are not going away, but it doesn’t mean that the old neighborhood of personal webpages is going to go away anytime soon. And just because Roose doesn’t see them from his vantage point along the superhighway doesn’t mean there isn’t real value in them.

Roose is correct when he writes:

Billions of people still use the free internet every day, of course. But it feels increasingly like wading into a sludge pit of algorithmically promoted misinformation, privacy-invading apps and subpar user experiences.

The article’s primary point is that if you want to escape the sludge pit, you need to buy your way out of it. His view from the commercial web’s superhighway is such that buying your way out of the sludge pit is the only solution he can imagine.

But there’s an alternative. Instead of buying your way out of the sludge you can learn how to build a bridge over it or go around it.

I and many others have learned how to use the Free Internet every day while minimizing our exposure to “algorithmically promoted misinformation, privacy-invading apps and subpar user experiences.” My primary tool for this, of course, is an RSS reader but that’s not the only way.

My point is that there still exists a Free Internet that is a wealth of knowledge and community and you don’t need to buy your way —in fact you can not buy your way—into it. It requires mining for personal homepages that exist outside of the algorithms. Wandering through the old neighborhoods of the Internet and learning the locals’ language.

Shawn Blanc shows that he knows those neighborhoods and speaks the locals’ language when he writes about searching the web for information about cameras:

You see, I wanted to get some real life, normal-person, story-based reviews of the camera — as opposed to the sterile, press-release regurgitation articles that are on so many of the high-ranking websites that appear on page 1 of Google results.
And so, in order to get to the good stuff — the articles that were written by normal folks with normal blogs who had been using the camera for a while before they wrote their review — I had to skip past the first page.

It seems to me that what the web needs now more than ever to guarantee the equal access to information is a search engine for personal websites. A magic tool that somehow ignores all corporate/big-tech content and drills down directly to those sites written mostly for free by people who love a subject so much that they are happy just to write about it in the hopes of helping and connecting with other people who share their interests.

Hyper Drive 11 port Ultimate USB-C Hub not Charging iPad Pro

It took just about over a week of back-and-forth emails with support the support folks from Hyper Drive but we finally found a solution to my iPad not charging while using their 11 port hub with my iPad Pro.

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The first few emails were the “unplug it/replug it, restart your iPad” type. Then the support tech suggested downloading a firmware upgrade for the hub which can only be done from a PC/Mac andnot from an iPad.

Then, she came back with this:

We have concluded that the 18W power supply is not sufficient enough to charge your iPad Pro with the HyperDrive plugged in. This is due to the fact that the HyperDrive draws almost half of the wattage of the 18W power supply at 7.5w to be able to output power to the ports it provides such as the HDMI, USB-A, USB-C, and SD cards. We do recommend using Apple’s 30w power adapter as it will provide a normal charge. We are currently working on an FAQ page for our HyperDrive, but once again I do apologize for the issues.

That sounded about right. So I ordered a refurbished 30W power supply off of eBay for $25 and, tada, now all of the ports work on the device AND my iPad is charging.

Prime Now, Whole Foods Packaging

I’m feeling love/hate towards the whole Amazon/PrimeNow/Whole Foods delivery thing. I’ve used it probably 10 times now and it is super-convenient. And I think it makes me a better shopper from a food-planning perspective.

That said, when I was getting Whole Foods deliveries this summer the amount of insulated packaging that was being included was insane. Like a whole insulated bag for one yogurt. They definitely use too many bags and moreover too many insulated bags. The latter are not recyclable, by the way.

For my last few deliveries I’ve added in the “Special Notes” section “Please use as few bags as possible.” The request seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Getting better. At least there were none of the non-recyclable insulated bags in this order.

Until yesterday. Perhaps because it is now cooler outside, there were no more of the insulated bags in my order. This, despite ordering a bunch of cold/perishable items. So, that’s a win right there.

They didn’t minimize the number of paper bags in any meaningful way. If I’d been bagging at the checkout I probably would have used 3 instead of the 8 they sent. But we reuse/recycle the paper ones so that’s another step towards reducing the amount of waste generate by Prime Now.

What really needs to happen is a rotating/loaner shopping bag type system where Prime Now delivers the groceries in reusable plastic shopping bags (and maybe even charges you for them) and then when you drop them back off again at the local Whole Foods you get a credit for them.

Streaming options and the independent web

Hulu recently announced they would be raising their prices come December. We had the Live TV option with Ads and it would be jumping from $45/mo to $55/mo. I was just about to upgrade to the “no ads” plan before they made this announcement.

But this has been a busy week for streaming services so I did some back of the envelope calculations and here’s what we’ve landed on:

Yes, we are giving up live tv. But I think in all the time we had hulu Live TV since this summer, I’ve watched a live show exactly 1 time. So not really getting our money’s worth there. (That said, we have an antenna hooked up to our basement TV if we want to watch football on network television).

