Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

It’s September 21, So Here’s a Demi Adejuyigbe Interview

Bethy Squires, Vulture:

Did that cycle feel weirder this year, since days no longer have meaning?

Not really. At first I thought maybe that was an excuse to not do it this year. But it started really early this year. We got into quarantine, and people were like, “You gotta do it this year! We need it! No pressure!” And that’s not … I don’t want to hear that.

In preparing for it this year, I didn’t really feel like I had to specifically account for the fact that everyone’s stuck in their homes, just because I feel like I’m generally always stuck in my house. It didn’t feel like I had to change it up or do something different this year. But there were things — like I can’t involve too many people; I can’t involve too many different locations. So I was trying to figure out how to keep it small but also make it feel like it was escalating.

Squires includes all four past iterations, but this year’s video is so much better in so many ways little and big. I don’t want to spoil all of the little wonderful surprises.

Adejuyigbe said that he wouldn’t keep doing this unless viewers raised $50,000 for a bunch of great causes. So far, the total donation amount is cruising toward triple that amount — in the time that it took me to write the last few sentences, another $2,000 was raised.

I feel obliged to mention that, two years ago, Adejuyigbe presented an ad for voting made by Sandwich. This year’s election is not the midterms. You should vote.

The Oracle–TikTok Potemkin Sale

It is Monday, yet TikTok and WeChat both remain available in the United States despite the president repeatedly stating that their popularity was a national security nightmare of pressing concern which required his personal intervention. It is almost as though he doesn’t have the first clue about anything ever.

At any rate, the TikTok partial sale of unknown structure is still being vetted as of Monday, contrary to the president’s position on Saturday, but it has all of the trappings of a Potemkin arrangement.

Scott Rosenberg, Axios:

“Make the owners sell to an American firm” has turned into a complex transaction with plenty of Chinese involvement and a lot hanging on an IPO that might never happen.

The U.S. won some security concessions, but no one can be sure that the TikTok threat — if it was ever real — has been eliminated.

The U.S. cut is deferred and conditional. The terms save the president’s face but don’t actually give him what he demanded.

One new hiccup is the president’s requirement of a political financial kickback, despite the illegality of his previous “key money” demand.

Jennifer Jacobs, Mario Parker, and Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg:

Trump said Saturday that he had approved a transaction between Oracle Corp., Walmart Inc. and ByteDance Ltd. to create a new company called TikTok Global to run the U.S. video-sharing app. As part of the arrangement, Trump told reporters at the White House the companies agreed to contribute $5 billion to an education foundation.

[…]

ByteDance first heard about the $5 billion education fund from news reports, a company spokeswoman said.

This will probably never happen, but it is worth thinking about how the president used the pretence of national security to enrich a donor through a forced business arrangement and wants to get a cut to increase the jingoism ratio in school curriculums. I can point out how wildly corrupt, dishonest, and vile this is, but I am Canadian and can’t vote. If you’re American, you can and should vote.

Widgets in iOS 14

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Despite the surprise release of iOS 14 that left app developers unprepared, an ambitious few have managed to push their way through — or even pull an all-nighter — in order to make their apps available with iOS 14 support on launch day. For the first time in years, the new version of iOS offers a new way for consumers to organize their home screens. Now, your less frequently used apps can be shuffled away to the App Library on the iPhone’s back screen, while those apps offering information and updates can feature their content through new home screen widgets.

The team at MacStories has been posting about apps with great widgets, and David Smith — known primarily for building more utilitarian apps like Workouts++ and Feed Wrangler — has gone viral on TikTok with his multipurpose arbitrary widget builder.

A home screen of something more than a grid of icons with badges has been an iOS dream basically since the iPhone’s launch. I remember having experimenting with all sorts of home screen add-on stuff on a jailbroken first-generation iPod Touch. But even though this feels like a finally moment, Apple’s implementation of widgets in iOS feels just about perfect. I love the combination of Smart Stacks and multiple instances of an app’s widget. Nate Boateng is using the latter capability to have a second home screen full of Things widgets. I have been trying a bunch of weather apps and am experimenting with a stack of small Carrot weather widgets with current conditions, upcoming conditions, and multiday forecast. The Siri Suggestions widget is also a delight when it works as designed which, to be fair, is more often than I had anticipated. Monday mornings, I get a little prompt to open Microsoft Authenticator around the time that I start my workday — it’s damn near perfect at that.

iPadOS 14 is somewhat worse off because, for some reason, widgets cannot be placed amongst home screen icons.

Regardless, credit must go to Apple for its thoughtful widget implementation, and third-party developers for creating such an exciting mix of options for users to play with.

Department of Commerce Orders Removal of TikTok and WeChat From U.S. App Stores on Sunday

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Consumers inside the US will no longer be allowed to download TikTok or WeChat from any US app store after Sunday, the Trump administration announced today.

Any “provision of service to distribute or maintain” the mobile applications or their “constituent code” is prohibited beginning after 11:59pm ET September 20, the Department of Commerce said this morning. That means Google Play and Apple’s App Store will have to yank their listings for the apps, and users who already have one or both apps will not be able to download updates or patches for them.

The theoretical security risks of apps involved in what Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross calls “China’s civil-military fusion” are hazy but plausible. These restrictions only apply to TikTok and WeChat, not all apps with Chinese origin. Furthermore, WeChat is effectively the default digital layer for many in China, so it is an essential app for Americans staying in touch.

