Ad Nauseam


Q: Those Internet pop-up ads are really starting to get on my nerves—it seems like I spend half my Web time closing “Lose Weight Fast!” windows. Got any tips for stemming the tide?

Few things in cyberspace are more irksome than the barrage of pop-ups hawking credit cards, offshore casinos, and penile enhancers. A survey last summer found that pop-ups really rankle nearly two-thirds of Web surfers, a figure sure to soar as more flailing dotcoms cut skin-saving ad deals. But our geek pals are on the case, designing some fine, low-cost ad killers.

Don’t be guilted into thinking of pop-ups as a mere annoyance, by the way. Some Web merchants plead that ignoring pop-ups is tantamount to theft, just like those TV execs who blast viewers for skipping the commercials. But unlike Dell dude ads during Becker, which cause only mental anguish, pop-ups can wreak serious havoc on your computer. They often crash Windows-based Web browsers by gobbling up memory and interfering with downloads; Mr. Roboto blew a gasket recently when an Orbitz pop-up froze his screen right before deadline. And devious types can use them to infect your machine, by cloaking dangerous viruses as pop-up error messages.

There are a few three-second fixes to the pop-up quandary, though the side effects are nasty. You can disable your browser’s cookie-gathering ability, or you can turn off scripting in the Options menu (usually hidden in the Security section). But lots of Web sites bar cookie rejecters, and nixing scripts will hinder your interactivity—you can’t vote in Hot or Not? polls, for starters.

A more laborious approach is to send opt-out e-mails to all the big ad servers, like DoubleClick and Avenue A; check the list of opt-out addresses at The catch is that several pop-up schemers, like the folks behind the X10 spy camera, promise just 30 days of relief. Unless you keep asking, the pop-ups creep back.

That’s not the case if you install ad-killing software. Most rely on centralized, frequently updated “blacklists” of known offenders. Mr. Roboto spent last week testing 14 of the most popular ad busters, from A (Ad Delete) to W (WebWasher). The top freeware choice was PopUp Killer, by far the quickest and lightest (just under 400 kilobytes). PopUp Killer was duped only once, and I painlessly added the offending ad to the blacklist with three mouse clicks. A close second was Advertising Killer, whose keyboard shortcuts were a plus, but which lost points for letting a common pitch slip through. Mac fans will be best served by WebWasher), one of the few programs catering to the anti-Windows crowd.

On the pay side, AdSubtract gets the gold star. There are way too many bells and whistles—the options menu has enough tabs to run Three Mile Island—and the $30 price tag is, well, $30 steeper than free. But it gets major kudos for stopping banner ads and background music; the only online phenomenon more irritating than the pop-up is pages that open with “Candle in the Wind (Princess Di Version).”

Even if you shell out for a top-shelf ad killer, don’t expect perfection. The programs are bound to block some pop-ups you actually need—there can be hiccups with Web-based e-mail accounts, for example—so be prepared to use the Disable command here and there. And since no blacklist can keep pace with every pop-up, you’ll have to live with the occasional herbal Viagra pitch—a small price to pay for forever ditching 99 percent of those Voice newsletter pleas we know you love so much.

Mr. Roboto’s German forebears may be Europe’s reigning kings of efficiency, but their Dutch neighbors have a knack for order, too. The town of Bloemendaal is outfitting its trees with computer chips, to help officials better monitor bark and branch health. Aside from ensuring that all their trees are happy trees, Bloemendaal’s elders hope the program will stymie lawsuits; if a pedestrian is thunked by a falling branch, the town can marshal computer records to prove the tragedy was an act of God, rather than the result of shoddy maintenance.