The summer special: being locked out of your own accounts

Computer security is difficult, and sometimes erring on the side of caution only gets in the way of the users you’re trying to protect, giving them unnecessary headaches.

Pretty much every August, I leave for the holidays, often to go and visit my parents in Italy. Pretty much every August, I get locked out of my Gmail accounts because Google detects a login from a different IP address than the usual, and prevents the login as a precautionary measure because it thinks someone else is hacking into my account.

When I voiced my frustration at the beginning of the month, a few people contacted me, all suggesting I turn on two-factor authentication, which is perhaps the swiftest way to put the whole issue at rest. But I’m not comfortable with giving Google my mobile phone number, and my medium-to-long-term plan is to solve the problem in a totally different way anyway — by getting rid of all my Gmail accounts.

But let’s get back to the problem. Every Gmail account I have has a recovery email account associated with it. To these secondary email accounts I receive the standard warning email from Google: Suspicious sign-in prevented. The links provided in such emails basically help me regain control of my Gmail account by resetting the password. Again, good practice in theory, hugely annoying in practice when the person trying to log into my Gmail account is just me but from an ‘unusual’ location. Annoying because I have to update the password on every other device and computer I use to access that account. And of course Google won’t let me revert to the old password once I manage to access the account.

When I was finally able to access the first Gmail account I had been locked out of, there was a scary-sounding email message from Google: Someone has your password. You can follow the link provided in this message to review your devices and — more importantly — tell Google that the ‘suspicious activity’ was actually yours. This is the crucial point: if Google flags a login attempt because it came from an IP address that is not in the usual range of addresses associated with your activity, but you indicate that such address was in fact okay, the flagged IP address should get whitelisted. But it doesn’t. Not in my case, at least. On a hunch, I went back and checked my Gmail inboxes on August 2014 and August 2013, and I found an eerily familiar situation: suspicious sign-ins prevented, activity originating from basically the same IP addresses (only the last number changed).

Google is all about learning patterns, yet it doesn’t seem to understand that a user logging into his own accounts from a different IP address but always from the same place every August might in fact be the legitimate owner, accessing his email from the site he’s spending the summer holidays. Especially after the user himself indicated that that IP address was fine and not suspicious.

After begrudgingly resetting the password of the first Gmail account I was locked out of, and unwilling to undergo the same annoying process for the remaining two accounts I still had to check, I got an idea which fortunately saved me from further trouble and I wished it had come to me before — I connected to the VPN of the university where my wife works, and logged into my Gmail accounts from there.

Before this little ordeal started, I had figured I’d spend 10–15 minutes to check my email and, if need be, respond to any urgent message. Instead I lost almost two hours. But oh yes, I felt very protected all the time — apparently even from myself.

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Overthinking the iPad

These past days many sources I usually read have been quoting an interesting piece by Neil Cybart, Finding iPad’s Future. I have read it with difficulty, and with mixed reactions at every paragraph, a mixture of agreement and disagreement that I find hard to disentangle. So I’ll just use the following quote as a pretext to share a few thoughts.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a long upgrade cycle, as seen with the Mac, which continues to report solid sales momentum, the reasoning behind holding on to tablets for years is much more troubling. There are currently approximately 3 million units of the original iPad still in use, or 20% of the devices Apple sold. For the iPad 2, it is possible that close to 60% of the units Apple sold are still being used. These two devices are not superior tablets. The initial iPad lacks a camera, while the iPad 2 has a mediocre camera. When compared to the latest iPads, these first two iPads are simply inferior tablets with slow processors, heavy form factors, and inferior screens. But none of that matters with owners. This is problematic and quite concerning, suggesting that many of these tablets are just being used for basic consumption tasks like video and web surfing and not for the productivity and content creation tools that Apple has been marketing.

