Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Unroll.me’s CEO Responds to Backlash

One more tasty nugget from Mike Isaac’s excellent profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been making the rounds:

They spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

Unroll.me bills itself as a way to “clean up your inbox” by bundling together bulk emails and newsletters into daily digests, which sounds just great. In order to do that, they need to be able to monitor your emails. And they’re a free service, so you can do the math on how they make their money.

Anyway, Unroll.me’s CEO Jojo Hedaya is shocked — shocked — that anyone would find this objectionable:

Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

No shit. I suppose our parent company spies on your online purchases for marketing purposes is a less-agreeable tagline.

Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us – myself included – don’t take the time to thoroughly review them.

Hedaya certainly hasn’t read either of these agreements, as the Terms of Service specifically prohibits the links in his post — and, incidentally, in mine:

The Website must not be framed on any other site, nor may you create a link to any part of the Website other than the homepage.


Hedaya again:

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only.

If a company owned by one of the largest retailers in the world recorded every receipt you’d received via email, do you think that you’d be completely anonymous? That’s a false promise; much like most other “anonymous” big data sets, the combination of attributes can easily reveal individual users even without explicitly knowing their names.

A Profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Mike Isaac’s profile for the New York Times of Travis Kalanick includes some fascinating reporting, but little more is as shocking as the opener:

Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.

For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had secretly been tracking iPhones even after its app had been deleted from the devices, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines.

But Apple was on to the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

Isaac explains later in the article what happened: Uber decided to fingerprint iPhones — contrary to App Store rules — to prevent a common scheme that exploited how drivers were compensated, then hid that code whenever the device was in Cupertino to prevent the App Review team from seeing it. That’s a deliberate deception. It’s a gross privacy violation of every Uber member that used an iPhone.

Yet Apple’s behaviour is also concerning. When AppGratis was found to be violating App Store rules, Apple gave them a heads-up on the Friday before the weekend during which their app would be removed. Based on Isaac’s reporting, Uber was provided with the opportunity to correct a more egregious violation of the App Store rules.

Even if you’re comfortable with the idea that big companies can have a different set of App Store rules and responses — and I’m not sure I am — I don’t think this should have remained a secret. It’s a flagrant and sneaky violation of users’ privacy. Ultimately, Uber is to blame, but Apple could have handled their discovery in a way that was more consistent with their commitment to privacy. Without Isaac’s report, this story likely would have remained secret.

My favourite sentence in this article is a parenthetical midway through:

Uber is grappling with the fallout. For the last few months, the company has been reeling from allegations of a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped verbally, physically and sometimes sexually with employees. Mr. Kalanick compounded that image by engaging in a shouting match with an Uber driver in February, an incident recorded by the driver and then leaked online. (Mr. Kalanick now has a private driver.)

Even the CEO of Uber doesn’t use Uber. Why should anyone else?

Update: Kate Conger, TechCrunch:

However, Uber told TechCrunch that it still uses a form of device fingerprinting in order to detect fraudulent behavior. If a device has been associated with fraud in the past, a new sign-up from that device should raise a red flag, an Uber spokesperson said. Uber suggested that the practice of fingerprinting was modified to comply with Apple’s rules rather than discontinued altogether.

If this uses the advertising identifier provided by Apple, I think that’s reasonable. If it’s fingerprinting devices through an alternative means that users cannot control, I see that as overstepping expected app behaviour.

Net Neutrality Is Alive and Well in Canada

Emily Jackson, Financial Post:

With its ruling that Internet providers can’t give free data to consumers who stream certain music or video content, Canada’s telecom regulator broke from its American counterpart by reiterating its position that carriers should simply act as pipes.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission reinforced its position on net neutrality rules Thursday with a decision that confirms Internet providers will be treated as common carriers that cannot pick favourites among the content that travels across their networks.

Michael Geist:

The impact is significant as the Commission notes that it can affect competition, innovation, consumer choice, access and affordability as well as privacy in a section of the decision that comprehensively makes the case for the harms associated with zero rating. For example, with respect to competition, the CRTC states:

The Commission considers that competition in the retail Internet access services sector is best served, and the telecommunications policy objectives set out in the Act are best achieved, when ISPs compete and differentiate their services based on their networks and the attributes of the services on those networks, such as price, speed, volume, coverage, and the quality of their networks.

