Should I feel bad about blocking ads?

internet
Eyeball with Coke reflection


As Internet ad-blockers have grown more popular, online publishers have gotten aggressive—even passive-aggressive—about fighting back.

Frequently, after following a Twitter link, I’m greeted by a pre-content pop-up, explaining how the publication’s ad-funded business model works. “Please whitelist us,” the message begs, “so that we can continue delivering great content for you.” Sometimes, this plea can be dismissed; too often, it prevents viewing the content until I manually disable my ad-blocking extension.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to journalism’s plight. As the newspaper business has collapsed, online revenue hasn’t closed the gap. Ad blockers represent a real threat, since a blocked ad will never get clicked. Fewer clicks leads to lower ad rates—and fewer well-paid creatives.

But despite the publishers’ predicament, and despite their interstitial pleas, I don’t feel guilty enough to voluntarily view ads. I’ll keep running ad blockers as long as they work, for two reasons:

  • I never click on ads, anyways. As far as I know, I have literally never clicked on a web ad—at least not intentionally. If these sites and advertisers are using clicks as their metric, my ad-blocker shouldn’t affect them (right?).
  • If web marketers are measuring views (instead of clicks), my ad blocker could have an impact. But I don’t feel obligated to surrender my attention just because I clicked a link. Ads undermine my focus and squat in my imagination long after I navigate away from a page. As I’ve written before, I consider that headspace to be sacred. Whatever responsibility I have to “pay” for articles with my attention is outweighed by my obligation to be present for those around me.

Of course, somebody’s got to pay for good content. As the ad-blocking arms race continues, I may eventually be forced to either a) buy premium, paywall-bypassing memberships or b) accept the degraded attention caused by overexposure to advertising.

Given these two options, I know which I’d choose. Heck, I’d pay anything to never see this on the web:


  1. Eyeball artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Only monsters speed up podcasts

internet
podcast bunny


Most modern podcast clients let listeners speed up playback, and the resulting audio is surprisingly decent. The pitch doesn’t shift (remember the “Chipmunks effect”?), and the average podcaster is still intelligible.

Faster playback gives listeners time for more podcasts—a welcome perk, since the library of available shows continues to grow exponentially. As the market explodes, faster playback seems like a no-brainer: more great conversations, no additional time commitment. What’s not to like?

My advice? Don’t do it. Keep that playback speed locked at 1x. While you’re at it, turn off clever features like Overcast’s “Smart Speed”, which saves time by cropping out silence.

Yes, enabling these options saves you time, but they have nasty side effects better left avoided. Consider:

  • Fast playback discourages thoughtful listening. Artful speakers use long pauses and measured cadences very intentionally. By slowing down, they give the audience time to sit with an intriguing idea, to chew on a tough concept, or to ask introspective questions. You lose all that by artificially rushing past the quiet.
  • Fast playback makes you a worse speaker. Because we spend so much time with them, podcasters have become our models for normal human speech. If your favorite podcast’s hosts are chattering away at 2x, your own speaking cadence will likely speed up, too. You might not notice the difference, but others will. “Why is Matt talking like a crazy person?”
  • Fast playback accommodates overconsumption and busyness. Podcast accleration treats the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. Solve the real problem: you’re too busy. If you can’t get through your podcast queue at 1x, consider paring down your list instead of rushing through it.

Of course, as a podcaster, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I want my listeners to hear my normal speaking cadence. On the other, if fast playback gives them time to catch today’s episode of Careful Tech? Who am I to judge? Accelerate away. ■


  1. Bunny and headphones artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Jerry Seinfeld, the tech blogger’s spirit animal

meta
calendar streak


Last night, the temperature here dipped below freezing for the first time since the spring. Our furnace fired up repeatedly throughout the night, helping us keep the autumn chill at bay. I know that because it’s easy to tell when the heat kicks on; the roar can be heard from every corner of our small cabin.