  • I really don’t get what the problem is with a device that doesn’t drive you to purchase a new model every year. Of course, from today’s tech industry standpoint, products with long upgrade cycles are problematic — fewer units are sold, and sales trends may resemble those of the iPad. But from a consumer’s standpoint, a product that turns out to be built to last is really great — thus the long upgrade cycle of the iPad is actually a big plus, not a downside.
  • I’m not sure I agree with Cybart’s deduction, that people still using older iPads must be using them ‘for basic consumption tasks’. Editing photos, painting, writing or composing music are all creative tasks that can be done with an original iPad or an iPad 2. My 80-something father-in-law, before his health worsened, was happily creating beautiful digital paintings using ArtRage on an original iPad. Sure, it’s cooler to use a more modern iPad for such tasks, but there are users (perhaps the not so tech-savvy bunch, and/or those on a tight budget) who are happy enough with their current model, and will upgrade only when the hardware starts failing or being disappointing in a way or another. Remember that there are a lot of non-nerds for whom faster graphics or a faster processors aren’t critical features demanding frequent upgrades. Even I — who am a bit of a nerd and certainly a so-called ‘power user’ — am not considering upgrading my iPad 3 anytime soon. It still works great and tackles everything I throw at it; and I use it both for consumption and creation. A thinner, faster iPad would be nice to have, but at this point it would be more like a luxury for me than something I have to buy because my iPad has stopped being useful or responsive enough to do the tasks I need it to do. (And in fact I’m planning to upgrade my 2009 Mac first.)
  • For the sake of the argument, let’s concede that these older iPads are “just being used for basic consumption tasks like video and web surfing and not for the productivity and content creation tools that Apple has been marketing” — Well, what’s wrong with that? I don’t see this as something “problematic and quite concerning”. The iPad’s target audience is immense and the most varied. The latest iPad models are being purchased by people who are new to the iPad or who had very old models and the need and means to upgrade them; the long upgrade cycle means that people with third– or fourth-generation iPads still own a very capable device and are not interested in upgrading it for the moment. Or they can’t justify the expense. Et cetera, et cetera. The way I see it, every iPad owner is using their iPad in different ways and at different levels, from basic consumption to sophisticated creation, and I know that’s anecdotical, but all the people I know — and a generous sample I interviewed a couple of years ago — are happy with their device and don’t even think or care about all this speculation about ‘how the iPad is doing’ or ‘where the iPad is going’ that cyclically hits the tech pundit sphere.
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Apple Music ought to be better than this

After explaining the reasons why I have no intention to jump on the Apple Music bandwagon and instead stick with Spotify, the little feedback I received was kind of ludicrous. A few people wrote me that I was “crazy” for not dropping Spotify and instantly switch to Apple Music like they did; none of them said exactly why I should do so, the only vague criticism towards Spotify being “It’s just a mess” (huh?). I’m happy that for these people Apple Music is working just fine. Perhaps they don’t have a sizeable, meticulously curated iTunes library like I do, and/or they don’t mind iCloud messing it up for them. Music is important to me, and so is my music library: I don’t want the fabled ‘integration’ of Apple Music to screw up all the work I’ve done over the years to keep songs, artists, artwork and all album information tidy and in order.

After reading about the various issues encountered by Kirk McElhearn and others, the other day, after finally catching up with my RSS feeds a bit, I read about the troubles encountered by Jim Dalrymple (Apple Music is a nightmare and I’m done with it and I got my music back. At least most of it) and then I also read Dave Mark’s response, Why I’m not done with Apple Music.

Dave Mark’s attitude towards Apple Music remains positive:

So all this said, why am I still pushing on? Why don’t I make the move to Spotify?

It’s all about potential.

Even with all its blemishes, Apple Music has been a hell of a lot of fun. […]

All of the things I’ve complained about, and all the stuff Jim complained about in his post, are all eminently fixable. More importantly, the building blocks are in place for the next generation of Apple Music to do some incredible things.

Mark is not the only one willing to cut Apple some slack. I’ve heard other people — satisfied enough with Apple Music — sharing this kind of forgiving attitude.

