Written by Nick Heer.

Twitter Says It Will Begin Charging for API Access

Twitter:

Starting February 9, we will no longer support free access to the Twitter API, both v2 and v1.1. A paid basic tier will be available instead.

It was only a matter of time before this happened, but it still sucks — and with only a week’s notice. As usual for the new Twitter, there are no details about what this means and no coordination among what is left of its teams — its developer site proudly still says it permits “free access”.

I am obviously not posting about all the changes Twitter is making because they do not excite or interest me, but this one is important. Twitter had generous limits on its free access, though it also charged for more intensive use cases like those of social media scheduling tools. This will impact hundreds of other apps which offer modest Twitter integrations, researchers and academics, and this very website.

I use a plugin on this site to publish posts to its Twitter feed, and it relies on API access. Depending on how much that costs for a tiny use case like my own, I may not find it worthwhile to pay. Posting to Twitter is now reserved for its first-party apps and website, which obviously makes the process more manual. So, no promises.

If you read Pixel Envy by following it on Twitter, I recommend you subscribe to its JSON or RSS feed, or follow the site on Mastodon.

Meta Twists the Knife in the Backs of Laid-Off Employees

Jordan Novet, CNBC:

Facebook parent Meta Platforms said in its quarterly earnings statement on Wednesday that it has increased its share repurchase authorization by $40 billion.

In 2022 the social network operator bought back about $28 billion in stock, according to the statement.

[…]

Meta’s fourth-quarter results surpassed analysts’ revenue estimates, which helped send shares up more than 17% after hours.

Before increasing its buyback fund, it had nearly $11 billion remaining.

I am going to take a brave punt that shareholders were less jazzed about revenue modestly exceeding expectations and — and this is just a hunch — their excitement may actually come from this massive share buyback scheme, which comes just a few months after announcing the layoffs of thousands of workers. Paying for those severace packages is part of the $4.2 billion of “restructuring” costs from 2022, and Meta is reportedly not finished with dismissing staff. It sure looks cruel to spend another $40 billion to prop up the share price shortly after upending the lives of eleven thousand people — some of whom are probably in the United States on a work visa — but maybe I am too soft for capital-B Business.

Is It 1987 Again?

Harry McCracken:

Your 1987 tech update: Now that cell phones have dropped in price to $3,000, are just the size of a small briefcase, weigh only 10 pounds, and can run for two hours on a charge, they’re finally ready for prime time.

Kind of interesting to read the article McCracken is summarizing in the months before Apple is rumoured to begin production of its unannounced virtual reality headset. The first version of that product will, apparently, have an external battery pack which will permit two hours’ use, and cost about $3,000. An optimistic view is for this headset to be to the future of computing what 1987’s cellphones were to the iPhone of thirty years later. Whatever the case, it seems like this will be an interesting year ahead.

Recent Apple Updates Patch Privacy Vulnerabilities, One of Which Appears to Have Been Exploited

Rodrigo Ghedin:

iFood, Brazilian largest food delivering app evaluated at USD 5.4 billion, was accessing his location when not open/in use, bypassing an iOS setting that restrict an app’s access to certain phone’s features. Even when the reader completely denied location access to it, iFood’s app continued to access his phone’s location.

We got intrigued: how was iFood getting away with this?

An educated guess was revealed by iOS 16.3 release notes, launched on January 23th. Apple mentions a security issue in Maps in that “an app may be able to bypass Privacy preferences”. It’s CVE-2023-23503, submitted by an anonymous researcher and, so far, “reserved” in CVE’s system — which means details are pending to be published.

Ghedin reports his source found iFood was no longer monitoring their location after updating to iOS 16.3, indicating this app may have been using this loophole or a similar one.

Dan Goodin:

I wonder how long this vulnerability was in effect. There may have been massive amounts of location data that was collected without users suspecting a thing.

I do not want to spread fear or uncertainty, but it is hard to believe iFood would be the only app interested in using location data even if the user has opted out of it. There were several privacy-related bugs fixed in this most recent round of operating system updates.

Algorithmic Wage Discrimination in the Gig Economy

Roshan Abraham, Vice:

“Algorithmic wage discrimination allows firms to personalize and differentiate wages for workers in ways unknown to them, to behave in ways that the firm desires, perhaps as little as the system determines that they may be willing to accept,” [Veena] Dubal writes. The wages are “calculated with ever-changing formulas using granular data on location, individual behavior, demand, supply, and other factors,” she adds.

In a study combining legal analysis and interviews with gig workers, Dubal concludes that Prop 22 has turned working into gambling. From a driver’s point of view, every time they log in to work they are essentially gambling for wages, as the algorithm provides no reason why those wages are what they are.

In a statement to Vice, an Uber spokesperson vehemently denied the claims in Dubal’s preprint study, emphasizing that its pricing algorithms do not include “factors like a driver’s race [or] ethnicity”. From what I can tell, Dubal never makes any such claim in her study, only stating that automatic fare structures may exacerbate existing pay disparities.

