Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2013

Mapping as a Service

David Braue of ZDNet has an interesting idea of why Maps exists in Mavericks:

This lies at the crux of Apple’s decision to move Maps into Mavericks: the company has effectively staked its claim in the idea of what I might call Mapping as a Service (MaaS).

This is the concept of providing a consistent technology platform between desktops and mobile devices that will allow applications to just assume that a certain degree of mapping capability is available with a single tap. Rather than being an optional addon, geospatial capabilities become an intrinsic part of the user experience.

There are all sorts of new and improved location-based APIs in Mavericks; the Maps application has a natural place on the OS as a result. As a result of it being a native application, it feels a lot more engaging and powerful than a web-based tool. Swiping, zooming, and trackpad gestures all provide for a better user experience.

But if Braue is right, my initial doubt over a native Maps application was clearly ill-founded; not just for the reasons above, mind you, but for larger, more powerful reasons.

Newsstand in iOS 7

Hamish McKenzie of PandoDaily:

[T]here is now no visual reminder within the Newsstand icon that there are publications inside, waiting to be read. On top of that, in iOS7 users can now hide the Newsstand icon inside a folder. The once-special treatment that Apple gave publishers in order to encourage the distribution of magazines to the iPhone and iPad had apparently vanished, at least in terms of visual prominence.

Marco Arment, with some followup:

Background downloads and silent content-available push notifications could only be used in Newsstand apps prior to iOS 7. But under iOS 7, these are available to all apps.

Adding insult to injury, the new NSURLSession background-download system is much better than Newsstand’s old NKAssetDownload system, and during the iOS 7 beta, Newsstand developers were told to stick with their old system and not use the new one.

It’s hard to see why publishers would want to use Newsstand any more, aside from having a special section in the App Store.

Google’s Growing Patent Stockpile

Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review:

What’s up for debate is whether Google’s blistering rate of patenting means the company is inventing more—and more valuable—technology than it did before. Is Google 500 times as innovative as it was a decade ago just because it is winning 500 times as many patents? Or have circumstances forced the search giant into behaving like the kind of company it professes to despise: the kind that spends a great deal of time, money, and effort on legal maneuvers of dubious value to the public?

Florian Mueller, writing for the Hill in a very similar vein:

Certain Internet companies have a selective perspective on patent assertions. They preach peace to Congress but pursue war when it seems opportune.

If the fans of an English soccer side fail to support their team when it’s down, they will hear their rivals chant, “You only sing when you’re winning.” Some companies’ approach to patents is to only sue when they’re winning, but when they’re not, they turn up the volume in lobbying and public relations. They cry foul over a broken patent system, privateers, trolls, and allegedly conspiring competitors.

Either companies are just playing the game while the game is in play, while simultaneously trying to ensure meaningful patent reform, or they are being disingenuous with their public relations. Either way, I think they enjoy benefitting from patent litigation while preaching to those who support them that they dislike that very same litigation. If the question is one of whether the patents which are being sued over are legitimate, I think that’s a separate debate entirely. But Google isn’t dumb — Apple, Amazon, and Facebook aren’t dumb either.

Much Ado About Bitcoin

Adrian Chen, for the New York Times:

Still, there’s a zaniness about the currency. Bitcoin is built on a weird mix of the most old-fashioned kind of speculative greed, bolstered by a contemporary utopian cyberlibertarian ideology. Boosters say that bitcoin is the currency of the future. I’d argue that the phenomenon is a digital gold rush perfectly emblematic of the present.

There was a great tweet from the Visual Idiot the other day:

1848: thousands in San Francisco mine for gold, hoping to be rich.

2013: thousands in San Francisco mine for Bitcoin, hoping to be rich.

The crazy thing about bitcoin, from my perspective, is that it’s a currency that behaves more like a volatile commodity.

Three Unpublished J.D. Salinger Stories Have Leaked Online

In around 1945, J.D. Salinger completed work on “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls”, and it was set to be published in Harper’s Bazaar. However, Salinger withdrew it from the magazine, and it sat unpublished for decades. The only known copy in the world was held at Princeton University’s library. Kristopher Jansma described his experience reading the unpublished manuscript:

The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities. I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands. Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.” I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions.

Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper. Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet. Inside was Folder 26. All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING.

In accordance with copyright law, the earliest “Ocean” could be published would be 50 years after Salinger’s death — that is, January 27, 2060. It was assumed that a copy would not surface until then.

