You Know What’s Cool?

A billion iPhones, that’s what. At an employee meeting today, Tim Cook showed off the billionth one: what appears to be a rose gold iPhone 6S Plus.

The scale at which Apple operates is unprecedented. I was trying to find something — anything — to compare it to when I stumbled across a list of the best-selling products of all time. It’s a crappy “listicle”, but it provides some context. They say that 516 million iPhones had been sold at the time of the list’s creation in May 2014, which means that nearly half of all iPhones ever made have been sold in the last two years.

Apple Reports Third Quarter Results

Amongst some not-great iPhone and Mac sales are improvements in services, and a decent bump in iPad average selling prices despite a drop in total sales, potentially indicating more people choosing the iPads Pro. “Other” revenue was down for the first time in a while, probably because the Apple Watch debuted in Q3 2015.

Graham Spencer of MacStories put together a good roundup of reactions from Twitter, and highlights from the earnings call.

Illegally Downloading Music Like It’s 1999

Tom Usher, Vice:

Eventually the music industry worked out that it couldn’t just bash people with the proverbial stick, and it created the carrot of way cheaper legal downloading and streaming services, while also going around closing down the websites that had almost destroyed its business.

That tactic pretty much worked, and today I, like everyone else, am more than happy to wrestle with the extensive catalogs of YouTube and Spotify rather than endangering my computer with dodgy software. But I do wonder what happened to those old pirate websites, whether they still exist in some kind of internet graveyard or whether they have all been expunged.

So, as I was feeling particularly blue this week, I decided to try download Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” for free on every old pirate website, to see if any of them had sprung back up in my absence.

It is truly remarkable how long it took for major music labels and movie studios to realize that they couldn’t fight pirates directly; it is equally as remarkable how quickly most of us have transitioned to a streaming world. For ten bucks a month, you can get a virtually limitless catalogue of music on loads of different platforms — from the good, to the less good. For another nine bucks a month, you can get Netflix’s huge library of TV shows and movies. It’s taking the movie studios and distribution companies longer to figure out that holding out on Netflix doesn’t necessarily make it more likely that people will pay to rent an individual movie or buy a whole television show’s season, but they’re coming around.

But if you don’t want to pay for music or movies, it’s as easy as ever to surf the web while flying the Jolly Roger, as long as you know where to look. The fight against piracy has driven these kinds of sites underground, relying upon a more distributed network. Private torrent trackers remain popular, and offer plenty of records and movies that are virtually impossible to find on streaming services or elsewhere. Music blogs remain popular and continue to distribute RAR files hosted outside of the United States, making it difficult to remove either the blog or the files.

They may be illegal and they don’t encourage support for the artists and creators of the work, but all of these files come with a distinct advantage: there’s no DRM or licensing disputes to contend with. That‘s something that the major studios and labels have yet to solve. While we’re being encouraged to put our media libraries into the cloud, we’re also told that we’re not entitled to any of this media. We’re placing yet another controlling party between ourselves and what we’re trying to do, and that party has a poor track record of balancing their own wishes with consumer desires.

There are now more obstacles between us and pirated media compared to, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But streaming media has replaced some of those with potential obstacles that show up every now and again.

Transit Cartography

I know that this is effectively an advertisement for Transit, but it also happens to be very good at explaining some of the design decisions and difficulties encountered when trying to make maps for public transportation users. Between Google Maps and Transit — Apple’s Maps app doesn’t support Calgary yet — it’s an easy choice.

An Interview With Kara Swisher

New York magazine interviewed 113 journalists and polled them on the state of the media — what’s right and, more importantly, what’s wrong. Their responses were varied and frank, with a kind of candour that is admirable and eye-opening.

As far as I can tell, the only tech journalist interviewed for the piece was Kara Swisher. Jeff Wise was the interviewer:

What about with Marissa Mayer?