Apparently, our daughter had forgotten just how loud (and scary) that noise can be. When the heater first started, her frightened cries crackled through the baby monitor. We tried to settle her down, but eventually I set up camp in her bedroom and comforted her until she fell asleep.

Sleep graph

Sleep graph from last night. The purple stretches are sleep. The large gap around midnight was when the furnace scared my daughter.

All that to say, I didn’t get much rest, and (as I type this in the predawn darkness), my body is protesting. It would rather be asleep, recovering from late-night dada duty.

And if it weren’t for Jerry Seinfeld, that might have happened today. Fortunately, I’ve found inspiration in the comedian’s productivity mantra: “Don’t break the chain”.

The basic idea is that momentum becomes its own motivation. Daily habits, once established, are a sort of perpetual motion machine; you string together a “chain” of days, and you don’t want to stop. There’s magic in the streak.

What’s my good habit of choice? As of today, I’ve blogged and podcasted for eighteen straight weekdays. That chain is long and strong enough to drag me out of bed after a sleepless night. My head may be pulsing, my eyelids may be heavy, but I’m here. I’m typing. The streak summoned me to the keyboard.

And I’m scared to loosen the chain, let alone break it. One slip-up might derail me for good. “Just one day off” becomes “two days off.” Two days off becomes a week-long lull. Before I know it, my blog sits stagnant for months. That may seem overly dramatic, but it’s happened so many times before.

Happily, it didn’t happen today—thanks to the chain. I like to think that Jerry would be proud. ■


  1. Calendar artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Tribal malfunction (rooting for tech companies is silly)

culture / tech
Apple Google foam fingers


Humans are instinctively tribal. Our fierce, hard-wired clan loyalty has its advantages; in the prehistoric age of hunter-gatherers, tribal commitment could make the difference between surviving together or dying alone.

That same tribal instinct drives our social behavior today, too. We’re driven by irrational devotion to sports franchises, political parties, and, yes, multinational technology companies.

In the last case, we’re bound to our “team” not by geography, ideology, or genetics, but by past purchases. Once we decide to invest thousands of dollars in one platform over another, we feel tremendous pressure to see that decision justified, to see “our side” come out on top. Hence, we see Apple hordes descending upon tech sites that don’t give Cupertino the credit it deserves.

Such brand affinity is a malfunction of our tribal programming, and it works against our own best interests. Google and Amazon will never return my allegiance, and their success is largely irrelevant to my own happiness. So why should I bother defending them, or deriding their competitors?

If anything, we should root against any one company—even our “favorite”—from dominating the market. Apple customers should celebrate the successes of Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Amazon at least as enthusiastically as Apple’s own victories. We need viable ecosystems and trend-setting products outside of iOS; competition is good for the industry, good for consumers, and good for Apple.

So, when Google debuts a phone like the Pixel 2, the logical response from Apple fans should be “That camera is incredible!”, not “Neener, neener! Apple was right about the headphone jack!” When Apple announces another record-shattering quarter of profits, Android afficianados should cheer, instead of prattling on about “sheeple” buying whatever Jony says is good.

Let’s leave the tech cheerleading to those on these companies’ payrolls. Let’s step back from the arena and let the tech giants duke it out themselves. And let’s look forward to the innovation ahead, no matter whether it comes from Mountain View, Cupertino, Seattle, or Redmond. ■


  1. Foam finger artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Stealing back the attention that tech stole from me

culture / tech
notifications with calm


Justin Rosenstein, who helped invent the now-ubiquitous Facebook “Like” button, writes this:

“These are our lives — our precious, finite, mortal lives. If we’re not vigilant, TVs, computers, and mobile devices will guide us to spend our time and attention in ways that don’t align with our deepest desires.”

Here, Rosenstein succinctly captures what I was feeling when I picked this site’s name. “Careful tech” is about approaching our devices with more clarity, more mindfulness, and, yes, more caution. The risk is real: we’re in danger of wasting our lives.