No matter whether these fee structures were made more transparent, Dubal’s study acknowledges the dangers of normalizing them. She writes of jobs which already have unpredictable wages which could be worsened by a wider rollout of pay determined dynamically by a series of factors out of their control. “Gig economy” drivers may be the first to experience it, but you just know there are employers salivating at the thought of saving money by allowing computers to make constant adjustments to worker pay.

The Contagious Visual Blandness of Netflix

Haley Nahman:

To be clear, this isn’t about whether the movie was “realistic.” Movies with absurd, surreal, or fantastical plots can still communicate something honest and true. It’s actually, specifically, about how movies these days look. That is, more flat, more fake, over-saturated, or else over-filtered, like an Instagram photo in 2012, but rendered in commercial-like high-def. This applies to prestige television, too. There are more green screens and sound stages, more CGI, more fixing-it-in-post. As these production tools have gotten slicker and cheaper and thus more widely abused, it’s not that everything looks obviously shitty or too good to feel true, it’s actually that most things look mid in the exact same way. The ubiquity of the look is making it harder to spot, and the overall result is weightless and uncanny. An endless stream of glossy vehicles that are easy to watch and easier to forget. I call it the “Netflix shine,” inspired by one of the worst offenders, although some reading on the topic revealed others call it (more boringly) the “Netflix look.”

Like many people, I have been glued to the Last of Us series on HBO — trailer here. Even though it is a modern CGI-heavy show, its cinematography feels appropriately otherworldly, and different from much of what has been churned out of the prestige TV factory for years. It has never been easier to make something which looks expensive, if only fine — entriely premiocre. It is still just as hard as it has ever been to make something which is beautiful, unique, interesting, and memorable.

ChatGPT in Educational and Creative Contexts

Tyson Kendon has thoughts about ChatGPT and how its generated answers can be used in education:

I think the real wake up call here, is to create learning experiences that are relevant to the real students in the room with you right now. Build trust with them and show that you trust them. Let them participate in defining what they need to learn and how they’re going to evaluate what they’ve learned. You’ll have to support them in that process, navigating their own learning and the things they can learn, but if they’re doing the work they want to do then they’re not thinking about how they can get around the system.

The understandable worries about ChatGPT in education are an echo of the warnings I heard when I was in school and the web was growing. We were always taught not to trust anything we read on the internet because anyone could have written it, but that rule of thumb became untenable with more mainstream publishers on theweb. Recognizing how underpaid and overworked teachers are, I wish the focus was more often on media literacy instead of its medium. After all, books can be terrible and the web can be amazing.

Kendon’s article is an inspired look from an educator at how to work within this new paradigm instead of against it. The examples can elicit discussion and, perhaps, help students understand what is happening under the surface instead of trusting the too-convincing output.

(Via D’Arcy Norman.)

Truth Social Is Full of Junk Ads

Stuart Thompson, New York Times:

Ads from major brands are nonexistent on the site. Instead, the ads on Truth Social are for alternative medicine, diet pills, gun accessories and Trump-themed trinkets, according to an analysis of hundreds of ads on the social network by The New York Times.

The ads reflect the difficulty that several far-right platforms, including Rumble and Gab, have faced in courting large brands, preventing the sites from tapping into some of the world’s largest ad budgets. It could be particularly problematic for Truth Social. Although the site has gained influence among the far right, becoming a vibrant ecosystem brimming with activity, its business is in need of cash.

It is so weird because I have been reading for the past several years that platforms engage in careful moderation practices primarily to oppress and censor beleaguered voices like those on Truth Social, this being the very reason for the launch of that platform, Gab, and other apparently free speech absolutist sites. Knowledgeable people — or, as they are more often known, Marxist-Fascist Censorship Lovers Who Just Love Censoring So Much — have repeatedly articulated the economic rationales for moderation: a perceived free-for-all atmosphere can increase harassment and hate speech, which turns away users; most advertisers want a larger audience and do not want their product or service sandwiched between posts from white supremacists. But why should you believe them and also your own eyes? Go buy a copy of “The Kids’ Guide to Media Bias and Fake News” and some off-brand toenail cream today, patriot.

Twitter Tumbleweed Watch

Dave Karpf:

But that number — 42,000 Twitter followers — has begun to seem hollow. When I tweet something, it isn’t actually viewed by 42,000 individuals. It’s seen by the subset of those 42,000 people that happen to be staring at Twitter’s chronological timeline at the time I send the tweet, plus anyone who is shown the tweet through Twitter’s algorithmic timeline. And that reduced-megaphone turns out to be a lot less irreplaceable.

[…]

I didn’t reach 42,000 people by tweeting my article. I reached less than 3,000 people. And that has been pretty consistent. Unless I write something spicy that gets a lot of retweets, the view-counter tells me I’m reaching 2,000-3,000 people.

