Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death

Jia Tolentino, writing in the New Yorker:

Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next.

[…]

Mary’s story looks different to different people. Within the ghoulishly cheerful Lyft public-relations machinery, Mary is an exemplar of hard work and dedication — the latter being, perhaps, hard to come by in a company that refuses to classify its drivers as employees. Mary’s entrepreneurial spirit — taking ride requests while she was in labor! — is an “exciting” example of how seamless and flexible app-based employment can be. Look at that hustle! You can make a quick buck with Lyft anytime, even when your cervix is dilating.

There is a very real and largely-unaddressed human cost behind the convenience offered by startups like Lyft, Uber, and Fiverr. “Gig economy” jobs are a uniquely new way of blending the anxiety of freelance work with the pay of a minimum-wage job — and sometimes, well below that. This is not fair to those participating in these jobs today, nor is it an effective long-term economic backbone.

Drawing Connections Between Apple’s Acquisitions of Workflow and Siri

A couple of interesting connections have emerged between Apple’s acquisitions of Siri and Workflow — in 2010 and yesterday, respectively — and I thought they were worth noting.

First is the note that Workflow is remaining in the App Store post-acquisition. This parallels the way Apple handled the standalone Siri app after they bought it in April 2010. Greg Kumparak, in an October 2011 report for TechCrunch:

Long before today’s announcement that the Siri Voice Assistant would be an integral part of iOS, Siri was a third-party app. It wasn’t as pretty, and not nearly as well integrated, but it had one big advantage: it ran on just about any iOS device.

Then Apple bought Siri. It immediately became clear that Apple was making a push into voice — and yet, the app stayed on the store. It lived on un-updated, but it lived on nevertheless. Then Apple introduced Siri… exclusively for the iPhone 4S.

And with that, the life of Siri (the application) came to an end, making way for Siri (the feature).

It’s terrific that Workflow is remaining in the App Store — even better, it’s now free — but it’s also a reminder that it will, one day, vanish into the ether as a standalone app.

That brings me to an excellent article from Khoi Vinh speculating on the future of Workflow and one potential reason for Apple’s purchase:

But this move also hints at what the future of Apple’s strategy for Siri, smart assistants and home automation might be. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that Workflow could play a key role as an elegant, easy-to-learn scripting environment for many if not all of Apple’s future endeavors in cloud-connected, AI-powered, voice-enabled platforms. When you look at competitors like Amazon’s Alexa platform, Google Assistant, Cortana, etc., they all lack a truly elegant, easy-to-master entryway for casual users who want to customize their experiences—and that’s exactly what Workflow gives Apple. (Though don’t be surprised if these other players acquire Zapier or IFTTT soon as well.)

I know this is all speculative, but I’d love a way to build custom workflows for Siri. It could be like HomeKit’s scenes feature, but for my entire phone — and, ideally, all of my Apple devices. There’s tremendous potential there, especially with the effortless UI that the Workflow team conjured up and the increasingly seamless way iCloud-connected devices are communicating with each other.

U.S. Senate Republicans Vote to Lift Key Internet Privacy Protections

Hamza Shaban, Buzzfeed:

The Senate voted Thursday to make it easier for internet service providers to share sensitive information about their customers, a first step in overturning landmark privacy rules that consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers view as crucial protections in the digital age. The vote was passed along party lines, 50-48, with all but two Republicans voting in favor of the repeal and every Democrat voting against it. Two Republican Senators did not vote.

Passed by the Federal Communications Commission in the final months of the Obama presidency, the privacy rules prohibited internet providers like Comcast and Verizon from selling customer information, including browsing history and location data, without first getting consent. The rules also compelled providers to tell customers about the data they collect, the purpose of that data collection, and to identify the types of third party companies that might be given access to that information.

House Republicans are also expected to vote to lift these privacy protections, so this is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being signed by the President. Once it does, it will severely hamper the FCC’s ability to pass similar rules in the future, when the commission is not run by someone who is determined to sign away the future of the web because of a personal dogma.

Apple Acquires Workflow

Well, here’s a weird piece of news. Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple has finalized a deal to acquire Workflow today — a tool that lets you hook together apps and functions within apps in strings of commands to automate tasks. We’ve been tracking this one for a while but were able to confirm just now that the ink on the deal is drying as we speak.