We may even be losing our souls—those things that make us human. Tech distraction suppresses our agency, deadens our compassion, dulls our consciousness, and drowns out our sense of purpose. When we’re held captive by our gadgets, we stop pursuing noble causes and instead squirrel away our hours, chasing red badges and refreshed timelines.

Rosenstein continues:

“Businesses that depend on demand-generation advertising… are incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to stare at them, from sensationalist journalism, to outrage-baiting discourse, to addictive software. That’s why they sometimes bring out the worst in humanity: they turn people into a product for advertisers to buy…. I’m hopeful we can move onto other business models—in the way that HBO & Netflix have shown is possible for television—in which content producers’ and consumers’ interests are economically aligned.”

“Free” ain’t free

A corollary to all this? “Free” software isn’t free. I’m bartering something for that $0 price tag; in many cases, I’m giving up my attention. Ad-supported software attacks my focus; over time, it makes me shallower, more anxious, and less present. This barrage makes me unhappy.

That’s one reason paid software still matters, even in 2017. In buying great software, I incentivize developers to build apps that help me feel better—instead of ones that steal my focus. I’m helping align the app ecosystem with my best interests. So maybe money can buy happiness, after all. Or, at least, it can fend away unhappiness.

Owning my attention

But I can’t wait around for the software industry to align its financial model with my best intentions. I’m on the Internet all day, every day, which gives my monkey mind plenty of opportunities to get distracted. So here are some changes I’m making now to guard my attention:

  • I’ve locked down my phone notifications. Those buzzes and alerts aren’t doing me any favors. One example: until today, my podcast client pinged me every time a new episode was available. That’s pointless; very rarely do I drop what I’m doing to listen to a show. There are too many apps I let interrupt me for no good reason. You might find it helpful to scroll back through your phone’s notification center, so that you can remember which apps are constantly sending reminders.
  • This feels scary, but I’ve even turned off Twitter notifications. I’ll no longer instantly be aware when someone retweets or replies to me, unless I’m actively using the app. This not only protects my attention, it also prevents me from obsessing about how much (or more often, how little) interest my posts drum up.
  • If a phone app has a reasonably-priced upgrade that disables in-app ads, I’m going to spring for it. For example, I check Weather Underground, my weather app of choice, multiple times each day. That app lets you obliterate ads for $1.99 a year. That’s a good buy.
  • If an app has advertising or distracting media that can’t be turned off, I’m going to delete it. I’ve already dumped Facebook, the preeminent offender here. I’ve also killed the Weather Channel app, which offers a $3.99 “no ads” option but doesn’t (as far as I know) let you turn off its ridiculous ‘video’ and ‘news’ features.
  • First and second pages of my home screen

    First and second pages of my home screen

    I’ve rearranged my home screen (yet again) to make productivity and focus my priorities. My most productive apps (OmniFocus, Calendar, and Drafts) get pride-of-place in the bottom dock. The first page is completely empty, as a reminder to be intentional about what apps I open. On the second page, everything gets buried into folders. And within those folders, the first folder page is dedicated only to favorite apps that improve my focus. Check out the screenshots at right.

These are small gestures, but hopefully they give me just a little bit more headspace. ■

Trump tremors: how the election upended the tech industry

culture / tech
Trump tremors


Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times, writing about recent tech announcements:

But despite the baubles and billion-dollar office parks, I’m really not feeling it this year. The technology industry is still exciting; it still packs the capacity for surprise. But where the surprise once felt like Christmas morning, it’s now like the entering-the-darkened-basement scene of a horror movie.

Technology has crossed over to the dark side. It’s coming for you; it’s coming for us all, and we may not survive its advance.

I’d agree that we ought to be circumspect about technology (hence the name “Careful Tech”). Manjoo cites a broad range of legitimate concerns, from jobs lost to A.I., to undermined elections, to “revenge porn”, to distracted driving, to the Internet-enabled “post-fact” culture. Based on his companion piece, Manjoo believes that these problems have a common cause: the tech giants are simply too powerful.