I am not sure there is anything new or notable here. I checked analytics for my own tweets going back about a year, over which time I have had about the same number of followers. There is little specific consistency in the number of views a given tweet will receive. Months-old tweets of mine with no likes or retweets have racked up higher view counts than other seemingly more popular tweets. The view count is often between 10–20% of my total number of followers when there are some likes but no retweets. Karpf’s is a lower proportion of his total followers, even with 14 retweets and 23 likes, but not radically so.

I have seen this article being shared widely today, but I am not sure there is any news here. Tweet view counts being nowhere near the follower count is as surprising as email open rates which are a fraction of a total subscriber base. However, now that view counts are public, it is possible to keep an eye on the reach of popular accounts over time.

Unified ID 2.0 Is the Hot New Privacy Violation on the Web

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

When you browse the web, an increasing number of sites and apps are asking for a piece of basic information that you probably hand over without hesitation: your email address.

It may seem harmless, but when you enter your email, you’re sharing a lot more than just that. I’m hoping this column, which includes some workarounds, persuades you to think twice before handing over your email address.

First of all, this sort of thing will never be un-funny to me. What can I say? I like the simple things in life.

Second, I am not sure many people think their email address is an inconsequential piece of information. Not to undermine Chen’s reporting on the gross new standard known as Unified ID 2.0 and the myriad ways your email address is tied to your identity, but I think many people are wary of spam at the very least.

You must consider any of your contact information a personal identifier if you do not already do so. After all, how often do you change your email address or your phone number? But you should not need to — worthwhile privacy legislation would restrict their use and prevent the kinds of data enrichment companies that require us to treat simple contact details with the sensitivity of our Social Insurance Numbers.

You can opt out of UID 2.0. As an aside, when I dug around a little with some other opt-out options, I discovered that LiveRamp — previously mentioned — has a process for viewing the personal information it holds. To show me that information, it required me to enter my address, phone number, and email, then use a third-party service to upload pictures of the front and back of my driver’s license and send them a selfie. That service provider says it can use the information it collected on behalf of LiveRamp for, among other things, “operating and expanding our business activities”. Super.

Exposing Pegasus

PBS’ Frontline program and Forbidden Films jointly produced a two-part documentary about NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and I think it is worth your time. The “Pegasus Project” — the umbrella title for the stories published by media outlets around the world — had its faults, but it was a shocking exposé of global misuse of a weapon that reverberates to this day. I am not sure if this documentary is region locked; I was able to view both parts in Canada without a VPN.

Thirtieth Anniversary Mac Icons

Robb Knight did a bang-up job converting that line art icon font from Apple’s thirtieth anniversary microsite into a series of SVGs. Looking at it now — with about a year to go until the Mac turns forty — it is funny to see each era of design so specifically outlined.

It is also a reminder that the titanium PowerBook which so clearly set the template for Apple’s current laptops was released closer to the original Macintosh than to today’s Macs. I am not sure I needed to be so aware of how time works this morning, but here we are.

Apple Could Maybe, Possibly Be Distancing Its Products From Google, but It Is Difficult to Tell Right Now

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

Apple is taking steps to separate its mobile operating system from features offered by Google parent Alphabet, making advances around maps, search and advertising that has created a collision course between the Big Tech companies.

[…]

One of these people said Apple is still engaged in a “silent war” against its arch-rival. It is doing so by developing features that could allow the iPhone-maker to further separate its products from services offered by Google. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

This is a strange article. The thesis, above, is that Apple is trying to reduce its dependence on Google’s services. But McGee cannot seem to decide whether Apple’s past, present, or future changes are directly relevant, so he kind of posits that they all are. Here, look:

The first front of this battle is mapping, which started in 2012 when Apple released Maps, displacing its Google rival as a pre-downloaded app.

The move was supposed to be a shining moment for Apple’s software prowess but the launch was so buggy — some bridges, for example, appeared deformed and sank into oceans — that chief executive Tim Cook said he was “extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers”.

Apple Maps turns eleven years old in 2023, so it is safe to say that Apple adequately distanced itself from its reliance upon Google for maps, oh, about eleven years ago. Whether users have is another question entirely. The 3D rendering problems may have been the most memorable glitches, but the biggest day-to-day problems for users were issues with bad data.

So what is new?

Apple’s Maps has improved considerably in the past decade, however. Earlier this month it announced Business Connect, a feature that lets companies claim their digital location so they can interact with users, display photos and offer promotions.

While businesses have been able to claim their listing and manage its details for years, the recently launched Business Connect is a more comprehensive tool. That has advantages for businesses and users alike, as there may be better point-of-interest data, though it is another thing businesses need to pay attention to. But as far as ways for Apple to distance itself from Google, I am not sure I see the connection.