I was critical of her tenure from the beginning because of a lot of moves she made. Now, I’ve known her as an executive a long time, and I knew her background at Google, which was very mixed. So I was like, “Hey, just a second. She’s never run anything. Some of the selections of executives she’s making aren’t very good. It’s a bigger problem at Yahoo than people realize — she’s not going to just arrive and wave her golden wand and make it okay.” And people are like, “Why are you so mean to her?” and I’m like, “This isn’t high school, she’s an executive, she’s a highly paid executive at a major public company, and she’s messing it up.”

Turns out…

I kept saying, “This is not going to end well.” I don’t think it was mean. All I was commenting on was her business ability. And people were saying I was mean. I’m not mean, I’m accurate.

Fiery.

This is a terrific interview. Swisher has always been one of the sharpest minds in tech media. She’s not blind to the problems that are rife in it; or, indeed, in any other media niche.

Koenigsegg’s Analysis of Their Nurburgring Accident

Like Elon Musk and Tesla, the team at Koenigsegg is pretty open about communicating what they’re learning after mistakes and accidents. I think this might be one of the most frank and honest articles published by a company about what they did wrong, and how they’re fixing it. It’s refreshing.

And the car is pretty badass, too.

A Short History of Yahoo Acquisition Attempts

Now that Verizon has made official their purchase of Yahoo for $4.83 billion, it’s worth taking a look at the comparative value of this acquisition. I’ve already contrasted its price with how much Yahoo paid for GeoCities and Broadcast.com, but this is not the first time that a company has tried to buy Yahoo itself.

Back in February of 2008, Microsoft offered $44.6 billion to acquire Yahoo, in an attempt to better compete with Google. At the time, analysts speculated that it would be a difficult merger for antitrust reasons — an idea that seems positively quaint today. In the end, Yahoo rejected the offer:

After careful evaluation, the Board believes that Microsoft’s proposal substantially undervalues Yahoo! including our global brand, large worldwide audience, significant recent investments in advertising platforms and future growth prospects, free cash flow and earnings potential, as well as our substantial unconsolidated investments.

Later that year, Microsoft tried again, offering about $20 billion for Yahoo’s search functionality. While it was also rejected, Yahoo and Microsoft entered into a deal in 2009 that would use Bing’s search technology to power Yahoo. That deal was re-signed last year; its value was not disclosed.

While Yahoo has an illustrious history with Microsoft, part of the negotiations in 2008 involved a familiar friend. Nick Tabakoff of the Australian:

But any joint move by Microsoft and News could face stiffening resistance from Yahoo, with reports suggesting the portal and internet search directory is itself in discussions with Time Warner’s AOL about the two companies joining forces to combine their online operations.

Yahoo’s reported negotiations with AOL are being seen as a direct attempt to make it harder for Microsoft to control the portal. The reported move by News Corp, which owns The Australian, to enter the fray for Yahoo follows Microsoft’s February $US44.6 billion takeover bid for the group.

News has been mulling an alliance with Yahoo for much of the past year.

Not only was News Corp. involved in these negotiations, so was AOL. There were even suggestions at the time that AOL and Yahoo could merge.

Verizon bought AOL last year. In their announcement of the Yahoo acquisition today, they noted:

Yahoo will be integrated with AOL under Marni Walden, EVP and President of the Product Innovation and New Businesses organization at Verizon.

At last.

Stellar.io Has Officially Shut Down

Sad news from Jason Kottke:

Hi all, Jason here. I am not at all excited or happy or thrilled to announce that Stellar has been shut down and will not be coming back. This was not an easy decision to make. Building the site was some of the most fun I have ever had and watching people use and love it, well, it was very satisfying both personally and professionally. But as the reasons for discontinuing Stellar piled up over the past 2-3 years, it became obvious even to me that it was the only way forward.

Stellar never caught on the way I had hoped it would, and the cost (both in dollars and in even more precious time) doesn’t allow me to give it – and you – the attention that’s deserved. The site has been unstable since late 2015 and non-responsive since April, and it’s well past time to make it official. It’s better to be a fond memory than an on-going frustration.