Note that by default the Disney/Hulu/ESPN bundle for $12.99 doesn’t give you ad free Hulu, but if you subscribe to ad-free Hulu using the same email you use for your Disney account, Disney refunds $4.99/month to your account. One of the upsides of synergy, yay!

But…Disney?

I’ve been talking to a friend of mine about Disney and what they’ve done to entertainment. I agree that it is a bit dystopian. Not just that a single massive corporation owns Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars but that they also own both Disney streaming AND Hulu streaming. That is an insane amount of media assets under one umbrella.

The quick downside is that I’m sure we will very soon see some kind of price gouging from Disney. It is inevitable. How long before I’m paying $55 a month for the same bundle with Hulu and ESPN?

But the larger, long term problem with opening the door to the Disney universe is my implicit support of their dilution of entertainment down to a lowest-common-denominator formula.

A lot of Disney’s offerings (everything they touch, from Disney cartoons to the Marvel and Star Wars universes) seem to have some sort of diversity punch list that needs to be completed before the picture is released. I’m not arguing against the need for inclusion or diversity in entertainment, but when inclusion becomes predictably formulaic, it makes it more and more difficult to enter that bewitched state of being absorbed into something you know is not real—the very reason we turn to entertainment.

When creators need to hit some kind of punch list of inclusion metrics, the contrived inclusion pierces the illusion of the entertainment and breaks the spell.

And I think Disney is just going to get worse and worse with this and contaminate everything they touch with their inclusivity punch lists.

The Independent Web is the answer.

But there is a huge upside to this consolidation and watering down of entertainment: there will always be some creators who will rebel against overly-homogenized entertainment.

The more powerful Disney gets, the more fuel and energy there will be around creating alternatives to that entertainment. And so long as the internet remains free and open (and that’s never guaranteed), this is perhaps the best time in history for creators who want to put something out there and find an audience that is sick of homogenized pablum.

So, I’ll keep paying my $30 a month, watch some letterboxed Simpson’s but make sure to keep my RSS reader pointed in the direction of the independent web creators who, just like they have for the past 20 years, will help me find the really great stuff on the internet that would never pass through Disney’s homogenizing filters.

So long, 2015 13” MacBook Pro

Real bummer but no one was able to figure out what was going on with my 2015 13” MacBook Pro. I suspect it was the I/O board because using the trackpad would cause the WIFI to drop intermittently.

Rather than shell out the ~$500 to have the MacBook fixed I am trading it in for $650. Hopefully I get that much. I’m really ambivalent about not getting it fixed. I don’t think Apple makes anything as good/useful as this MacBook.

In the meantime, I am using the iPad Pro as my primary device and it is absolutely useable for 95% of things. That said, I really miss being able to ‘cat’ files from my terminal window. I do a bit of Medicare billing and electronically submitting claims results in a lot of text and XML files being dumped to show the status of submitted claims.

This AM I downloaded some of those status files and still can not figure out how to read them. iOS won’t open the files (even though they’re just plain text) and I have no shell I can drop to so that I can interrogate those files. I need to find a tool to allow me to look at arbitrary non-binary file contents.

Anyway, I expect that I will use my MacBook trade-in credit to buy another machine in the coming months and have been looking at the iMac, Mac Mini and holding my breath that by the time I’m fed up with the iPad and ready to pull the trigger on new hardware Apple will have figured out how to make a useful MacBook Pro.

Distraction

My meditation practice has been pretty consistent for the past several months. The payoff is that I am more frequently aware of when I am aware of what I am thinking vs. lost in thought.

Being lost in thought isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But if ever there was a “dose is the poison” example, it’s being lost in thought. A little is absolutely necessary, especially if you create things. But too much can leave you feeling empty and irritable.

Being lost in thought doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not thinking about anything. At it’s heart I think lost in thought just means that you are not aware of what you are thinking and, importantly, lost in thought means you almost certainly didn’t choose what you are thinking about.

That’s where these little technology devices can really drive us to being miserable. So much of what shows up on the screen of these devices is displayed for the very purpose of hijacking your thoughts. By design, these devices really make it challenging to choose what you are thinking about while you use them.

I have been trying to give some shape to the various ways I use technology and one of the ways I’m trying to give shape to those ways is to try to know exactly what it is I’m doing with my device whenever I look at it and to try to hold on to that sense of purpose regardless of how hard it works to hijack that purpose.

Hyperdrive 11-in-1 USB C hub for iPad Pro

I picked up one of these dingus dongles at Best Buy this AM (same price as Amazon, $79) so that I could turn my iPad Pro into a little recording studio device/multitrack recorder in my office. Specifically so I could turn my aging by serviceable Zoom H4n into an external microphone for GarageBand.

HyperDrive USB C Hub, Type C Adapter for MacBook Pro, Laptop USB-C Devices, Ultimate 11-in-1 Surface PC Docking Station w Power Delivery Charging, USBC 5Gbps Data, 4K HDMI, 3xUSB 3.1 Ports, VGA, etc

It does everything it is supposed to, or well, almost everything. My iPad gives me a “not charging” message even though the wall charger is plugged into the available USB C port on this thing. I am thinking that the default 18w charger that apple ships with the iPad Pro is not quite enough to power the hub and charge up the iPad. Maybe a bigger charger?