So, to summarize the saga so far:

  • The capability to download WeChat and TikTok in the U.S. will stop Sunday night under the umbrella rationalization that Chinese apps are unique security threats. No other apps or devices of Chinese origin will be prohibited, and no specific security problem has been identified.

  • Software updates for those apps, including bug fixes and security patches, will also stop Sunday night for, you know, security reasons.

  • WeChat’s functionality will be kneecapped then, cutting off a popular communications bridge between the U.S. and China.

  • TikTok will continue to work until November 12 as the finer details are worked out to transfer U.S. hosting contracts from companies Donald Trump personally dislikes to one that he does.

  • Election day is November 3 and it would be politically fraught to have headlines reading Trump Bans TikTok in the coming week.

  • So far, the TikTok deal does not appear to have a meaningful impact on national security or user privacy — the two concerns that created this vortex of corruption and bullshit in the first place.

I get why China’s state-connected businesses are worrying for some Americans, but this order does almost nothing to alleviate those concerns. It adds a communications roadblock for Americans with family, friends, and coworkers in China, and it lays the groundwork to enrich a company whose executives have fundraised for the president.

The Very Colourful Apple Watch Series 6

Apple seeded review units of its new Apple Watches to traditional press and a few YouTubers, and I am struck by how colourful they are. Valentina Palladino of Engadget, Jacob Krol of CNN, and Brian Heater of TechCrunch received blue models; Marques Brownlee, Dieter Bohn of the Verge, and Caitlin McGarry of Gizmodo got the Product Red model.

The blue is pretty muted, but the red model is very red, like the iPod Nano used to be. I know it’s a lot of colour and it may not be for everyone, but I think I prefer these to the more traditional palette of silvery aluminum, stainless steel, shades of grey, and gold. Those latter materials all ape traditional watch materials, but the Apple Watch is more fun and funky. I am sure it will be harder to pair these models with clothing, but I think this represents a more honest take on an Apple Watch’s hardware. If the choice were binary, I would rather see more explorations in this direction than an attempt to make it more like a traditional wristwatch.

In TikTok Deal, Treasury Won’t Be Taking Illegal ‘Key Money’ Payment Proposed by Trump

The deadline for a deal that allows TikTok to continue operating in the United States is this Sunday. Steve Mnuchin is, therefore, trying to push through an arrangement that would give Oracle hosting rights for U.S. users, but allow ByteDance to remain involved with the company. If it looks like a disorganized rapidly-changing acquisition of uncertain bounds that carries an undertone of corruption, that’s probably because it is.

Georgia Wells, Aaron Tilley, and John D. McKinnon, Wall Street Journal:

Oracle was originally brought into the negotiations to provide an alternative to Microsoft Corp., a rival bidder with Walmart as a partner, said one person familiar with the talks. The U.S. investment firms Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic, which are existing investors in ByteDance, went in search of a tech company with close ties to the administration and settled on Oracle, the person said.

Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Mr. Trump this year at his house, and Chief Executive Safra Catz also worked on the executive committee for the Trump transition team in 2016.

For Oracle, the arrangement could give a jolt to its efforts to transform its database business into a major player in cloud computing, one of the most dynamic areas in tech.

ByteDance has used Google and Amazon for its hosting needs. You will note that both companies are frequently the subject of the president’s rants, while Oracle has tight connections to the administration. It sure looks like the president is, for some reason, personally intervening in a business deal to transition a wildly popular app’s lucrative U.S. contracts from companies he doesn’t like to one that he does. At least the kickback he demanded for the U.S. Treasury won’t be happening.

Alex Sherman and Lauren Feiner, CNBC:

Trump on Wednesday also backed off his desire to demand “key money” from allowing the transaction, saying his lawyers told him it was illegal.

“Amazingly I find that you’re not allowed to do that,” Trump said. “I said, ‘What kind of a thing is this?’ If they’re willing to make big payments to the government, they’re not allowed because there’s no way of doing that from a — there’s no legal path to do that.”

This is a blatantly political business deal without any meaningful privacy or security benefit, but with all of the trappings of grift and corruption that you have come to expect from this era of American leadership.

A Visual History of System Preferences

Arun Venkatesan put together a really nice visual history of the System Preferences app, from Mac OS X 10.0 through MacOS Big Sur. I particularly appreciated this explanation of the two different dates often seen in Apple’s calendar-related icons:

Since the Public Beta, the calendar in the icon has shown an 18. 10.10 added the month of July to the icon. July 18 likely refers to the day that the Mac OS X Public Beta was first announced at Macworld New York.

In Big Sur, after 20 years of showing July 18, that icon has changed to July 17, likely to conform with the Calendar app icon. iCal, as the Calendar app was previously known, was first shown to the public on July 17, 2002.

I knew the dates had to refer to something — these things are never random — but I had no idea what. This is good trivia.

Update: Venkatesan also says that the Energy Saver preference panel is replaced with a “Battery” setting in Big Sur, but that is not the case for desktop Macs. Energy Saver retains its name and LED lightbulb icon.

Comparison of Website Speed by Core Technologies

Johannes Beus of Sistrix:

This evaluation deals with a wide variety of web technologies: from backend technologies for creating websites to JavaScript and CSS libraries for design and interaction to Google AMP.

[…]

It is noticeable that AMP is not one of the fastest technologies. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are a derivative of HTML mainly pushed by Google. Numerous restrictions should mean that AMP pages load significantly faster on the mobile phone than classic HTML pages.

The results are not convincing: less than 70% of the AMP domains meet the Google requirements. Google has apparently already recognised this and will in future also bequeath the AMP privileges in the Top Stories box to sites that have fast Core Web Vitals.

