If you follow tech news, you’re probably aware of the controversy over ad blockers. iOS 9 allows users to install and implement “content blockers.” These apps, which hook into the Safari web browser, can block ads and other types of content. As such, many web publishers who depend on ads are crying foul. They are saying that people using these ad blockers are freeloaders, and that ad blockers will harm their bottom line.
But users complain that ads make mobile browsing too slow, use up too much data, and compromise security and privacy, by tracking users and creating profiles of them in order to serve targeted ads.
It’s fair to say that the publishing industry has caused this problem through a willy-nilly approach to advertising that makes web browsing painful, particularly on mobile devices. The New York Times showed just how much of a difference in time and data an ad blocker can make on a number of popular websites, including its own.
In this article, I will explain how to install, set up, and use ad blockers on iOS 9.
Throughout the 20 years that I’ve been using the Internet, numerous people have pointed out that this technology could have consequences very different from what its boosters claimed. Andrew Keen’s new book The Internet Is Not the Answer (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) discusses the many problems that the Internet has caused and exacerbated over these past two decades.
“ rather than democracy and diversity, all we’ve got from the digital revolution so far is fewer jobs, and overabundance of content, an infestation of piracy, a coterie of Internet monopolists, and a radical narrowing of our economic and cultural elite.”
A number of Keen’s arguments are familiar. Far from encouraging openness and freedom, the Internet is often a hotbed of hatred and inequality. New monopolies, such as Google and Amazon, are increasing inequality and taking control of our data. Jobs are being destroyed, entire swathes of the economy are being decimated, and the middle class is disappearing as there is little room for those other than the wealthy or participants in the gig economy.
And those with the money controlling the Internet are attempting to impose their libertarian views to prevent unionization of their employees, block government regulation, and avoid paying taxes.
Keen points out that the Internet, designed to be open and cooperative, is anything but. “Instead, it’s a top-down system that is concentrating wealth instead of spreading it.”
Keen sketches the early history of the Internet, and explains how money started pouring into new ventures. And this is when thing went wrong:
“As Wall Street moved west, the Internet lost a sense of common purpose, a general decency, perhaps even its soul.”
Far from being open and egalitarian, and far from creating competition, the Internet has spawned winner-take-all companies. Amazon’s dominance of online retail, as well as e-book sales, has reached a dangerous level, killing off retail stores in every country where it exists. Google’s dominance of search is such that it is nearly impossible for any company to compete with. (It’s true that Microsoft’s Bing, and Yahoo, are not dead yet.) And in many other industries, one player is in a quasi-monopolistic position.
The Internet has also spawned a new approach to identity. In an attempt to emulate stars, people take selfies and share their statuses on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, Yet these services “delude us into thinking we are celebrities. Yet, in the Internet’s winner-take-all economy, attention remains a monopoly of superstars.”
One of the biggest problems with the Internet is the fact that we trade access to free content in exchange for providing personal data to companies like Google. “Most of these Web 2.0 businesses have pursued a Google-style business strategy of giving away their tools and services for free and relying on advertising sales as their main source of revenue.”
Keen goes on to say:
“The problem, of course, is that we are all working for Facebook and Google for free, manufacturing the very personal data that makes their companies so valuable.”
All our activity is being quantified and monitored. “We think we are using Instagram to look at the world, but actually we are the ones who are being watched. And the more we reveal about ourselves, the more valuable we become to advertisers.”
This, of course, highlights the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In the early days of the Internet, companies gave away all their content for free because they were trying to attract users to a new platform. We have seen how free has become so rooted in the mindset of Internet users, that people are hesitant to pay even $1 for an app, or to pay a subscription to read the news. Of course, the recent kerfuffle around ad-blockers in Apple’s iOS nine has shown that users no longer want to put up with advertising overload, and all these content providers need to figure out a new way to monetize their work.