McGee:

The second front in the battle is search. While Apple rarely discusses products while in development, the company has long worked on a feature known internally as “Apple Search”, a tool that facilitates “billions of searches” per day, according to employees on the project.

Now I am confused: is this a service which is in development, or is it available to users? To fit his thesis, McGee appears to want it both ways:

Apple’s search team dates back to at least 2013, when it acquired Topsy Labs, a start-up that had indexed Twitter to enable searches and analytics. The technology is used every time an iPhone user asks Apple’s voice assistant Siri for information, types queries from the home screen, or uses the Mac’s “Spotlight” search feature.

Once again, I have to ask how a feature eight years old means Apple is only now in the process of disentangling itself from Google. Apparently, it is because of speculation in the paragraphs which follow the one above:

Apple’s search offering was augmented with the 2019 purchase of Laserlike, an artificial intelligence start-up founded by former Google engineers that had described its mission as delivering “high quality information and diverse perspectives on any topic from the entire web”.

Josh Koenig, chief strategy officer at Pantheon, a website operations platform, said Apple could quickly take a bite out of Google’s 92 per cent share of the search market by not making Google the default setting for 1.2bn iPhone users.

There is no segue here, and no indication that Apple is actually working to make such a change. Koenig insinuates it could be beneficial to users, but McGee acknowledges it “would be expensive” because Apple would lose its effort-free multibillion-dollar annual payout from Google.

As an aside: an Apple search engine to rival Google’s has long been rumoured. If it is a web search engine, I have long thought Apple could use the siri.com domain it already owns. But it may not have to be web-based — it is plausible that searching the web would display results like a webpage in Safari, but it would only be accessible from within that browser, kind of like the existing Siri Suggestions feature. An idle thought as I write this but, as I said, the article provides no indication that Apple is pursuing this.

McGee:

The third front in Apple’s battle could prove the most devastating: its ambitions in online advertising, where Alphabet makes more than 80 per cent of its revenues.

This is the “future” part of the thesis. Based on job ads, it appears Apple is working on its own advertising system, as first reported by Shoshana Wodinsky at Marketwatch in August. As I wrote then, it looks bad that Apple is doing this in the wake of App Tracking Transparency, and I question the likely trajectory of this. But this is, again, not something which Apple is doing to distance its platform from Google’s products and services, unless you seriously believe Apple will prohibit Google’s ads on its platforms. So long as Google is what it is to internet ads — by the way, stay tuned on that front — Apple may only hope to be a little thorn in Google’s side.

These three examples appear to fit into categories which seem similar but are very different. Business Connect for Apple Maps is not a competitor to Google Business Profile; any business is going to have to maintain both. There are no concrete details provided about Apple’s search ambitions, but it is the only thing here which would reduce Apple’s dependence on Google. Another advertising platform would give Google some competition and put more money in Apple’s pocket, but it may only slightly reduce how much advertisers rely on Google. It seems to me there are pro-competition examples here and there are anti-anti-competition arguments: the U.S. Department of Justice sued Google in September over its exclusivity agreements.

Anyway, speaking of Apple’s contracts with Google, whatever happened to Project McQueen?

Everybody Panic: A Finder Bug, Since Fixed, Was Sending Empty API Calls to Apple

Security researcher Jeffrey Paul was using a Mac without signing into iCloud and has blocked many internet-connected services using Little Snitch in MacOS Ventura 13.1:

Imagine my surprise when browsing these images in the Finder, Little Snitch told me that macOS is now connecting to Apple APIs via a program named mediaanalysisd (Media Analysis Daemon – a background process for analyzing media files).

That sure is surprising. The daemon in question is associated with Visual Look Up, which can be turned off by unchecking Siri Suggestions in System Settings. Given that Paul has done so, mediaanalysisd should not be sending any network requests. This is a privacy violation and surely needs to be fixed.

So Paul has found a MacOS bug, and has a couple of options. He can research it further to understand what information is being sent to Apple and publish a thorough but perhaps dry report. Or he could stop with the Little Snitch notification and spin stories.

Which do you think he did?

It’s very important to contextualize this. In 2021 Apple announced their plan to begin clientside scanning of media files, on device, to detect child pornography (“CSAM”, the term of art used to describe such images), so that devices that end users have paid for can be used to provide police surveillance in direct opposition to the wishes of the owner of the device. CP being, of course, one of the classic Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse trotted out by those engaged in misguided attempts to justify the unjustifiable: violations of our human rights.

I think you can probably see where this is going.

Paul:

Some weeks later, in an apparent (but not really) capitulation, Apple published the following statement:

Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.

The media erroneously reported this as Apple reversing course.

Read the statement carefully again, and recognize that at no point did Apple say they reversed course or do not intend to proceed with privacy-violating scanning features. As a point of fact, Apple said they still intend to release the features and that they consider them “critically important”.

