Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google Search Will Penalize Mobile Sites With Interstitial Ads

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

In a post published Tuesday on the Google Webmasters blog, Google product manager Doantam Phan wrote, “Pages that show intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible. This can be problematic on mobile devices where screens are often smaller.”

As a result, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from mobile search results may not rank as highly in Google’s search results after Jan. 10, 2017, the post said. This could result in less traffic to those pages and sites.

Examples of interstitials that make content less accessible include pop-ups that “cover the main content [of a page], either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page,” Mr. Phan wrote.

Marshall and Phan are right — interstitial covers can be really irritating on mobile browsers. But why stop there? They provide a crappy desktop experience as well. Why not apply the same algorithmic demotion to all sites that practice this user-unfriendly technique?

Coincidentally, I added api.bounceexchange.com to my JavaScript Blacklist today. Bounce Exchange is a company that specializes in this sort of thing, and it drives me crazy.

The Best Photo Editing App for Your iPhone

Remember how, three years ago, I recommend that everyone go out and download VSCO because it was the best photo editing app you could get for your iPhone? And then remember how VSCO went and messed it up with a really confusing new UI?

Well, I wrote an updated version of that article for the Sweet Setup. No spoilers; you should go read it and learn what apps I recommend you use with that new dual-camera iPhone you’ll be getting in a month’s time.

Pinstapaper

From the Instapaper blog:

Today, we’re excited to announce that Instapaper is joining Pinterest. In the three years since betaworks acquired Instapaper from Marco Arment, we’ve completely rewritten our backend, overhauled our mobile and web clients, improved parsing and search, and introduced tons of great features like highlights, text-to-speech, and speed reading to the product.

Marco Arment in 2013, in the post announcing that he had sold Instapaper to Betaworks:

Instapaper is much bigger today than I could have predicted in 2008, and it has simply grown far beyond what one person can do. To really shine, it needs a full-time staff of at least a few people. But I wouldn’t be very good at hiring and leading a staff, and after more than five years, I’d like an opportunity to try other apps and creative projects. Instapaper needs a new home where it can be staffed and grown, but I didn’t want to give it to a big company that would probably just shut it down in six months.

Brian Donahue of Betaworks:

Instapaper will continue to operate as a separate app and they will not be pushing some separate agenda that alters the app or user-experience.

Maciej Cegłowski:

The “we sold to Pinterest but nothing is changing” email is Instapaper’s equivalent of reassuring grandma about her move to a nursing home.

I’m worried about this. I’m a long-time Instapaper user and customer, and its features — particularly highlights and notes — are essential to my reading and research habits. But what happens six months from now? Will Pinterest really keep the app the same as it’s always been, given a reasonable level of overlap between the two services? That uncertainty leaves me feeling uneasy.

Apple Mart

You’ve probably heard by now that the Apple Store is no longer the “Apple Store” — they’re dropping the “Store” part.

John Gruber chimes in:1

Think about the brands that are Apple’s peers in retail. No one goes to the Tiffany Store or Gucci Store, they just go to Tiffany or Gucci. It’s not even just a premium thing — you say Target and Walmart, not Target Store and Walmart Store.

Daniel Jalkut disagrees somewhat:

Apple is a company whose products, hardware and software, have historically been sold separately from its own retail presence. Going to “Apple” will never make sense the way it does to go to “Target” or even to “Tiffany’s.” Where “Store” has been dropped, it’s essential that some other qualifier takes it place. Going to “Apple Union Square” makes sense. Asking a hotel concierge whether there is “an Apple nearby” makes as much sense as asking where the nearest “Ford” or “Honda” is.

Jalkut is right, but that’s because he includes the definite article “the”. Apple’s retail line may officially be referred to as “Apple Chinook Centre”, for instance — instead of “Apple Store, Chinook Centre” — but most people are still going to ask where the nearest “Apple store” is, lowercase intended. They’re also going to continue to say that they’re “going to Apple on Fifth Avenue”, which doesn’t need the “store” qualifier because it doesn’t have the definite article.

He’s also right that nobody asks for the nearest “Honda”; they’re more likely to ask for the nearest “Honda dealership”. But, at least where I live, no Honda dealerships actually have the words “dealer” or “dealership” in their names. People may ask for the nearest “Honda dealership”, or they may refer to the one where they bought their S2000 at as “Honda West” or “T&T Honda”.

