I don’t care about Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden gave an interview with everyone’s favorite newscaster this week, and the internet is once again awash with “Snowden is a hero” and “Edward Snowden did the right thing” kind of language everywhere I turn. Well, except Fox News’ website. But the day I agree with Fox News on something besides the current temperature outside will be a strange one indeed.

I don’t care about Edward Snowden. I don’t care what admirable qualities he has, I don’t care if you think he’s an American hero, I don’t care if he’s standing up for what’s “right” under the US Constitution as interpreted by a bunch of people who don’t have law degrees and are not constitutional historians. Edward Snowden was given access to classified information – information which his job only necessitated he have access to for technical, not substantive, reasons – and took it upon himself to say “I think this is wrong as judged by me and I’m going to leak it on the advice of nothing but my own subjective moral compass.”

As it turned out, Snowen’s moral compass aligned with much of the privacy-charged internet community, and the outrage poured like margaritas at a Jimmy Buffet cover night. The problem is, this corner of the web doesn’t represent America at large. America at large, it seems, doesn’t really care about Snowden and at best is mixed on what do with him if he comes back to the US. In fact, most of the polls I looked at that were taken more recently tended to lean significantly more to the “do charge” side. According to Gallup, even the sentiment around what the NSA is doing is increasingly apathetic – a full 64% of those surveyed are either somewhat, not very, or not at all concerned about their privacy in light of the Snowden leaks. 35% are “very concerned,” but this is a dramatic drop from the 47% who were “very concerned” about their privacy in 2000, when the internet was a much different, younger place.

Well, you might say, part of this change is almost definitely a result in a change of demography on the web. There are more older Americans on the web than there were 14 years ago, and rural access to the web – where conservative politics are often a given – has dramatically increased over the years. This would make sense if the party lines on privacy were the same as they were in the Bush administration. But they aren’t. With a democrat in office and that democrat supporting a massive surveillance program, democrats have become much more likely to back that program. Meanwhile, grassroots republicans have returned to their highly self-determined, get-out-of-my-backyard independence rhetoric (see: Tea Party), and are of course now vehemently against mass government surveillance. At least, this is what Gallup tells us. To be clear, there is still a very large part of the republican base which support these programs and a very large part of the democrat base which don’t. Eg, traditional Reagan-era republicans and liberal democrats.

Now, I’m not a pessimist, but to be frank, the only thing I’ve seen come out of Snowden’s leaks is that the government now has to pander on a surface level to the most vocal and annoying (yes, you’re really, really annoying, I’m sorry) web community in existence. The NSA still only answers to the president and FISA courts and, on some level, to congress. The NSA is still going to strongly suggest to them that what they are doing is the best – and not just that, the only – way they can maximize the safety of America and its allies.

Do I think the NSA is doing the right thing? No. In fact, their actions speak more to the fact that the culture of paranoia within the American intelligence community is perhaps only rivaled by that of those who most vocally critique those institutions. Which is really kind of funny, in a way. My biggest complaint about the NSA is that it’s a blatant misuse of government resources (read: money) that is attempting to entrench itself as another “indispensable” arm of America’s anti-terror, homeland security obsession, essentially scaring congress and the executive branch into funding its folly. That really does bug me, as does the fact that the NSA is a total “black budget” program and essentially immune from public critique in regard to spending. We do not need details of exactly what the NSA spends money on, but knowing how much money the US puts into the agency at large is clearly not a matter of national security, and it should be open to criticism.

What I don’t really care about are the hilarious 1984 comparisons and fear-mongering internet privacy wackos are synthesizing out of this whole mess. America is no more a police state than it was when it was legal to have separate schools, bathrooms, and seating for people whose skin color wasn’t to your liking. Or when communism threatened the very fabric of our democracy and if you decided to protest an unjust war (Vietnam) the FBI was liable to start a file on you, let alone what authorities did to demonstrators like those at Kent State. Or when the government literally passed a bill making it a criminal offense to protest a war, say bad things about America, the flag, or the president (Sedition Act of 1918).

