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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Dynamic range of the Sony A7R II

Tiff made fun of me on our upstate walk when I told the camera to dramatically underexpose this.

But modern Sony sensors are so good that I knew that there’d be tons of shadow detail to recover, and it was more important not to blow out the highlights.

I don’t have much photographic talent, really. A real pro (like Tiff) could’ve taken a much better picture here. Nobody cares about my unmemorable landscape photos except me.

But the reason I buy good cameras like this is to let a regular person like me capture my everyday life, for myself and my family, as best as I possibly can. So when I screw up the exposure…

…I can fix it.

And I can send my awesome grandparents, ages 91 and 87, a picture with their great-grandson, rather than regretting having missed the shot.

The ethics of modern web ad-blocking

More than fifteen years ago, in response to decreasing ad rates and banner blindness, web advertisers and publishers adopted pop-up ads.

People hated pop-up ads. We tolerated in-page banners as an acceptable cost of browsing free websites, but pop-ups were over the line: they were too annoying and intrusive. Many website publishers claimed helplessness in serving them — the ads came from somewhere else that they had little control over, they said. They really needed the money from pop-ups to stay afloat, they said.

The future didn’t work out well for pop-ups. Pop-up-blocking software boomed, and within a few years, every modern web browser blocked almost all pop-ups by default.

A line had been crossed, and people fought back.

People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory, but it’s a blurry line in reality.

By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase. That’s also a nice theory, but of course, it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to actually do that. Publishers are lucky if people even read the content with any real attention today, let alone the ads around it.

Ads have always been a hopeful gamble, not required consumption. Before the web, people changed channels or got up during TV commercials, or skipped right over ads in newspapers and magazines. Pragmatic advertisers and publishers know that their job is to try to show you an ad and hope you see and care about it. They know that the vast majority of people won’t, and the ads are priced accordingly. The burden is on the advertisers and publishers to create ads that you’ll care about and present them in a way that you’ll tolerate.

Web ads are dramatically different from prior ad media, though — rather than just being printed on paper or inserted into a broadcast, web ads are software. They run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.

All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.

That’s why the implied-contract theory is invalid: people aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.

And it’s all getting so much worse, so quickly.

I’ve never been tempted to run ad-blocking software before — I make most of my living from ads, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and I’ve always wanted to support the free media I consume. But in the last few years, possibly due to the dominance of low-quality ad networks and the increased share of mobile browsing (which is far less lucrative for ads, and more sensitive to ad intrusiveness, than PC browsing), web ad quality and tolerability have plummeted, and annoyance, abuse, misdirection, and tracking have skyrocketed.

Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.

Web publishers and advertisers cannot be trusted with the amount of access that today’s browsers give them by default, and people are not obligated to permit their web browsers to load all resources or execute all code that they’re given.

I recently started using Ghostery on my computers, and a simple homemade iOS content blocker that I may release for iOS 9’s launch. The web performance improvements with these are staggering, and the reports of quite how much Ghostery is blocking on most pages is shocking and disgusting.

Web publishers had things pretty nice for a while. Monetization was usually as simple as dropping a <script> tag from an ad service into your template. Want to add stats and analytics? Just drop in another <script> tag from another service. The bizdev people made a deal to integrate another analytics service for another few pennies? Go ahead, drop in yet another <script> tag.

Those days are over. It won’t be easy for many to move on, and not everyone will make it.

This won’t be a clean, easy transition. Blocking pop-ups was much more incisive: it was easy for legitimate publishers to avoid one narrowly-useful Javascript function to open new windows. But it’s completely reasonable for today’s web readers to be so fed up that they disable all ads, or even all Javascript. Web developers and standards bodies couldn’t be more out of touch with this issue, racing ahead to give browsers and Javascript even more capabilities without adequately addressing the fundamental problems that will drive many people to disable huge chunks of their browser’s functionality.

But publishers, advertisers, and browser vendors are all partly responsible for the situation we’re all in. Nobody could blame the users of yesteryear for killing pop-up ad rates, and nobody should blame the users of 2015 for blocking abusive, intrusive, misleading, and privacy-stealing ads and trackers, even if it’s inconvenient for publishers and web developers.