And all this has caused many people to lose their jobs. Sure, we have Amazon Prime delivery, Uber, AirBNB, and Netflix, but all these companies are making money for the tech 1%. These companies have few employees, who are often treated as disposable. “The problem is the Internet remains a gift economy in which content remains either free or so cheap that is destroying the livelihood of more and more of today’s musicians, writers, photographers, and filmmakers.”
Keen offers some ideas as to how to change directions, but these suggestions are sketchy at best. “The answer […] can’t just be more regulation from government. […] The answer lies in our new digital elite becoming accountable for the most dramatic socioeconomic destruction since the Industrial Revolution. Rather than thinking differently, the ethic of this new elite should be to think traditional. […] Rather than an Internet Bill of Rights, what we really need is an informal Bill of Responsibilities that establishes a new social contract for every member of networked society.”
This thought-provoking book may make you think differently about how the Internet affects your life, and how it will continue to affect your future.
Despite the popular saying, lightning does strike twice, or even four times — as it did at a Google data center in Belgium last Thursday, causing problems for the next several days and leading to permanent data loss for a small percentage of unlucky users.
The problem began when the facility lost power briefly during one of the late-summer thunderstorms common in the area. That caused problems with reading or writing data for about five percent of disks in the data center. Most were fixed but data on .000001% of the center’s total disk space was lost. “In these cases, full recovery is not possible,” the company said in a statement.
WTF, Google doesn’t have backups? And people trust them with data in Google Docs?
I’ve long used the ClickToPlugin extension in Safari to prevent plug-ins from loading on web pages. This blocks Flash and other media plug-ins from running, and shows you a placeholder when you load a page with an element that is blocked.
It’s especially useful to block those annoying, moving Flash ads that serve no purpose other than to distract you from reading a web page.
If you do want to load the Flash animation, just click it. (Well, don’t click the one above; it’s just a screenshot.)
As Graham Cluley points out in his security blog, this plug-in can also protect you from Flash zero-day vulnerabilities that can infect your computer; since Flash can’t run, the vulnerability can’t be exploited. Sometimes, the Flash animations that serve malware are tiny, and you don’t even see them.
There are two versions of the plug-in: ClickToFlash, that only blocks Flash, and ClickToPlugin, that blocks other media player plug-ins, and that also tries to force the plug-in to switch to Safari’s built-in HTML5 media player.
This saves time, battery power and bandwidth, and keeps your annoyance level low. And it protects you from annoying Flash animations.
You may simply want to uninstall Flash; you can do that, but you may find that you actually need it from time to time. I find this to be the best solution: I can load the Flash animations if I want to, but, if not, I’m not bothered.
If you use a browser other than Safari, see Graham Cluley’s article for links to plug-ins that work in other browsers.
I recently moved my website to a new hosting company. The old host was slow, and, since my traffic has grown a lot, I was hitting the limit of their responsiveness.
While my new host is faster in general – in part because my site is hosted on an SSD – I managed to improve the amount of time it takes to load pages drastically by using a few simple techniques.
So, here are 3 easy ways to make your website load faster.
Start by heading over to Pingdom, and run a website speed test. Pingdom uses three different servers, so it’s a good idea to try them all. (Click Settings to choose which server to test from, or just run the same test several times; it cycles through the servers.)
My website used to take about 8 seconds to load the front page; using Pingdom, and making some simple changes, I have been able to reduce it to around 2-3 seconds.
I’m looking at my website’s main page, which has different articles at different times, some of which contain more graphics than others. So the time it takes to load this page will vary greatly.
Tip 1: The first thing I did was reduce the number of stories that display on the main page of my site. I use WordPress, and in the Dashboard, under Settings > Reading, you can choose this number. I used to have eight articles on the main page; I reduced this to five.
Next, after you’ve run a test with Pingdom, look at the load times for each object on your page.
Everything you can see in the graphic above loads quickly, but that wasn’t the case before. If you have any elements that load slowly, they may be depending on other servers.