I am not saying no one is entitled to privacy outrage in this day and age. What I am saying is that America remains one of the nations most protective of the individual rights of its citizens (admittedly, rights of non-citizens is not one of our strong points, and that’s an issue I am deeply concerned about at times) and has one of, if not the most, defendant-friendly criminal legal systems on the face of the earth. I am not saying there are not problems with America in regard to privacy and surveillance, but I do believe that those who continue to spout rhetoric about how “the government” has “a file” on you and everyone you know and one day will use it to send you and your family to Gitmo for thinking bad things about the NSA have way too much in common with people who also think the government is conducting mind control on its citizens by spraying chemicals out the back of commercial airliners.

We’re allowed to have a middle ground. I am not required to hate and distrust anything the government says because it classified some surveillance programs. You don’t have to think the NSA is one day going to be watching every aspect of your life and is listening to your phone calls and scraping your text messages to believe that hey, maybe the NSA needs a little more oversight and a little less “collect ALL THE DATA” going on. And, admittedly, what Edward Snowden did has encouraged this conversation – not that I think he had the right to do it, especially in the way he did it (“Oh hey here are all these classified documents I stole en masse from the NSA basically indiscriminately, leak what you see fit to leak kbye”).

As a nation, we all know deep down that we cannot encourage people with access to sensitive information, now often much more centrally stored and easy to steal – given a motive – than it was 30 years ago, to leak things simply because they think they’re “wrong.” With Edward Snowden, it was an alignment of internet privacy interests and careful handling by journalists that cut the line between “hero” and “Bradley Manning round 2” (it’s worth noting that the latter had far, far less support than Snowden publicly). There are likely many other “wrongs” committed by the US government that we don’t know about, but dumping archives of documents potentially compromising legitimate and supportable state secrets is not the way to remedy them. I’m not saying I have the answer for what is – I just know that the way Edward Snowden didn’t wasn’t right.

That’s all.

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A fair-weather audiophile’s response to Pono

If you’ve not heard of Pono by now, you either aren’t much into the audio scene, don’t pay attention to Kickstarter all that often, or are not a Neil Young fanboy. This is all very understandable.

The tl;dr is it’s a portable mid-to-high-end ($400) headphone DAC/amp combo with storage and a music playback interface that’s being marketed alongside FLAC-format songs to be sold at various resolutions through a Pono-branded storefront. Woo summary.

The Kickstarter ends in a few hours and is at over $6 million. Yes, audiophiles / Neil Young fans are a bit crazy.

First things first: it is very easy to call anything in the audiophile world snake oil. Because a lot of it is. I get really tired of hearing about how vinyl is better than CD, 24/192 sounds better than 16/44.1, and FLAC sounds better than 320Kbps MP3. None of these statements hold any objective water. All the evidence is 100% anecdotal, and I don’t care what “your ears,” your uncle’s ears, or Neil Young’s ears hear.

This is the part of Pono I would call, to be frank, bullshit. Because it is. FLAC is not magical unicorn juice for your ears, nor is a high sampling rate or bit depth.

The part of Pono that is legitimate, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the device itself. Part of me does hope that the idea catches on, even if it means some of the late-night-informercial crap about FLAC and “digital lossless quality” ends up riding in on its coattails.

The thing is, most people today have never heard their music through anything better-sounding than their iPhone. The iPhone, as smartphones go, does have a very good DAC / amp combo (if this terminology is unfamiliar, Google it, because the explanation would be unnecessarily long here), better than what you’ll see on pretty much any Android device. Still, the nature of smartphone / tablet SoC design pretty much ensures that, for now, real good DACs and amps need, if in the everyday sense just a little, more physical space.

This is where Pono comes in – this quirky triangular prism has the necessary headroom and area to house and isolate a decent digital to analog converter (DAC) and amplifier. You would be surprised what a difference in quality of audio this can allow. Pono seems to be working with a very reputable name in the audio business on this (Ayre Acoustics), and at this point I’m fairly confident that, from an audio quality standpoint, they’re going to have a very good product. I can’t know for sure, of course, but hear me out.

My strong inclination is that the jump in quality from iPhone to Pono will, for many (if not most) people, be very easy to hear. Like removing a fog from their music. If you’ve always used on-board audio on your PC / laptop or a smartphone / tablet for music, you would be genuinely surprised what a difference dedicated hardware can do even for a ‘lowly’ 128Kbps MP3. This is what I think Pono has the potential to do – to introduce the concept of quality listening to a wider audience. Who knows, it may even work.