Well, I don’t agree with it. I think people should expect better from Apple. A better service. Better quality, and yes, from day one. Apple has the resources to make it happen. Apple is a bigger company than any other in the music streaming industry. Apple has the advantage of its ecosystem, not to mention the data already accumulated through the Genius algorithm within iTunes. Yet Apple Music feels more rushed, more confusing, feels like a patchwork of different ideas and directions, and it ultimately feels more ‘beta’ than other competing apps and services when these first launched.

If Apple Music were a free service, maybe I’d be more willing to talk about potential, and maybe I’d share Dave Mark’s “Next round, it’s going to get better” attitude. But Apple Music isn’t free. I’m thinking these three months of free trial for the users are also Apple’s way of running the service as a sort of massive ‘public beta’, seeing what kind of issues come up and fixing them before people start paying $10/month for it[1]. However, I simply can’t believe that at least some of these issues weren’t foreseeable and fixable before Apple Music’s launch. The problems with iTunes 12.2, iCloud Music Library, etc., give me the impression that Apple Music’s features have been hurriedly bolted on the already pachydermic, bloated, jack-of-all-trades iTunes app, and shipped without extensive, thorough testing.

Would people be equally forgiving if third-party paid music streaming apps and services caused the same mess Apple Music did for a lot of users? Would they talk of ‘potential’, or things getting better with the next version/iteration? I’m not so sure.

Bugs exist, of course, and I’m not saying Apple should have waited to launch Apple Music until every little bug was eliminated. But again, the kind of problems we’ve seen with iTunes would have been almost excusable had they come from a third-party company. Not from Apple itself — it’s all Apple’s software and services, after all. Not from Apple itself, especially after the unfortunate launch of MobileMe a few years back, or more recently, Ping.

I don’t feel I’m demanding impossible standards from Apple, just pointing out that integration should work better than this; and that testing should be a bit more thorough before launching a paid service, instead of having this sort of public beta testing where users risk having their music libraries compromised in the process. That’s why I’m not so keen on cutting Apple some slack on this. A truly working integration between services and software all coming from the same company isn’t exactly asking for the moon, given that other companies manage to do a better job at it.

 


  • 1. And I really hope, for Apple’s sake, that all major issues will be fixed before people start paying for the service.

 

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→ The Web bloat

Maciej Cegłowski, in Web Design: The First 100 Years:

A further symptom of our exponential hangover is bloat. As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

It’s 2014, and consider one hot blogging site, Medium. On a late-model computer it takes me ten seconds for a Medium page (which is literally a formatted text file) to load and render. This experience was faster in the sixties.

The web is full of these abuses, extravagant animations and so on, forever a step ahead of the hardware, waiting for it to catch up.

[via Nick Heer]

I urge you to read the full text of Maciej’s talk, because it’s insightful and truly great from beginning to end. (Here’s the YouTube video of the original talk at HOW Interactive Conference in September 2014).

This bloat Maciej talks about is noticeable enough when using relatively current Macs, but especially noticeable with vintage Macs. And I’m not talking about Macs from the 1990s, for which browsing the Web is annoyingly slow, insecure, and overall just a frustrating experience. I’m talking about PowerPC machines from 10 years ago. The general user experience on these Macs is still great when you use first– and third-party software from the same era. I can say from personal experience that in some cases, a G4 or G5 equipped with a fast hard drive and all the RAM it can support, will even feel more responsive than a current Mac (the Finder, for instance, is snappier and doesn’t lag like under Mavericks or Yosemite). Indeed, a PowerPC G4 or G5 Mac at its maximum configuration, and for a variety of tasks, doesn’t feel that old: writing, email, RSS feeds, music and video playing, some photo retouching, even playing some sophisticated games from the period (2003–2005), these are all activities that can be carried out without really feeling you’re using what it’s now considered an obsolete system.