Update: Some of these examples sound a little weird — even “Apple Chinook Centre” comes across as contrived. “Apple The Grove” doesn’t sound right at all. Perhaps “Apple at location” would sound better in nearly all circumstances. But, then again, Apple has always been funny about their phrasing — note, for example, their persistence in dropping the definite article when referring to any of their products: it’s always “iPhone”, never “the iPhone”.

Update: John Buck, via email, pointed out something that I hadn’t considered: “store” branding is good for most of the products Apple sells today, but would you ever buy a car from a “store”?


  1. Incidentally, Gruber’s reference to Gucci is undermined very slightly by Kanye West↩︎

Bandcamp Is the People’s Online Music Store

This link is kind of an extension to my response yesterday to a particularly poorly-considered post from Bob Lefsetz. One thing I didn’t expand upon then was this part of Lefsetz’s article:

Apple Music is a me-too product that works badly that’s locked behind a paywall and the music industry wants it to be the dominant platform so the fan is squeezed and indie acts are pushed down to the bottom where they belong.

I don’t dispute that Apple Music is, functionally, a “me-too product”, but that’s okay. Every streaming service is ten dollars per month for a broadly-identical library of tracks, and that’s fine. Where these services come into their own is with the unique focus of each: Tidal offers a pricier lossless tier, for CD-quality streaming; Spotify prioritizes shared discovery and radio; and Apple Music attempts to bring a human touch to today’s largely-automated world of music discovery. Tidal and Apple Music also, of course, divvy up exclusive releases.

But the idea that indie acts will be “pushed to the bottom” because Apple dares to charge a subscription fee is as ludicrous as anything in Lefsetz’s article. There are plenty of opportunities for indie bands to succeed within Apple Music — many of the tracks played during the first hour of Beats 1’s first broadcast, including the very first song, were by indie artists — and there are even more opportunities beyond the platform.

Ben Ratliff, New York Times:

Bandcamp, which started in 2008 and is run out of a number of small offices in San Francisco, Brooklyn and elsewhere, became profitable in 2012 and sells a record every five seconds. It grew 35 percent last year and has paid $169 million to artists, according to its website. Its chief executive, Ethan Diamond, mentioned in an interview that “plenty of artists” have made more than $100,000 each through it, and all of them get the same deal: The site keeps 15 percent of each sale. (By comparison, iTunes takes about 30 percent, and going that route also requires being on a label or working with an independent distributor, which takes another cut.)

I remember ripping copies of friends’ records that they bought at shows because I forgot to bring merch table money. Now, unsigned indie bands can distribute their music all over the world without going through a distributor. I’ve bought a bunch of albums through Bandcamp, and I anticipate buying many more in the months and years to come. Between it and Soundcloud, there are plenty of opportunities for independent and major musicians alike to get their music into the ears of fans everywhere.

Blonde Bombshell

The highly-anticipated followup to Frank Ocean’s 2012 “Channel Orange”, “Blonde”, was released yesterday. Like most records with a similar calibre of precedence, it debuted exclusively on a single platform — in this case, Apple Music and iTunes — as opposed to having a wide release across multiple outlets.

And, for some reason, it was this very decision that made longtime music industry commentator and grouch Bob Lefsetz think that fans are getting the shaft:

[The music industry has] come through the digital wars scathed, but it’s well-prepared for the future. Streaming has won and it’s been fan-friendly.

Until now.

[…]

But in music, you can find everything you want to hear, right at your fingertips.

Until now.

“Now”?

The gist of Lefsetz’s piece is that the exclusive-to-Apple Music release of “Blonde” is, somehow, the canary in the coal mine of the music industry. That its exclusivity is, somehow, a symptom of a music industry that doesn’t know how to build a fanbase and is, instead, spitting in the face of everyone from committed fans to casual listeners.

But, for some reason, Lefsetz is only angered now by the release of Frank Ocean’s record on Apple’s platforms.

Exclusive releases are nothing new. Back when people bought CDs, retailers clamoured to offer bonus tracks exclusive to their copies of the record. Taylor Swift’s “Fearless”, for instance, was released in twelve different versions, including four retailer-specific editions. Each had its own set of bonus tracks or videos, and many editions were country-specific. A Taylor Swift fan would find it difficult and expensive to acquire all the versions of her record.

