This Week's SponsorKandji - Next-generation Apple device management for macOS, iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS.
By Dan Moren
March 2, 2021 6:48 AM PT
In the war against spam, it often feels like we’re waging an uphill battle. While our email tools have improved and evolved over the last few years, the battlefield has started to shift from our inbox to our phones.
Recently, I’ve ended up on the receiving end of spammy text chains. Usually these are links, texted from a local number, to roughly 20 different phone numbers, many of them within the same area code as my own (or adjacent ones).
In and of itself, this isn’t much of a surprise: as long as we have electronic communications, we’re probably going to have spam. But what is disappointing is the very paltry state of tools at my disposal for dealing with these issues. In essence, I’m limited to a couple of tools, neither of which produces particularly satisfactory results.
Apple has allowed you, for some time, to block the sender of a text message by On the face of it, this seems like the perfect option: get a spam text, add that number to your block list.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one thing, this is a tactical solution that doesn’t stop you from getting spam—in many cases, spammers send only a single message from a number before moving on to another phone number, meaning you’re essentially playing whack-a-mole.1
Moreover, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the strategy of spamming a bunch of different numbers for one text essentially makes blocking useless. Invariably when somebody replies to that spam text, it still gets through the block list, because the message isn’t coming from the original source that you blocked.2 Which means in order to be effective you have to block everyone on the thread.
Which isn’t a great place to be, because the interface for blocking is less than convenient. On an iOS device, you first have to tap the header, then tap the info button, then find the sender you want to block (which may require tapping a Show More button on one of these threads), then tap that sender, then finally select Block this Caller. Now imagine doing that 20 times. Frankly, I have better things to do with my day.
As cumbersome as the process is on iOS, it still beats the pants off the Mac, where you can only add to the block list by going to Message > Preferences, clicking on the iMessage tab, then the Blocked tab, and finally tapping the Plus (+) button and then realizing that you can only block someone if you have them in your contacts. Utterly bananas and unacceptable.
So, if you can’t block these threads entirely, can you just arrange not to be disturbed by them? More recently, Messages on both iOS and macOS has allowed you to mute notifications for a text message thread.
This can, at least, stop you from being peppered with notifications for responses to that thread…but it seems to only be effective with texts sent via iMessage, not conventional text messages.
Even in that “best case” scenario, you have to leave the thread sitting there in Messages, it still doesn’t stop spam coming from a new source, and it’s just irritating. (So far I haven’t yet run into any issues with people spamming large files like photos or videos, but I worry that’s not far off, at which point, it’s also potentially eating up storage space.)
Nuke it from orbit
You can also delete a thread in iOS or Messages…but this is even less effective than muting, since the next time somebody responds to a thread, it just pops up again. It also doesn’t work in conjunction with the muting option—you can’t mute a thread that doesn’t exist, and if you mute a thread and then delete it, it just comes up again the next time you receive a text on the thread.
Additionally, the vagaries of iCloud mean that even though deleting a thread on one device is supposed delete it on all devices—assuming you’re using Messages in the Cloud—I have never ever seen this actually work. Instead, I end up deleting the thread on my MacBook Air only to pick up my iPhone and see the thread is still there. Rinse and repeat with my iPad, iMac, and even my Apple Watch.
A better class of tools
Clearly, a better solution is needed. The thing is, spam is hardly a new problem—we’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it in email, so why not leverage those tools and everything we’ve learned over the last few decades for text messages as well?
Apple already provides the option to separate your message threads into those from known and unknown contacts; it could take that a step further and apply some machine learning or allow filters to texts from unknown contacts to flag ones that are likely spam.
That’s not to say it’s not a challenging problem: we all get texts from food delivery services, or containing our one-time passcodes, or political fundraisers, that might look like spam but are at least legit (if still sometimes annoying). But those false positives aren’t a reason not to take action. Again, the example of email could help pave the way here by essentially adding a “Possible Spam” filter to Messages, where you could review texts marked as spam.
As frustrating as this is for someone like me, I worry even more about the people who aren’t as tech savvy and find themselves inundated with all these junky messages—not to mention the cases in which they might end up tapping or clicking on a nefarious link.
Apple needs to realize this is a problem that’s only likely to get worse: it should provide an easy way for everybody to combat these annoying and perfidious messages and, ideally, it should be as easy and effective as marking something as a spam email. That system may not be perfect, but it’s way better than what we have now.
- And, even if they’re not using iMessage, they can still send texts from one mail address, which means they can freely create an essentially infinite amount of places to send messages from. ↩
- I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone reply to a spam thread? To which I say you’ve clearly never been on a mass email accidentally cc’d to hundreds of people. ↩
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
This week we grapple with rumors of colorful new Macs and additional ports on MacBook Pro models, note the arrival of Paramount+ to the Streaming Wars, debate the merits of Twitter’s attempt to actually do something resembling anything, and wonder if Apple’s content to run the only music service without a high-quality tier.
By Dan Moren for Macworld
With a company as secretive as Apple, those wanting to divine the company’s intentions and future plans often seize upon the slightest shred of material that escapes the curved glass walls of Apple Park.