Now all we need to do is convince people that their iPhone EarPods are going to make them deaf and give them cancer and that they should spend $30 on some headphones that aren’t basically like putting an industrial trash compactor in your ear.

Time Warner Cable and Comcast merging is bad, period – consumers should fight it viciously.

Imagine one day you woke up to the news that one company controlled essentially 70% of the access to electricity production in the United States. Or gasoline refinement. Or wireless phone service.

Comcast buying Time Warner is like that, but the internet. And TV. And make no mistake – the internet is as much an economic necessity as the gas in your car, or the electricity in your home. This country established over a century ago that anti-competitive monopolies, whether in-effect or actual, are generally not in the interest of consumers – especially when those monopolies are on markets we all essentially have to participate in as consumers.

“The purpose of the [Sherman] Act is not to protect businesses from the working of the market; it is to protect the public from the failure of the market. The law directs itself not against conduct which is competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.”

Those words, in reference to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, were written by the US Supreme Court in 1993. The spirit of that act holds as true today as it did 134 years ago. Cable companies never got the memo.

In the US, we have broken monopolies of the phone lines, the oil business, and even the photography industry. If the Comcast-Time Warner merger is not stopped, we will face a monopoly of television and landline internet.

Combined, TWComcast would be accessible to over 70% of the US TV and broadband subscriber base – not one, but two massive industries. General consensus at this point seems to be that the DoJ and FCC will likely approve the deal, because the merger will not have an immediately anti-competitive effect. The logic goes that, because Time Warner and Comcast have carefully gerrymandered their respective regions of control in the US, the tiny amount of service overlap between the two means they don’t actually compete. So, the thinking from there is: how can two companies who don’t even compete conduct a merger that is “anti-competitive”?

I would pose the following question in response: how are two companies who actively discourage competition (by definition, an anti-competitive practice) going to merge in a way that does not continue to discourage competition? It is fucking absurd to me that anyone could possibly assert with a straight face that TWComcast would show restraint in its tyrannical control of nearly every major broadband and TV market in the United States. Once Comcast has Time Warner, its only focus will be on that remaining 30%, and dominating it. In the short term, this will probably be a plus for consumers, because it will actually create some competition – TWComcast would go on a prolonged promotional blitzkrieg in markets where Verizon, AT&T, Cox, Charter, or a number of other, smaller providers dominate. Those smaller providers would respond in kind – everybody wins! Lower prices, faster internet, more free DVRs! Until the day comes where, inevitably, TWComcast wins because they’re the only company with the capital and marketing reach to sustain a short-term loss in order to secure a long-term gain. And that’s when the squeeze starts.

But isn’t that competition? Isn’t that the kind of battle we actually kind of want? With a shortsighted view of the market, yes, it is. The cable industry is remarkably noncompetitive right now, and a TWComcast merger would jumpstart that competition – briefly. Much in the way combining Mentos and Coke will produce an exciting reaction only to unceremoniously turn into a flat puddle of brown mess, TWComcast would fizzle out smaller providers in regional markets.

Or, worse yet, TWComcast could just sit on that 70% and figure out the best way to more effectively wring dollars out of it while cutting customer service and slowing infrastructure investment. Either way, the end result is a loss for consumers.

I realize the cable / broadband market right now is far from highly competitive, but allowing the two largest players in what is already a laughably complacent industry to merge into a fifty billion dollar clusterfuck is like smearing Crisco on a Big Mac. It’s not any better, it’s just worse for you.

Guinness is good for you – why Dublin’s famously hearty dry stout is actually the best dieting beer

Down the street from me is an Irish-themed pub that I have a drink at once or twice a week. And every other or week or so, almost without fail, I will overhear a comment about Guinness beer.

I love Guinness – I think it’s a beer lover’s sort of ‘kick back and watch the game on Sunday’ kind of beer. It goes great with potatoes prepared in just about any way, deep-fried snacks, or even a burger or sausage fresh off the grill. That is to say, unsurprisingly, Guinness tends to pair well with white, starchy carbs and red meats. That’s because, particularly as Americans, we associate Guinness with hearty, filling foods. Guinness is hearty and filling, after all. Isn’t it?