While exclusive releases aren’t a new concept in the slightest, I’ve mentioned them a fair bit this year because of their increasing role in the rollout strategy for new music on streaming services. My stance has long been — and remains — that exclusives can be frustrating for many fans and likely do not decrease piracy of a new record, but they’re an important feather in a streaming service’s cap at little to no risk for artists — more on that in a bit.

Tidal’s numbers surged after Kanye West made his new record exclusive to the platform earlier this year, though the release also ranked highly on popular torrent trackers. It’s a gamble and a bit of a gimmick, but it can work fine for everyone involved.

However, the way that Lefsetz sees it, exclusives like this are nothing more than marketing:

[Most] people don’t give a crap about the new Frank Ocean album. We’ve got an industry that promotes marginal products that appeal to few and makes them unavailable to most people? That’s hysterical!

The biggest act in the business is Adele, and her music sounds like no one else’s. She can sing, the songs are well-constructed, and they appeal to almost everybody. This is the music industry that used to triumph, it’s one being left behind, as insiders pursue a pop game wherein the youth are everything and if you can’t get it on the radio they don’t care.

This is an utterly ridiculous argument. Ocean’s last record debuted in the number two slot in the United States and United Kingdom, and has been certified gold.

Meanwhile, the notion that Adele is being “left behind” is absurd. It was heavily marketed worldwide and became 2015’s highest seller after just three days. The only way she was being left behind was her decision not to release the record on any streaming services at all — it was, in effect, exclusive to a CD release. (And, yes, there was a Target edition, too.)

Funny how the press wasn’t interested in Major Lazer’s “Lean On,” which ended up being the biggest track of the year on Spotify.

“Lean On” was written about by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Spin, and NME — to name just a few of the most popular music publications in the world. Many of those even put it on their year-end lists. I’ve no idea what argument Lefsetz is trying to make here, but it is — as he would put it — hysterical. (Exclamation point.)

But this isn’t about exclusives, per se. According to Lefsetz, this is something vastly more sinister:

Because there’s a conspiracy between Apple Music and the industry to change the game, to get everybody to pay for a subscription by putting hit content behind a paywall.

Setting aside the first part of that sentence, which I will return to later, so what?

From the perspective of a fan not willing to subscribe to a bunch of different platforms — that is, virtually everyone — exclusives can be a pain in the ass. But putting a much-anticipated new release behind a paywall is a very good thing because getting people to pay for music is also a very good thing.

Lefsetz:

We need a free tier. We need a place where casual fans can experience new music. We’re in the business of building lifelong fans, but how do you do this when you can’t hear the music first, when you’ve got to overpay to experience it, that’s a twentieth century model but we’re deep in the twenty first!

I think it’s funny that Lefsetz complains about paying for music being an old business model, as the free tiers of services that offer them — Spotify, Pandora, and so forth — are effectively a light re-imagination of radio. Spotify, for instance, only allows shuffle mode to non-paying members, and they insert ads and assorted other tracks into the stream. Pandora users on the free tier have a skip limit.

Update: Reader “Charles” has written me to say that the desktop version of Spotify does allow listeners in the free tier to select tracks on demand. The mobile version is shuffle-only. The rest of the desktop limitations seem to apply, including limited skips and plenty of ads.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Frank Ocean — or any other artist — is bothered by not offering their newest record to people who will consume it for free in a legal way. Their gamble is that they’ll get a decent agreement from Apple or Tidal for making their album exclusive to the respective platform.

Those who will ante up for the opportunity of listening before anyone else are probably fans, so that’s fine for the artist and for the platform operator. It’s likely that these kinds of exclusive contracts include a small slice of revenue from new subscribers who, within a specific timeframe, listen to the artist’s new release.

Listens from existing subscribers, meanwhile, are likely paid out at a typical rate. Meanwhile, the album will be uploaded and torrented by a wide range of people, from casual listeners to committed fans that don’t want to — or cannot — pay for a subscription.