I loved Stellar. It’s one of the few bookmarks I keep — well, kept — in my bookmarks toolbar, as opposed to squirrelled away in a bookmarks folder. There’s nothing else that works quite like it; nothing else with the same uncanny ability to surface really great tweets from friends of your friends. I used to check my Stellar feed every night before bed. I’ll miss it, but I’ll always appreciate Kottke’s work to make it as good as it was; it gives me a reason to miss the site.

Make America Colbert Again

This week, Marisa Guthrie of the Hollywood Reporter and Alison Herman of the Ringer published two interesting articles examining Stephen Colbert’s iteration of the Late Show.

While both Jimmy Fallon and James Corden have done spectacularly well in encouraging viewers to flood their friends’ Facebook and Twitter feeds with YouTube links, Colbert has struggled. Yet, in the last month or so, Colbert has managed to combine his intellect with videos that have a similar popularity as his competitors’.

The first was a daring “explanation” of Donald Trump’s reaction to the mass shooting in Orlando. This week, he’s been broadcasting live during the Republican National Convention, and will do so next week during the Democratic equivalent. Last night, however, he topped it all by bringing Jon Stewart back.

I don’t worry too much about the Late Show’s reluctance to create viral singalong videos. Colbert has an on-air personality that’s kind of like a lighter version of David Letterman, whom he replaced. That style of television is more sophisticated, and less dependent upon gags. I hope that’s not lost should they more rigorously pursue ratings or YouTube views.

Homeland Security Tried to Confiscate a WSJ Reporter’s Phones

Joseph Cox, Vice:

The agent passed over a document, which [reporter Maria Abi-Habib] later photographed and posted to Facebook, purportedly showing that the agent has the right to seize those devices. Abi-Habib instead said that the border agents would need to contact WSJ’s lawyers. After some back and forth, the agent went to see her supervisor, and eventually said Abi-Habib is free to go.

Abi-Habib said she reported the incident to a WSJ lawyer, encryption expert and the outlet’s in-house security. From those conversations, Abi-Habib says, “My rights as a journalist or US citizen do not apply at the border, as explained above, since legislation was quietly passed in 2013 giving DHS very broad powers (I researched this since the incident). This legislation also circumvents the Fourth Amendment that protects Americans’ privacy and prevents searches and seizures without a proper warrant.”

Per the Department of Homeland Security’s assessment (PDF):

The overall authority to conduct border searches without suspicion or warrant is clear and long- standing, and courts have not treated searches of electronic devices any differently than searches of other objects. We conclude that CBP’s and ICE’s current border search policies comply with the Fourth Amendment. We also conclude that imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits.

Read that again, carefully, and realize that these three sentences completely undermine the Fourth Amendment at any border crossing, such as an airport, or within a hundred miles of the American border.

Pixellating or Blurring Text in Photoshop Creates Identifiable Patterns

Kashmir Hill summarizes for Fusion a study by Steven Hill, et. al. (PDF):

“In many online communities, it is the norm to redact names and other sensitive text from posted screen shots,” write the researchers, specifically citing Reddit. “Mosaicing and blurring have also been used for the redaction of high-profile government documents and celebrity social media.”

They should probably stop doing that. The UC-San Diego researchers found that they could use statistical models—”so-called hidden Markov models”—to generate the blurring or pixelation of lots of numbers, letters, and words, to the point that their software program could match a known redaction to an unknown redaction to figure out what it says. The biggest challenge is figuring out the font and size of the underlying text which the researchers need for their deciphering. They say it works better than a brute-force technique for deciphering pixelated images discussed by Dheera Venkatraman in 2007.

There’s a great reason why intelligence agencies redact documents by placing an oversized black bar on top of the text in question, then printing and scanning the document to make it unrecoverable. The latter steps were not performed by the New York Times in 2014, and it lead to the unintentional exposure of sensitive information from a Snowden-leaked NSA document.

Limiting Harassment, Not Speech

Madeleine Sweet:

While [Milo] Yiannopoulos uses the term “free speech” to declare what Twitter, in his opinion, deprived him of — he clearly could not have meant it in the legal sense, though he likely meant to evoke the same sense that many horrible Americans have; this sense that they can spew whatever bigotry they want without repercussion because “the first amendment”. Perhaps he did mean it in the legal sense, in which case he is as dumb as all of his bigoted drones trolling the #FreeMilo hashtag (also: free him from what?) and attempting to make some correlation between the bill of rights and [Twitter] banning a bigot and a hate-monger from their forum.