This is actually something of a myth, largely perpetuated by your taste buds and your brain. Working in tandem, they will readily convince you Guinness is a big, heavy beer that goes straight to your gut. One or two pints is more than enough for most people before they feel as though they’re going to burst at the seams. Now, I’m not a food scientist, a chemist, or a neuroscientist. I can’t tell you exactly why Guinness tends to evoke these feelings, but I can give you a pretty good layman’s flyover, I think.

First, there’s the taste. What does Guinness taste like? Well, like most dry stouts, it tastes like burnt malt to a degree. Malt is short for malted barley, and it’s what can give a beer a “toasty,” “nutty,” or “bready” flavor profile if we’re talking about something like a classic British old ale, or a full-bodied German Märzen (the beer of Oktoberfest). Malt is also the primary source of carbohydrates in beer, so the more malt you taste (either breadiness or sweetness), likely the more carbs the beer has, in the form of residual sugars not metabolized by the yeast (yeast makes beer alcoholic by eating the sugars in the malt).

Guinness, though, is tricky in this regard – because the malts used to give the beer its distinct flavor and color are so dark and heavily roasted, it doesn’t take much of them to impart that very dark tint and classic stout taste. These dark malts also don’t contain much for the yeast to eat (because of the roasting), meaning they don’t leave much residual sugar behind or dramatically raise the alcohol content of the beer. In fact, most of Guinness’ alcohol and carb content probably comes from other, much milder malts that impact the flavor of the beer very little. Anyway, lets go to the numbers.

Carbohydrates per 12 fluid ounces, in grams:

  • Budweiser (classic): 10.6g
  • Heineken (classic): 9.8g
  • Blue Moon (wheat): 12.9g
  • Sierra Nevada (pale ale): 14.1g
  • Guinness: 10g

Whoah there, Guinness has fewer carbs than a can of Bud? How’s that even possible? Well, again, it’s a trick on your taste buds. Guinness has a much darker, burnt malt profile than something like Heineken or Budweiser, which are lagers. There’s also the texture – Guinness draft is almost exclusively dispensed with a nitrous oxide infusion system (I believe rarely it’s still had from a cask at the brewery in Dublin). Nitrous, as opposed to CO2 (carbonation), is a flavor muter, rather than an enhancer. You taste less of the beer, though sometimes with certain styles nitrous imparts benefits that outweigh the loss of some of those characteristics. Nitrous is what can give beers like Guinness their signature rich, creamy, dense head of foam. The entire pour of the beer also adopts some of this profile – nitrous beers feel more syrupy, thick, and dense than highly carbonated (standard draught tap) ones. And, once again, your taste buds fool you: the popping, bubbly carbonation of most beer is something we tend to associate with “lightness.” Soda, champagne, sparkling water. Does anyone generally think of those beverages as “heavy”? No – they’re light and refreshing! Guinness, by contrast, feels dense, thick, and even looks filling.

If you want to know what Guinness tastes like without the muting, heaviness-imparting nitrous infusion, go to a local BevMo or other large dedicated wine / beer/ spirits retailer (eg, not a liquor store probably) and find Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It comes in a four-pack, and is fully carbonated. It’s a bit more intense than standard Guinness (7.6% ABV vs 4%), so it’s not like it’s the same beer, but it’s obviously a very similar recipe. It’s outstanding, by the way – if you like Guinness, you owe yourself an opportunity to try Foreign Extra (not to be confused with the standard Guinness Extra Stout, which is just OK).

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Why is Guinness a good dieting beer, then? Well, good luck finding an alcoholic drink your brain is going to interpret as rich and carby (and thus convince you that you should be feeling full) without actually being all that rich and carby. A 12 oz bottle of Guinness contains a mere 125 calories, and has just 10g of carbs. That means an American 16 oz pint is around 160 calories, and about 12.5g of carbohydrates.

As with anything, Guinness can be overdone on a diet, and you may eventually develop a tolerance for the “full” feeling as your brain catches on to the fact that Guinness isn’t actually all that carb-rich. If you’re counting calories or going low-carb, you could still end up missing your goals because of overindulgence in Ireland’s famous liquid repast. But if you were under the impression dieting meant no beer at all, let alone good beer, don’t be afraid to raise a glass or two of Guinness a few times a week – it’s certainly a healthier late-night “snack” than a Big Mac.