What does an artist lose by not uploading the record to Spotify or Pandora? My guess: almost nothing. Both platforms pay notoriously poor royalty rates, and the free tier of both platforms mandates a lower quality experience through forced shuffling. Ocean is the kind of artist that cares deeply about all aspects of his record, including the track order. I bet he’d rather have someone not pay for his record and listen to it in the correct order than to receive a measly royalty rate from a non-paying user of a streaming service listening to the album in the wrong order.

Now, back to that “conspiracy” argument:

Apple should be investigated by the government for antitrust. How do you compete with the world’s richest company that’s got endless cash on hand? You can’t. It’d be like expecting hillbillies to get into Harvard if slots went to the highest bidder. The rich get richer and the rest of us… we’re left out, just like in America at large, which is why Bernie and Trump got traction, the usual suspects doing it for themselves have rigged the game in their favor, and now the music industry is trying to do this too.

I’m not sure why Lefsetz has chosen to associate a weeks-long exclusive release of an album he apparently doesn’t care much about to a populist political movement in the United States, or a classist argument, but it’s silly.

I’m not sure where the antitrust angle comes from. Not all new releases are exclusive to Apple Music. Some of this year’s highest-profile albums have been, while others have been exclusive to Tidal. Some lower-profile releases have been exclusive to one of those as well, including Neil Young’s newest None that I can think of have been exclusive to Spotify because it’s not that friendly to artists.

If Spotify wants their own exclusives, perhaps they should pay artists better.

Is there a conspiracy here? Only insomuch as artists, labels, and Apple executives have vouched for the idea of listeners paying for music. This doesn’t prohibit users of the free tiers of Pandora or Spotify from ever hearing “Blonde” — it just means they have to wait a couple of weeks to do so, or they can buy the album on iTunes without subscribing to Apple Music. Simple.

Every Joke From ‘Airplane!’ Ranked

There are 178 jokes counted in this list, but Airplane! is only 87 minutes long, giving it an average of a joke every thirty seconds — and that’s including credits.

A solid ranking, but #154, #61, and #49 would be a hell of a lot higher if it were up to me.

The Final Vesper

Sad news from Brent Simmons, on behalf of himself, John Gruber and Dave Wiskus:

I loved working on Vesper. It was one of the great software-making experiences of my life. We’d get on a roll and it was wonderful.

And now it hurts to turn it off, but it’s time.

I have a lot of stuff collected in my copy of Vesper: ideas for artworks, photos of book covers I like, recipes, receipts, and lots more. It’s my go-to “anything” bucket app. All things must come to an end, and all, but it’s heartbreaking to see it happen to a great app like Vesper, especially since this serves as a de facto acknowledgement that a Mac version is never coming as well. Damn.

The final version is, appropriately enough for this crew, version 2.007.

Net Nanny, Anew

The Ringer’s Alyssa Bereznak compares Twitter’s “Quality Filter” to Net Nanny, the original web filter:

Net Nanny is not the only program of its kind (I see you, Christian Broadband), but it is an example of how internet filtering began, and how flawed it was (and is). In the world of Net Nanny, visiting the Victoria’s Secret website is deemed “provocative,” while a Google image search of “best lingerie” is permitted. Looking up another word for “abusive” on Thesaurus.com, as I am ashamed to admit I did for this article, is for some inexplicable reason considered “mature.” Gawker and BuzzFeed were out of the question, yet somehow a Redbook post on how to give a good blow job is OK.

Considering that Net Nanny has been featured in many a tech advice column, and is now overseen by company called ContentWatch, you’d think it would have addressed some of these oversights. But this is the downfall of any filter, whether it be for a social network or your entire web browser: The internet embraces and rejects new slang, celebrities, websites, and social networks at a breakneck pace. What once was offensive, now is not, and on and on.

Twitter’s rollout of the Quality Filter has been slow — I haven’t seen it appear in my account settings yet.

It’s not going to be perfect, and there’s a very real chance some abuse is going to get through, particularly when it’s targeted towards specific users. Like any spam filter, it’s also likely to catch some false positives. I hope Twitter is more adept at managing the Quality Filter than it has been at addressing harassment for the past ten years, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

Opaque Transparency

Jeff John Roberts, Fortune:

In case you’re unfamiliar, the activities of the [Campaign for Accountability], as it calls itself, consist of a smattering of do-gooder projects — LGBT rights, clean water and so on — and a permanent campaign called “The Google Transparency Project,” which claims to expose various villainies carried out by the search giant. Now, though, at least one company has claimed credit for funding it.