The Commission also believes that differential pricing practices that favour particular services, technology, or content would generally negatively affect innovation.

This is terrific news on two fronts. First, while zero-rating sounds alluring, it creates a de facto private marketplace with little oversight or regulation. In effect, it allows ISPs to determine which companies should succeed and which should fail on their network. This decision ends that capability.

Second, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for internet and smartphone service. I hope this decision will truly require ISPs to compete more effectively on price.

Sleep and the Quantified Self

Chris Matthews:

Recently, I got curious again: I was still tracking all the sleep data, but wasn’t doing anything with it. I’d gotten bored, complacent, and so the data piled up without much to say for itself. Today, in a fit of rainy day pliability, I tediously copied data into an excel sheet. This was my first gripe: Pebble doesn’t allow csv exports (but then again, hey, they don’t exist anymore). SleepNumber doesn’t allow data exports (they once did, but “retired” the feature because reasons), and their customer service reps are pretty tight lipped on why I can’t access my own data, yet their TOS says they’re allowed to sell it. Only SleepCycle lets you export and study your own data, so thumbs up to them.

SleepCycle and SleepNumber both track total sleep time, and assess a 1–100 score for the night, based on “who-knows-what-exactly”. Pebble only assesses total sleep time, no score. So I built a couple graphs using the past few months of data. The results were dreadful.

Matthews’ comparison is by no means scientific but, then again, neither are the numbers these apps and devices are spitting out: I have noticed no correlation between Sleep Cycle’s “sleep quality” value and how rested I feel when I wake up.

The Guardian Pulls Out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

A quick followup on a story I covered last week on publishers’ growing resistance to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. I wrote:

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw.

It appears that not all publishers are seeing the same kind of boost from Apple News as the Verge has, as Jessica Davies explains for Digiday:

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.


The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

I’d wonder how pulling out of Instant Articles would affect the Guardian’s visibility on Facebook, but it seems like we might have an answer courtesy Kurt Gessler of the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this week, he posted some stats showing that while more people “liked” the Tribune’s Facebook page since last year, the reach of its posts has dropped:

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

Facebook made major changes to Instant Articles beginning in December in an attempt to give the rather stagnant platform a nudge. This timeline seems to coincide with Gessler’s observations at the Tribune. I doubt Facebook will make any changes to increase the reach of non-promoted or non-IA posts.

As far as Apple News is concerned, I’d love to hear more from anyone who’s seeing unusual spikes or dips in subscribers or traffic. I still haven’t converted this site’s feed to the Apple News Format, so I have no reference points available.

WSJ: Google Plans Ad-Blocking Feature in Chrome

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

Unacceptable ad types would be those recently defined by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that released a list of ad standards in March. According to those standards, ad formats such as pop-ups, auto-playing video ads with sound and “prestitial” ads with countdown timers are deemed to be “beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.”

In one possible application Google is considering, it may choose to block all advertising that appears on sites with offending ads, instead of the individual offending ads themselves. In other words, site owners may be required to ensure all of their ads meet the standards, or could see all advertising across their sites blocked in Chrome.

Because they struggle with consistency, Google offers an interstitial ad unit, YouTube frequently serves up non-skippable “prestitial” ads, and there’s nothing in Google’s AdSense policies that explicitly prohibits the use of a modal overlay to display an ad. This seems a little bit like Marlboro also selling anti-smoking aids, doesn’t it?

Apple Plans to Make Devices Entirely From Recycled Materials

Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice:

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and other products.

That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry, “to stop mining the earth altogether.”

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

If they can do this, it’s going to be huge, but it’s a tall order. Jason Koebler’s reporting on Apple’s recycling practices suggests that their desire to one day quit mining raw materials will require a complete rethinking of their current disposal chain:

“Electronics recyclers are filled with heaps of broken iMacs and MacBooks, which due to economics and the requirements of certifications are most often scrapped rather than repaired or sold,” John Bumstead, a refurbisher who sells MacBooks that he salvages and frankensteins together from broken ones that he gets from recyclers that don’t work with Apple, told me.

A document submitted to North Carolina’s Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple’s must-shred policy hasn’t changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: “All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process.”

On its face, this might not seem so bad: At least these products are getting recycled, right? But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. Bumstead still sells computers from 2009 and 2010 for hundreds of dollars to people looking for entry-level laptops.