Juice up: dealing with outlets and electricity in Europe (or elsewhere) as an American

I’ve been over to Europe several times, but until recently, I hadn’t really bothered to educate myself about the whole “using electrical gadgets in a different country” thing, and tended to just borrow a small transformer (down-voltage converter) from a family member when I traveled, or use someone else’s on the trip. This is because, to me, European electricity basically seemed like witchcraft and figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t constantly resulted in conflicting answers from whomever I bothered to prod on the issue.

As you might imagine, this was annoying. Some people would tell me I needed a converter, some said I just needed a plug adapter, some said I could get a power strip and an adapter, and some said a power strip and converter. If you search the web, you will find equally confusing and conflicting pieces of information out there on this topic. This is apparently because what was true about bringing American electronics to Europe 20-odd years ago is no longer generally true today, but people still are providing advice based on the old understanding of Europe / American electrical compatibility.

Let me see if I can break this down a bit more simply (granted, my explanation is probably not going to be completely complete, nor technically detailed).

Smartphone / tablet chargers, laptop chargers, camera chargers, electric razor chargers, and basically <insert fairly modern gadget charger here> generally do not need power converters. In fact, you can potentially damage these gadgets by using a down-voltage converter.

Simpler appliances like hair dryers, irons, speakers, and lamps, however, usually do. The rule of thumb I’ve found is generally this: if it’s digital, it probably works without a electricity converter. If it’s analog (like the stuff I just listed), it probably doesn’t unless it explicitly says otherwise on the box / cord.

This is because as time has gone on, most gadgets and modern, digital-ish appliances have adopted standardized hardware as part of their charging interfaces. It’s generally much easier from a logistical standpoint to build a charging interface that accepts a wide range of voltages than to tailor them to individual markets, unless absolutely necessary, or unprofitable. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets are almost universally capable of accepting voltage in the range of 100-240v, meaning they can be powered by almost any outlet in the world using only the appropriate wall outlet adapter.

The other thing worth knowing? There are power strips out there capable of accepting 100-240v (aka universal voltage), too. The best-reviewed one, as far as I can tell, is the Monster Outlets To Go line – some of them even have USB ports. While it doesn’t say so on the strip or the box, Monster does say in its FAQ that the OTG line is capable of accepting a wide range of electrical inputs, and they’re presumably rated 100-240v. Just attach the appropriate adapter to the wall plug and you’re set to go pretty much anywhere. Then, you don’t need adapters for your individual gadget chargers.

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As far as which gadgets are compatible, just check the charging brick for the respective device. If it says 100-240v anywhere on it, it should work just fine without a converter. And like I said, most smartphones, tablets, and laptops produced today generally are universal voltage-friendly.

The Outlets To Go strip can handle quite a lot of draw, too, so it’s unlikely you’ll need more than one to power all your stuff. I took one to Germany with me and it worked like a champ. There are other 100-240v-friendly multi-outlet solutions out there, though, so it’s definitely worth doing your homework.

Finally, don’t use a power converter “just to be safe.” Travel converters are finicky, cheap, makeshift tools that were never designed to provide precise, consistent, low-current electricity to sensitive electronics. It may be fine, but it may also cook your charger, or worse, your phone / laptop / tablet. Most converters don’t even work with cheap 120v power strips in the first place (I’ve blown enough breakers to know). Power converters should be reserved for things like hair dryers or other high-draw, low-tech analog appliances that simply won’t accept 240v.

You will probably still read conflicting information out there on the web about converters and adapters, but as I said, much of that seems to be based on an outdated understanding of the electronics we travel with. Get an adapter and a universal voltage compliant power strip, and read the labels on your various chargers. If you find one that only works with US voltage (110/120), then it’s time to get a converter, or better yet, think about replacing that gadget. After all, your life will only be easier for it.

Walk it off: how I sort of accidentally fell in love with walking.

I know, walking – it’s been done. Old people can’t get enough of it. They wear New Balance sneakers and high-vis vests and scowl disapprovingly at scantily-clad runners oblivious to the world courtesy of their sporty earbuds. In my quest to lose weight (and save a bit of money), though, I’ve started walking more. A lot more.