“Oracle is absolutely a contributor (one of many) to the Transparency Project. This is important information for the public to know. It is 100 percent public records and accurate,” said Ken Glueck, Senior Vice President of Oracle.

I have no idea what “100 percent public records” means in this context, but:

The deputy director of the CfA, Daniel Stevens, declined to name the group’s other donors, or to explain why it does not disclose its funders.

A lobbying group with “transparency” in the name of one of its missions — and “accountability” in its actual name — doesn’t reveal its donors unless a journalist gets a hot tip, or if its hand is forced by ongoing litigation. You can’t make this shit up.

NSA Hacking Tools Leaked

Sam Biddle, writing for the Intercept:

On Monday, a hacking group calling itself the “ShadowBrokers” announced an auction for what it claimed were “cyber weapons” made by the NSA. Based on never-before-published documents provided by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, The Intercept can confirm that the arsenal contains authentic NSA software, part of a powerful constellation of tools used to covertly infect computers worldwide.

The applications that have been leaked are from about 2013, which means that their attack vectors may already be outdated and ineffective. I can’t remember the last time that intelligence tools were leaked; it might have been as long ago as during the Cold War. Even if this leak isn’t ultimately damaging or dangerous, it’s still embarrassing for the premier American intelligence agency.

Taking CarPlay for a Spin

Khoi Vinh’s Kia received a software update that enabled CarPlay, so he tried it out. His verdict? Kind of lukewarm:

The most prominent example of CarPlay’s challenges may be that it looks terrible, though through no fault of its own. The display of most in-dash consoles is not of Retina quality, and as a result, the CarPlay apps and UI elements look jagged and poorly rendered. That’s compounded by the fact that, even though you can tap and swipe on the screen, the performance is sluggish and occasionally choppy.

Remember the Motorola Rokr — Apple’s first (collaborative) attempt at a cellphone? Here’s what Sascha Segan said in his review for PC Magazine:

The ROKR’s treatment of iTunes, however, isn’t up to iPod standards in several ways. The worst thing is the rude awakening you’ll get if you try to connect your ROKR at both home and work: The ROKR pairs with only one computer. When we plugged the phone into a second computer, it erased all the onboard music! In addition, the phone’s memory card stores only 100 songs. Yes, we know you could probably fit 120 songs into 512MB, but there’s a software-imposed cap of 100 songs: When we tried to add a 101st track, we got an error message.

Kent German also reviewed the Rokr, for CNet:

The first thing an experienced iPod user will notice about the Rokr E1’s iTunes player is noticeably slow performance. There are obvious navigation delays — occasionally up to two seconds, particularly when skipping through songs or changing screens.

Sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Facebook’s Struggle to Build a More Diverse Workforce

Deepa Seetharaman and Georgia Wells report for the Wall Street Journal on a points-based incentive program for hiring managers at Facebook:

At Facebook, like at other tech companies, recruiters bring in candidates, but it is up to hiring managers to make job offers. Therefore, attracting more candidates doesn’t necessarily result in a more diverse workforce.

[…]

Facebook recruiters often mined LinkedIn profiles for details that could serve as a proxy for race or gender: attending a historically black college, membership in an organization for Hispanic engineers, or a profile picture. Some compiled lists of the 100 most-common Hispanic names in the U.S. to plug into search strings, according to people familiar with the matter.

I’ve no doubt that recruiters will find some exceptional candidates this way, but this strikes me as a potentially short-sighted way to attempt to boost diversity figures for candidates, and doesn’t actually change the company’s culture to embrace a more diverse workforce. This is a patch covering up a much deeper issue of employees from entry-level engineers to higher management being conditioned to prefer — typically — white and male candidates.

Claire Cain Miller, reporting for the New York Times in February:

In the 1970s, symphony orchestras were still made up almost exclusively of white men — directors claimed they were the only ones qualified. Around that time, many began to use a new method of hiring musicians: blind auditions. Musicians auditioned behind screens so the judges couldn’t see what they looked like, and walked on carpeted floors so the judges couldn’t determine if they were women or men — the women often wore heels. The Boston Symphony Orchestra pioneered the practice in 1952, and more orchestras began using it after a high-profile racial discrimination case was brought by two black musicians against the New York Philharmonic in 1969. Researchers from Harvard and Princeton took notice and studied the results; they found that blind auditions increased the likelihood that a woman would be hired by between 25 and 46 percent. In fact, with blind auditions, women became slightly more likely to be hired than men. Confident that they would be treated fairly, female musicians started applying in greater numbers.