[…]

Workflow the app is being acquired, along with the team of Weinstein, Conrad Kramer and Nick Frey. In a somewhat uncommon move for Apple, the app will continue to be made available on the App Store and will be made free later today.

Back in November, Apple eliminated Sal Soghoian’s position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies — he now works for the Omni Group on automation. At the time, Craig Federighi promised in an email that they have “every intention to continue [their] support for the great automation technologies in MacOS”. This acquisition makes me think that they’d like to extend automation support to iOS in a more comprehensive way, too, and is the first indication I’ve seen that Apple is continuing to take automation seriously after such a worrying November. What shape that will take, I have no idea.

Pixure and PanelKit

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Pixure is Louis D’hauwe’s excellent pixel art studio app for iOS that lets you create retro-styled illustrations. Pixure was already best suited for the iPad’s bigger display, but the latest version 2.2 adds PanelKit – a UI framework created by D’hauwe himself to turn traditional iPad popovers into floating panels.

I am genuinely surprised that Apple approved this, given the troubles Steven Troughton-Smith and Cabel Sasser had with getting clearance for conceptually multi-windowed app environments on the iPad. I hope that progress keeps being made in this direction. While something as sophisticated as the MacOS UI would likely translate poorly to the iPad, basic multi-window functionality combined with reduced modality would make the system leaps-and-bounds better for multitasking. Even something as simple as dragging and dropping between apps in Split View seems like a basic yet vital enhancement.

iTunes 12.6 Adds Cross-Device Movie Rentals

It’s not often that I agree with a headline containing the word “finally”, but it feels apt here. Juli Clover, MacRumors:

iTunes 12.6 introduces a “Rent once, watch anywhere” feature that lets iTunes users watch iTunes movie rentals across all devices with iOS 10.3 or tvOS 10.2.

Prior to this update, an iTunes movie was only available on a single device at a time. When a movie rented on a Mac was transferred to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod using USB, the movie became unavailable from an iTunes library until returned to the Mac.

A movie rented on an iOS device or an Apple TV was not previously watchable on other devices and could not be transferred between devices.

Basically, a rental is now attached to an account rather than a device. It doesn’t really matter whether the nine year delay in introducing this is the fault of Apple or movie studios, the fact is that it was a crappy situation that I ran into more than once. I imagine others have run into the same issue, particularly if they started the rental on an iOS device, quite reasonably assuming that they could pick it up on their Apple TV later.

iOS 10.3 and tvOS 10.2 have not yet been released.

Clips

Also announced today in the midst of Apple’s press release blitz is a new app called Clips. It won’t be released until April and requires iOS 10.3, which isn’t out yet, but it’s clear what the app is and what it will do: it’s a copy of the sharing features in Instagram and Snapchat, using other networks — especially Messages — as its social sharing outlet.

Stephen Nellis of Reuters explains how Clips could be a serious Snap and Facebook competitor:

Apple has a huge number of users for Messages, the flagship app for short notes that is built into the iPhone’s iOS 10 software. Apple does not say how many people use the app, but it does say that there more than 1 billion iOS devices on the market and that 79 percent of them run iOS 10.

Apple also says that Messages is the most commonly used app on iOS devices, giving the company potentially up to 800 million users for its latest messaging platform. Snap, by contrast, has 161 million daily active users. While Apple’s Clips competitor will technically be a separate app from Messages, it will be tied closely to it for the ability share Clips videos with other Apple users.

This is written horribly. Nellis implies that Messages is on 79% of iOS devices by stating that Messages is built into iOS 10, and that iOS 10 is on 79% of iOS devices. Therefore, he surmises, Clips has a potential market of 800 million users.

Using that same math, the Snapchat app has a far greater market potential because it only requires iOS 9 or newer, representing 95% of all iOS devices. Yet its growth has come to a crawl.

I’m not convinced, though, that Clips is a serious competitor. I think it’s a perfectly fine app; the Live Titles feature — which makes onscreen captions based on what’s being said — is especially cool. But Clips is separate from Messages, so there are more steps between starting to capture a moment and showing it off.

Also, if this is supposed to run up against Stories, it seems misguided. The whole point of the Stories feature in other apps is that it creates a passive way to view or post a current video-based status that will expire at some point. Sending individual video messages to a bunch of your friends generates more friction. If they’re trying to take on Instagram and Snap in broader terms, that’s an extremely tall order, and Apple has a rough history with building ecosystem-constrained social networks.