That didn’t stop enterprising users at a private torrent tracker to request its leaking, though. Four years ago, a user requested it; since then, it racked up six terabytes of bounty, to be awarded to the first person to upload it.

Then, today, it happened: “Ocean” and two other unpublished Salinger stories were leaked. It became apparent that the leak didn’t actually occur today, but in 1999, with the (probably illegal) publication of “Three Stories” in a run of 25 copies. One surfaced on eBay, and it was purchased for about £60.

Summer Anne Burton, for Buzzfeed:

Reading the stories is an odd experience — “The Ocean Full Of Bowling Balls” in particular is magical and sweet and sad, as is all of Salinger, and it’s a delight to finally be able to read it and impossible to understand why he would secret it away. But the other two stories are very rough, at best, and it’s hard not to feel a bit guilty when devouring something that he didn’t want the world to see, and it’s harder still to imagine a less Salinger-esque way to read these stories than hastily scanned and illegally hosted online.

The ethics of this are interesting. In favour of the leak is the fact that Salinger is dead, and that these stories would not be available for legal publishing before 2060, for arbitrary reasons which are perhaps not in the interests of those most likely to read them. Against the leak is that it’s perhaps against the wishes of Salinger — he clearly didn’t want them published before.

There is something more powerful at work here, though. Rare items — such as these stories, or the Robert Ludwig-mastered version of “Led Zeppelin II” — are pricey collectables. The internet has allowed for a small amount of equalization for those of us who cannot afford to spend hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dollars on rare books and records. These leaks enable us to experience these rare examples without necessarily diminishing the collectable value of the physical items. Surely, that’s a net positive result.

The Dirty Secret of “Discounts”

Suzanne Kapner, of the Wall Street Journal:

The common assumption is that retailers stock up on goods and then mark down the ones that don’t sell, taking a hit to their profits. But that isn’t typically how it plays out. Instead, big retailers work backward with their suppliers to set starting prices that, after all the markdowns, will yield the profit margins they want.

If you’ve visited any mall several times in the past year, this won’t come as a surprise to you. Every time I walk past Banana Republic, there’s a sign advertising 30-40% off, and it’s much the same for pretty much any large retailer. Even if you know the game, it feels dishonest.

Android is Eating the World

Smart article from Ben Bajarin:

When you take a step back you realize that we have never had anything quite like Android before. While we may make assumptions about what Google may do with their version of Android, we can’t make the same assumptions with what other hardware companies will do with their version of Android. To keep enabling this multiplicity of Android ecosystems all Google simply has to do is keep up with driver and standards support. Perhaps this was the point of Android all along.

This, too, from Ben Evans:

How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable?

YouTube 5.3 Reveals Upcoming “Music Pass”

Jeremiah Rice, Android Police:1

There’s a new version of YouTube out, and as usual, hidden inside its chocolaty center are hints at upcoming features and capabilities. We’ve seen information about a lot of this stuff before, some of which has even been confirmed by Google itself. Aside from the user interface changes we mentioned in the announcement post, there are framework elements for the upcoming YouTube subscription service, “Uninterrupted Playback,” an offline video mode, and background music listening.

Looks like Google is about to launch a second music service, for which the only question I have is “Why?”.


  1. Which is not, as it turns out, a Sting & the Police electronica cover band. ↩︎

Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy

Alice Marwick, Wired:

When social technologies emerged, pundits and journalists hailed YouTube, Flickr, and Wikipedia as a way for individuals to fully participate in the creation and dissemination of culture and knowledge. But what is acceptable to create and disseminate has been increasingly circumscribed by what is acceptable to be publicly judged. The “edited self” is one constructed with a particular group of people in mind, and one that people expect will be scrutinized. The care with which people create their edited self is at odds with the stated ideals of equality, meritocracy, and collaboration that permeate the tech scene. And since women in the scene are subject to scrutiny for their appearance, information-sharing, and relationships in a way that men are not, there is a stark gender imbalance in the way user-created content is perceived and judged.

GoldieBlox, Fair Use, and the Cult of Disruption

Felix Salmon, Reuters:

Given the speed with which the GoldieBlox complaint appeared, indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that they had it in their back pocket all along, ready to whip out the minute anybody from the Beastie Boys, or their record label, so much as inquired about what was going on. The strategy here is to maximize ill-will: don’t ask permission, make no attempt to negotiate in good faith, antagonize the other party as much as possible.

Quoting from the Beastie Boys’ letter:

We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering. […]

When we tried to simply ask how and why our song “Girls” had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.