But when it comes to fire up the browser and browse the Web, that is what makes the performance of these vintage Macs drop spectacularly. Try loading Twitter or Medium, or all the most popular tech news sites you follow today. The old Safari, Firefox, Opera and Camino struggle; load times become ridiculous, many webpage elements are not displayed correctly, and sometimes the browser crashes simply for trying to load and play embedded videos or the ‘extravagant animations’ Maciej mentions. As I said previously, the best option to browse the Web securely on a PowerPC Mac today is by using TenFourFox. (By the way, if you don’t like TenFourFox’s icon, I made available an alternate one time ago. The only drawback is that you have to keep pasting it over the default one every time you download an update to the browser.) But to browse the Web at an acceptable speed, resembling somehow the speed the Web had ten years ago, I’ve found that installing AdBlock Plus and keeping it on at all times is the sensible solution.

I insist on using vintage Macs as an example because when some of the Web bloat is removed, the benefits in responsiveness and user experience become immediately and especially evident on these machines.

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→ ‘The sad truth about iPods’

Serenity Caldwell, on iMore, concludes a brief piece on the refreshed iPod nano and shuffle with these words:

Much as I love the delight of the iPod shuffle line, this is the latest in a long line of moves toward making the iPod obsolete. The Apple Watch is the future for semi-offline small devices you want to listen to while on the go; the nanos and shuffles of the world are the elegant, ancient weapons from a more civilized age of wired headphones and purchased music.

Long may they live on our shelves as reminders for what we used to have.

The concluding section of the article is titled The sad truth about iPods, and the article itself has this mouthful for a title: The iPod nano and shuffle won’t sync Apple Music songs, putting another nail in the new iPod coffin.

As one of the commenters aptly quips: “Hyperbole, much?”

iMore is the Apple-related site with the most active feed among the sites I follow, and I just can’t keep up with the amount of articles it produces on a daily basis, but I’ve read enough so far to say that the tone of this piece feels strangely off and somewhat dismissive. Since I use wired headphones and still purchase digital music, maybe I should feel honoured to be part of a “more civilised age,” but when I use my second-generation iPod shuffle or (brace yourselves) my 4GB iPod mini from 2004, they certainly don’t look like “ancient weapons” to me, still retaining the great usefulness they had on day one.

The gist of the whole article is: since this new iteration of iPod nanos and shuffles cannot take advantage of Apple Music directly or indirectly, they’re already obsolete, barely useful devices. (The subhead is RIP iPods, after all.)

This is a textbook case of tech writer’s tunnel vision. Just because the new iPods can’t be used the way Caldwell would love, it doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant.

The iPod nano and shuffle are probably the iPod models with the most varied target users and use cases. Streamed music and ‘rented’ music as opposed to ‘owned’ music may be the way we’re all headed, but we’re far from there. There are still a lot of people who put on their iPods the music they’ve purchased in digital form, the music they purchased in physical form and then ripped, and — let’s don’t be coy about this — the pirated music they’ve downloaded for free from the Internet in torrent format. I venture a guess and say that the number of people who either a) already own an iPod nano or shuffle and are willing to update them with this latest refresh; or b) are interested in the iPod nano and shuffle for their form factor, durability, low price, etc. — is still a greater number than those willing to pay $10 per month for Apple Music or similar streaming services.

Being able to copy to a new iPod nano or shuffle the offline music you’ve obtained via Apple Music’s service would surely be a nice-to-have feature, but I don’t think that these iPods are just ‘dead’ without it.

Another example of this tech writer’s tunnel vision is the following statement: The Apple Watch is the future for semi-offline small devices you want to listen to while on the go. This is being overly optimistic at best, an assumption just thrown out there for the sake of it. The Apple Watch might very well be that future in tech circles made of people who love premium Apple devices and have at least $349 to burn on a premium accessory. For casually listening to music while out and about, a lot of other people are just happy to clip an iPod shuffle to their jackets, trousers or bags. It’s way more affordable, it’s durable, its battery life is astounding, and if it gets lost or stolen it’s not the end of the world.


 

Update — A couple of articles that further prove my point:

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