I missed the announcement in May that, as of 2021, Google will no longer require news sites to use its proprietary AMP technology if they want to be at the top of its search engine. Virtually all major publications have spent the past few years re-engineering their websites to support AMP so that Google will rank them, and now Google is dropping that requirement. Fantastic.

AMP is garbage and I hope it gets added to the scrapyard of Google’s bad ideas sooner rather than later.

Panic Launches Nova

I know that today in the Apple technology landscape is overwhelmingly about the new versions of mobile and television operating systems, but I would like to direct your attention to Nova from Panic. It is the successor to Coda and, in my limited use today, it seems like all of the things a good Mac app from Panic ought to be. It is fast, entirely native, has a great user interface, and will quickly nestle itself into my day-to-day work.

There are many major differences from Coda, most of which I expect my ancient web development workflow will fail to uncover. However, there are two obvious ones. First, Nova is a Mac-only app, at least for now. You can still get the “Code Editor” on your iOS and iPadOS devices until Panic releases an iOS companion app that it says will “balance […] Nova-like functionality, and Transmit-like functionality”.

The second big difference is how much it costs. Panic is switching to a blended subscription model similar to the one Sketch uses:

Nova will be $99, or $79 if you own Coda. When you buy it, you own it. Plus, your purchase includes one year of new features and fixes, released the moment they’re ready. After that, you can get another year of updates at any point — even much later — for $49/year. That’s it!

This strikes me as an agreeable balance between an outright purchase and a full subscription. I bought Coda 2 a little more than eight years ago for $49. I am not sure if that was the discounted price for upgrading from Coda 1 or if it was a student rate but, in any case, I have somehow paid just $6 per year to use Coda.

In a sense, this is how good things are supposed to work. My favourite records are, on a per-listen basis, the least-expensive albums I’ve bought; I would have a different relationship with them if I had to pay for every listen. But software is not like that. It needs constant work, and it can be difficult to patch bugs in free updates while trying to build a worthy major new version. That is especially true for a company as fastidious as Panic. And, since the App Store and Apple’s software, more generally, have eschewed the very concept of paid updates, we’re now stuck with subscriptions as a way to finance ongoing work.

Here’s the problem: a user may not have an ongoing need for a piece of software. I certainly have several Mac apps that I use only occasionally, and could never justify paying monthly or even annually. However, most of these apps have worked without updates across several MacOS versions, and I would have no problem with paying for an update if needed.

As version numbers become increasingly irrelevant in an era of ongoing patches, bug fixes, and feature updates, this pricing model seems like a fair compromise for users and for Panic.

Bundled ‘Apple One’ Subscription Announced

A bundled monthly fee for access to Apple’s growing subscription-based services has been rumoured for years now, but things seemed to coalesce in a Bloomberg article last month by Mark Gurman. Not only did Gurman get the name right, he also correctly called the idea of tiered bundles — though not the contents of those tiers.1

In linking to it, I wrote that the idea of a package deal would be compelling if it either created a steep discount or had some exclusive features. It looks like Apple went with the former.

J. Fergus, Input:

Individual Apple One plans cost $14.95, Family plans cost $19.95, and the Premier plans run $29.95. Individual plans include 50GB of iCloud storage which upgrades to 200GB on Family plans — which can be shared with up to six people. Upgrading to a Premier plan will provide an additional 2TB of iCloud storage that can also be shared with up to six people. If users are on a Family or Premier plan, they can use their separate accounts for all the included services.

[…]

The plans save subscribers anywhere from roughly $6 each month to approximately $25. Any services that users don’t already have will include a 30-day trial. As typical, for an additional kickback, using an Apple Card to pay for a subscription will yield 3 percent cashback.

A savings of $25 per month on the highest-level $30 per month plan is almost a no-brainer, especially since it can be shared amongst six users in a single family. That’s an Apple Music family plan plus two terabytes of iCloud storage plus Apple Arcade — and then you get TV Plus, News Plus, and the new Fitness Plus. If you are all-in on the Apple services ecosystem — especially as a family, but even as an individual — the highest-tier plan should be an easy sell.

But, if you’re like me and only really use Apple Music and iCloud, these plans probably aren’t a big draw — and that seems fine too. These bundles are clearly for people who are mostly or fully invested in Apple’s services and are not bothered by paying for a few other services that they may not use frequently.

I have reservations about how this will be promoted. I can see many push notifications, modal banners, and emails in my future telling me about how, for the same price I pay now, I can also have Apple Arcade. Or, for just a few dollars more, I can get News Plus and Fitness Plus. Thanks, but no thanks.


  1. It is unintentionally hilarious that there are three different ways to subscribe to Apple One. See also Nilay Patel↩︎

Apple’s New iPad Air

Today’s Apple presentation was unlike any September Apple event in the last eight years. Not only was it remote, it was the first without a new iPhone to show off. Tim Cook quashed any remaining speculation of seeing new iPhone models today in the first two minutes of his introduction, letting everyone know that today’s presentation would be entirely focused on the Apple Watch and iPad.

I don’t have a lot of thoughts on the new Apple Watch models — other than being impressed by the value of the SE and amused by some of the weirder new faces — but the new iPad Air is intriguing. A few days ago, I was idly chatting with some friends about how hard it was for me to differentiate between the 10.2-inch base model iPad and the 10.5-inch iPad Air. The Air sits in an awkward middle-grade position: better in a lot of little ways than the entry-level model, but with an older design and $499 price point that put a gaping chasm between it and the least expensive iPad Pro.