Even if Clips is quietly successful as a standalone product where only the results are shown on other social networks, what’s to stop Facebook from duplicating its features. Heck, by announcing it weeks before it’s set to launch, why wouldn’t Facebook or Snap add a Live Titles-esque feature to their apps as well?

Update: Maybe this is Apple’s play for a mobile equivalent to the wildly-successful Photo Booth app on the Mac, but I’d say that ship has long sailed.

Apple’s Spring Cleaning

If Apple is, indeed, holding an April event — as I still think they are — it seems like they had some stuff to get out of the way first. They launched some cool new Watch straps, added a vibrant-looking Product Red version of the iPhones 7 to the mix, and doubled the available storage configurations for the iPhone SE.

The biggest news is probably in the iPad department. While they haven’t updated the iPad Pro lineup, they cleaned up the other parts of the iPad line. The Mini 2 is gone, as is the iPad Air 2. In place of the latter is the new iPad — it’s just called “iPad”. Its full designation is actually “iPad (5th Generation)”, which makes it the successor — in name — to 2012‘s “iPad (4th Generation)”, which is a little bit weird. The renaming does follow the de-Air-ification of Apple’s product naming scheme.

The product itself is a curious blend of the two generations of the iPad Air, and the iPhone 6S. It has the A9 processor of the iPhone, the thickness and weight of the first-generation iPad Air, and the networking capabilities of the iPad Air 2. In a sense, you can think of it as an “iPad SE”. But it also has some limitations: the display is doesn’t have any of the advanced features or wide colour gamut of the iPads Pro — it isn’t even laminated — and it lacks support for the Pencil.

But it’s inexpensive. Really inexpensive. Prices start for 32 GB of storage at just $329 in the US, which is an astonishing deal for those hoping to deploy iPads in a classroom or corporate setting, or anyone who wants an inexpensive tablet with a big screen. It’s $399 for a 128 GB model, which is the same price as the 128 GB iPad Mini 4 — the only remaining variant of that device, as of today.1

So what about the rumoured iPad Pro updates? I’d be surprised if they wait until autumn to introduce new models; by then, the 12.9-inch model would be two years old and virtually untouched in that time. It’s not out of the question, but it seems like a bad guess to me. My best guess is that there’s still an April event planned, and this news dump was a way to refresh a few products without sacrificing stage time. Why announce them in advance of an assumed event? I think it’s a good way to give these products their own space the news cycle2 and help emphasize any updates the iPad Pro line may get, even if it’s not the rumoured all-new 10.5-inch device.

That’s just a guess, though.


  1. I’m surprised the iPad Mini wasn’t bumped to an A9 chip and marketed as the “7.9-inch iPad”. ↩︎

  2. My alternative theory is that they did have an April event planned and had to postpone it, but felt comfortable announcing these products through a press release only. ↩︎

Connecting the Conversation

You’ve probably read Charlie Warzel’s profile for Buzzfeed of Techmeme and its founder Gabe Rivera; yet, you may have missed this excellent followup from Adam Tinworth:

In digital content circle, we talk a lot about ‘content atomisation’, the idea that the publishing packages of the past have been atomised into individual articles found via search or social. In a sense, what Techmeme does is reconnect those atoms into molecules of news, allowing you to track not just the most popular articles, but to explore the interconnections between them and other articles, which respond to them or follow them up. [Those] connections both inform the ratings, but also guide to the reader into the broader context of the story.

It’s such a compelling idea that I’m surprised that nobody is really working on it in any other way. A decade back, the blog platform makers were really interested in connecting up conversations online. That led to the advent of standards like Trackback and Pingback, both of which got steadily buried under ever-increasing volumes of spam. And, to add to the woes, much of the discussion around any single article is now buried away in private spaces like Facebook.

But still, it seems a strange gap in the technology of the web that it’s surprisingly hard for the casual reader to easily find responses and follow-ups to something they’ve read.

As it happens, hot news and surrounding analysis does have a place on the web: Techmeme’s companion sites for media and the press at Mediagazer, celebrity gossip at Wesmirch, and the original political news aggregator Memeorandum.