GoldieBlox doesn’t look so good here, despite their positive and encouraging message.

No Matter Why Apple Bought PrimeSense, It Should Be Interesting

Harry McCracken, for Time:

Everything PrimeSense does is strikingly different from anything Apple has ever done in products it’s shipped. So even though we don’t know what Apple has in mind for its new acquisition, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t have a meaningful impact on one or more upcoming Apple products.

It’s an acquisition that sticks out because it has no obvious, immediate impact. When Apple acquired AuthenTec, it was pretty clear that they were going to build a fingerprint scanner into the iPhone, for obvious reasons. Many of their acquisitions have foreseeable outcomes, but PrimeSense’s technology is both extremely unique and completely out of Apple’s current wheelhouse. Interesting.

Righteous Bits

Daniel Rutter takes on Neil Young’s stupid Pono music player:

The argument put up against this by 24/192 enthusiasts is that the much higher sample rate and rather smoother waveform capture esoterica like ultrasonic instrument resonances which, on playback, combine to give a noticeably better sound.

Most instruments do not output such frequencies, and almost no microphones, speakers or headphones work significantly above the normal human audio range either. So, unsurprisingly, these opinions are shot down by blinded testing. And, equally unsurprisingly, if Neil’s done any blinded tests of Pono, he’s keeping them a secret.

I like Neil Young; I like most of his records, and I like that he’s trying to raise the bar for the quality of online music distribution. But this 24/192 product is completely nutty.

Unsurprisingly, the crowd who thinks that there is a noticeable difference between 24/192 audio and the 16/44.1 audio of a CD is as resilient and stubborn as homeopaths, conspiracy theorists, and others of a similar calibre. So, naturally, Rutter received letters, and they were not kind:

Astonishingly, there’s no nutty audiophile product that someone doing an uncontrolled listening test doesn’t swear works. Not one! Every one’s a winner, baby!

Unless you do a blinded test. Whereupon, to a first approximation, none of these things work.

I’ve been over this before: you are a human being. Your ears are decent, but they cannot tell the difference between CD audio and high-test studio-quality audio. You probably can’t tell the difference between a very high quality compressed format — 320 kbps or V0 MP3, or 256 kbps AAC — and a lossless format (I can’t).

Here’s a comparative: grab your remote control, face the infrared blaster so you can see it, but not towards your face, and click a button. Don’t see anything? Now grab a camera, and point the infrared blaster of the remote towards the lens while clicking a button. Depending on your camera, you’ll see anywhere from a faint flickering to a giant glow being emitted.1 The human eye can’t see infrared frequencies, but your camera’s CCD can.

Imagine, for a minute, that infrared were not dangerous to human eyes. Now consider a company releasing a television which they consider a breakthrough because it can display infrared. That’s the visual equivalent of the Pono.


  1. If you use a smartphone made in the past few years, you probably won’t see much, as most newer smartphone cameras have an IR filter built in to capture better images. ↩︎

Only 25% of Yahoo Employees Willing to Use Yahoo Mail

Kara Swisher has obtained a doozy of a Yahoo internal memo, whereby “doozy” I mean that it sounds like it was written while drinking a box-wine/bathtub gin spritzer:

For some reading this email, you are saying, “Jeff, shut up, you had me at hello.” *hug* Jump over to yo/dogfood, click “Corp Mail/Cal/ Messenger” and you are ready to join our brave new world at yo/corpmail or https://mail.yahoo-inc.com.

For others, you might now be running in your head to a well worn path of justified resistance, phoning up the ol’ gang, circling the hippocampian wagons of amygdalian resistance. Hold on a sec, pilgrim.

I’m getting wasted just from reading this.

Photographer Wins $1.2 Million From Companies That Took Pictures Off Twitter

Joseph Ax, Reuters:

The jury found that Agence France-Presse and Getty Images willfully violated the Copyright Act when they used photos Daniel Morel took in his native Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, Morel’s lawyer, Joseph Baio, said. […]

An editor at AFP discovered Morel’s photos through another Twitter user’s account and provided them to Getty. The photos were then widely disseminated to Getty’s clients, including several television networks and the Washington Post.

It’s a great result for Morel, and sets a good precedent, but it’s disappointing that this needed to go to court in the first place. There’s no way that a company which deals with licensing its own intellectual property on a regular basis, like Getty does, had no idea about the copyright status on these photos.