There’s no reason a similar blind hiring system would not be possible at tech companies, and I bet it would make for a substantially more diverse workforce. And, as a consequence, I’m certain that engineering and computer science programs across the United States would find themselves with a far greater representation of women and ethnic minorities.

A Pre-Post-Mortem for Gawker

Adrian Chen, writing for the New Yorker:

I worked at Gawker for four years, walking the tightrope. The immediacy of publishing encouraged me to be extremely sure of arguments and facts and to write things I truly believed, since I had nobody to fall back on but myself. And, in order to find an audience, I had to be entertaining and provocative. At the site’s best, these two often conflicting impulses encouraged writing with a spontaneity, humor, and self-assuredness that wasn’t like anything else on the Internet. At its worst, it led to gratuitous meanness and a bad lack of self-awareness. I know I’m talking in generalities, but looking back on one’s old writing is rarely a fruitful prospect, even when it was produced under the most considered circumstances. There are plenty of posts that I’m proud of, and others that make me cringe to think about. Regardless, I can’t imagine having had a better place to develop as a journalist than Gawker.

I empathize.

Gawked

Univision PR:

[Univision Communications Inc.] will acquire the digital media assets for $135 million, subject to certain adjustments, and these assets will be integrated into Fusion Media Group (FMG), the division of UCI that serves the young, diverse audiences that make up the rising American mainstream. The deal, which will be accounted for as an asset purchase, includes the following digital platforms, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker and Kotaku. UCI will not be operating the Gawker.com site.

There’s a lot that Gawker did wrong over the years, but the way they were forced to shut down is scary. It’s suppressive, it’s arrogant, and it sets a nasty precedent for publications that cannot afford the legal costs of defending themselves against suits filed against them.

With that in mind, I bring you one of my favourite stories from the past month:

Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire-turned-Trump delegate who successfully bankrupted Gawker Media, has long been obsessed with anti-aging technologies. He believes people have been conned by “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” and has funded startups dedicated to extending the human lifespan. According to Jeff Bercovici of Inc. magazine, Thiel is so afraid of dying that he has begun exploring a novel, and fairly unsettling, technique: Harvesting, and injecting himself with, the blood of younger people.

I’ve wanted desperately to link to this story ever since it was published, but I couldn’t think of a decent headline. So: here it is. In light of today’s rather bleak and depressing news, let’s all remember that Peter Thiel is still super messed-up.

NYT Now to Be Discontinued August 29

Disappointing, but not unexpected. Many of the best features of NYT Now have been incorporated into the “full” NYTimes app, while NYT Now has received barely any updates for the past year.

Twitter to Roll Out Quality Filter to All Users

Twitter’s Emil Leong:

Last year we began testing a quality filter setting and we’re now rolling out a feature for everyone. When turned on, the filter can improve the quality of Tweets you see by using a variety of signals, such as account origin and behavior. Turning it on filters lower-quality content, like duplicate Tweets or content that appears to be automated, from your notifications and other parts of your Twitter experience. It does not filter content from people you follow or accounts you’ve recently interacted with – and depending on your preferences, you can turn it on or off in your notifications settings.

Since becoming verified and turning the quality filter on, Brianna Wu says that she hasn’t seen any threats in her notifications. This is a good move that comes agonizingly later than it should have.

Generated Maps of Fantasy Worlds

Betsy Mason, National Geographic:

As you travel northeast along the shore of southern Nimrathutkam, the first town you’ll encounter is Ak Tuh, followed by Nunrat and Nrik Mah before you reach the coastal city of Tuhuk, the largest urban area in the region of Mum Huttak.

If these sound like places out of a fantasy novel you read as a teenager, you’re not far off. Nimrathutkan is the result of an automated map generator that was inspired by those novels. The map bot, created by glaciologist Martin O’Leary of Swansea University in Wales, combines imaginary place names with fake terrain to produce fantasy worlds, tweeting a new one every hour from the Twitter account @unchartedatlas.