That was certainly true of this, the first statement Apple provided in response to the CSAM detection plans in September 2021, which media outlets accurately reported as a “delay” or “pause”. But in claiming the media erred and that Apple intends to continue building the feature, Paul cites a statement provided to Wired in December 2022 which reads:

“After extensive consultation with experts to gather feedback on child protection initiatives we proposed last year, we are deepening our investment in the Communication Safety feature that we first made available in December 2021,” the company told WIRED in a statement. “We have further decided to not move forward with our previously proposed CSAM detection tool for iCloud Photos. Children can be protected without companies combing through personal data, and we will continue working with governments, child advocates, and other companies to help protect young people, preserve their right to privacy, and make the internet a safer place for children and for us all.”

It is fair to report, as Wired and others did, that this constitutes Apple ending development of on-machine CSAM detection for Photos.

Paul does not stop there. He implies Apple has lied about stopping development, and this bug with Quick Look previews in Finder triggering the Visual Look Up process is proof it has quietly launched it in MacOS. That is simply untrue. Howard Oakley reproduced the bug in a virtual machine and saw nothing relevant in the logs and, when Mysk monitored this activity, it found the API request was entirely empty. It is an issue which appeared in MacOS 13.1 and Apple fixed this bug in 13.2, released earlier this month.

But if Paul is going to speculate, he may as well take those conclusions as far as his imagination will go:

Who knows what types of media governments will legally require Apple to scan for in the future? Today it’s CP, tomorrow it’s cartoons of the prophet (PBUH please don’t decapitate me). One thing you can be sure of is that this database of images for which your hardware will now be used to scan will regularly be amended and updated by people who are not you and are not accountable to you.

Nothing about these images was being sent to Apple when this bug was present in MacOS 13.1 despite what Paul suggested throughout this article. A technically savvy security researcher like him could have figured this out instead of rushing to conclusions. But, granted, there is still reason to be skeptical; even if nothing about users’ images have been sent to Apple by this bug, there is no way to know whether the company has some secret database of red flag files. This bug violated users’ trust. The last time something like this happened was with the OCSP fiasco, when Apple promised a way to opt out of Gatekeeper checks by the end of 2021. As of writing, any such option remains unavailable.

However, it is irresponsible of Paul to post such alarmist claims based on a tiny shred of evidence. Yes, mediaanalysisd was making an empty API call despite Siri Suggestions being switched off, and that is not good. But veering into a land of speculation in lieu of missing information is not productive, and neither is misrepresenting what little information has been provided. Paul says “Apple PR exploits poor reading comprehension ability”, yet his own incuriousity has produced a widely shared conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact. If you do not trust Apple’s statements or behaviour, I understand that perspective. I do not think blanket trust is helpful. At the same time, it is unwise to trust alarmist reports like these, either. These are extraordinary claims made without evidence, and they can be dismissed unless proven.

Smart Appliances From LG and Whirlpool Often Remain Disconnected From the Internet

Isabelle Bousquette, Wall Street Journal:

LG Electronics Inc. said that less than half of the smart appliances it has sold stay connected to the internet — a number it is actively working to increase, according to Henry Kim, the U.S. director of ThinQ, an LG platform primarily aimed at helping products leverage advanced technology.

Whirlpool Corp. said that more than half of its smart appliances remain connected, but the company declined to be more specific.

Amid pressure from weaker demand and rising materials costs, internet-connected appliances, including dishwashers and ovens that link to a customer’s home Wi-Fi network, could help manufacturers such as LG and Whirlpool recast what has traditionally been a one-time purchase business model into ongoing relationships with customers.

“Ongoing relationships” is a generous way to phrase what these companies would like to do with your credit card.

Via Charles Arthur, who writes:

I suspect some of those licences wouldn’t survive contact with the GDPR, it’s hard not to feel that this is just companies looking for upselling opportunities.

Bousquette cites leak detection capability, which Maytag apparently rolled out to its internet-connected washing machines. According to Maytag’s App Store listing page, that is not actually a built-in feature, but a way to connect the app to a third-party Wi-Fi connected leak detector from Resideo. Reviewers say Maytag’s smart services cost one dollar per month for which you get poor security practices, slow connectivity, bad VoiceOver compatibility, and frequent bugs. But if you get past all of those things, your washer can send you a notification when your load is finished.

Is there any wonder people are not falling head-over-heels for smart home devices and internet-connected appliances?

Court Paves the Way for Approval of Rogers–Shaw Merger

Pete Evans, CBC News:

Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal has rejected the Competition Bureau’s request to block the takeover of Shaw by Rogers, a decision that removes one of the final hurdles standing in the way of the $20-billion merger from going ahead.

The merger, first proposed in 2021, would see Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc. take over Calgary-based rival Shaw Communications Inc. in a move that would further consolidate Canada’s top-heavy telecommunications sector.