So it is with patent filings. While some might see them as painting a picture of Apple’s future products, the truth is definitely murkier. For a company that spends as much time and money on research & development as Apple does, there are always bound to be some technological cul-de-sacs, some roads not taken. Sometimes it’s closer to science fictions: ideas from a future that might never be.
But despite all of that, Apple’s many patents can sometimes provide insight into what the company is thinking about in the here and now. While its engineers are investigating lots of tech that may not pan out, it’s clear that the company thinks there’s value in protecting some of the innovations that its employees come up with—even if they may never quite reach their final form.
In recent years, Apple’s interest in the augmented/virtual/mixed/reality space has become more and more apparent, so it’s not particularly surprising, then, that many of the company’s most recent patent applications appear to be aimed directly at this burgeoning market. Hence, taking a stroll through some of the more interesting ones may prove to be an enlightening experience.
By Dan Moren
February 26, 2021 12:55 PM PT
Lawyers. I don’t hold much with ’em as a rule, but they pay well, and I’ve got more than a few app subscriptions to my name. So when this fellow walks through my door with the troubled expression that usually means an NVRAM reset, I knew this was the kind of case that could put all my in-game currency problems behind me.
The name’s Spotlight. I find things.
“Pull up a chair,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“I represent a…large fruit concern.” His evasive expression was more than just shifty—it’d gone all the way to Caps Lock. “We need you to find someone.”
“Supply chain not paying their bills again? Or you still trying to track down those leakers?”
“Neither.” He pulled out a light blue folder and slid it across my desktop. “Former employee. Lit out almost a decade ago, without so much as an email forward.”…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
Not every episode of “For All Mankind” needs to have the drama of a solar storm.
By Jason Snell
February 25, 2021 2:56 PM PT
Interview: Ron Moore on “For All Mankind” season 2, alt-history space tech, and the road to “Star Trek”
In episode 143 of the Liftoff podcast, Stephen Hackett and I interviewed the show’s co-creator, Ronald D. Moore about the second season of his TV series “For All Mankind,” which debuted last week on Apple TV+.
If you’re not a regular podcast listener but are interested in reading what Moore had to say about his series, we’ve created a transcript of that interview.
Our SSDs are aging too fast!
Apps that need some reinvention, our wake-up/bedtime smartphone habits, the appeal (or not) of hi-fi music, and what we’ve added to our emergency kits.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
Apple ignited the legal music-download revolution with iTunes, led again by dropping copy-protecting DRM from its music downloads, and in 2007 led a major upgrade in digital-music quality with the launch of iTunes Plus.
But more than a decade later, the company finds itself as a music-streaming laggard, to borrow a term that Steve Jobs used to throw around a lot. When it comes to music quality, Apple’s not streets ahead—it’s streets behind.
It’s time for Apple Music to get a huge upgrade—and some recently-launched Apple technologies could even allow it to surpass its rivals when it comes to audio quality.
New iPad keyboards make us notice the magic of the Magic Trackpad, AirPods might be getting an unwelcome makeover, and the butterfly keyboard isn’t really gone as long as we remember it.
February 19, 2021 3:00 PM PT
My thanks to Kandji for sponsoring Six Colors this week.
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By Jason Snell
February 19, 2021 2:45 PM PT
My friend John, knowing that I’ve created many charts in Numbers, sent me an interesting example of how Numbers frequently doesn’t behave as you’d expect it to.
Our expectation about how spreadsheets should behave is, of course, molded by the years of dominance of Microsoft Excel. And while Numbers and Excel theoretically occupy the same category of software, Numbers frequently feels like Excel’s quirky counterpart from a parallel universe.
John wanted to create a simple chart based on two columns of data — dates and values.
In Excel, this couldn’t be easier. Select the data set, click on the line chart, and you get exactly what you’d expect:
When you do do the same in Numbers, however, you get a very different result:
While Excel was smart enough to realize that the dates should be plotted as the X axis, Numbers just ignores them and plots the values evenly across time, using the dates as labels.
It turns out that Numbers is very aggressive about treating its first row and column as room for labels, rather than data. John made the mistake of putting the date in the gray-shaded first column, and Numbers therefore just assumed they were labels and not to be used for actual charting.
So let’s try this again:
Nope. Now Numbers is trying to chart both columns as data series, which is also not what we want.
It turns out that the remaining error is that we’ve selected a chart type that looks like the chart we want to generate, a 2D line chart, when what we actually want to use is a 2D scatter chart.
If I select the same data set in Numbers and create a 2D Scatter chart, things are starting to look up:
With 2D Scatter chosen, Numbers does the right thing and treats the dates as X values, and now the data points are in the right spots—even if they don’t look anything like the simple connected dot chart generated by Excel.
But that’s okay. One of the greatest strengths of Numbers is how much control it gives you over chart design. By adding a connection line to the data series and reducing the size of the data symbol, we can replicate the simple Excel chart in Numbers:
Numbers has some basic rules that it follows, and in this case, they failed to lead John to the right solution—and it took me several steps to figure it out. In contrast, Excel has evolved over decades to guess the desires of its users, and knew exactly what my friend wanted to chart.
What can I say? Numbers can do almost anything, but it can be downright weird at times.