This is a tremendous accomplishment. My best NaNoGenMo achievement was building a story that would write itself in chapters based on works by or referencing William S. Burroughs. I love this kind of stuff.

Link via Kai Sunderland.

NPR to Drop Comments on Their Website

Elizabeth Jensen of NPR:

In July, NPR.org recorded nearly 33 million unique users, and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters, [managing editor Scott] Montgomery said. That’s 0.06 percent of users who are commenting, a number that has stayed steady through 2016.

A tiny percentage of their audience that sways the discussion in an unproductive manner:

It’s not possible to tell who those commenters are; some users comment anonymously. But there are some clues that indicate those who comment are not wholly representative of the overall NPR audience: They overwhelmingly comment via the desktop (younger users tend to find NPR.org via mobile), and a Google estimate suggested that the commenters were 83 percent male, while overall NPR.org users were just 52 percent male, Montgomery said.

When viewed purely from the perspective of whether the comments were fostering constructive conversations, the change should come as no surprise. The number of complaints to NPR about the current comment system has been growing — complaints that comments were censored by the outside moderators, and that commenters were behaving inappropriately and harassing other commenters.

Imagine viewing the world through the lens of a website’s comments section — any website’s comments section. What a bleak and depressing experience that would be.

Verizon Has Offered to Force Apps Onto Users’ New Android Phones

Garett Sloane, Advertising Age (via Lessien):

The wireless carrier has offered to install big brands’ apps on its subscribers’ home screens, potentially delivering millions of downloads, according to agency executives who have considered making such deals for their clients. But that reach would come at a cost: Verizon was seeking between $1 and $2 for each device affected, executives said.

Yet another solid argument for not letting carriers have any control over a mobile phone operating system.

Another downside to Verizon’s app offering is that it doesn’t offer any targeting, yet. So, a brand, for instance, couldn’t focus on buying pre-installed apps on phones of known customers, the executive said.

The implications of that “yet” are pretty gross, aren’t they?

Apple’s Presentation at Black Hat

You’ve read the book; now see the movie. Ivan Krstić’s presentation is as solid as any Apple WWDC presentation, and it’s packed with much more information than the company usually reveals about its security protocols.

Though this is a very easy watch, even for someone — like myself — with only a cursory understanding of security and software engineering, I’ve picked out a few key parts that are worth paying attention to:

  • Right off the top, there’s a rationale for why the kernel cache is no longer encrypted. In light of this news, which broke in mid-June, these slides were likely inserted after the presentation was considered complete.

  • At about 8:21, Krstić touches on the Secure Enclave’s multitude of protections. Some of this is known, but because it’s the root of the entire security system on iOS, it’s good to hear it reiterated.

  • At 18:57, Krstić explains how the Update Later feature, introduced in iOS 9, is made secure.

  • My guess for why I was asked for my iPad passcode when setting up Sierra — as referenced in my post on these slides — appears to be correct (24:55).

  • At 26:37, Krstić launches into a long explanation of how Apple protects their own encryption secrets and cloud synchronization technologies. From my perspective, this is the most dense part of the whole presentation, but it’s also the most important: Apple proving their own security protocols to the security community — and the community verifying it by looking for holes in it; see also the bug bounty program introduction at 36:14 — is critical to maintaining the company’s position as the tech company that values user security and privacy.

  • There’s a pretty funny explanation of Apple’s “physical one-way hash function” at 34:08.

  • At 39:40, Krstić kicks off the Q&A period. All questions are worth watching, but the first one is particularly telling, as is the question at 49:37. As you might expect from Apple, there are a lot of non-answers within the Q&A, but that’s also because of the kinds of questions that were asked.

  • I was surprised by Krstić’s answer to the second audience question regarding seeing a list of devices granted user data syncing permissions for the purpose of revoking those credentials. Krstić said that there isn’t currently a way to do that, but the list of devices on the iCloud Settings page seems to serve that purpose. I’ve reached out to the company for an explanation and will update this post if I hear back.

WordPress Version 4.6

Among the long list of improvements and bug fixes, highlights include the addition of Unicode 9 emoji support, a big update to the long-kludgy updating mechanism, and the removal of Open Sans from the administrator dashboard. Huzzah.