Enter this year’s iPad Air. First, the bad news: it is now $100 more expensive. But the good news, from a positioning standpoint, is that it puts more air — a word I typed, saw the pun, and didn’t feel like rephrasing — between it and the base model while bringing it closer to the Pro in every conceivable way. The iPad Air is clearly the hand-me-down iPad Pro model, and there is nothing wrong with that.

It has a chassis that is sized within tenths of a millimetre of the iPad Pro, and a display that is 10.9 inches diagonally instead of 11. Like the iPad Pro, it now has rounded corners — though, in the fine print, Apple does not refer to the display as “follow[ing] a beautiful curved design”. The new iPad Air does not have Face ID, instead being equipped with a Touch ID sensor located in the sleep/wake button. Normally, that would be less than ideal, but it seems appropriate for 2020.

There are several nitpicky ways in which the iPad Air is less good than the iPad Pro, plus one that may take the edge: the new A14 processor. But the clear message about this new Air is that it is now a more comfortable middle child in the full-size iPad family. Also, it comes in some pretty nice pastel colours.

Oracle Proposes Becoming TikTok’s U.S. ‘Trusted Tech Partner’

Georgia Wells and Aaron Tilley, Wall Street Journal:

Oracle Corp. won the bidding for the U.S. operations of the video-sharing app TikTok, people familiar with the matter said, beating out Microsoft Corp. in a high-profile deal to salvage a social-media sensation that has been caught in the middle of a geopolitical standoff.

Oracle is set to be announced as TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” in the U.S., and the deal is likely not to be structured as an outright sale, the people said.

The next step is for the White House and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to approve the deal, said one of the people, adding that the participants believe it satisfies the concerns around data security that have been previously raised by the U.S. government.

Right now, it is unclear what describing Oracle as a “trusted tech partner” really means. It doesn’t include TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, according to Zhou Xin and Tracy Qu of the South China Morning Post:

ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company of TikTok, will not sell or transfer the algorithm behind the popular video-sharing app in any sale or divestment deal, according to a source briefed on the Chinese company’s boardroom discussions.

With a looming US deadline for ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US operations, the source said: “The car can be sold, but not the engine.”

China’s regulators recently tightened export controls that would prevent its sale or transfer. The Journal reports that TikTok — not ByteDance — would become a U.S.-based company, according to Steve Mnuchin, but Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason pointed out last month that it is already headquartered in Culver City with servers in Virginia.

So if Oracle doesn’t get the algorithm and it is not actually acquiring the app, what does this accomplish as a “tech partner”?

The mysterious Kontra:

A: In addition to being a database giant and a top public sector contractor, Oracle also owns a huge set of mostly unregulated personal data collection/measurement services like BlueKai, DataLogix, Moat, AddThis, CrossWise, etc.

Q: Why pursue TikTok?

ByteDance has already committed Google’s hosting services for TikTok through 2022, according to Kevin McLaughlin and Amir Efrati of the Information, but this forced sale could require its move to Oracle’s hosting. Then it becomes a U.S.-based surveillance tool — but that does not necessarily exclude Chinese companies from scooping up plenty of user data anyhow.

And then there’s the pesky matter of whether Oracle is, you know, “trusted”. Zack Whittaker, reporting for TechCrunch just three months ago:

One of those startups, BlueKai, which Oracle bought for a little over $400 million in 2014, is barely known outside marketing circles, but it amassed one of the largest banks of web tracking data outside of the federal government.

BlueKai uses website cookies and other tracking tech to follow you around the web. By knowing which websites you visit and which emails you open, marketers can use this vast amount of tracking data to infer as much about you as possible — your income, education, political views, and interests to name a few — in order to target you with ads that should match your apparent tastes. If you click, the advertisers make money.

But for a time, that web tracking data was spilling out onto the open internet because a server was left unsecured and without a password, exposing billions of records for anyone to find.

A truly staggering display of security and privacy incompetence. Being solely concerned about surveillance of the world by authoritarian and genocidal nations means nothing without meaningful restrictions on the source of that data. Companies like Oracle are directly responsible for enabling mass surveillance, even if they frame it under the guise of “targeted advertising”.

By the way, if you’re thinking, “why Oracle?”, the answer is predictably grift-driven. Ina Fried and Kyle Daly, Axios:

Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison is a prominent Trump supporter and the company has close ties to the administration. That could give the company an edge in trying to win White House approval for a deal that might not meet all the demands Trump has made.

The president has said that TikTok must become a fully U.S.-owned company — so the “trusted technology partner” approach may not fly.

We should know by the end of the week if this arrangement is approved — and if the president will get his “key money” to drive home the blatant corruption angle.

Be on Time for Things

Albert Burneko, writing for the recently-launched Defector:

Strive to be on time for things! Striving toward routine punctuality is the absolute bottom white-belt level of adulthood. You can be “kind of whimsical” and also strive to be on time for things. You can be “a freewheeling person” and also strive to be on time for things. You can even be “a literal cannibal” and also strive to be on time for things. Sometimes you will be late anyway, but when you are habitually late for things — moreover, when you do not even strive to be on time for things, and then further indulge yourself by socking your habitual lateness behind the cover of personal whimsy or being “a freewheeling person” — what you are expressing toward the other people around you is that you do not care all that much about them. What they will express back toward you is the middle finger, and you will deserve it.