The saying is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and those words are in that order for a reason: recycling is better than creating new raw materials, but not as good as reusing what already exists. Neither of these options are as good as minimizing the consumption of new products altogether.

Obviously, Apple would prefer to sell more products, and many customers love having newer products than hanging onto the same device for five or six years. Improvements to their recycling program ought to have a significant impact on the resources required to create new devices and components. But it seems as though their desire to improve their products’ impact on the environment is contradicted somewhat by their stance against right-to-repair legislation, something Apple VP Lisa Jackson touches on in her interview with Vice:

Jackson also defended Apple’s history of making products that are hard to repair. Allowing customers to repair Apple products themselves “sounds like an easy thing to say,” she said. But “technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn’t giving you bad parts.”

Because of this, Apple won’t be taking a “right to repair” approach to meeting its environmental goals. “All those things mean that you want to have certified repairs,” Jackson said. “I think trying to pretend that we can sort of make it easy to repair the product, and that you get the product that you think you’re buying — that you want — isn’t the answer.”

I get the stance Apple is taking, but it seems like there could be a safe middle ground. Right-to-repair legislation might be too broad as it’s currently written, but Apple could allow authorized service centres to repair more components with certified parts instead of performing whole-device swaps. More refurbished devices could be made available to sectors where having the latest products isn’t a primary concern.

I’m optimistic that Apple’s recycling goals can be met in due time. I hope they take a more comprehensive approach to their environmental efforts, however. They’re already showing promising results: their lastest report indicates that each new product emits 97 kilograms of carbon in its lifespan, down from a recent high of 137 kilograms in 2011. But the same report indicates that 77% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a new product come from its manufacturing — something that could be cut more dramatically by reducing or reusing components and products than it can by recycling.

Update: Lisa Jackson appeared on this week’s episode of the Talk Show and dove deeper into Apple’s progress on the environment. It’s a really good episode that highlights the company’s use of sustainable forests, how they reduce and reuse materials on the production line, and Apple’s awesome Earth Day animated shorts.

Lawsuit Alleges Bose Headphone App Silently Provided Users’ Listening Habits to Advertisers

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

After paying $350 for his QuietComfort 35 headphones, [Kyle Zak] said he took Bose’s suggestion to “get the most out of your headphones” by downloading its app, and providing his name, email address and headphone serial number in the process.

But the Illinois resident said he was surprised to learn that Bose sent “all available media information” from his smartphone to third parties such as Segment.io, whose website promises to collect customer data and “send it anywhere.”

This doesn’t appear to be a simple case of Zak failing to read the app’s privacy policy in full. I downloaded the Bose Connect app and read its privacy policy and terms and conditions. While both explain that the app uses analytics software, nowhere in either document does it say that it will transmit listening habits.

This is alarming when you consider how unique someone’s music library and listening habits are. Ben Dodson found that apps in iOS had an unlimited ability to dump a user’s music library into a text file and upload it to the cloud. In iOS 10, Apple began requiring authentication when an app wants to access the music library.

What I don’t see in Stempel’s report is anything indicating whether the Bose app was merely using library data, or if it was sending information about the actual audio passing through the app. That makes a big difference — imagine if a Bose owner received a phone call through the headphones.

When You Think About It, a $400 Bag Squeezing Machine Is Kind of Silly, Really

Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force — “enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

You could tell this thing was bullshit from day one — a juice making machine that only works with premixed, DRM-encumbered fruit and vegetable blends from the company that sold you the machine.

Ah, but we haven’t even gotten to what is perhaps my favourite sentence I’ve read all week:

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Albert Burneko, Deadspin:

I like this one, too (emphasis mine):

One of the investors said they were frustrated with how the company didn’t deliver on the original pitch and that their venture firm wouldn’t have met with Evans if he were hawking bags of juice that didn’t require high-priced hardware.

When we signed up to pump money into this juice company, it was because we thought drinking the juice would be a lot harder and more expensive. That was the selling point, because Silicon Valley is a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for. Easily opened bags of juice do not give these awful nightmare trash parasites a good bargain on the disposable income of credulous wellness-fad suckers; therefore easily opened bags of juice are a worse investment than bags of juice that are harder to open.