Unfortunately, of all of the sites under the Techmeme umbrella, only Techmeme and Mediagazer have human editors. That means that sites like Memeoradum — which draws upon the conversation around a particular story — can be swayed by influential yet unreliable sources. In an era of stories that span the gamut from misleading to outright false, that is of particular importance. Memeorandum may not be a fact-checking site, but it ought to prioritize news articles that are, well, truthful.

Recode: Anthony Levandowski Was Hired as a Consultant at Uber While He Founded Otto

A small but truly amazing update on that Uber-Otto lawsuit. Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

To bolster its suit, Alphabet laid out a detailed timeline of Levandowski’s relationship with Uber executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick. According to Alphabet, that relationship dates back to the summer of 2015, approximately six months before Levandowski even left Alphabet.

Now, sources are adding more to that claim. Kalanick hired Levandowski as a consultant to Uber’s fledgling self-driving effort as early as February 2016, six months before Levandowski publicly got his company off the ground, according to three sources.

It’s not entirely uncommon for engineers to consult for other companies, but the timing of Levandowski’s hiring at Uber so close to the initial formation of Otto raises a number of questions.

You don’t say. Questions such as “Would this look a little funny to the employer I left just a few weeks prior?” or “Is this a potentially suspicious arrangement should said past employer decide to sue my future employer?” Those are the important questions worth asking.

On a Commitment to Diversity at Apple

Late last month at Apple’s shareholders meeting, attendees overwhelmingly sided with Apple in their disagreement with a proposal to improve diversity amongst the company’s leadership.

Natalie Walters of the Street:

In this year’s proposal, Maldonado and Zevin Asset Management requested that Apple be required to increase the diversity of senior management and its board of directions. The lack of diversity is a “business risk.”

“Shareholders believe that companies with comprehensive diversity programs, and strong commitment to implementation, enhance their long-term value, reducing the company’s potential legal and reputational risks associated with workplace discrimination and building a reputation as a fair employer,” the proposal said. In addition, a more diverse board would increase creativity and reduce the “groupthink” at the company, they argued.

Apple argued that its efforts to increase diversity are “much broader” than the “accelerated recruitment policy” that the proposal puts forth. Instead of focusing on Apple’s senior management and Board, the company takes a more “holistic” view extending to anyone who wants to work in the tech sector in the future.

This is the second year running that Antonio Maldonado’s proposal has been shot down, and for a similar reason as last year: Apple seems content with the direction of their current diversity efforts.

Apple’s overwhelmingly white and male1 management team is also one of the closest-watched in the industry. While they haven’t experienced the kind of high-profile top-down discriminatory issues seen at other major tech firms, they do run the same risks as any other somewhat-homogenous ecosystem. They seem to be aware of that, given the way that they’ve improved diversity in new hires, but that doesn’t address more senior management positions.

Improving the diversity of the board would be a big start, as would any changes to the senior management shown on the company’s website. Making these kinds of big strides would show a seriousness to their efforts that, I think, would be more impactful than their half-baked “holistic” statement.


  1. According to their latest figures, management and leadership positions are 72% male and 67% white. ↩︎

Uber President Jeff Jones Quits After Six Months on the Job

I regret not saving my — frankly, excellentJ. Bruce Ismay analogy for this resignation.

Update: Okay, I admit it. I really jumped the gun on that analogy. Dave Lee of BBC News:

The backroom manoeuvrings suggest bigger changes at Uber are on the way. Two separate, well-placed sources at the company have told the BBC that Mr Kalanick will likely step down as chief executive soon after the new COO is in place.

I nominate Uber’s management for the 2017 Crunchie award for “Corporate Team Most Named for Ironic Reasons”.

iMessage App Store Growth Slows, According to Sensor Tower

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

According to a new report from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, there are nearly 5,000 Message-enabled apps – the same number of iOS apps released in year one of the App Store. That should be a promising figure, given how much the iOS App Store has grown over time – it has 2.2 million apps as of January, 2017, Apple said.

But unlike the iOS App Store, the iMessage App Store is already seeing the developer interest and excitement wearing off.

From its launch in September, 2016 and the end of October, Sensor Tower says the number of iMessage-enabled apps had grown approximately 116 percent to nearly 1,100. By November, that figure had grown another 108 percent to around 2,250 apps. But by December – notably a month when developers rush to be ready for the numerous users unwrapping new iPhones and installing apps – growth slowed to 65 percent, bringing the store to 3,700 iMessage apps.