A reminder that these two companies are not “rivals” in a meaningful sense. Someone living in Alberta cannot buy wired internet or cable TV services from Rogers and, as best as I can tell, someone in Ontario would be similarly unable to buy those services from Shaw. The same is true for Bell and Telus, the other two big players in Canada: wired Bell services are available in Ontario eastward, while Telus’ are offered from Manitoba westward. Residents of Northern Canada get screwed over no matter which major provider they choose.

Canada has been carved up by these telecom providers and there is no meaningful competition. It is true for cell plans and it is even more true for providers of wired communications. This merger will likely get final approval because it does not meaningfully change the competitive landscape in Canada, and that is an alarming picture in its own right: two of the biggest telecom providers in the country are being combined and we will see little change in service offerings.

Google to End Trial of Political Spam Loophole

Isaac Stanley-Becker, Washington Post:

Google plans to discontinue a pilot program that allows political campaigns to evade its email spam filters, the latest round in the technology giant’s tussle with the GOP over online fundraising.

The company will let the program sunset at the end of January instead of prolonging it, Google’s lawyers said in a filing on Monday. The filing, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, asked the court to dismiss a complaint lodged by the Republican National Committee accusing Google of “throttling its email messages because of the RNC’s political affiliation and views.”

To recap: a study found email from Republican candidates was more likely to be marked as spam in brand new email accounts, so Google launched a program to exempt political email from anti-spam measures, which Republicans ignored while continuing to send spam-like emails before suing Google, then the Federal Election Commission found Google’s spam filters had no political bias, and Google is now terminating the trial loophole program. This is silly and embarrassing for everyone involved.

This Opinion Piece Deriding People for Taking Too Many Selfies Has to Be Satire, Right?

Margaret Renkl, writing what I can only assume is a too-obvious impression of what some young people think old people think of them, which is the only reason I can think of for the New York Times to give it any space online:

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange often said. That was surely true of Ms. Lange, whose iconic photographs of Depression-era migrants and urban bread lines captured the beauty as well as the profound anguish of the period.

Today we understand something essential about the grim existence of the poor nearly a hundred years ago in part because Ms. Lange, a successful portrait photographer, turned her lens away from wealth and used it to capture suffering. Even for the people of her time, her work was revelatory, urging downcast eyes to look up and out, to see — and truly register — the struggling.

I am not sure the world needs more poverty porn from any old smartphone user, but is it not just as honest for people to capture their day-to-day life now that many of us have cameras on us all the time? Apparently not, according to Renkl:

That’s not what the most frequently used cameras exist to do anymore. My son and daughter-in-law, who are frequent campers, have seen people queued up at least 50 deep to take phone selfies at popular national park waterfalls and rock formations.

I love this paragraph almost as much as the one which comes just four paragraphs later:

The self-portrait is a time-honored art form, of course, and there are good, even pragmatic reasons to point the lens inward. I love seeing my son and daughter-in-law smiling, cheek to cheek, in their travel photos. But the natural world does not exist for them primarily as a backdrop, and selfies aren’t the only photos they take. I also love seeing the gorgeous, miraculous world through their eyes. I wish social media were full of pictures of the gorgeous, miraculous world.

I am glad Renkl gets to see her son and daughter-in-law smiling on their travels; I am equally sure the families of those who are lining up to take their own selfie are just as thrilled. Does Renkl think everyone apart from her own family members are solely taking pictures of themselves? I guess she must, because she says it is the “most frequently used camera” and it is the subject of the only number referenced in this article:

[…] But in the context of the number of selfies taken every year — billions, according to Google — it’s worth considering what that impulse says about our culture and wondering what opportunities we are losing as a result.

Renkl here references a 2016 Daily Mail article which says the number of selfies uploaded to Google Photos in the first year of its availability was about 24 billion. That number is old, only reflects users of Google Photos, and is based on automated labelling according to Google’s own blog post — why Renkl did not cite the company itself instead of the Mail is a mystery — so it is probably an undercount. To Renkl’s credit, it does appear to be the latest number available. I found many newer articles claiming that 93 million selfies are taken daily, but that is a 2014 figure from Google estimating how many selfies are shared daily by Android users. Still, 93 million per day is around 34 billion annually, so I am happy to use that larger figure. I assume it has grown but I am unable to find a more recent source or bigger number. If it is close to true, it represents less than two percent of the number of pictures taken every year, if this composite estimate of 1.72 trillion photos annually is reasonably accurate.

Renkl:

I keep thinking of what it might be like if we all took the time to photograph such commonplace miracles. What it would be like if all the people with cameras in their pockets transformed themselves into documentary photographers — like Dorothea Lange, like Baldwin Lee — to make a collective record of a truth about the world that most people haven’t yet troubled themselves to see?

Has Renkl spent any time on Instagram, or Twitter, or Glass, or any other photo-dominated platform? Has she spent any time talking to anyone about what photos they take? Literally any time whatsoever.