My endorsement for this is not limited to punctuality. We should all at least try to be better about general human adult stuff more often: honesty, niceness, driving — whatever. We will all fail at these things from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should become chronically rude liars who text and drive just because other people are.

New App Store Guidelines Clarify Rules Around Streaming Gaming Services, Add Complexity to In-App Purchasing

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

Apple revised its App Store guidelines on Friday ahead of the release of iOS 14, the latest version of the iPhone operating system, which is expected later this month.

[…]

Apple now says that game streaming services, such as Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud, are explicitly permitted. But there are conditions: Games offered in the service need to be downloaded directly from the App Store, not from an all-in-one app. App makers are permitted to release a so-called “catalog app” that links to other games in the service, but each game will need to be an individual app.

Apple’s rules mean that if a streaming game service has 100 games, then each of those games will need an individual App Store listing as well as a developer relationship with Apple. The individual games also have to have some basic functionality when they’re downloaded. All the games and the stores need to offer in-app purchase using Apple’s payment processing system, under which Apple usually takes 30% of revenue.

Many publications — the Verge, Input, and Ars Technica, to name a few well-known examples — are covering this as though Apple had previously disallowed game streaming services and now it is not. But, unless I am very mistaken, this only seems to formalize and clarify existing rules that were already in place when Microsoft attempted to launch its xCloud service on iOS last month. Microsoft’s app was allowed, provided it also submitted every game to the store individually, and that is still the case. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft still says that Apple’s rules will prohibit it from launching xCloud on iOS.

The main thing that is different is that Apple is expressly allowing a launcher-type wrapper app, something that had murky permissions before.

Apple also updated rules around in-app purchases. John Voorhees, MacStories:

Section 3.1.3(d) of the guidelines clarify that the use of In-App-Purchases is not necessary for one-to-one experiences like tutoring or fitness classes but must be used for one-to-few or one-to-many services.

Marco Arment:

If you’re selling “experiences” between people, you don’t need to use IAP.

Unless those “experiences” include three or more people, or aren’t consumed live, in which case, you are required to use only IAP.

If your purchase is for services, features, or game items, you are required to use only IAP.

Unless you operate on multiple platforms, in which case, you can also offer purchasing outside the app. But you can’t tell anyone about it.

Unless you get their contact info somewhere else, in which case, you can tell them about it, but not in the app.

Arment covers many of the confusing and conflicting rules surrounding in-app purchases and doesn’t even touch on the special deals offered only to giant companies with leverage. As a user, I get why in-app purchases are preferred: they’re trustworthy, consistent, and easy for Apple to monitor. But I do not understand how any developer is supposed to navigate these byzantine guidelines.

Amazon’s Goodreads Is a Poor Excuse for a Book-Based Social Network

Sarah Manavis, New Statesman:

With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.

In an alternate universe, we could be living with a meticulous tool for finding books we would love to read, from a much wider diversity of authors. Instead we have a book tracker that, for many people, barely works.

Goodreads fails at even the most basic task of tracking read books. In its iOS app, it will prompt you with the date picker to enter the dates you started and finished reading; it is necessary to add a finished date if you’re interested in knowing how many books you read in a given year. However, there is no “save” or “done” button, so you must enter the date and then select another field to dismiss the picker, which automatically saves the date. It is unintuitive and awkward.

Manavis points to the StoryGraph as a potential Goodreads competitor, so I gave the beta site a shot. I signed up, and it walked me through exporting my Goodreads data and bringing it to StoryGraph — a good start. But Goodreads’ exported file did not contain most of the dates when I finished reading something, meaning that StoryGraph does not have a sense of what I’m reading now or have been interested in lately.

StoryGraph does seem promising. I am looking forward to trying it. Unfortunately, it means that I will need to manually enter my reading into both apps, which is pretty tedious.

The White House Insisted It Had Thousands of Social Media Bias Complaints, but the FTC Has No Record of Them

On May 28, the White House issued Executive Order 13925, “Preventing Online Censorship”. It is a load of crap but it contains one directive that intrigued me:

Sec. 4. Federal Review of Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices. […] (b) In May of 2019, the White House launched a Tech Bias Reporting tool to allow Americans to report incidents of online censorship. In just weeks, the White House received over 16,000 complaints of online platforms censoring or otherwise taking action against users based on their political viewpoints. The White House will submit such complaints received to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

I have long been fascinated by the apparently thousands of complaints submitted to that reporting tool. I remember the web treating it as a bit of a joke when it was launched, and submitting all sorts of phony garbage because, well, it’s this administration and it’s an open comment form on the internet. What do you expect?

Because it was launched by the White House, nobody could submit a FOIA request to see those records. However, by turning those complaints over to the FTC and DOJ, they suddenly became FOIA-able. And you can bet a whole bunch of us started submitting requests. Unfortunately, they keep saying they don’t have them.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Of course, now that the White House was claiming a specific amount (over 16,000) and saying it was passing them along to the FTC, you might think it would be a new opportunity to find out about these complaints. Turns out… no. Ryan Singel filed a FOIA request for those complaints and the FTC says the White House never sent over the complaints:

The FTC has not received the aforementioned complaints. We have located 10 complaints received through the Consumer Sentinel Network that mention this topic area and they are enclosed.

As you might expect, the 10 included complaints are pretty ludicrous. To be clear, I expect that even if the White House can turn up 16,000 such complaints that they will almost all be totally ludicrous.

I have received three similar letters from the FTC claiming they don’t have the records. I have not yet received a response from the DOJ despite several attempts.