Perhaps more interestingly, Manjoo also writes that this Silicon Valley influence felt manageable “until this year.” What changed “this year”? Why is the tech world “freighted with worry” now, but wasn’t a year ago?

Election as epicenter

I have a guess. In short, the election changed everything. Manjoo calls Donald Trump “the meta-narrative lurking beneath every other headline,” and he’s right. Trump’s rise to power has agitated dormant conflicts in every corner of American society, like rattling a stick in a hornet’s nest.

Consider how existing clashes in the tech sphere have been aggravated by the election:

  • Facebook’s cultural influence grew troubling years ago, but the Russian election ads scandal has brought its power into stark relief.
  • The decline of retail isn’t new, but Amazon’s dominance seems more sinister after an election where working-class resentment played a huge role.
  • Sexism was rampant in Silicon Valley well before 2016, but the alt-right’s November victory gave them a platform to protest when Google fired James Damore for his controversial diversity memo.
  • Apple has long been criticized for catering devices to the rich. But Apple’s thousand-dollar iPhone seems particularly out-of-step, considering the powerful populist movement that led to Trump’s inauguration. This ‘masses vs. elites’ divide was one of Trump’s favorite talking points on the campaign trail.

It’s hard to overstate just how cataclysmic Trump’s win was. The election has thrown American society into a sort of slow-motion shock. Tech, as our country’s nervous system and (increasingly) its economic engine, continues to convulse, too, and those tremors aren’t likely to subside anytime soon. ■


  1. Seismograph artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Memories vs. math: how to justify paying $1,000 for the iPhone X

apple
Scale balancing camera with money


I have a dilemma. I can’t decide whether to buy the iPhone X or hang onto my iPhone 7 for another year. Day to day—and sometimes hour to hour—I waver:

Calculating the cost

On the one hand, I dig the X’s edge-to-edge display, its high-res OLED screen, and (especially) its dual lens camera system. And by my math, the costs of upgrading my phone every year are surprisingly comparable to upgrading every two—when I figure in the cash return of reselling the old phone.

But then I remember the X’s thousand-dollar price tag, and my determination falters. That’s a major investment, no matter the potential resale value. I hesitate to spend that much when my current phone works perfectly well.

Memories > math?

Of course, there’s more to this decision than just dollars and cents. If I do buy an iPhone X, it will be to get one marquee feature in particular: its best-in-class camera.[1]

I imagine myself forty years from now: a septuagenarian looking back on the past. From that vantage point, it’s likely that my current stage of life—young parenthood—will be the time I would be most grateful I had used a decent camera.

Kid in grass

Our adorable daughter is two years old—and growing like mad. It’s almost physically painful to see time flying by so fast, and we’re desperate to capture her quirks and discoveries with photos and videos. We snap hundreds of pictures every week—exponentially more than we ever did before she was born.

I want a phone camerathat takes amazing shots, even when my kid runs wild through the yard in the autumn twilight.[2] If I upgrade to the X, I will have a better record of my daughter’s second and third years of life.

To buy, or not to buy?

If I’m awake at 3 AM on October 27, preordering the iPhone X, here’s what I’ll be telling myself: you’re not buying a $1,000 phone. You’re buying a $1,000 camera with some amazing bonus features. Somehow, that seems easier to swallow. A thousand-dollar phone? That’s extravagant. But a thousand-dollar camera that helps me better remember my daughter’s early childhood? That makes some sense.[3] ■


  1. Technically, the Pixel 2 is the current champion, at least as judged by DxOMark. But the iPhone 8 Plus is close behind; assuming the X bests the 8 Plus (likely), it may approach the Pixel 2 in overall quality.  ↩

  2. Fortunately, even older iPhone models take snapshots that compare favorably to low-range DSLR photos. The iPhone is already good enough; it has completely usurped the place that standalone cameras once had in my life.  ↩

  3. Even hobbyists spend that much on photography gear without blinking an eye.  ↩

  4. Scale and camera vector artwork courtesy of Freepik.

Facebook escape: tips for deleting your account

internet
Facebook delete


Yesterday, I finally deleted my Facebook account.