Much like when Brendan Eich was removed as Mozilla’s CEO after his contributions to Prop 8 became known, and when Charles Johnson was banned from Twitter for raising funds to “take out” DeRay Mckesson, it was entirely within the realm of reason for Yiannopoulos to be banned as well. By goading his followers into targeted harassment repeatedly and expressing no contrition for it, he became an unwelcome and toxic presence.

Yiannopoulos’ defence is that Twitter is a “safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists”. Racism and xenophobia aside, it should be noted that, last summer, Twitter began a crackdown on accounts that tweeted in support of ISIS. The result? A 40% decline in related activity.

In a weird way, Yiannopoulos is right: Twitter has a much bigger problem with abuse than any single user can represent. But he’s part of the problem. Twitter should not be a safe space for inciting hatred and targeted violence.

Update: Leigh Alexander, writing for the Guardian:

Banning one man won’t undo the small but poisonous cultural legacy he’s created, nor erase the playbook for defamation and harassment online that he’s played a key role in scripting. Twitter has far, far more work to do.

Without this further work, Yiannopoulos’s ban – and even the subsequent catty gloating from us folks on the left – all just stands to aggravate a wound that’s been attracting flies to social media discourse for too long already. An isolated ban just lets Yiannopoulos make himself a martyr for “free speech” – it enables him to argue that social media offers special treatment to those on the political left that it does not accord the right, and perpetuates the pernicious myth that the main interest of the progressive left is in shutting its ears to offensive things or in “censoring” those who ruffle feathers.

Apple and Formula 1

Joe Saward brings us a strange but intriguing rumour:

The suggestion last week that Apple may be discussing the acquisition of the Formula One group has led to a lot of interest and a lot of opinion. […]

Right now, it is unclear whether an Apple-F1 deal is a serious possibility, but it is clear that discussions have been taking place. Logic is often the wrong way to look at F1 because decisions tend to be driven by the enthusiasm of the decision-makers, who then argue for F1 within the companies involved. In this respect, Apple should be watched because Cue is a petrolhead – not to mention a member of the board of Ferrari SpA.

Saward is a reliable, long-time F1 reporter; this rumour should not be dismissed out of hand, no matter how bizarre it seems. He clarified on Twitter that he heard rumours from multiple sources in Baku and Austria about these discussions. This is unclear and volatile so far, but, as it brings together two of my favourite things, I’m fascinated already.

Why would Apple do this? Formula 1 is a huge brand, especially outside of the United States. If they want exclusive shows and other content — and they do — a pre-existing global network of live events that is broadcast to a dedicated fanbase around the world makes some sense.

Update: Then again, Siri still doesn’t support F1 queries.

Leslie Jones and Harassment on Twitter

Leslie Jones, who played Patty Tolan in this year‘s Ghostbusters film, spent today screencapping and tweeting some of the racist and sexist crap she has to put up with on a regular basis. Susan Cheng of Buzzfeed has compiled several of the tweets, along with a bunch of words of support from friends and other users.

What’s clear is that Twitter remains a platform on which it is trivial to hurl insults, epithets, and hate at other users with virtually no recourse. It took Twitter four and a half hours to respond to Buzzfeed with confirmation that they had suspended the accounts in question, and Cheng posted her article well after Jones had begun exposing those users.

Does Twitter simply not see harassment as a big deal? Their tech staff is overwhelmingly white and male, as is their leadership. Do you really think these problems would persist if they had a more diverse staff that were, depressingly, more often on the receiving end of this kind of hatred?

iTunes Match Audio Fingerprinting Is Coming to Apple Music

Jim Dalrymple:

Apple has been quietly rolling out iTunes Match audio fingerprint to all Apple Music subscribers. Previously Apple was using a less accurate metadata version of iTunes Match on Apple Music, which wouldn’t always match the correct version of a particular song. We’ve all seen the stories of a live version of a song being replaced by a studio version, etc.