As a rule of thumb, any single-purpose kitchen gadgets are a gigantic waste of money, with the possible exceptions of espresso machines, pasta rollers, corkscrews, and sushi mats. Despite this, investors spent $120 million financing a $400 — $700, before a recent price cut — WiFi-enabled bag squeezing machine.

Photographers Used iPhones to Shoot New Condé Nast Covers

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

Creative Director Alex Grossman said it made sense to finally put an iPhone pic out front with the May travel issue, particularly given the connection between photography and travel. The cover was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, in the Tlacolula Market of Oaxaca, Mexico, and it combines people and food, with a woman showing off a strawberry Paleta.

You and I both know that these kinds of articles are a mix of well-placed PR and interesting news, but I’m linking to it because I really love the idea of using an iPhone to shoot a travel magazine. The context is just so appropriate. Magazine photos tend to look just a little too good to be true, especially when they’re shot with a professional DSLR or medium format rig, but a smartphone camera makes the same photos feel that much more grounded in reality.

Via email, I asked Peden and Munk — the photographers behind the Bon Appétit cover — about their shooting process, and it’s a lot simpler than I thought. They told me that they used Portrait mode with the phone on a tripod, triggered the shutter with a Bluetooth camera remote, and adjusted their selects in VSCO. Pretty remarkable.

Phishing With Unicode Domains

Xudong Zheng:

Punycode makes it possible to register domains with foreign characters. It works by converting individual domain label to an alternative format using only ASCII characters. For example, the domain “xn--s7y.co” is equivalent to “短.co”.

From a security perspective, Unicode domains can be problematic because many Unicode characters are difficult to distinguish from common ASCII characters. It is possible to register domains such as “xn--pple-43d.com”, which is equivalent to “аpple.com”. It may not be obvious at first glance, but “аpple.com” uses the Cyrillic “а” (U+0430) rather than the ASCII “a” (U+0041). This is known as a homograph attack.

Unlike Chrome and Firefox, Safari displays the punycode version of domains that use characters from the extended Unicode set — that is, instead of displaying “аррӏе.com”, it shows “xn--80ak6aa92e.com”. However, this is arguably problematic for domains that legitimately use homographic characters. The Cyrillic alphabet is full of characters that look identical to Latin letters.

The way this bug was fixed in Chromium is to see if the entire domain is a Latin lookalike and uses a TLD like .com, .net, or .org.

Update: My description above is inaccurate. Safari has a security check in place to prevent fraudulent non-Latin Unicode domains from displaying; punycode won’t display when the domain is valid and legitimate on a TLD belonging to a Cyrillic-lanaguage country. Thank you to a reader for the correction.

Today’s Next-Generation iPhone Clickbait Brought to You by Gizmodo

Alex Cranz of Gizmodo responded to Mark Gurman and Min Jeong Lee’s report about the next-generation iPhone:

The phone will be a nearly bezel-free slab of glass and stainless steel (or possibly aluminum), the home button will be dead, and a gorgeous OLED display will be the focal point.

If you’re having a sense of deja vu, that’s because the Galaxy S8 had the exact same series of redesigns from the previous iteration when Samsung announced it last month. While Apple has been popularly viewed as the big smartphone innovator, this year it’s undoubtedly chasing Samsung.

The headline for this article said it even more succinctly:

The 10th Anniversary iPhone Sounds Like a Samsung Clone

One of three things happened here. Maybe Apple has become so efficient with their design process that they went all the way back to May of last year to begin copying the Galaxy S8; or, perhaps, Samsung was aware of that rumour and rushed their version of the phone to market; or — most likely — this is a natural evolution of the smartphone form factor as every major manufacturer has been trying to reduce the bezels on their devices for years now.

The American Retail Shift

Derek Thompson, the Atlantic:

The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015, according to Cowen Research. By one measure of consumerist plentitude — shopping center “gross leasable area” — the U.S. has 40 percent more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the U.K., and 10 times more than Germany. So it’s no surprise that the Great Recession provided such a devastating blow: Mall visits declined 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, and they’ve kept falling every year since.

Michael Corkery, New York Times:

E-commerce players, led by the industry giant Amazon, have made it so easy and fast for people to shop online that traditional retailers, shackled by fading real estate and a culture of selling in stores, are struggling to compete. This shift has been building gradually for years. But economists, retail workers and real estate investors say it appears that it has sped up in recent months.