As I said, this has to be satire. Either that, or Renkl actually believes everything she wrote above about how people take too many selfies — except her children — and the 98 percent of photos taken annually which are not selfies are not shared with the world and have no documentary use. And, somehow, she convinced someone at the Times to publish this, which would mean we would want to question the editorial discretion of the world’s most Pulitzer-awarded newspaper.

Tech Layoffs Have Impacted Over 70,000 People Since Summer

Ashley Capoot and Sofia Pitt, CNBC:

Google announced plans to lay off 12,000 people from its workforce Friday, while Microsoft said Wednesday that it’s letting go of 10,000 employees. Amazon also began a fresh round of job cuts that are expected to eliminate more than 18,000 employees and become the largest workforce reduction in the e-retailer’s 28-year history.

The layoffs come in a period of slowing growth, higher interest rates to battle inflation, and fears of a possible recession next year.

All the credit these companies are getting for their severance packages does little to mitigate how awful this is for tens of thousands of people who will be looking for a job, and who often found out they were laid off in cruel ways. But the investor class is happy because of course it is.

Following Up on a Question of Capability

I wanted to follow up on something I asked last year:

This is a good and wide-ranging interview that dances around a question I have been thinking about for a while now: what capabilities do high-performance products like these unlock for a creative professional? It is great to see how much faster they are at compiling applications or rendering video, but I wonder what new things people will attempt on machines like these which may have been too daunting before.

I published this in the context of the Mac Studio with its brand new and very powerful M1 Ultra chip, but I think it is just as relevant in the context of fast computers with very long battery life, like the new MacBook Pro models. With so much capability on a single charge, you can happily work away anywhere you want — on any project you can think of — without worrying about finding an outlet. It is the kind of thing which makes a laptop feel that much more portable and more powerful at the same time.

U.S. State Department Replacing Times New Roman With Calibri in Official Documents

John Hudson and Annabelle Timsit, Washington Post:

The U.S. State Department is going sans serif: It has directed staff at home and overseas to phase out the Times New Roman font and adopt Calibri in official communications and memos, in a bid to help employees who are visually impaired or have other difficulties reading.

It makes sense to switch to a sans-serif for accessibility reasons, but Calibri? Like switching from Dr. Dynamite to Mountain Lightning without considering that maybe both are awful. Microsoft Windows really is typographically bankrupt by default.

Canadian Cell Plans Are Embarrassing

If you live in just about any other developed country, you may not realize how good your cell providers are compared to what we deal with in Canada. This recent episode of CBC’s Marketplace covers everything: we pay more for less, competition is nonexistent, regulators fail to hold companies accountable, and plans are exploitative compared to anywhere else. They even cover little things, like how customers in Saskatchewan and Quebec pay less because of regional competitors.

I am not sure if this copy of the program is viewable worldwide or is region-locked, but if you have about twenty minutes and want to laugh and cry at Canada, check it out.

CNet’s AI-Powered Search-Optimized Money Machine

Mia Sato and James Vincent, the Verge, expanding upon last week’s story about titles owned by Red Ventures — including CNet — publishing computer-generated articles:

Red Ventures’ business model is straightforward and explicit: it publishes content designed to rank highly in Google search for “high-intent” queries and then monetizes that traffic with lucrative affiliate links. Specifically, Red Ventures has found a major niche in credit cards and other finance products. In addition to CNET, Red Ventures owns The Points Guy, Bankrate, and CreditCards.com, all of which monetize through credit card affiliate fees. The CNET AI stories at the center of the controversy are straightforward examples of this strategy: “Can You Buy a Gift Card With a Credit Card?” and “What Is Zelle and How Does It Work?” are obviously designed to rank highly in searches for those topics. Like CNET, Bankrate and CreditCards.com have also published AI-written articles about credit cards with ads for opening cards nestled within. Both Bankrate and CreditCards.com directed questions about the use of AI to Lance Davis, the vice president of content at Red Ventures; CNET’s disclosure also included Davis as a point of contact until last week.

This type of SEO farming can be massively lucrative. Digital marketers have built an entire industry on top of credit card affiliate links, from which they then earn a generous profit. Various affiliate industry sites estimate the bounty for a credit card signup to be around $250 each. A 2021 New York Times story on Red Ventures pegged it even higher, at up to $900 per card.

It seems to me there are actually two controversies here. The first is the publication of miserable articles generated by some computer program, but these are all bland crappy articles that nobody should be reading. The second concern is, I think, much worse: these are financial articles often presented as advice — on a technology news website, no less — which are designed to exploit search engines to get extraordinary kickbacks. Search engines are becoming worse and fundraising efforts like these and the Amazon Prime Day nonsense are contributing to their ruination.

It is unquestionably a hard time to be a publisher, online or in print. But it is bizarre to see credit card affiliate links and duplicates of the Wirecutter’s business model appear on seemingly every media outlet’s website. Why would I go to CNet to learn what the best engine oil is? Who at Red Ventures feels good about encouraging people to take on more debt so they can get a $250–900 kickback? It is offensive to me for that to be one of the currently reliable ways to keep the lights on at even respected news sites.

