Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2014

Thirty Years of Mac

Apple has launched a nice little microsite to pay tribute to the Macintosh. There’s an interactive timeline (with no mention of the Power Mac G4 Cube), and a short video featuring interviews with notable users.

There’s also page for visitors to share what their first Mac was. It appears the stats are live, and so I wasn’t surprised to see four Mac models from the 1980s. But the Mac fifth most-cited by visitors as their first is a 2011 MacBook Pro. That’s not a late-90s iMac, nor an iBook G4, nor an early Intel Mac, nor anything else you might expect. Peculiar.

‘The Mac Keeps Going Forever’

Macworld’s Jason Snell sat down with Apple executives today to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. There are tonnes of great quotes in here, but I love this one from Craig Federighi:

“To say [OS X and iOS] should be the same, independent of their purpose? Let’s just converge, for the sake of convergence? [It’s] absolutely a non-goal,” Federighi said. “You don’t want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like iOS was designed by [one] company and Mac was designed by [a different] company, and they’re different for reasons of lack of common vision. We have a common sense of aesthetics, a common set of principles that drive us, and we’re building the best products we can for their unique purposes. So you’ll see them be the same where that makes sense, and you’ll see them be different in those things that are critical to their essence.”

All of the executives are clearly enthusiastic about the Mac’s place in the future of computing, but Federighi articulates why they’re so committed.

iWork for iOS and Mac Updated

Among the many enhancements is the ability to control Keynote for Mac with Keynote for iOS. While I’m glad to see what is effectively an update to the Ye Olde Keynote Remote app, it’s irritating that it now requires a 510 MB app instead of a 2.6 MB one, if that’s all you’ll be using it for on your iPhone.

On the plus side, the vertical ruler has returned to Pages, and you can now properly animate charts once again in Keynote.

The Crackdown on Hackers Is the New War on Drugs

Hanni Fakhoury, in an editorial for Wired:

This is not to say that “anything goes” online or that crimes should go unpunished. But we need to question whether locking people up for long periods of time — without addressing the root concerns about concentrated political power, civil liberties abuses, and transparency — will have the effect of deterrence or worse yet, a hardened cynicism that perpetuates the endless cycle of punishment. That’s true of even non-politically motivated cybercrime, or really, all crime … whether it involves a computer or not.

Behold the Platonic Ideal of the Glasshole

Brian Merchant of Vice, on the idealization of augmented reality by early Glass adopters:

Augmented reality will make you look cool, it will let you drive cool cars, it will let you win at cool games like pool, and it will tell you how to successfully seduce women. It’s the manifest fantasy of the frustrated, uncool male id as seen through future goggles. It’s as if you’re downloading The Game directly into your brain in real time.

It’s repulsive. And yet, simultaneously informative—as an intimate glimpse into precisely how thousands of aspiring Tech Titans imagine their lives will look through the veneer of the latest technology.

There’s a sort of bubble around the Bay Area. It’s not a bubble in the sense of a venture-capital-vs.-revenue bubble, like that of the early 2000s, but more like a hermetic bubble of a different set of ideals. Perhaps the established tech culture can’t come up with wearable technology that people want because of this bubble. To some in the area (not all, probably not even most) the demo video Merchant references looks extremely cool; to us outside of this bubble, it looks dystopic.

Squarespace Logo

As if Squarespace sponsoring every podcast you listen to wasn’t enough, now they want you to “design” your logo with their new tool:

Squarespace Logo helps anyone create a professional logo on their own. All logos are comprised of a few basic elements: text, a tagline, and an icon.

With that in mind, I’ve done some rare spec work for Squarespace.

Thoughts on Beats Music

Beats Music is the newest entrant into the already crowded music streaming service market. Depending on where you live, the space is already dominated by Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, iTunes Radio, Google Music, Xbox Music, and a host of smaller competitors. All of these services do pretty much the same thing: provide a nearly endless stream of music for either a very low monthly price, or for free with ads. These services are also similar in that not all of them are available in all areas (of those, only Rdio and Xbox Music are currently available in Canada).

