Category Archives: Computers/Internet

Battle for the Net: Help Keep the Internet Open!

The FCC wants to eliminate net neutrality, the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic the same, and not block, throttle, or promote data based on what service you’re using or who you’re connecting to. But we can stop them.

What’s Net Neutrality? Simple: your cable company shouldn’t decide where you get your news, what businesses you buy from, which video chat services and streaming services you use, or who you talk to.

Why do we need it? It used to be an unofficial rule, underlying the way the Internet was built over the years, until ISPs started to break it. For example:

  • Multiple ISPs intercepted search queries and sent them to their own portals.
  • AT&T blocked Skype on the iPhone.
  • Verizon blocked tethering apps.
  • Multiple carriers blocked Google Wallet in favor of their own payment services.

In 2015, after a public advocacy campaign, the FCC made it official: ISPs in the United States are now required to treat all traffic equally.

So what’s the problem? There’s a new chairman in charge, and he wants to remove the rule.

No doubt cable and phone companies will go back to their old tricks. Plus they could slow down access to news sites that disagree with them, or charge websites extra for the privilege of reaching their audience (when they already pay for their upload connection), or slow down services owned by competitors (consider: Verizon owns Tumblr and Flickr now, and Comcast owns NBC) in favor of their own.

That’s right: free speech, fair competition, and the price you pay for your internet service are all protected by net neutrality.

Rolling back net neutrality doesn’t help you, doesn’t help business, doesn’t help anyone but the existing carriers.

That’s why I’m joining the Battle for the Net — and you can, too. The FCC’s public comment period is still open. Contact the FCC and Congress (here’s a form), and tell them why Net Neutrality matters to you. Then spread the word.

Keeping the internet open is critical. Let’s work to keep it!

Photobucket Lockdown: Another Chunk of Internet History Dies

Back in the old days, before you could upload photos straight to Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, if you wanted to share pictures online you had to host them yourself. Or if you used something like LiveJournal, you could use their limited image galleries. But with space and bandwidth at a premium in those days, you could run into limits fast.

That’s where sites like Photobucket and Imgur came in. You could upload your images there, and then put them on your fan site, or your journal, or whatever. They were also good for posting anonymously, as in communities like Fandom!Secrets. And they’re still good for posting images in places like Ebay listings, or online forums (yes, they still exist) that don’t provide their own hosting.

But you know the problem with hosting your stuff with a third party. You can’t guarantee they’ll stick around. And while Photobucket isn’t closing up shop yet like GeoCities did (taking with it an entire generation of online fandom), they’ve suddenly blocked hotlinking (the main way people used it!)…unless you pay up $399/year for an advanced account. BuzzFeed minces no words, calling it “ransom”.

So an awful lot of images across the internet have stopped working overnight.

I’m starting to think about all my photos that are hosted on Flickr, now that Verizon owns it. I don’t think they’re likely to do something similar, and Flickr’s paid service is a lot cheaper than Photobucket’s. But Yahoo was never quite sure what to do with it, and Verizon… well…

It might be time to move my “pull in remote Flickr embeds” project off the back burner, just in case.

Why Net Neutrality Matters

The FCC wants to abolish “net neutrality”, which states that ISPs should treat all traffic the same, and not block, throttle, or promote data based on what service you’re using or who you’re connecting to.

In short: Your cable company shouldn’t decide where you get your news, what businesses you buy from, which video chat services and streaming services you use, or who you talk to.

ISPs are people’s and businesses’ gateway to the internet. They shouldn’t also be gatekeepers. Net Neutrality protects free speech, communication, and economic activity that could otherwise be limited or adjusted to push a carrier’s own agenda at the expense of alternate views, create barriers to competition and innovation, and further entrench existing monopolies. The internet works best when it’s allowed to innovate at the edges, rather than locking us all into a near-monopoly’s choices.

This isn’t a hypothetical problem: ISPs have violated net neutrality in the past. ISPs have intercepted search queries and redirected them to their own portals. AT&T once forced Apple to block Skype on the iPhone. Verizon used to block tethering apps. Multiple carriers blocked Google Wallet in favor of their own payment services.

We fought this battle years ago. And now we have to fight it again. The FCC’s plan to roll back net neutrality doesn’t help subscribers, doesn’t help businesses, doesn’t help startups, doesn’t help publishers, doesn’t help you — doesn’t help anyone except the existing carriers and those they might decide to prop up.