A Step Back

Let’s try something together. What do these things all have in common?

  • Photos

  • Music

  • News

  • Podcasts

  • TV

  • Stocks

  • Mac App Store

You thought they were all going to be iOS apps until I surprised you with that last one, right? These are all MacOS apps, yes, but they are not all of the same kind. Many of them are media apps, but it’s hard to think of Stocks, News, or the App Store in the same category.

Three of them — News, Podcasts, and Stocks — are Catalyst apps that were ported from their iOS equivalents. Two — Music and TV — are standard MacOS apps, but Music is built on a rickety base of code that dates back to the Clinton administration. Photos, meanwhile, is a Frankenstein’s monster of an app. It was originally built on a framework called UXKit, which appears to be some kind of cross-platform precursor to Catalyst. At some point in the last five years, obvious traces of UXKit were stripped from MacOS; alas, Photos still feels like it has one foot in iOS and the other in the Mac. The redesigned App Store introduced with Mojave is similarly confused about which platform it is supposed to belong to, but I have no clue what framework it’s built on.

The thing common to all of these apps is this — and you have to imagine that I am writing the next word with a similar tone to that which you might use in reference to a dog turd stuck to someone else’s gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe — button:

toolbar back button

This back button manifests in different ways in the apps I named above. Sometimes, it appears in the main toolbar alongside the traffic light window buttons, invisible until something happens in the app to cause it to show up. At other times — as in Music, TV, and Podcasts — the app will draw a toolbar containing only that button, usually very small and floating somewhere off to the lefthand side.

In no circumstance will it indicate where it will take you back to. Not on the button, not if you click and hold, not in a hover-activated tooltip — you get no sense of what that button will do, other than taking you back somewhere, whatever “back” and “somewhere” mean. If you click it immediately after performing an action, you probably have a good sense of what will happen. But if you search something in Music, click on a playlist in the search results, click on an artist in the playlist, play an album, and then go do another task for half an hour before returning, will you remember where that back button ought to take you? More to the point, will it take you where you might expect?

This back button does not behave like the one in any web browser which, I expect, is the back button any user is most familiar with. Trackpad gestures don’t work with it, so you cannot peek at the previous item. There are ways in which these apps try to meet in the middle ground between a standard Mac app and a web app — Apple Music is basically just a web view within Music, and you feel every aching moment of that, so the back button kind of works. Yet, the moment you get into the more Mac-like local music library section the app, the back button’s intent disintegrates. Here’s an example:

  1. Click on the Albums view of the local library.1

  2. Click on any artist name in that view. It’s grey text that doesn’t look clickable but, trust me, it will take you to a list of albums in your library from that artist.

  3. A new secondary sidebar will appear containing a list of all artists in your library. Click on another artist’s name.

  4. Click the back button.

This should, theoretically, load the most recent view — it should return you to the list of albums by the artist in step two. That’s what the back button in Finder’s column view does. But it doesn’t; it goes all the way back to your entire list of albums.

Is this a problem with Music, maybe? It’s janky as hell: it is inexplicably worse to use than iTunes despite losing the added-on cruft of TV shows, movies, iOS device management, and so on. It’s also built on decades-old code. What about something more modern — a direct iOS port, for example? What about News?

  1. From the Today view, click on any story.

  2. Swipe from right to left on your trackpad to advance to the next story.

  3. Click the back button.

Step two feels pretty much the same as something you might do in a web browser, yet the back button returns you to the Today view’s “home page”. Surprise!

Maybe you are getting the impression that, in these apps, the back button is a way of returning to the top level of a section. So let’s test that in the Mac App Store.

  1. From any of the store sections, click on an app from a well-known developer. I went with OmniGraffle from the Omni Group.

  2. Click on the developer’s name to pull up all of the apps they make, then pick another app. In this case, I picked OmniFocus.

  3. Click the back button.

Think maybe it will take you back to the top level of the store, or maybe to that first app’s page? Nope: it behaves like a standard back button and takes you to the list of developer’s apps that was previously open.

It does not even appear in all of the instances you might expect. For example, if you open an app’s page from the Discover screen of the Mac App Store, the back button appears. However, if you open one of the “editorial” stories, no back button appears at all. There is only a “Done” button that, bizarrely, sits in the upper-right corner of the App Store app instead of the back button’s upper-left positioning, requiring that you hunt for it as you vaguely recall that editorial items are somehow special or different.

The more common apps that have long featured back and forward buttons do not function in these peculiar ways. Web browsers do not; Finder doesn’t; neither does System Preferences. And, as I was writing this article, I was worried that it would be made obsolete by the forthcoming release of MacOS Big Sur, but everything is pretty much identical as of the latest beta.2 If the back buttons in the apps listed at the top of this post do not conform to the system standard in any way, the obvious question is something like: “why do these apps have a back button at all?”

In every instance, it seems to be a catch-all attempt to solve complex UI design problems. In Catalyst apps, it kind of works like the iOS system back button. In the App Store and in Music, it is a way to display web-based pages without having to implement a hierarchical navigation structure. In Photos, I suppose it is a way to reduce the amount of toolbars and buttons onscreen compared to iPhoto, and to make it conform closer to its iOS counterpart.

For completeness, I should note that iPhoto used back buttons in a handful of views. You can see one in the upper-left of the screenshot in this tutorial, but you will notice that it is labelled. When a user clicks it, they know they will be returning to the “All Events” view. The floating carets of Apple’s post-iOS 7 design language replaced contained back buttons — one of the more upsetting casualties of that redesign, I think — but MacOS still has buttons. If these back buttons were labelled, it would make them better.