The Times has a small photo gallery that helps illustrate the difference in scale between the operations of an online-focused warehouse-only retailer like Amazon and the space required for a mall, and it’s as dramatic as you might expect. Imagine what can be done with the space left by the hundreds of malls anticipated to close within the next ten years.

Corkery again:

Retailers have hoped that their traditional stores, by offering catchy displays and top-notice service, can lure shoppers away from their screens. Some of the best evidence that brick-and-mortar retail is still viable may be Amazon’s experimentation with operating physical stores of its own.

Something I was unable to find is a recent comparison of the retail environment in shopping malls compared to that of high streets. I do a considerable amount of my shopping online, but I still prefer visiting my local bookstores to browse what they have on the shelves. I still want to try clothes on, and see what an iPhone accessory is really like before I buy it. It looks like Amazon is counting on blending that experience with the kind of data that’s only available to one of the world’s biggest online retailers.

A Time Capsule for the Web

Tim Carmody in a guest post on Kottke:

More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.

And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.

But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.

I love the idea of this project. It’s simple to participate — you just have to fill out a short questionnaire, and not every question needs an answer.

Something that Carmody hasn’t addressed, as far as I can see, is what how he’ll present the final product. I hope that the results show an earnest attempt at finding the best of the web, but I also foresee the potential for abuse. What does that editing process look like, and what is the result? I’m not being a pessimistic skeptic here; I’m intrigued.

Update: Carmody has shared a collection of the best tweets nominated by readers so far.

The Moderators

A truly heartbreaking film from Ciaran Cassidy and Adrian Chen:

In an office in India, a cadre of Internet moderators ensures that social media sites are not taken over by bots, scammers, and pornographers. The Moderators shows the humans behind content moderation, taking viewers into the training process that workers go through in order to become social media’s monitors.

This film is twenty minutes long, but it needs that kind of length to tell the story of the people who filter out the worst of the web. Many of us are so far removed from the sewage — both conceptually and physically — that we can forget how much of it has been cleaned for us from our feeds. Per one moderator in the film [sic]:

We have to maintain the speed of two thousand photos per hour, we have to moderate. 20% of that photo are vulgarity photos.

In a span of eight hours, a moderator will see over three thousand photos of various levels of offence, from using a middle finger in a profile photo, to child abuse and physical violence. And I doubt these moderators are limited to a standard forty-hour work week.

This film is, naturally, very difficult to watch. There are occasional not-safe-for-work moments throughout, and it gets particularly heavy at around 13:00. I totally get that some of you may not feel comfortable with it, but I imagine that even if you don’t see the film and just read what I’ve described here, you can empathize with how mentally-tasking a moderator’s job must be.

How to Make a Backup of a FFFFOUND Account

Andy Baio:

Next month, two seminal image-sharing communities, FFFFOUND! and MLKSHK, will close their doors within a week of each other.


These two communities shared a lot in common. Both were very creative, focused on curating imagery, but how they’re shutting down are very, very different — how it was communicated, the tools for saving your contributions, and the future of the community.

FFFFOUND provides no export or backup tools. A handful of user-created scraping scripts exist for those tech-savvy enough to use them, but in general, most users will be unable to preserve their contributions.

More upsetting is the fact that FFFFOUND only allows Google, Bing, and Yahoo to crawl their archives in their robots.txt file, which outlines which crawlers can access their site and how frequently.

I frequently used FFFFOUND between 2008 and 2013, bookmarking nearly two thousand images in that time. I somehow accumulated 703 followers on the site, and I loved its close-knit communal feeling. It was a really cool little service — like Pinterest without the commercial focus. I know a lot of photographers, designers, and other creative types who used it for collecting inspiration wherever they found it on the web. So you can imagine how much it stings not to have an export feature.

I was determined to create a backup of my collection tonight. I tried fiddling with wget first, but the site is built in such a way that scraping it is beyond my expertise — though, much to my amazement, it doesn’t appear to be against the site’s terms of service. I really didn’t want to manually create a webarchive file of every page in my profile.

Thankfully, Baio sent me links to a few scripts for saving FFFFOUND profiles. Because I’m a complete idiot when it comes to command-line software that requires a bunch of dependencies, I’ve been struggling with this all evening.