Growth continued to fall in the new year, with 18 percent growth from December, 2016 to January, 2017 followed by 9 percent growth from January to February, 2017.

I’ve long been optimistic about the potential for iMessage apps. I use them all the time. But it isn’t the new gold rush I think many developers hoped it might be. iMessage apps are, of course, much more limited in their utility and possibilities, and the novelty factor has worn off. But another big reason for this drop is surely that the iMessage App Store UI is buried behind a confusing layering of menus, and the app drawer isn’t very scalable.

Apple has done a good job of not overpowering the fundamental features of Messages with the new features added in iOS 10, but those features now might be too hidden and hard to discover. Balancing those two aspects of Messages is a tricky design problem that I hope is considered for the next major version of iOS.

Google Says They Will Revamp Ad Policies After Boycotts

Some more followup for a story I covered yesterday, when the Guardian announced that they would be suspending their Google ad buy since their ads were appearing on extremist and hateful websites and YouTube videos. The Guardian called for other brands to join them, and join them they did.

Joe Mayes and Jeremy Kahn, Bloomberg:

[…] the U.K. government and the Guardian newspaper pulled ads from the video site, stepping up pressure on YouTube to police content on its platform.

France’s Havas SA, the world’s sixth-largest advertising and marketing company, pulled all its U.K. clients’ ads from Google and YouTube on Friday after failing to get assurances from Google that the ads wouldn’t appear next to offensive material. Those clients include wireless carrier O2, Royal Mail Plc, government-owned British Broadcasting Corp., Domino’s Pizza and Hyundai Kia, Havas said in a statement.

Some good news though: Google is giving advertisers more control over placement. Ronan Harris of Google:

We’ve begun a thorough review of our ads policies and brand controls, and we will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network.

Google provides no specifics, and I’m curious to see how this could feasibly work. Harris prefaced Google’s announcement by stating that their ability to control ad placement is fairly limited:

However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognize that we don’t always get it right. In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetization policies.

There are some well-known websites and YouTube channels that most people would reasonably consider hateful, bigoted, and xenophobic, but there are also plenty that aren’t as well-known. How will this be policed? Reporting offenders is not in the interest of those who frequent the kinds of websites and channels targeted by these changes.

When an Ad Is Not an Ad

Some followup on yesterday’s story about Google Home devices playing an apparent ad for Beauty and the Beast, in which I mocked Google’s claim that it wasn’t an ad. Turns out that it, truly, wasn’t, according to a followup statement obtained by Catalin Cimpanu of Bleeping Computer:

“This wasn’t intended to be an ad,” said a Google spokesperson regarding the incident. “What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.”

Disney may not have paid Google to tell Home users about their new movie, but that’s what it felt like to a lot of people. And now Google really, really knows that their users won’t tolerate anything resembling an ad on their Home devices.

Alphabet’s Autonomous Cars Had to Be Adjusted in Every Mile They Drove

Johana Bhuiyan, Recode:

The top line: Uber’s robot cars are steadily increasing the number of miles driven autonomously. But the figures on rider experience — defined as a combination of how many times drivers have to take over and how smoothly the car drives — are still showing little progress.

[…]

In January, the cars only drove 5,000 miles. At that point, however, the company only had about 20 active vehicles, mainly in Pittsburgh. By February, the company’s cars were driving themselves around 18,000 miles a week.

[…]

For example: During the week ending March 8, the 43 active cars on the road only drove an average of close to 0.8 miles before the safety driver had to take over for one reason or another.

No word on how many red lights were run.

See Also: The Uber Bombshell About to Drop.

The Guardian Pulls All Google Advertising

Jane Martinson of the Guardian:

The Guardian has withdrawn all its online advertising from Google and YouTube after it emerged that its ads were being inadvertently placed next to extremist material.

Ads for the Guardian’s membership scheme are understood to have been placed alongside a range of extremist material after an agency acting on the media group’s behalf used Google’s AdX ad exchange.

David Pemsel, the Guardian’s chief executive, wrote to Google to say that it was “completely unacceptable” for its advertising to be misused in this way.