Using iTunes Match with audio fingerprint, those problems should be a thing of the past.

It baffles me that Apple Music rolled out with an entirely different matching techniques when, probably two or three offices over, the iTunes Match team built a perfectly decent audio fingerprinting system. Duplicative efforts in this vein seem like they should have been eliminated when the executive staff was shuffled in 2012.

According to iMore’s Serenity Caldwell, this change also means that the files stored in Apple Music will be DRM-free. While it hasn’t been confirmed by anyone at Apple, it seems like iTunes Match is slowly being eliminated, which makes sense — it, too, is duplicative of a number of Apple Music features.

Tech Companies and Diversity Hiring

Dare Obasanjo:

The low relative numbers of black engineers at many tech companies is a reflection of how these companies approach recruitment and hiring. If 7% of Apple’s tech employees are black and it is literally the most valuable company in the world and Slack can have 8.9% of its engineering staff be black then break records by being the fastest enterprise startup to hit a $1 billion valuation, it’s a farce for other tech companies to imply that hiring more than 1% black engineers can’t be done without lowering their standards.

What an incredibly insulting statement it is for hiring managers to claim that increasing the number of nonwhite, non-male employees at their companies necessitates a lowering of standards.

Diversity Is a Broken Product

Bo Ren, in what I promise is an uplifting piece towards the end:

[We] are told that we don’t cut it, even when we have the same or higher qualifications. There is a gulf between a privileged mediocre candidate and an excellent minority candidate. It’s the tension between the B, B+, B- folks versus the A, A-, A+ folks. Yet, even after college, there’s still grade inflation for mediocre white men.

It is flawed to look to women in power as indicators of progress in diversity. Just having Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Marry Barra (all white women) in power is not enough for furthering diversity. If you are an excellent, smart, Ivy League graduate, who is an early employee of a big tech company, you will do just fine despite difficulties and biases along the way. But what about the the other candidates who are not as fortunate?

There are other industries that are heavily skewed towards particular combinations of gender and ethnicity, but the ongoing focus on improving diversity in tech is because it shouldn’t be skewed. Its promise is an egalitarianism that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Tech is an inherently complex industry, with people working in everything from design and creative pursuits to physical engineering and finance. It should span the gamut, particularly due to its growing influence and power. Yet it remains an industry largely dominated by white male figures in all positions, from interns to CEOs.

And it shows: Apple debuted a Health app in iOS 8 without the capability to track menstrual cycles; Google’s photo recognition software tagged black people as “gorillas”; software from both HP and Microsoft has had problems with recognizing the faces of darker-skinned users; and, just this year, Microsoft held a party with dancers dressed as erotic schoolgirls mere hours after holding a luncheon discussing women in gaming.

Do we think any of these issues would have occurred if any of these companies hired more people of colour, more women, or more people who live at the intersection of multiple sources of discrimination?

Excuse Season Rapidly Approaches

As we move into the second half of July, tech companies are probably preparing their public diversity reports, as they’ve done for the past two years. Last year’s numbers were a scant improvement across the board from the previous year’s figures, with Facebook — in particular — performing poorly. Yours truly:

More companies released their full EEO-1 reports this year than last year, demonstrating a desire for more transparency but also revealing in much greater detail just how few improvements they’ve made. Facebook, for example, hired precisely 36 black Americans this year, out of over a thousand new employees.

Based on a report yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, those numbers aren’t much better this year. Georgia Wells writes:

The share of Hispanic and black employees in the company’s U.S. workforce didn’t budge from a year ago, remaining at 4% and 2%, respectively. The percentage of women at Facebook inched up 1 percentage point to 33%.

Facebook blamed its problem on the “pipeline,” meaning the number of women and minorities entering the tech industry.

That’s bullshit. The Washington Post busted this myth almost exactly one year ago. Cecilia Kang and Todd C. Frankel reported then:

“It’s not even remotely a pipeline issue,” said Andrea Hoffman, who runs Culture Shift Labs, which helps companies find minority and female talent. Her company recently hosted a brunch in Palo Alto, Calif., for minority job-seekers in tech and finance. The 200 seats were snapped up, and she had to make a waiting list for 200 more.