I’ve thought about joining a gym for a while, but after taking a tour of the one reasonably-priced local facility I was interested in, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about this option anymore. The employees really, really wanted to help. And that’s cool, but I feel like personal trainers / fitness enthusiasts have a hard time understanding what it’s like coming out of three years of an inactive lifestyle and want to help too much. I was told I’d be wasting my money just coming in for cardio machines, and should do aerobic classes, weight training, nutrition plan, etc. I like to think I’m realistic when I say that’s not going to happen for me. Not at the point I’m at, not yet. It’s too much. I’d give up, and I’d feel inadequate if I was told my workout routine wasn’t taking full advantage of my membership. So I passed on that route, and saved my $40 / month.

I pondered my other options. Buy a used road bike? Kind of expensive and, frankly, a little dangerous anywhere in Los Angeles. A home cardio machine was well out of my budget, even used. Hiking is a bit daunting, and I’ve never felt comfortable doing it by myself in rattlesnake country. So what’s cheap, healthy, and practical? Well, as it turns out, walking.

I’d started walking before back in March, but at the time I was having radicular nerve pain in my calves from a car accident I had in January this year. It made all but an easy pace on a flat surface very difficult, and painful, to maintain. I’ve since recovered quite a bit from that injury, and it no longer bothers me.

Three weeks ago I started again. My plan was simple: the carrot on a stick approach. Every day after work, I walked to get dinner. A salad at Chipotle (no rice, dressing, or guacamole, regular portions). It’d easily save me a dollar in gas every day (really more than that, because I’d drive further to get food), and I’d work up an appetite by the time I got there.

I started off slowly, and without any fitness trackers. Just me, my triple-seal earbuds, and a Pandora classic jazz station.

The more I walked, the more I liked it, though. It wasn’t super easy at first (it still isn’t, as I push my pace upward), but it had an less expected benefit: it relieved stress. The more I pushed myself, the more my anxieties and worries sort of melted away. I think that’s kind of what’s getting me hooked on it – some part of my brain is nudging me and saying “hey, this makes you feel better, do it!” So I’ve kept doing it. And the more I do it, the easier it becomes to stay committed to the pattern.

I walk 3 (or more) miles a day, five days a week, split into 1.5 mile intervals with a half hour break in between for dinner. I began using fitness tracker apps a couple weeks back, and have been watching my pace get better and better. I think I started at 22 minutes / mile, but as happens when you start focusing on improving a number, that number got better. Within a couple days it was 20 minutes. Now, I’m down to 18 minutes a mile. I want to break 15. And at that point, I want to start jogging in intervals (trust me, I cannot jog after three years of sedentary lifestyle and weight gain. I tried – once, last week. It did not go well).

But the really great thing? I’ve discovered walking is kind of awesome. And not simply the act, but the entire philosophy of setting aside an hour and a half (or thereabouts) of my day every day to do this one thing that improves my health, and that just flat out makes me feel better.

Apps that are glorified mobile web page wrappers are evil incarnate.

AT&T just updated its myAT&T account management app with a brand-new UI! And by “brand-new UI”, I mean a brand-new Android app wrapped around its god-awful mobile web page. The mobile web page has been redesigned, too, and now shows your data usage on the front splash of the app, as opposed to being buried in a secondary page.

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This is undoubtedly my biggest pet peeve on Android, or really, any mobile OS. It’s lazy. It’s bad UX. You can see just how lazy AT&T is quite easily – try to swipe left or right on the main page and you’ll see the borders of the viewable area move around slightly. It’s sort of like walking into one of those Hollywood sets where all the buildings are just plywood facades and the skyline is painted on a wall. It’s not a real app, AT&T just wants you to think it’s a real app. 

Now, if AT&T’s mobile web page was actually really good, or pretty, maybe i could understand this. But it isn’t. It’s slow, has ugly animations, and the navigation layout is horrendous. And seriously, a sidebar inside the app that navigates around the mobile web page as a redundant alternative to the shortcuts displayed on the page? AT&T, what are you smoking?

I’m not saying AT&T is the only one guilty of this, far from it. And I’m not saying there is no reason to use a mobile web page as part of an app’s UI. There can be legitimate reasons in some cases. I’m struggling to think of them, but I’m sure they’re out. I hope.

But this. This is bad. This is annoying. It’s lazy. Stop it.