Tip 2: For example, I use the Jetpack plug-in with my WordPress installation. It has a module that lets you put social media sharing buttons on each post. But it was slowing down my site a great deal, because the buttons had to check with servers to find how many times the post had been shared. It’s cool to have those little numbers on the sharing buttons, but they added a few seconds to my pages’ load times. I’ve since switched to a different plug-in, Simple Share Buttons Adder.
Check to see if other plug-ins are querying servers, slowing down your pages.
Tip 3: Another way to improve load times is to optimize graphics. I’ve recently switched to using retina graphics on my site, which are larger files. But I’ve also started using ImageOptim to optimize all my graphics. For example, the first graphic in this article was shrunk by 18%, but some graphics get optimized by as much as 50%.
(ImageOptim is a Mac app. You can also use Yahoo’s web-based SmushIt.)
Bonus tip: If you have a web host that uses Cpanel, you can enable compression in the Apache web server. On my Cpanel installation, in the Software/Services section there’s an Optimize Website icon. Click that, then choose Compress All Content. Click Update Settings to apply this change.
When I turned this on, after writing the first version of this article, my page loads were down to less than 2 seconds using Pingdom’s tests.
This not only makes your website faster, but also reduces the bandwidth that your site uses. If your hosting plan his bandwidth limits, then this will help keep you from hitting those limits.
I’m no expert in this stuff, but these simple changes reduced my page load time by well over 50%. If you run a website, and want to make it faster, these are some easy tips that you can use right now to speed up your pages.
If you have any other tips to share that can speed up web pages, feel free to post them in the comments below.
Update: RealMac Software met their funding goal after about 12 hours. 24 hours after the campaign went live, they’re at +50% of their goal. Talk about a resounding success! I guess there are enough people who want this sort of lightweight blogging platform.
Last week, I migrated this website to a new hosting company. I had outgrown my old host, and I needed something more reliable, and that could handle more traffic. At the time, I was thinking about what alternatives there were to WordPress, which has become cumbersome. It’s a good, free blogging platform, but it’s getting complicated to manage, and I, as a writer, would rather spend my time writing than worrying about what runs my blog.
Coincidentally, around the same time, I got a heads up from RealMac Software saying that they were launching a crowdfunding campaign for Typed: A Better Blogging Platform. The company recently released a text editor called Typed, which has become my daily writing tool. So this blogging platform looks to be an extension of the text editor, reproducing the same ethos of its simple, minimal interface and features.
Typed will work with Markdown as input, allow you to have most of the features that make WordPress attractive: posts and pages, tags, scheduled posts, responsive layouts, themes, and much more. It will be a hosted service, but where you can use your own domain names.
The idea of a new, slimmed-down blogging platform is very attractive to me. I’ve contributed to the crowdfunding effort, and if you’re a blogger, you should consider doing so as well. It’s great that WordPress is the leader in blogging, but it’s becoming too much to handle for many people. I hope that Typed will be a viable replacement, and I’m looking forward to trying it out.
In my latest Macworld article, I look at ways you can speed up the internet – just a bit – by changing your DNS settings. Instead of using your ISP’s DNS – domain name system – server, you can use a public server which may be faster. I also tell you how to use a free tool to find out which are the fastest DNS servers you can use.
Apple’s recent nude selfie hack illustrated the need for two-step or two-factor authentication (TFA) as a way of hardening the protection for online accounts. You may be familiar with this from banks, some of which use systems where you generate a one-time authentication code that you enter together with your password. It ensures that access to your account requires both something you know (your password) and something you have (a device that generates a code; an app; a cellphone to receive a code by SMS).