I return, however, to my view from two paragraphs ago. I see these back buttons as a sort of cop-out — an easy way of covering for a lack of deeper consideration. You can see this most clearly in iTunes running on Mojave, in which there are two very different implementations of every view: the Apple Music way, and the local library way. If you open an album from the Recently Added view, it expands to reveal the track list below. If you open an album from Apple Music, you get sent to a new page, presumably because it is not possible to implement the local library style in a way that is performative or works across different platforms. It reveals the web-based underpinnings of Apple Music, it is slow, and it necessitates a back button.

In Catalina’s Music app, the two different implementations of an album view were dropped in favour of the Apple Music style. Now, it always opens an album in a separate view. As in every one of the apps I listed above, this decision makes Music feel like a semi-native wrapper around a collection of webpages, even when many parts of the app are still entirely native.

I do not think it is always wrong for an app to have a back button; it is a mechanism that works just fine in a web browser and in file managers. But I think that this new breed of apps that try to bridge the gap between MacOS and iOS use this specific implementation of the back button as a crutch. It is an inelegant way of dealing with inelegant and unique design problems. Its pervasion is a big flashing CAUTION sign that Apple’s Mac apps are not being lavished with the design attention they once were and still deserve. What bothers me more than what the button is is what it represents: it is, uncharacteristically for Apple, lazy.


  1. By the way, another casualty of the mixed MacOS and iOS metaphors is how the sidebar does not reflect the user’s behaviour in the app. For example, you can choose an artist in your local library and show their page in Apple Music. You can drill deeper, click on related artists, and do all of the Apple Music-ey things you might expect — but the sidebar will still indicate that you are in your local music library. ↩︎

  2. The sole difference in the examples I referenced here is that the App Store in Big Sur no longer has a “Done” button for editorial materials. Its toolbar has unified around the back button. ↩︎

Wildfire Smoke Conditions in California Are Too Extreme for Automatic White Balance to Accurately Represent

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

Normally, you wouldn’t want your phone to take pictures with an overly orange cast. But, there are times when you might. Like when massive wildfires are turning the West Coast’s normally clear blue skies a violently orange-reddish hue.

[…]

The above tweet is an extreme example. Jessica Christian, a staff photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted a similar observation about her phone trying to color correct the abnormal skies. Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier encountered the same issue and took other with and without color correction photos as well. Based on Earther’s own investigation, not every phone may color correct to this extent. That said, there’s a chance your phone camera may not capture the true color of what you’re seeing.

The photos I saw today of wildfire smoke blanketing the Bay Area are haunting. I thought I had seen intensely smokey conditions in Calgary, but it’s nothing compared to this. Halide developer Ben Sandofsky took a light metre outside and it registered just 88 lux at midmorning.

I hope those of you who are dealing with this in addition to everything else happening right now are staying healthy and safe.

See Also: Coverage by Emily Atkin and a collection of links from Jason Kottke.

The Money Store

Allow me to try summarizing the last two weeks of tedious Apple, Epic Games, and antitrust stuff:

The legal aspects of everything here will play out in court and I have no interest in playing “backseat lawyer”. But I am sort of perplexed by each company’s strategy here — particularly Apple’s.

It seems like these two corporate giants — though “giant” at different scales — are very happy to test how much they can piss off users and regulatory bodies. Epic is being belligerent in its steadfast refusal to play by the iOS App Store rules. Apple is going all-in on whatever it can get away with. Both of these angles make a bunch of Fortnite players miserable pawns in a business fight which, I recently learned, will only be interesting in film if the screenplay is written in Sorkinese.

Since Apple, as a company, is valued at a staggering amount and views its platforms as vertically-integrated units of hardware, software, and services, it has unique leverage despite not having monopoly market share in any category. If people disliked these attributes, they could simply purchase different stuff, but Apple maintains a high degree of customer loyalty across its product categories. It is reasonable to assume that users are not bothered by these qualities or perhaps even prefer them. It is also possible that users have trouble switching away but I maintain that Apple’s ecosystem has less of a lock-in quality than other major tech companies; it’s just more obvious.

Even so, the mess of lawsuits and investigations into its behaviour means that there are questions about whether it is squeezing its platforms too tightly. None of these legal cases are directly about customer experience, which has no definition in law and cannot be quantified, but they have everything to do with whether Apple is breaching the trust of its users — whether it has overextended its interpretation of its corporate rights and minimized those of its users.

One of the things I keep wondering about everything here is what it would take for Apple to change course if the law were not involved. I wonder how much control it would be able to exert before users began to switch away in large enough numbers that it would cause consternation in Cupertino. But, then, I also wonder why it would even get to that level — no company should be pushing so hard as to test customer loyalty and trust. This Fortnite thing gets awful close for some players, I imagine. Some will simply stop playing; others will play on another console. But some might decide that they no longer want to be a part of Apple’s ecosystem. You can have all of the gaming consoles you want and switch between them, but most people only have one phone.

The investigations in Australia and Italy are a little different. Australia is looking into App Store policies from users’ and developers’ perspectives, similar to the U.S. antitrust investigation, while Italy’s regulators are asking whether cloud storage services have fair user agreements.

From a gambling perspective, the certainty of maintaining similar App Store rules for twelve years with the possibility that they might be changed is, I suppose, a more logical position than making alterations with a similar uncertainty of future investigations. But it has left Apple in the difficult position of maintaining that its business practices are not unlawfully anticompetitive — and risks having them altered, possibly in unique and conflicting ways, by different regulators around the world. That seems out of character for a company as controlling as Apple.