The great divorce

I’ve flirted with deletion for months now, repeatedly deactivating Facebook, only to come crawling back a few days later.

This past weekend, however, I made the first change that couldn’t be easily undone: deleting all 500+ friend connections using a Google Chrome script. That step had “weight” to it, since rebuilding my social graph would mean starting from scratch. I would have to manually, painstakingly send each individual request, and confused friends would hesitate to accept, since they’d wonder whether my account was legit (“Wasn’t I already friends with Matt? Is this a spammer?”)

As it turns out, the great unfriending purge lent me just the momentum I needed. Once that was done, I felt liberated to finally delete my account for good. Of course, as Facebook eagerly reminded me, I haven’t escaped quite yet. There’s a two-week waiting period; if I log in again, my old account will instantly be resurrected (“It’s a MIRACLE!”). This is the last Facebook face-off; the company leaves the door unlocked for those whose willpower can’t last the fortnight.

But, again, the unfriending step has given my Facebook departure some inertia. Because that old account no longer has any friends, I’m not tempted to come crawling back. Even if I did log in, there’d be nothing to see; Facebook’s a ghost town to the friendless.

Facebook deleted, but

I do have a confession. At the same time I was deleting my old account, I was creating a new one—a “dummy” account that’s 100% undiscoverable and nearly empty. It has no Facebook Messenger history (by which old friends could track down my profile). It has no ‘like’ history or profile info for Facebook to target advertisements against.

Why maintain a dummy account at all? I’d rather cut ties with Facebook completely, but there are three reasons I’m keeping my toe in the water:

  1. IMing with my wife. We use different chat services for different purposes. iMessage works well for on-the-go contact. Google Hangouts serves as our ‘work chat’ solution. But we still need an asynchronous conversation for sharing articles and links. Divorced from the grossness of Facebook itself, Messenger is actually a pretty decent messaging app. More importantly, it’s one my wife is already using. So my dummy Facebook account has one (and only one) friend: my wife.[1]
  2. Promoting my online work. Although Facebook isn’t for me, others have found ways to make the service tolerable—even valuable. I want them to be able to enjoy my work; a reader is a reader, no matter how they find me.
  3. Keeping tabs on new tech developments. Like it or not, Facebook is a major player in the online space. They’re likely to be influential for years—even decades—to come. If I want to understand the features and products that Facebook will announce in the future, I’m going to need an account. I might as well have it ready to go.

Summary: tips for deleting your Facebook account

Quitting Facebook is hard. The service is optimized for capturing and recapturing human attention; it’s literally engineered to keep you from leaving. But it’s possible to ease yourself out the door, so that the actual account deletion feels anticlimactic. To summarize, here are my recommendations:

  1. Try account deactivation first. Short-term Facebook “fasts” are a good first step. They wean you off the service’s constant, algorithmic stimulation. Plus, you may be pleasantly surprised how much more time you have and how much better you feel. These realizations will make it easier to take the deletion step.
  2. Unfriend everyone before deleting. Taking this step makes it less likely that you’ll reverse your decision after the fateful click. One note: Facebook makes it infuriatingly difficult to unfriend people in bulk. Fortunately, there are browser extensions that can speed up the process dramatically.
  3. Consider using a “dummy” account. Facebook’s orbit is hard to escape. You may need to manage a Facebook page for work, or Facebook Messenger may be your family’s default chat platform. For these one-off needs, create a replacement account, locked down and hidden from everyone you choose. Just remember that Facebook specializes in increasing user engagement; it will do everything it can to suck you deeper into its ecosystem. ■

  1. It sounds kind of sad when I put it that way, huh?  ↩
  2. Pencil artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

Twitter bankruptcy: skipping unread tweets

internet
dead tweets


My weekend was busy: a bike ride down a remote mountain canyon, riotous with fall color. Delicious meals shared with family and friends. Home projects to prep our cabin for the winter. A mile-long hike to waterfalls, interrupted repeatedly by toddler discoveries (and potty breaks).