Here’s how Apple explains the process:
In practice, however, this is problematic. I use TFA on Dropbox; whenever I log into Dropbox on a new device, I immediately get a code sent to my iPhone. I enter that code, and I can access my files. But, the other day, I tried to turn on TFA for Google. I went to step 1, where I entered my user name and password, then step 2, where I gave them my cellphone number. Then I waited; and waited. I then clicked a link saying I hadn’t received the code, and I clicked a link to have it sent again. And again. Then the Google site recommended I have them send a voice mail instead of a text message. I waited. And I waited. I finally got a voice call with the code, but when I entered it, it had already expired. I never got any of the text messages, which I requested four times. Needless to say, the way Google works, I would be effectively locked out of my account with no way at all to get back in.
I’ve thought about activating TFA for my iCloud account, but have you ever looked at Apple’s FAQ for two-step verification for an Apple ID? I make my living writing about computers, and telling people how to use them, and I’m daunted by this page. I once started the process, but it was so scary – full of warnings that if I didn’t print out the Recovery Key, I might never be able to get access to my iCloud data. Needless to say, I gave up.
Two-factor authentication is a powerful tool; my bank uses this, and a banker told me that, since they introduced it, fraud has essentially disappeared. But the way it is implemented for online accounts is problematic, and dangerous. Accessing my data is far too important to trust to a system that can go wrong, as Google’s did, or that is too confusing, as Apple’s is. There has to be a better way.
Update, April 4, 2014: Tooway satellite performance has degraded substantially in recent weeks. At peak times, I’m lucky to get 50 K/sec downloads. It seems that they have way too many users, and their network is saturated. The slowdowns I mention in the article, such as from the iTunes Store, have become the norm, in spite of Tooway’s speed tests showing that I have more than 10 Mbps downloads.
The satellite provider, Avonline, is switching me to another service, Avanti, which has only been available for a short time. I’ll post a review of that service soon. But if you’re considering Tooway, I strongly recommend you don’t go that route based on my recent experience.
Update, September 25, 2014: I’m seeing the same problems as described above with the Avanti satellite service. Today, I was getting 15 Mbps in a speed test directly with Avanti, but only a few K/sec downloading content from the Mac App Store. On the same Mac, I get about 3 Mbps on my DSL connection. I’ll be canceling this service as soon as I can; unless you can’t get any DSL, you won’t be satisfied with this satellite internet service.
In a Macworld article that was published today, I describe the trials and tribulations of getting a decent level of internet access at The Barn. I moved to this nearly-rural property in December; it’s on the edge of a village a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a lovely area to live, but it’s poorly served by both broadband and mobile phone providers.
The Macworld article discusses the overall issues involved, but I wanted to write more specifically about the satellite broadband service I’m using, because I’ve had a number of queries about it from others in my situation.
tooway is a satellite internet provider which offers “high speed internet” to 55 countries in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Using the Eutelsat KA-SAT satellite, this company provides broadband access at “up to 20 Mbps,” which is sold through a network of distributors. There are several in the UK, and I chose Avonline Broadband, because their offer corresponded best to what I needed.
I remember early satellite internet which used a combination of a satellite dish for downloads and dial-up internet for uploads, but the technology has improved. Satellite internet now uses a two-way satellite dish, which has a diameter of 77 cm. As long as you are in line of sight to the satellite, you can get internet access just about anywhere.
Avonline sent a technician to install the satellite dish. Given the configuration of The Barn, it was easy to install, and isn’t very visible. A cable runs along the outside of the house and enters my office, which is where I have the satellite modem. I connect this, in turn, to an AirPort Extreme base station, and use an AirPort Express on the ground floor of my home to extend the network. Since I live in a stone house, wi-fi doesn’t propagate very well, and I need the extra boost downstairs.
As these companies say, you can get “up to 20 Mbps.” As with all internet providers, the theoretical maximum speed is not something you will see all the time, but you will get that speed occasionally. I have seen speeds up to about 21.5 Mbps in the morning, but later in the day, speeds drop, often to around 2 Mbps in the evening. And that’s the problem with this satellite internet: when I want to download a movie, I need to think ahead. Last Saturday evening, I wanted to rent a movie from the iTunes Store. I initiated the rental, and my Apple TV told me it would take about 5 hours. So I stopped, and downloaded the movie the following afternoon.