The short and decidedly non-legal take here is that Apple’s control has frayed its relations with third-party developers and it is pushing users’ trust. So far, everything is more-or-less holding: many developers need Apple’s platforms and I doubt they are shedding users in meaningful numbers. But it is bizarre and troubling that we are having this conversation. It suggests that Apple is increasingly finding ways to financially exploit its products for self-enrichment at the expense of users and developers. From a strategy perspective, as far as I am concerned, that is not as inspiring as make great products that practically sell themselves.

David Graeber Dies Aged 59

Sian Cain, the Guardian:

David Graeber, anthropologist and anarchist author of bestselling books on bureaucracy and economics including Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has died aged 59.

On Thursday Graeber’s wife, the artist and writer Nika Dubrovsky, announced on Twitter that Graeber had died in hospital in Venice the previous day. The cause of death is not yet known.

Graeber’s writing has had a formative impact on my work and, more broadly speaking, my outlook. I will miss his unique and often brilliant perspective, and savour his final book to be released next year.

Tests Show 5G Networks in U.S. Are Rarely Fast and Wildly Overhyped

Sascha Segan, PC Magazine:

We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network.

This is a crisis for marketing, not for performance. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It’s just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks.

[…]

It’s worth mentioning that neither AT&T’s nor T-Mobile’s 5G networks are faster than the Bell and Telus 4G networks in Canada. Bell and Telus were able to outpace our 5G technologies without a lick of 5G.

Beaten by Canadians — ouch.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post:

Apple is expected to unveil its first 5G-enabled iPhones at an event on Sept. 15. Samsung’s entire flagship lineup is now 5G-equipped. So these 2020 models are going to really fly, right?

Well, hold on just a minute. 5G may hold promise for the years ahead — but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I’ve been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower.

The on-page headline of Fowler’s article may be “The 5G lie: The network of the future is still slow”, but the title tag says that “Apple’s September event will bring a 5G iPhone”. However, Mark Gurman says that it will not, and Apple previously said that new iPhones would be available a “few weeks” later than in years past. For these and other reasons, I’m inclined to side against Fowler’s prediction despite its confidence.

At any rate, do not be surprised if only one iPhone model is 5G-capable. The usual suspects will say that this puts Apple at a severe competitive disadvantage despite 5G having zero measurable impact on the livelihood of Americans. It’s like LTE all over again.

With the Departure of the Williamses, There Are No More Family-Run Formula One Teams

Elizabeth Blackstock, Jalopnik:

There was a point in time when plenty of Formula One teams were owned by either families or single people. Brabham, Tyrrell, Hesketh, Hill, Jordan, Surtees—all were teams that were once owned or run by either one person or their family unit. Even McLaren has long since been owned by anyone with the eponymous last name. With Frank and Claire Williams stepping down from their team after being bought out by Dorilton Capital, the end of an era is upon us.

If you haven’t caught the news, Frank and Claire Williams will no longer be involved with its namesake team after the Italian Grand Prix now that it has been bought out by someone else. Dorilton reportedly wanted the family to remain involved, but Claire Williams “felt it was the right choice for me to step away.”

Formula One has long been a festival of sponsorship, but there was something delightful about family-run teams crossing the start line of every race alongside cars from corporate giants. I will miss the Williams family’s involvement.

Consumer Reports Reviews Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving Capability’

Mike Monticello, Consumer Reports:

We assessed the Full Self-Driving Capability features on Tesla vehicles we previously purchased for our regular testing program. The features, each designed to work only in certain situations, such as in a private parking lot or during highway driving, can be turned on and off by the driver. We put each feature in the suite to the test, and the results, detailed below, were mixed, to say the least.

[…]

Navigate on Autopilot, when activated, allows a Tesla traveling on the highway to autonomously take on- and off-ramps and make lane changes as long as a destination has been programmed into the navigation system. We found the performance to be inconsistent, with the system sometimes ignoring exit ramps on the set route, driving in the carpool lane, and staying in the passing lane for long periods of time. The feature also would completely disengage at times for no apparent reason.

Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control is designed to come to a complete stop at all stoplights, even when they are green, unless the driver overrides the system. We found several problems with this system, including the basic idea that it goes against normal driving practice for a car to start slowing to a stop for a green light. At times, it also drove through stop signs, slammed on the brakes for yield signs even when the merge was clear, and stopped at every exit while going around a traffic circle.

Given the unpredictable, unreliable, and distracting nature of these features, I think it is irresponsible for Tesla to be shipping them to drivers in their current guise. The general public, in the form of owners and everyone around them, should not be at risk because Tesla wants to run its beta testing program in the real world.

The Wildest Insurance Fraud Scheme Texas Has Ever Seen

It’s a Friday before a long weekend and I kind of unloaded in the two earlier posts today. Sorry about that. Here’s something a bit lighter, from Katy Vine in Texas Monthly:

Agent Reed didn’t know what to make of Fosdick and T. R.: First these two guys crash into the Gulf of Mexico together, then each flies into this tiny airport within days of each other, and two weeks later, T. R.’s jet bursts into flames. The more Reed dug, the more certain he became that the Citation fire was just one piece of a grand scheme.

The T.R. character in this article seemed to model his life on James Bond, but I think he comes across more like Sterling Archer. Just, you know, not nearly as funny. A remarkable story for your weekend read.