Who knows, my voice gave out before the iPad battery.

Messages (SMS) not syncing between iPhone and iPad

I’ve noticed, annoyingly, that when I send a message on my iPad it’s not always showing up on my phone and vice versa (especially when sending to non-iPhone users). This, despite the fact that in Settings->Messages both devices are using the same Apple user account.

Turns out the problem is that both devices also need to store Messages in iCloud.

You can do this under Settings->select your name/Apple ID->iCloud and make sure that Messages are turned on. They weren’t on my iPad even though they were on my iPhone.

iOS gestures

It’s been a couple of weeks now with the iPad Pro and I’m still struggling to understand gestures.

I never use my iPad without an external keyboard and have quickly become adept at most of the useful key combinations to navigate iOS. And to be clear, iOS is pretty keyboard accessible. As someone who has mostly lived in terminal windows and emacs, being able to navigate around using keyboard shortcuts (some of which come directly from emacs like ctrl-a/e for beginning/end of line, etc.) is really wonderful.

But there’s no mouse at all with this setup. Which at times leaves me with no option but to actually touch the iPad screen. And every time i reach out to the screen I recognize that I do not know what the hell i’m doing. Every time I touch the surface of my iPad i realize I am barely scratching the surface of what I can do with gestures.

Kirk McElhearn has a great suggestion today that iOS should have something like the buried trackpad gesture videos in System preferences that exist on MacOS.
The closest thing to actual help I can find on the Apple website is this guide to using multi-tasking gestures. And I still can’t get them to work right consistently.

Password review and sanity check in iOS

My Spotify account got hacked the other day. I was using a really insecure password that was identical to that of another login I used from a site that had been compromised.

So either someone guessed it or “acquired” it.

Either way, I know it got hacked because at 5:15AM yesterday morning I was listening to a Mozart concerto and then all of a sudden my HomePod started playing some crazy noises that I would have never queued up.

I was expecting the adagio movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto and got this masterpiece instead!

Groggily looking at my play history in the early morning hours, it was clear that someone else was simultaneously logged into my account. I didn’t jump to action on it but figure I’d deal with it later.

Then, later in the evening all the family accounts associated with my membership stopped working. The natives grew restless and I needed to deal with the situation.

So I changed the password and thought things would be fine.

But this other party was still logged in!

Simply changing your Spotify password doesn’t log out all the other instances of the app. So this time I changed the password and found the button on the Spotify page for “logout All devices.” Additional help here on dealing with compromised Spotify accounts.

This seemed to do the trick. But got me thinking, man, what other accounts have I used that password for?

My MacBook is out of order for a bit so I’m exclusively on iOS 13 and had no idea how to edit the keychain data on my iPad.

Turns out, not only is it pretty easy but Apple does a really decent job of alerting you to:

  • When you’ve stored an insecure/short/easily guesable password
  • When you’ve used the same password on multiple sites

Simply go to:

Settings->Passwords & Accounts->Websites & App Passwords

There you’ll see all of your saved passwords.

If you look for entries that contain a little warning sign like this with the little triangle:

You can click through to those entries and iOS will tell you that the password is either insecure (too easy) or used in multiple locations (a bad practice).

I still have some warnings on mine, but I’ve changed all the passwords that matched the one of the account that was compromised, so that’s a step in the right direction.

Anyway, hope this helps.

Whoa. Just saw my first Saul Leiter photographs.

Taxi, New York, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Convalescing from a head cold last night I watched 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. Leiter shot some amazing sort-of-abstract, i don’t know what to call it exactly, photos in NYC from the 1950’s onward. I had never heard of him before (not surprising since I could probably only name a handful of famous photographers). But as soon as I saw his photos I knew he was someone I wanted to learn about.

HomePod Automation

Man, i spent way too long trying to get my HomePods to work with Apple’s HomeKit automations this AM. I noticed in my Home app that the latest (the really latest that doesn’t brick your HomePod) update had been installed on my stereo pair of HomePods so I was like, sweet, now I can have my early AM playlist fire up at 5:00am at the same time my Phillips lights come on really low.

No such luck. I fiddled and restarted my iPhone and my HomePods and … nothing. I could not get my HomePods to appear as an available accessory in any scene or automation.

Finally I realized that my iPhone needed to be updated to 13.2 (not a painless process as I needed to force restart my iPhone before the update would install).

Once the HomePods were on 13.2.1 and my iPhone on 13.2, everything proceeded apace.

I still can’t get handoff to work correctly, because i suspect the stereo pairing is using the further HomePod that I’m too lazy to walk to to accept the handoff transfers.

Anyway. Apple has strayed pretty far from the ease of the Macintosh, that’s for sure.