Peak periods, as I have seen, tend to be from 6 pm on weekdays, and much of the weekend. So getting faster speeds then is a problem. However, one advantage of Avonline’s offer is unlimited downloads from 11 pm to 7 am. I use this to download large app updates, movie rentals, etc., without affecting my quota. Because that’s another problem with satellite internet: you can’t download all you want. My plan has a 50 GB limit per month (not counting the unlimited period), but other plans offer less. The first month, I used up data very quickly, and found that my “smart” TV was sucking data, in small amounts, all day long. When I took it off the network, my data usage dropped a lot.
So you need to juggle two variables: speed, which can change from blisteringly fast to a trickle during the day, and a quota. With 50 GB, I can safely download the updates and apps that I need to do my work, and still have room for a movie or two. But I check my data usage every few days to make sure I’m not getting close to the limit. There’s a page I can visit to check the status of my modem, as well as my data usage. It’s not presented in numerical form, unfortunately, but in seven steps, each corresponding to 1/7 of the total data allowance for the month. (In my case, each square represents about 7 GB. In the example below, I’m one week from the end of the month, so I have no worries about downloads over the next seven days.)
As you can see above, my “default” speed is 20000 kbps down, and 6000 kbps up. While download speeds vary a lot, I’ve found that the 6 Mbps upload speed is pretty stable. I’ve never had uploads that fast in the past, and, while I don’t often need to upload a lot of data, it’s good to know that I can when I want to. (If you have satellite internet already, read my Macworld article for some tips about how to best optimize your download limit.)
The other main issue with satellite internet is latency: the time it takes for a request to be received and acknowledged. With satellite internet, this is between 700 and 800 ms, whereas with DSL, I get about 30-35 ms. Because of this, web pages load very slowly, and things like checking email can take longer than they do with normal broadband. But this only affects the first connection, so once a web page starts loading, any images on it do download quickly, at least when the speed is high enough.
However, it seems that tooway throttles some internet services. When I couldn’t download that movie to my Apple TV last Saturday, I stopped the download, went to my computer, and ran a speed test. I got about 6 Mbps downloads, which was more than enough to stream a movie from the iTunes Store. I’ve seen other times when downloading music from the iTunes Store where speeds were slow, and given my experience with the iTunes Store, it’s a lot more likely that this is the satellite provider throttling access than Apple’s servers being slow.
As for Avonline, they’ve been good enough, but not great. The technician who installed the satellite dish was excellent, and very helpful in explaining to me how the system works, and how to best use it. Customer support has been iffy: I’ve only had to call them a few times, but the wait can be very long. I’ve sent some questions by email, and have gotten replies to some, and others have been ignored. On the other hand, they were very helpful in the first few weeks, when I couldn’t figure out how I had used so much data. The support person suggested that I take my TV off the network – I’ve switched it to the DSL – and that make a huge difference in usage.
Avonline offers a “technology guarantee,” saying that if fiber is installed, you can cancel your contract with 30 days’ notice. I have a 12-month contract to start with, and it’s good to know that I’m not locked in should the telecom companies decide that areas like mine deserve better internet access.
All in all, I’d rather not have had to choose satellite internet. The speeds are too variable, and the fact that I have a monthly quota is annoying. But I don’t have much choice: the DSL I got (as a backup, and to use when I’m just surfing the web) is 2 Mbps, far too slow to download 1 GB updates to iOS, or OS X betas, which can be 4-5 GB. There are currently no plans to improve the broadband where I live, so I’m stuck for now.
Satellite internet is the internet of last resort, and its price and quality make it something you don’t really like. I had 15 Mbps DSL in York, before moving here, at less than half the price. But it’s better than nothing, and it’s a lot better than the overpriced DSL access I get here. (I pay the same amount for my DSL access here as in York, for 1/7 the speed.) And I get to live in a beautiful barn, in a lovely area. Life is made of compromises.