The replacement fonts for Open Sans are the default system faces for all OSes: San Francisco on Macs and iOS devices, Segoe on Windows, and Roboto on Android.

However, omitted from these updates are any changes to the typefaces used in the TinyMCE editor. So I made a plugin. It’s ridiculously lightweight and simply ensures that everything you see on the dashboard is a variant of San Francisco. If you have SF Mono installed, you’ll see that in the editor.

I probably won’t update this plugin unless I see a glaring issue, but I’ve been running it for the past month or so and it’s been fine.

On a related note, I just updated my copy of WordPress. If you spot anything wonky, please let me know.

Intel to Produce 10nm ARM Processors

Ian King, Bloomberg:

Intel Corp., the world’s biggest semiconductor maker, said it’s licensing technology from rival ARM Holdings Plc, a move to win more customers for its business that manufactures chips for other companies.

The two chipmakers, whose designs and technology dominate in computing and mobile, unveiled the agreement Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. The accord will let Intel offer third-party semiconductor companies its most advanced 10-nanometer production lines for manufacturing the complex chips usually used in smartphones.

That’s some really big news that Apple is no doubt interested in, too. While they design their own SoCs, Apple doesn’t make them — they contract the manufacturing to companies like Samsung and, increasingly, TSMC. However, Apple has shown an interest in reducing their reliance upon Samsung, to the extent that the A10 is rumoured to be exclusively made by TSMC, and the company has repeatedly expressed a desire to bring more of their product manufacturing to the United States.1

Tim Cook at the D10 conference in 2012:

Will there be an Apple product ever made in the U.S.?

I want there to be. This isn’t well known, but the engine for the iPhone and the iPad are built in the U.S., not just for the U.S. but the world. The glass for your iPhone is made in a plant in Kentucky, not just for the U.S. but other markets outside the U.S. so I think there are things that can be done in the U.S., not just for the U.S., but exported for the world.

I’m not sure that the statement about making the A-series chip in the United States — or, as Cook called it, “the engine” — is still accurate, but making things in the U.S. is something Apple is proud to tout when they can. Apple and Intel also have a pretty good business relationship. I wouldn’t be surprised if it expanded to include the A-series as well.

Update: Paul McGrane says that Cook’s comment about building the A-series processors in the U.S. likely refers to Samsung’s Austin factory. Later that year, Samsung invested $4 billion in an expansion of that plant. Rumours are that TSMC is the exclusive manufacturer for both the A10 and A11.


  1. To my knowledge, TSMC has one manufacturing facility in the U.S., while most of Intel’s processors are made in America. ↩︎

Sportsball Is Rumoured to Be Coming to the Apple TV via Twitter

Mike Isaac, New York Times (there’s autoplaying video with audio because the Times apparently hates their readers):

When Twitter streams its first N.F.L. game on Sept. 15, it will get to assess whether its vigorous pursuit will pay off — and whether live streaming can viably be a linchpin of its future.

Since April, Twitter has signed a series of live-streaming deals, including with Wimbledon, CBS News, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Pac-12 Networks. Twitter is also in discussions with other organizations, including Major League Soccer and the Professional Golfers Association, for similar agreements, according to people briefed on the talks.

[…]

To bolster the effort, Twitter is in talks with Apple to bring the Twitter app to Apple TV, which would potentially let millions of Apple TV users watch the streaming N.F.L. games, according to the two people briefed on the discussions.

I didn’t get this rumour at first. Why would Apple and Twitter need to talk about doing an app? Can’t Twitter just build the app?

But then Abdel Ibrahim pointed out that there might be some kind of deal-sweetening exclusive arrangement at play here, which makes complete sense to me. It’s pretty widely known that Apple has been aching to build a full television experience into the Apple TV. If Apple can secure an exclusive app for Twitter’s live streaming deals, they might be able to bypass individual negotiations with each of the leagues and events at play here.

This also gives me an opportunity to remind you that “soccer is but one ball away from the ancient non-sport of fast running back and forth,” which remains one of the most succinct expressions of any sport I’ve ever heard. Then again, I like Formula 1, which is but twenty-odd engines away from the ancient non-sport of sitting in a chair and sweating profusely.