But, at last, I think I found a relatively straightforward way to archive the images in your FFFFOUND profile on MacOS:

  1. Open Safari and copy Aaron Hildebrandt’s excellent ffffind.py script.

  2. Open your favourite plain text editor and paste it into a new file. Save it as ffffind.py in the directory of your choice. I went with a new “ffffound” directory in my Pictures folder.

  3. Open a Terminal window. You’re going to download and install a copy of the Python virtualenv package by running the command sudo pip install virtualenv. You’ll need to type your administrator-level password to do this.

    I’ve found installing it at the system level is more reliable than it is at the user level, likely because of SIP in recent versions of MacOS. You can try installing it at the user level by omitting sudo, however.

  4. Once that’s installed, navigate to the folder you created earlier for this project. That’s cd ~/Pictures/ffffound for me.

  5. We’re going to set up a virtual environment. First, run virtualenv ffffind to get the basics set up. Next, type source ./ffffind/bin/activate and press return to enter the virtual environment. The command line should now begin with (ffffind) instead of $.

  6. Next, within this virtual environment, we’ll need to install the latest release of Beautiful Soup, an HTML scraper. To install it, just run pip install BeautifulSoup and wait until it confirms that it has been installed.

  7. Now, just run python ffffind.py USERNAME with your FFFFOUND user name. Sit back, because this is going to take a while.

There are, of course a few caveats with this script. First, while I don’t believe it violates FFFFOUND’s terms of service, please don’t get annoyed at me if that changes. Besides, they’re the ones who didn’t provide an export function.

Second, while this will give you a copy of every image you saved to FFFFOUND, it won’t preserve page numbers or creation dates. If the order in which you saved the images is important to you, you’ll have to try to get ffffexport to work for you. It only downloaded my most recent 32 images, and I’m not sure why.

Third, ffffind doesn’t work perfectly. I saved a few images from a museum’s search engine. Their URLs included a .exe in the string, and that made ffffind very confused, so it stopped working. The easiest way to resolve this is to open the FFFFOUND page it stalled on and save that image manually, then delete it from your FFFFOUND. Unfortunately, the ffffind script doesn’t have the provision to restart on a specific page, so you’ll have to run it again from the start.

I hope this guide is helpful if you’re a FFFFOUND member hoping to save your bookmarks from annihilation. Many, many thanks to Andy Baio and Aaron Hildebrandt.

Update: I tried to make a Workflow for this but couldn’t. Dean Young made one quickly, though, and it seems to work really well. It only scrapes the FFFFOUND-cached versions of the images, and you may wish to adjust the /post/ part of the URL to /found/ for a more complete archive, but if you don’t want to mess around with the Python nonsense above, it’s a terrific option.

iTunes Podcasts Directory Rebranded as Apple Podcasts

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

On its own this is a minor change, and one that makes sense: In its most popular context, Apple’s podcast directory is accessed from the Podcasts app on iOS. iTunes is not a brand that needs to be associated with that product at all—it was only there because more than a decade ago, Apple extended the iTunes Store infrastructure and added podcast support to iTunes on the desktop. It was a long time ago. (Podcasters can get new badges to reflect the change.)

Looking at the larger picture, though, I have to assume that this is one part of a long, inexorable de-branding of iTunes. It proved to be a brand that was capable of having all sorts of non-tune-related things stuffed inside of it, but it was always an awkward fit and at some point it needed to be addressed.

The death of “classic” iTunes has been in the cards for quite some time, especially after the introductions of Apple Music and iCloud Music Library. Many of the pieces are in place for Apple to pull the trigger on iTunes, create discrete Mac apps for music, podcasts, and video, and rely upon iCloud-based syncing for iOS devices.

I’m still not ready for that future.

Apple Music Adds New ‘House of Strombo’ Video Show

Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail:

It was announced on Thursday by Apple Music that the CBC Radio 2 host will bring House of Strombo, a 10-episode concert series he hosts from his downtown Toronto home, to the U.S.-based subscription service. [George Stroumboulopoulos] will also provide exclusive playlists.

For Apple Music, the recruiting of Stroumboulopoulos gives the service a Canadian beachhead and a presence in Toronto, a musically thriving metropolis. For Stroumboulopoulos, the move provides the former MuchMusic VJ a measure of international exposure.