He said the Guardian would be withdrawing its advertising until Google can “provide guarantees that this ad misplacement via Google and YouTube will not happen in the future”.

I think this is a fine stance for the Guardian to take, but I also saw a Google ad in the sidebar of this very article. I don’t intend to conflate the buying of ad space with the display of ads, nor imply any hypocrisy on the Guardian’s part. But this goes to show that the automated buying and provision of ad space across the web creates unintended effects for everyone. It’s in an advertiser’s best interests to select their most relevant audience, but the slots on the Guardian’s website could potentially go to advertisers that the website’s readers would disagree with.

Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of ads from Carbon — the provider of the ad in the right-hand column of this website — promoting marketing automation tools that are largely built on mass data collection and retention, something I frequently criticize. However, I trust that Carbon won’t allow an ad from Breitbart or some neo-Nazi organization.

No matter how much publishers trust advertisers, the only way this can be resolved reliably is to eliminate the automated buying and selling of ad space across larger networks. Every publisher — or small, select, and invite-only group of like-minded publishers — must retain their own inventory. That’s massively difficult and, as a result, is unlikely to be the future of ads on the web. But so long as ads are distributed across huge networks where little control is held by advertisers and publishers alike, there will always be instances of disagreement between advertising and where it is displayed.

Google Says That the Ad That’s Running on Some Home Devices Isn’t an Ad

CaptainCapitoni” on Reddit:

This morning while I was getting ready for work, I did my usual “Okay Google, good morning”. After information about the time and weather, my google home said something along the lines of

By the way, Beauty and The Beast opens in theaters today. In this version, Belle is the inventor. Sounds more like it to me.

I’m not a fan of ads on this device. I don’t believe I’ve done any searching for the film either, so I think it’s not due to perceived interest. Has anyone else heard similar ads?

Another user, “drak0bsidian”, says that they also heard the ad, and Bryson Meunier posted a recording of it on Twitter.

The Verge’s Chris Welch asked Google about it, and they provided him with some grade-A bullshit in response:

This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.

I don’t care how much storytelling tinsel an advertisement happens to be wrapped in — an ad is an ad.

I looked through Google’s support documentation for Home and even downloaded the app looking for anything that would specifically state that the device could be used for advertising. Nothing on the Google Home website implies that ads would start running on the device. The Google Home FAQ only vaguely nods at anything promotional on the device:

First and foremost, we use data to make our services faster, smarter, and more useful to you, such as by providing better search results and timely traffic updates. Data also helps protect you from malware, phishing, and other suspicious activity. For example, we warn you when you try to visit dangerous websites. Also, on surfaces where we show ads, we use data to show you ads that are relevant and useful, and to keep our services free for everyone.

But there’s no mention of whether Google Home is an advertising “surface”, and audio ads are not one of the types shown in any category on Google‘s advertising site.

Maybe users will react to this like they would towards the ads on radio stations or Spotify’s free tier, but I wouldn’t want this in my apartment. Imagine waking up in the morning and asking Google about your new emails, only to hear it tell you about a new movie or some product. Gross.

Update: Drew Pickard on Twitter:

RE: the text of Google’s response to the Beauty and the Beast “Ad”

It’s another ad. “BE OUR GUEST” is a song from the movie.

wtf

Can’t wait to meet Google’s new PR team of Gaston and a talking candlestick.

Update: According to Tim Bradshaw, Google has removed the ad.

Genius Will De-Emphasize Web Annotations in Favour of Video

Casey Newton of the Verge:

Genius, which raised $56.9 million on the promise that it would one day annotate the entire internet, has been losing its minds. In January, the company quietly laid off a quarter of its staff, with the bulk of the cuts coming from the engineering department. In a post on the Genius blog at the time, co-founder Tom Lehman told employees that Genius planned to shift its emphasis away from the annotation platform that once attracted top-tier investors in favor of becoming a more video-focused media company.

While Genius has done some incredibly dumb things over its short existence, it is truly a brilliant product. More than anything, its simplicity is key to its appeal. A move into video explanations feels like investor meddling more than it does a conscious strategy change.

This move strikes me as a symptom of a broader cultural condition in Silicon Valley that emphasizes rapid growth and significant investment. Genius is the kind of product that probably could have existed just fine without investors, lots of staff, or big offices. Sure, it may have taken longer to arrive where the company is today, but they wouldn’t have to take on the baggage of VC whims or high overhead. As a result, they’d be able to keep the company true to what it does best.