I sent the third paragraph (minus the link) as a comment to the FCC through this Free Press Action Fund petition. Mozilla also has a petition, and is collecting voicemails to forward to the FCC before the May 18 meeting. So far they’re up to 50 hours’ worth of audio!

UPDATE! On July 12, 2017, the internet will come together again. Like the SOPA blackout in 2012, and the Internet Slowdown in 2014, everyone from tech companies to small websites to individuals will sound the alarm. Learn more and join the protest at the Battle for the Net.

Badgered Over HTTPS

I’ve been checking in on redirected & dead links lately, a few minutes here and there, updating, replacing, and removing where appropriate. And I’m happy to see that a lot of sites have moved to HTTPS. News sites, online stores, social networks, personal sites, publishers…. Not everyone, of course, but it’s a lot easier than it used to be. Now more than half of all web traffic is protected from eavesdropping and alteration when used across insecure networks.

The one that made me laugh, though: Badger Badger Badger. Now there’s a flashback!

It’s a silly animation loop that went viral back in 2003. The canonical site is still around…and even they upgraded!

So Much for the Pebble Smart Watch

For a long time I’ve thought that if I wanted to get a smart watch, it would be a Pebble, because they actually understand that a smart watch needs to work as a watch. So when they announced their Kickstarter for the revamped Pebble 2 and Pebble Time lines this summer, I decided it was time to try out wearable computing. My Pebble 2 arrived in late October, just in time for LA Comic Con, and I’ve been figuring out how best to use it over the past month and a half. I feel like I haven’t really found the watch’s full potential yet, but I’m not sure what point there is now, because I’m not sure how long it’ll be supported.

Today they’ve been bought by FitBit, and will be discontinuing the entire hardware line as FitBit picks up the software, cloud services (for now), and part of the development team.

Getting to Know the Smartwatch

Pebble 2 does work great as a wristwatch. You only need to charge it once every 5-6 days, and the screen is always on, so you can see the time and date at a glance. I’ve already gotten back into the habit of glancing at my wrist for the time instead of reaching into my pocket and pulling out a bulky phone.

Third-party watch faces range from the aesthetic (mimic classic designs) to the informative (cram every bit of time, weather, and health tracking data you can onto the main view) to the whimsical (show time using a binary counter, or Pac-Man, or the dots on a pair of dominoes). My six-year-old loves picking new designs and seeing them show up on my watch, but I keep coming back to the basic one because it works for the key thing a watch needs to do: let me tell the time quickly.

Notifications and calendar events are a key use case for a smart watch, but you have to manage them. I always pare down my phone’s audio notifications in order to avoid getting distracted, and that goes double for something that buzzes on my wrist. Once I got it down to just texts, calls and calendar appointments, it helped me avoid missing texts…for a while. Eventually I started missing them anyway. I’m not sure whether they’re not reaching the watch or my brain has started tuning it out.

When I do catch them, though, it is nice to see a preview of the message so that I know whether I should pull my phone out right away or it can wait a few minutes.

Fitness tracking is most useful if you have an actual workout routine (which I don’t) or you wear the watch constantly. It checks your heart rate every 10 minutes, counts steps, and tracks sleep and deep sleep. The watch shows your current status, and the phone app tracks daily, weekly and monthly stats. It’s interesting, but I can’t wear the watch 24/7 because the wristband ends up irritating my skin. A nicer watchband might help, but it might not, since I need to wear it tightly to keep the heart rate sensor in place.

I haven’t explored the Pebble app ecosystem as much as I could (but who knows how long it’ll be around). A few things I’ve looked at:

  • Music control is nice: you can pause and skip your phone’s music player using actual physical buttons.
  • I don’t want to play games by tilting my wrist.
  • Transit apps would be helpful if I rode the bus or train more often.
  • There’s a to-do list app that syncs with Google Tasks, which seemed great at first…but it’s a lot easier to pull up the tasks on my phone and look at a dozen items at a time than to scroll through three items on a tiny screen.

And that brings me what I think is key for smartwatches:

What a Smartwatch Needs to Do

To really be useful, a smart watch needs to be better than a phone at certain tasks. Cases where it definitely works:

  • Always-on at-a-glance info. Time/weather/step counts/etc. most of the time, with notifications and events as they occur.
  • Health/activity sensors.
  • Quick actions. Dismiss a reminder, or reply to a text message with a pre-canned “OK.” Menus are a pain, but I can imagine voice commands would help a lot.

If it takes longer to do something on the watch than to dig out your phone, unlock it, and do it there, the watch has failed at that task. If the watch makes it more convenient, then it’s succeeded.