For the uninitiated, George Stroumboulopoulos was one of the best interviewers ever employed by the CBC. He spent ten years hosting a seemingly-straightfoward chat show on the network, always asking questions that provoked a depth of conversation that was unlike anything else you’d find on similar programs. His three-hour radio show consistently delivers a killer blend of music and talk.

Quite simply, this is one hell of a get for Apple Music.

“House of Strombo” premieres tonight with A Tribe Called Red. Trust me: it’s going to be good.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Numeric Ratings

Caroline O’Donovan wrote for Buzzfeed about how star-based ratings for Uber and Lyft drivers affects their livelihood:

In a San Francisco Lyft car, there’s a chart taped to the back of the front passenger seat: “The Rating System Explained.” It details — in exaggerated terms — what Lyft’s one- to five-star rating scale really means to drivers.


Though tongue-in-cheek, this rating system explainer touches on an essential truth of the gig economy: When companies like Lyft, Uber, and Postmates penalize workers who have low ratings, anything less than five stars feels like a rebuke.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you’re going to lose your job. They’ll deactivate you.”

I stand by what I wrote four years ago:

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it.

I maintain that star ratings are a poor way to rate pretty much anything. As a method of grading an opinion or experience, it’s inherently dishonest: its equivalence to a numerical ranking system makes it feel like it should be somehow impartial or objective, when a rating is anything but.

I think that impression has given “gig-economy” companies the false confidence that they can rely upon these ratings, with real consequences for their emplo— I’m sorry, independent contractors. O’Donovan:

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company’s five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us.”

I get that Postmates might just want their couriers to provide exceptional service every time, but that’s unreasonable due to users’ wildly differing standards.

Furthermore, this shows just how dishonest these rankings are. If you’re aware of the preposterously high standards Postmates, Uber, and Lyft set, you’re much less likely to give a three- or four-star rating if your experience is imperfect — you don’t want to be the user who causes the contractor to lose their job.

In general, it’s far clearer to present a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating. Apple Music’s “love” and “dislike” options are exactly what I need to tell it, and nothing more: it’s either “play more like this” or “play less like this”. Likewise, everyone I’ve ever spoken to has assumed that Netflix’s old star ranking system were the ratings from either users or critics, but that wasn’t the case: it was a guess as to how likely Netflix thought you — the user — might like that TV show or movie.

Some people might argue that reducing quality ratings to binary options — like or dislike — lacks context, but I don’t think star ratings provide greater context in the real world. I can easily understand whether a product or service was acceptable to me, but I’m certain I’m not the only person who freezes when they need to figure out just how acceptable it was.

Besides, there’s an appropriate way to build context around a rating: a simple, optional, and private comment box. It might be filled with unfair criticism or utter nonsense, but at least words aren’t usually interpreted as a constant metric in the same way that numbers are. Even if a comment box is filled with complete lies, there isn’t the impression that it’s a calculated and inarguable score.

Our crime, as users, is not knowing whether we can be honest with our ratings. But tech firms have created this problem by assuming that users will be honest after implying that anything less than five-star service is unworthy, and then tying contractors’ livelihoods to users’ ratings. That’s unfair to everyone.

Robbing a Bank by DNS

Andy Greenberg, Wired:

The traditional model of hacking a bank isn’t so different from the old-fashioned method of robbing one. Thieves get in, get the goods, and get out. But one enterprising group of hackers targeting a Brazilian bank seems to have taken a more comprehensive and devious approach: One weekend afternoon, they rerouted all of the bank’s online customers to perfectly reconstructed fakes of the bank’s properties, where the marks obediently handed over their account information.

Yet another reminder that the infrastructure of the web is old and fragile, but it’s what we’ve got. I remain bewildered that it works as well as it usually does.

Big Tech Companies Lobby FCC to Preserve Net Neutrality Rules

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

Top officials from the Internet Association, a trade organization that represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix, among others, urged Pai to keep and enforce existing open internet rules. “The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” the group’s officials said, according to a summary of the meeting filed with the FCC.

The Internet Association also told the FCC chair that, according to their own preliminary economic research, net neutrality rules did not negatively impact broadband investment, which contradicts claims from the telecom industry that the regulations would stymie innovation.