Justice Department Lays Charges in Yahoo Intrusion

Despite InfoArmor’s doubts, the Justice Department is charging two FSB agents and two hackers-for-hire with the breach of 500 million accounts. Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post:

The Justice Department announced Wednesday the indictments of two Russian spies and two criminal hackers in connection with the heist of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014, marking the first U.S. criminal cyber charges ever against Russian government officials.

The indictments target two members of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and two hackers hired by the Russians.

The charges include hacking, wire fraud, trade secret theft and economic espionage, according to officials. The indictments are part of the largest hacking case brought by the United States.

The New York Times has a copy of the full indictment.

Hacking Back

Brian Krebs:

Recently, I heard from a security professional whose close friend received a targeted attempt to phish his Apple iCloud credentials. The phishing attack came several months after the friend’s child lost his phone at a public park in Virginia. The phish arrived via text message and claimed to have been sent from Apple. It said the device tied to his son’s phone number had been found, and that its precise location could be seen for the next 24 hours by clicking a link embedded in the text message.

That security professional source — referred to as “John” for simplicity’s sake — declined to be named or credited in this story because some of the actions he took to gain the knowledge presented here may run afoul of U.S. computer fraud and abuse laws.

Vindication is sweet, but the actions that “John” took would, of course, be impossible for most people. Even identifying a suspicious site can be difficult, especially as websites continue to coalesce around a handful of shared design motifs that are easy to replicate. So long as we rely upon passwords, phishing will continue to be a common and reasonably successful method for criminals to steal login credentials.

Perhaps it would be possible for Safari to automatically identify suspected phishing sites by comparing samples of the source code with known Apple ID login pages. Or, maybe Safari could alert users who use the same login details as their Apple ID on an insecure site.

Silicon Valley Is Failing Many, Including Women and Persons of Colour

Liza Mundy, in a cover story for the Atlantic:

As Bethanye Blount’s and Susan Wu’s examples show, succeeding in tech as a woman requires something more treacherous than the old adage about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. It’s more like doing everything backwards and in heels while some guy is trying to yank at your dress, and another is telling you that a woman can’t dance as well as a man, oh, and could you stop dancing for a moment and bring him something to drink?

Such undermining is one reason women today hold only about a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs—a fraction that has actually fallen slightly over the past 15 years, even as women have made big strides in other fields. Women not only are hired in lower numbers than men are; they also leave tech at more than twice the rate men do. It’s not hard to see why. Studies show that women who work in tech are interrupted in meetings more often than men. They are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.

Some of the solutions attempted by Silicon Valley companies sound like a mix between New Age bullshit, and a handwavey means for discriminatory practices to be acknowledged without committing to change. This is a problem that requires acknowledgement and action to combat deeply-engrained working and cultural styles. Mundy’s piece is a must-read.

Report Claims Lowest Sales Ever on DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras in 2016

I first read this piece from LensVid — no byline — nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

We shall start in the top left and the amount of cameras produced worldwide. 2010 was the top year ever for the camera industry with 121 million cameras that were produced, since than we have seen a steady decline with a huge drop in 2013 to only 61 million cameras – basically half, and in 2015 we saw another (almost) halving to only 35 million cameras and the most recent number from 2016 brings another huge drop to only 23 million cameras or 35% drop – year-to-year – twice as much as what happened the year before.

Their analysis is generally what you might expect: smartphones have effectively killed the compact point-and-shoot camera, and mirrorless cameras are having a mixed reception. But these are the two bullet points that have had me thinking about this piece:

The DSLR market is shrinking – this was to be expected but it is not because of the rise of mirrorless. Why this is happening is probably a combination of reasons – at the entry level some people who might have considered buying a DSLR a few years back just settle for their smartphone camera which is better than ever and will soon improve even further with dual cameras, smart zoom technologies and more advanced features. At the mid to high end segments – there just isn’t enough innovation to justify replacing gear as often as it used to be and on the more positive side – cameras are quite reliable and replacing a working camera for a new one which doesn’t offer significantly more, just doesn’t make sense to many users.