Twitter Makes Third-Party Client Ban Official

Karissa Bell, Engadget:

The “restrictions” section of Twitter’s developer agreement was updated Thursday with a clause banning “use or access the Licensed Materials to create or attempt to create a substitute or similar service or product to the Twitter Applications.” The addition is the only substantive change to the 5,000-word agreement.

The change confirms what the makers of many popular Twitter clients have suspected in recent days: that third-party Twitter services are no longer permitted under Elon Musk’s leadership.

There it is: nearly a week after disconnecting popular third-party clients without explanation or warning, Twitter has officially killed dozens of independent developers’ businesses. As I wrote earlier this week, it comes a little more than a year after Twitter began encouraging the development of third-party clients again. The Iconfactory put it well: it “didn’t expect to be writing [about the end of Twitterrific] so soon, though, and certainly not without having had time to notify you that it was coming”.

A disappointing move, made in a predictably disorganized and disrespectful way. This is how you ruin trust and soil a legacy. I do not know what this is like for you, but for the first time in sixteen years, I do not have a Twitter client in the dock on my Mac or on the first home screen of my iPhone.

Update: Tapbots says goodbye to Tweetbot.

Disk Usage and iCloud for Messages

The release candidate for iOS 16.3, available today for developers and rolling out next week, expands availability of Advanced Data Protection to customers worldwide. As I already had a beta version of that version on my iPhone, I figured I could take the opportunity and upgrade all my devices to the latest versions of their respective operating systems so I could enable ADP. But I hit something of a snag with my iPad, which was full.

If I told you its capacity — just 32 GB — that probably would not surprise you. But I store precious little on it: aside from a couple of movies and a small music cache, there is nothing on it. iPadOS consumes about seven of those gigabytes, which makes the product’s advertised capacity feel a bit disingenous, but I should have lots of space available. When I checked the iPad Storage menu, I saw the biggest source of my disk space problems: over 11 GB used by Messages.

This makes no sense. I do not often use Messages on my iPad. I have iCloud for Messages enabled, so my device should only be downloading messages and attachments as needed. It works that way on my iPhone, on which only 4 GB is consumed by Messages; on both my Macs, the Messages library folder is about 30 GB large, which is probably a complete archive.

You can change how long of an archive should be retained by Messages by changing the “Keep Messages” options in its settings. You can select from “30 days”, “1 year”, or “Forever”; I have it set to the latter. When you change that setting to a shorter timeframe, the following warning message will appear:

This will permanently delete all text messages and message attachments from your device that are older than 30 days [or “1 year”, if that is the option selected].

As written, this sounds like it is a way to control the cache of messages downloaded to your device. If “30 days” is selected, you should see only the past month’s worth of messages on your device and anything older than that will need to be downloaded on demand. But it is so much worse than that: because it syncs, it actually erases all messages in iCloud older than thirty days — permanently. This is the only warning you will get.

It arguably makes sense. iCloud for Messages is merely a syncing service — it will, in theory, match the state of your messages across all devices. But iCloud for Messages also kind of works like an ad hoc backup control: my iPhone clearly only has a subset of the messages on either of my Macs, but when I search for something, it will return results going back at least ten years. This works as expected. Whatever was happening on my iPad does not.

The “was” is important because there are no controls for managing iCloud for Messages. There is no way to purge the local cache from one device without those changes syncing across all devices. The only way I was able to install this software update was to restore my iPad and set it up from scratch. Yes, you can point and laugh at my iPad’s puny storage capacity, but it is a device Apple sold and officially continues to support. It should not work like this.

I see three problems here, all of them consequential but one clearly more serious than the others:

  1. iCloud for Messages has local caching bugs which can sometimes retain too much local storage for the device’s capacity, thereby preventing software updates.

  2. There are no ways to manually control a local iCloud for Messages cache. Apple has attempted to create a set-it-and-forget-it feature and, to its credit, it mostly works that way. But when it does not, there is no recourse.

  3. It is far too easy to permanently destroy user data. The warning which appears is unclear and its action does not match what is written.

I am not the first to write about these problems and I could swear I have mentioned them before — but I cannot find anything in my own archives. Steven Troughton-Smith pointed out the local caching bug, while Michael Tsai raised the lack of control. This could have been a catastrophe for my Messages history; I read plenty of stories today about people losing important memories because they changed this setting expecting it to only affect local copies.

I filed a bug report, of course.1 But I wanted to write this in the hopes it will appear in a web search, too, because I had a hard time finding a clear answer before asking. Changing the “Keep Messages” setting will affect what is stored across all devices if you use iCloud for Messages, and there is no way to undo it. If you set a shorter retention time, you will delete data in iCloud without any way of restoring it.


  1. FB11955286. ↩︎