Fortunately, better monetization methods exist. It has never been easier to collect small direct payments online, cutting out the advertising middlemen and selling directly to your true customers. For publishers who want to remain ad-supported, ethically and tastefully presented native advertising, such as sponsored posts in feeds and our community’s podcast ads, has proven to be more effective, more profitable, and less user-hostile by far compared to awful network <script> embeds.

In a few years, after the dust has settled, we’re all going to look back at today’s web’s excesses and abuses as an almost unbelievable embarrassment. Hopefully, the worst is behind us. And it’s time to stop demonizing people who use tools to bring that sanity to their web browsers today.

Don’t order the fish

That place is great. Nice staff, casual atmosphere, good food.

You didn’t like it? Really? Why? It’s great.

Oh, you got the fish? Rookie mistake. Don’t order the fish, it’s terrible. But everything else there is good!

*     *     *

Jim Dalrymple’s loss of his music library was painful to read because, as much as I use, rely on, and mostly like Apple’s products, we all know that there are some toxic hellstews that are best avoided.

We’ve all heard (or said) the blanket statement that Apple isn’t good at cloud services, but that’s not universally true.

I’ve been using Apple’s services to sync contacts and calendars since they were called .Mac, with very few issues and zero data loss over the years.

As both a user and developer, I’ve never had a single issue with push notifications, probably Apple’s largest-scale and largest-volume web service. It’s rock-solid, fast, and reliable.

Even the new Photos app and iCloud Photo Library have been rock-solid not only for me, but for everyone I’ve talked to. The sole complaint I’ve heard is slow performance with very large libraries. I’ve had no issues with sync performance, data loss or duplication, or any confusion about what’s where.

But the iTunes Store back-end is a toxic hellstew of unreliability. Everything that touches the iTunes Store has a spotty record for me and almost every Mac owner I know.

And the iTunes app itself is the toxic hellstew. iTunes has an impossible combination of tasks on its plate that cannot be done well. iTunes is the definition of cruft and technical debt. It was an early version of iTunes that demonstrated the first software bugs to Grace Hopper in 1946.

Probably not coincidentally, some of iTunes’ least reliable features are reliant on the iTunes Store back-end, including Genius from forever ago, iTunes Match more recently, and now, Apple Music.

iTunes’ UI design is horrible for similar reasons: not because it has bad designers, but because they’ve been given an impossible task: cramming way too much functionality into a single app while also making it look “clean”.

iTunes is designed by the Junk Drawer Method: when enough cruft has built up that somebody tells the team to redesign it, while also adding and heavily promoting these great new features in the UI that are really important to the company’s other interests and are absolutely non-negotiable, the only thing they can really do is hide all of the old complexity in new places.

With the introduction of Apple Music, Apple confusingly introduced a confusing service backed by the iTunes Store that’s confusingly integrated into iTunes and the iOS Music app (don’t even get me started on that) and partially, maybe, mostly replaces the also very confusing and historically unreliable iTunes Match.

So iTunes is a toxic hellstew of technical cruft and a toxic hellstew of UI design, in the middle of a transition between two partly redundant cloud services, both of which are confusing and vague to most people about which songs of theirs are in the cloud, which are safe to delete, and which ones they actually have.

Even Jim’s follow-up piece, after meeting privately with Apple in PR-damage-control mode, is confusing at best about what actually might have happened, which is completely understandable because it sounds like even Apple isn’t sure.

I have plenty of plausible theories on why iTunes didn’t get the iCloud Photos treatment — why Apple Music was bolted onto this ancient, crufty, legacy app instead of discontinuing iTunes, dropping its obsolete functions, and starting fresh with a new app and a CloudKit-based service. (Engineering resources, time to market, iPods, Windows, and people with slow internet connections.)

But that doesn’t make iTunes better or less confusing, and Jim’s still missing those Ozzy tracks.

The safest, most sensible course of action for users is to just keep their music libraries away from iTunes Match and Apple Music. We’ll all just know not to order that fish, and many of us won’t use Apple Music at all because its integration into our local libraries feels too unsafe.

And that’s too bad for everyone, because Apple Music is pretty great when everything works and you can figure out where everything is.

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