Apple Confirms Acquisition of PrimeSense

Mike Isaac and John Paczkowski, for AllThingsD:

Apple has completed its acquisition of PrimeSense, the Israel-based company focused on 3-D sensor technology, for a price sources said was around $360 million. […]

PrimeSense became widely known in the sensor technology space for its early work with Microsoft’s Kinect gaming product, which uses cameras and depth sensors to capture players’ motions and incorporate them into Xbox gameplay.

This is a curious piece of technology for Apple to acquire, and for such a large sum of money, too. This isn’t getting locked away in a proverbial desk drawer.

Eric Schmidt Says Some Schmidt

Eric “Foot In Mouth” Schmidt wrote a guide for switching to an Android phone from an iPhone, and it’s amazing (via Stephen Hackett):

Many of my iPhone friends are converting to Android. The latest high-end phones from Samsung (Galaxy S4), Motorola (Verizon Droid Ultra) and the Nexus 5 (for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) have better screens, are faster, and have a much more intuitive interface. They are a great Christmas present to an iPhone user!

Nothing says “I am bad at judging what you want for Christmas” quite like that. Also, please note that Eric Schmidt places two spaces after punctuation. For real.

80% of the world, in the latest surveys, agrees on Android.

What does that mean, exactly?

  1. Set up the Android phone […]

    b) Make sure the software on the Android phone is updated to the latest version (i.e. 4.3 or 4.4). You should get a notification if there are software updates.

Unlikely.

Download Google Music Manager onto the Mac, and run it. Music Manager will upload your iTunes music to the cloud.

Unless you live outside the US.

Take the SIM out of the iPhone and insert it into Android.

Sounds painful for Android.

A Farewell Trip on the World’s Longest Flight

Zach Honig of Engadget flew Singapore Airlines Flight 21 for one of its last runs:

With just 100 seats on board, the all-business-class flight primarily serves deep-pocketed globetrotting executives — many work in the banking industry, often splitting their time between Singapore and New York. (Singapore Airlines retired a similar-length flight from Los Angeles last month.) The nonstop route saves travelers three hours or more over connecting options, including Singapore 25, which has a two-hour layover in Frankfurt. Those three hours, at least for the airline, weren’t enough to justify keeping the A345 in the air, due in no small part to the enormous expense of carrying the additional gas necessary to ferry passengers without a requisite refueling stop.

It’s a Trap

I’ve linked to “J.K. Appleseed”‘s column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency before; here’s the latest, including three guest stories, plus a spectacular takedown of that shitty New York Times article from late October:

This reminds me of a Howard Stern radio broadcast in which he spoke to a caller who stated that Korean deli owners only thrived in New York because they were exempt from taxes. Stern, to his credit, scoffed.

He asked, “Do you actually believe that? That out of all the hundreds of nationalities in this great city, that this one random one is somehow, secretly exempt from paying taxes?”

As an aside, if you’re looking for the Caitlin Flanagan essay referenced in this piece, the Atlantic has thoughtfully put it online. Sadly, it’s nearly entirely unformatted and Safari Reader doesn’t want to parse it, so chuck it in Instapaper like a human being would.

The Unacknowledged Compromise

Matt Gemmell:

[T]here’s a peculiar disconnect between our acknowledged multi-device world, and how the technology industry seems to view (and review) products. Each new device is stacked up against its forebears, even across different categories and platforms, as if the substitution of one for the other reflects reality. We read about alternatives, whereas what we’re often looking for are companions.

What a great article from Gemmell. I agree nearly in its entirety, with one minor quibble (or, really, clarification): we only require multiple devices should our requirements necessitate them. Gemmell again, then I’ll explain:

I think there are six categories of consumer computing device that are interesting to most people: primary work machine, portable (or travel) machine, tablet, phone, gaming device, and reading device. You can group them (and potentially collapse them together) in various different ways, but for the moment, that’s what we have.

My work machine and my travel machine are the same. For me, a notebook is an alternative to a desktop because I simply don’t do anything which requires the power of a desktop. I make no noticeable compromise by choosing a notebook in combination with an external display, and gain the significant advantage of portability.

Truce

Fraser Speirs:

To me, buying an iOS device feels a bit like buying an Intel-based Mac: you get all the great Apple software but you can run everything from the “other camp” too. It’s also interesting to note that one of the major historical arguments for buying an Android device – that it “works better with Google services” – is essentially moot now, save for some minor levels of integration that will probably disappear sooner rather than later.

Entirely agreed. There are minor philosophical differences, but the gist is that both operating systems are operating more similarly as time goes on, not less so. If you want to use Google’s services, you’ve got a plethora of choices on iOS for doing so.