It’s in the interests of even the biggest tech firms to preserve these rules, as I explained last week, in response to Bloomberg’s report on Comcast’s coming Netflix competitor:

With the FCC’s current attempts to dismantle net neutrality regulations, don’t be surprised if this service doesn’t count against Comcast subscribers’ bandwidth caps or limits. Also don’t be surprised if, at some point, NBC’s news channels — NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC — become part of something like this, thereby making it more expensive to watch other news networks. Netflix would also become more expensive under such a scheme, too.

ISPs are attempting to exert tight control over the creation and distribution of media; to compete at the same level, tech companies would also have to become ISPs across the United States. As Google found out, that’s unfathomably difficult due to the permits, time, and infrastructure required. Since it’s unlikely that Comcast and AT&T will be deconstructed à la Ma Bell, tighter regulation is necessary.

Zac Hall’s WatchOS 4 Wishlist

Zac Hall:

WWDC 2017 is just around the corner and we’re eager to see what Apple has planned for watchOS 4 and Apple Watch. While we don’t expect to see an update that addresses every opportunity left for watchOS in one year, there are certainly a lot of areas ripe for improvement considering how new Apple Watch and watchOS are.


Finally, watchOS 4 could improve customization by adding the ability to have custom tones for alerts like new messages and phone calls. You can already do this on iOS of course, but watchOS doesn’t offer the flexibility. This is something I regularly see readers mention and one of my first complaints when first using Apple Watch at launch.

I’d go even further and hope for a way to match different alert tones to vibration patterns. I don’t push too many notifications from my phone to my Watch, but the few third-party apps that do — Slack, Outlook, and NY Times — all make the same sound with the same vibration pattern. As I almost always have my Watch muted, it would be great to have different vibration patterns for new emails and news alerts, as they don’t have the same priority.

Facebook Faces Increased Publisher Resistance to Instant Articles

Lucia Moses, Digiday:

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, [EVP] of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

Enthusiasm has cooled elsewhere. It’s an about-face from two years ago, when publishers were champing at the bit to join the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” Hearst Digital president Troy Young said at the time. Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst brand to launch, in October that year. Now, Hearst is absent from the program, having determined the monetization isn’t paying off. Hearst declined to comment on the record.

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw. And then there’s Facebook’s complicated relationship with publishers and their cagey attitude towards data collection, according to Moses:

There are also a lot of details to be worked out when it comes to subscription signups on Instant, such as who owns the customer relationship, what data the publisher gets and how the revenue is shared, Wilson added. “The devil’s in the details.” (A Facebook rep said that for now, with the free digital trials, the publisher owns the relationship once the user signs up.)

Facebook and Google, alike, have a habit of making big changes that dramatically alter publishers’ relationships with them. I’d love to know why they’re far less hesitant to adopt the AMP format than they are Instant Articles.

Samsung Says Bixby Voice Assistant Is Delayed

Ina Fried, Axios:

One of the key signature features of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, its Bixby voice assistant, won’t work out of the box, when the device goes on sale later this month. Other parts of Bixby, including its visual search and reminder abilities, will ship at launch, a Samsung representative told Axios in a statement.

On Twitter, Fried said that Bixby crashed in her demo; Business Insider’s Steve Kovach said much the same.

Bixby is derived from Viv, which premiered at Disrupt NY in May of last year, running fairly smoothly on an iPhone. Samsung acquired the company in October, so they’ve been working to build it into the Galaxy S8 presumably since then. Just goes to show how hard it is to take an existing piece of software, port it to another platform, and make it a core part of the system.

Update: A correction: though some functions of Bixby are enabled by Viv, the core of it is apparently Samsung’s own effort, according to Dan Seifert of the Verge:

Though Bixby is a product of Samsung’s own internal development, the company’s recent acquisition, Viv, will be put to work making Bixby play nice with other third-party services. Viv has a pedigree here: the company was founded by the creators of Apple’s Siri assistant, which had many third-party integrations before it was folded into iOS itself. If there’s a bull case to be made that Bixby will be successful, Viv will be central to it.

Thanks to “sciwizam”.

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Matt Giles has compiled links to many of this year’s Pulitzer-winning works. I’ve read many of them, and one of the things that struck me as I worked through this list is just how many of them I remember clearly. I think this illustrates an important quality of a Pulitzer-worthy work: its ability to get stuck in your brain and sit there long after you read the piece.