“For anybody to tell me the talent isn’t out there,” she said, “I know emphatically that’s not true.”

Wells asked a similar expert the same thing this year and got a near-identical response:

“There are a ton of opportunities to increase demographic representation in tech companies with the people that already exist in the workforce,” said Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, a diversity consultancy that works with many Silicon Valley firms.

She added that there are more black and Hispanic computer-science graduates than are offered jobs with tech firms in the U.S.

It might be another year of middling progress in corporate diversity in the tech sector. Brace yourself for recycled excuses.

The Playlist Makers

Reggie Ugwu of Buzzfeed scored interviews with the teams who make the playlists for Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play, and the resulting article is a fascinating look inside our expectations for what playlists should be:

Music fans, [Apple Music curator Scott Plagenhoef] argues, echoing Iovine, can smell the difference between a service where much of the product is dictated by algorithms or charts and one that is guided by more knowledgeable but equally passionate versions of themselves. By building its house on a foundation of experts, Apple Music has bet that it can be marginally more trustworthy to users than the competition, and that that margin could make a tie-breaking difference.

“Music taste is so nuanced, it’s so personal,” Plagenhoef says. “I think one of the worst things you can do to somebody is get really close to who they are and then present them with something that’s close to what they want but not quite there. You don’t want to be the people who say, ‘Well, you like Fleet Foxes, so you must like Mumford & Sons.’”

Plagenhoef’s statement is rather peculiar considering the number of times I — and other Apple Music users — have seen “Intro To…” playlists for artists that we’re deeply familiar with. The title of this kind of playlist has since been changed to “Essentials”, but it amounts to the same thing. Spotify’s playlists aren’t much better for me, though that’s likely because I use it far less than I do Apple Music. The playlists may be made by hand, but the method by which they’re served is still entirely automated, and it doesn’t work well enough.

Back in the days of iTunes Radio, there used to be a slider that would allow you to set whether you’d prefer to discover new music or listen to more familiar songs. I’d love to see that in Apple Music, too, but as a setting within For You. And I would really like for Apple Music to use my Genius library data.

U.S. Federal Court Rules That Home Computer Users Have No Expectation of Privacy

Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (via Michael Tsai):

In a dangerously flawed decision unsealed today, a federal district court in Virginia ruled that a criminal defendant has no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in his personal computer, located inside his home. According to the court, the federal government does not need a warrant to hack into an individual’s computer.

I’m not sure how I missed this news, nor why it isn’t being plastered everywhere. The EFF notes that it’s unlikely to hold up on appeal, but there is now a case that states that you have no privacy on your own computer in your own home. Unreal.

Remember the Halcyon Days of Facebook Bots?

The Washington Post just launched their first bot, joining 11,000 others on Facebook Messenger. And, well, it’s not great. Joseph Lichterman, Nieman Lab:

For instance, I asked it for coverage about Pokémon Go — but it gave me stories on Evan Bayh’s Indiana Senate bid, an op-ed from a mom about why she doesn’t limit her kids’ screen time, a piece from April listing online April Fools hoaxes, a story about a D.C. kidnapping, and a review of the X-Factor TV show.

Marburger acknowledged the issue, and said those language processing issues are the main thing the Post is trying to work out now as it rolls the bot out to users.

That’s Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product. Facebook has got media companies trying to develop natural language processing.

More to the point, are people actually using Facebook Messenger bots? Back in March, they were the new apps that Apple absolutely had to respond to. Between then and now, I’ve tried a few of the popular bots and beta tested a couple of other ones, and it’s been underwhelming. In the early days of the App Store, I remember everyone rushing to try as many apps as they could. Facebook’s bots don’t seem to have that effect.

Maybe Facebook Messenger bots will behave like the Amazon Echo: starting quietly and gradually growing to define a niche. But if the language processing must be handled on an individual developer basis, I bet users will continue to find these bots more of a nuisance than helpful.