Good things, every one of them. But the weekend’s activities left very little time for checking Twitter. By the time we settled down last night, I had fallen a full day behind my timeline, and I was too exhausted to wade through the 500+ tweet deficit.

For some people, that’s no problem; just skip past the older stuff to the current tweets, right? But that’s tough for me; I’m a Twitter “completionist”—i.e., I try to read every tweet in my feed, and I hate jumping ahead. Skipping a Twitter backlog feels like a loss: what clever observations will go unobserved? What news stories will I never even hear about? What blog post ideas will go uncaptured and unwritten?

But although I hate feeling out of sync, Twitter debt provides several benefits:

  • That high unread count indicates that I’m staying active. I spend too many weekends comatose on the couch, checking Twitter so frequently that I’m always caught up.
  • Twitter backlogs remind me to follow fewer people. If my timeline’s unread count skyrockets every every time I disconnect, I’m probably following too many people. Twitter completionists must ruthlessly cull their follow lists, dropping tweeps who overpost (or underdeliver).

Even being forced to declare “Twitter bankruptcy” can be good:

  • People get the priority. It shouldn’t be difficult to choose between reading strangers’ tweets and being present for loved ones. My daughter won’t be two forever; she won’t always chirp, “Come play?” When I skip unread tweets, it feels like I’m prioritizing what really matters.
  • Good content tends to resurface, anyways. Even if I miss an amazing tweet when it’s first posted, chances are that someone else will retweet it later. If it doesn’t come around again, it probably wasn’t worth my time, anyways.

This morning, I finally let go. With some reluctance and a bit of grief, I tapped the status bar, then watched Tweetbot scroll past hundreds of unread updates. After a moment of respectful silence, my unread count silently started ticking upwards again. ■


Does Steve Jobs’ creative philosophy (“Make something wonderful”) apply to obscure bloggers?

meta
Steve Jobs


Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, shared this reflection on Twitter:

Here’s a longer version of the same Jobs quotation, which Apple highlighted in the prelude to its September marketing event:

“One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there…. Somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there.”


I don’t feel a strong sentimental connection to Apple’s co-founder, but I find him a fascinating figure: irascible and difficult, yet undeniably visionary, even prescient. At times, he was childishly petulant; at others, he demonstrated careful thinking. So it seemed worthwhile to reflect on how Jobs’ ideas might apply to my renewed blogging and podcasting efforts.

Now, “expressing my appreciation to the rest of humanity” isn’t the way I usually think about my daily writing and recording routines. But maybe it should be; too often, I get hung up on “appreciation” flowing the other way around: from readers and listeners to me. How many times did listeners download this episode? How many views did that post get? Could I ever earn enough followers to monetize this site? Is anyone out there even paying attention?

This sort of selfish obsession quickly leads to discouragement. I lose my motivation to write, and I’m tempted to quit, as I have so many times before. That’s why I haven’t enabled analytics on this site’s current incarnation; I’m terrified that knowing how few readers I have will derail my determination to rise early each morning and do the work.

The Jobs quotation above suggests a more productive approach: ignore my desperate desire for affirmation and appreciation. Instead, focus on the work itself: creating something good, genuine, and helpful. That mindset makes blogging more sustainable, more fun—almost automatic.

Now, the end result may not be “something wonderful”, in Jobs’ parlance, but if I’m investing “a great deal of care and love”, it will be rewarding—to myself, if not to anyone else. ■