I remember the days of DSLRs making huge leaps in sensor quality and megapixel count with every iteration. Features like HD video recording made each new generation that much more significant. But now, virtually all of the photographers I know have been comfortable with whatever camera they bought five-to-eight years ago, or even longer.

The biggest innovations of the past few years have been to commoditize higher-end sensors. The Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax GFX 645Z have brought medium format sensors to a high-end DSLR price point, while cameras from Canon, Nikon, and even Sony have brought down the price of entry for a full-frame DSLR. I hope this trend continues, because there’s an appreciable difference — even for non-professionals — between the APS-C sensors of consumer DSLRs and full-frame sensors.

Cameras are for older people – you can’t see this in the numbers but we clearly see this all around us – aside from the professional segment – dedicated cameras do not interest the younger generation. The people who are still interested in photography are typically around the ages of 40-60 or more – the same people who maybe shot with analog cameras as youngsters and now have the time and money to invest in photography as a hobby – their children and grandchildren are far less interested in cameras and prefer to use their smartphones.

If they’re going to make their point based on anecdotal evidence, I’ll make my counterpoint based on the same: I’ve seen loads of younger people carrying their DSLRs everywhere. A Canon Rebel is standard fare amongst YouTube vloggers and the skateboarders near where I live. Whenever I head near a retail strip or a mall, I see groups of teenagers that have cameras slung over their shoulders.

If anything, my bet is that it’s actually a more middle-aged demographic that has become disinterested in buying cameras: they’re less interested in video capabilities and experimentation. For many of them, a smartphone’s camera is fine for basic documentation.

The Uber Bombshell About to Drop

A compelling read by Daniel Compton:

In the last few weeks Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber. Alphabet and Waymo (Alphabet’s self-driving car company) allege that Anthony Levandowski, an ex-Waymo manager, stole confidential and proprietary information from Waymo, then used it in his own self-driving truck startup, Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August 2016, so the suit was filed against Uber, not Otto.

This alone is a fairly explosive claim, but the subtext of Alphabet’s filing is an even bigger bombshell. Reading between the lines, (in my opinion) Alphabet is implying that Mr Levandowski arranged with Uber to:

  1. Steal LiDAR and other self-driving component designs from Waymo

  2. Start Otto as a plausible corporate vehicle for developing the self-driving technology

  3. Acquire Otto for $680 million

Below, I’ll present the timeline of events, my interpretation, and some speculation on a possible (bad) outcome for Uber.

Even with the head start created by a staff entirely familiar with autonomous vehicles, it is truly unbelievable that Otto could go from being founded in January to running a fully-functional prototype on public roads in May, and then acquired by Uber in August, all in the same year. If the endless stories about Uber’s dreadful internal culture aren’t crippling enough, this might well be.

Prevent Videos From Auto-Playing in MacOS Web Browsers

Kirk McElhearn:

Auto-play videos suck. They use bandwidth, and their annoying sounds get in the way when you’re listening to music and open a web page. I happen to write for a website that uses them, and it annoys me to no end. (My editors have no control over those auto-play videos, alas.)

But you can stop auto-play videos from playing on a Mac. If you use Chrome or Firefox, it’s pretty simple, and the plugins below work both on macOS and Windows; if you use Safari, it’s a bit more complex, but it’s not that hard.

I thought we settled this back in the 1990s when webpages would automatically play some shitty MIDI interpretation of a pop song in the background. Apparently, today’s batch of web-oriented marketing types didn’t get the memo about how interruptive it is to automatically play a video — with sound, in many cases — any time someone tries to read a page on their site.

McElhearn does a good job pulling together all the ways you can stop autoplaying video in the browser of your choice. In Safari and Safari Technology Preview, it requires setting a command-line hidden preference. But if publishers are going to subject their visitors to the scourge that is autoplaying video, it seems apt for there to be a non-hidden browser control. Unfortunately, a policy change in iOS 10 implies that Apple is actually going the other way and encouraging the use of autoplaying video — albeit, without sound.

At the rate this stuff is going, I’ll pretty soon become one of those people who browses the web in plain text. It seems increasingly like a reasonably appealing option.

Update: After disabling inline video playback on the latest MacOS beta and the latest version of Safari Technology Preview, I noticed some unexpected behaviour from YouTube videos. I’ve seen similar reports from others running different combinations of MacOS and Safari, including non-beta versions.