Beats Music doesn’t appear to do much more than this — in fact, perhaps offering fewer features. There’s no free option, for a start: there’s a seven-day free trial, and then it costs $10 a month, ad free. It has an enormous library of music, offline playback, playlists, and provides suggestions of what to listen to next. Beats is really banking on that last point to differentiate itself, with a slew of discovery features:

  • Tapping the heart on the Now Playing screen, or the heart with the big “×” through it, will help tailor suggestions.

  • There’s a bog-standard algorithmic recommendation engine based on your listening habits.

  • There are several playlists tailored to different activities, like “Breaking Up”, “Partying Poolside” (which is different from plain “Partying”), and “Punching Walls”. Each of these playlists have about an hour of music, which seems artificially short to me. We’re not constrained by the limits of a physical medium any more.

  • There’s a section which features playlists compiled by “curators” like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and KROQ.

  • There’s a novel little feature called “The Sentence”, in which you complete the following sentence using a series of prompts:

    I’m [in, at, or on a place] and feel like [activity] with [kind of person or people] to [genre].

    Some of the suggestions are fairly straightforward, while others are a little quirky: it’s possible to be “in the future” while feeling like “taking a selfie” with “zombies” to “seminal indie”. I’ve tried several combinations and most are very pleasant, though I have a sneaking suspicion that the genre part of the sentence is really all that matters.

  • Finally, you can follow anyone’s public playlists, so if they put together a sweet nighttime playlist, you’ll get all the updates to it.

With so many paths to enable a solid music addiction, you’d hope that these would stand out above the others. And, indeed, I’ve found these recommendations to be a cut above the rest. You do still see boneheaded recommendations (People who like Queens of the Stone Age also like old Kyuss? How very wet this water is.) but it also throws out some pretty solid recommendations. As an example, I love Autechre, so it recommended a playlist of Leftfield music (the genre, not just the artist).

In addition, there are some really great playlists to introduce you to artists, so you can get an overview of their entire career. There are playlists with an artist’s influences: Arcade Fire apparently digs Springsteen and the Rolling Stones; similarly, there are playlists with artists who were influenced by a given artist: Radiohead apparently influenced Bloc Party and The XX. The home screen will feature any of these at a time, based on listening habits. Like any good recommendation engine, it gets better as it’s used more.

Then again, it also recommended a Pitbull album. There’s dog shit on every beautiful trail, isn’t there?

That’s a lot of different ways to discover new music, and that seems to be the primary reason you’d choose Beats Music. In fact, it’s really only one of two major differentiating factors, its price being the other. As I mentioned above, it’s only streaming music service I’m aware of that has no free tier whatsoever. You get a week to try it for free, but after that, it’s not like there are ads or skip limits: you simply can’t listen any more unless you pay up, to the tune of $10 each month.

For all the outrage I’ve seen on Twitter, the price is extremely competitive. There are no ads, and there isn’t a complex pricing matrix to study. For ten bucks a month, you get unlimited mobile listening, web listening, offline playback, and no ads. That sounds pretty fair to me. Sure, there’s no free tier, but perhaps the more robust discovery aspects will be enough to sway you.

It’s not all perfect: the library, as ever, has substantial holes in it, and there’s no way to blend in your own music (as with, say, Spotify). There’s also no desktop client yet. Finally, there’s the question of how much you value your music collection, and how much you trust a third party to take care of it. Today showed some launch day hiccups, with users unable to access the service for about an hour (even, it turns out, offline content). First world problem it may be, but I’m the kind of first world denizen who would like uninterrupted access to my music collection.

That said, Beats seems like it would be a hell of a complement to nearly any other streaming service or a local library. Its recommendations are solid, and I love the app’s UI. I’m looking forward to its launch in Canada. I think I may have finally found a streaming music service that I like.

Network Solutions Auto-Enroll: $1,850

Network Solutions auto-enrolled Brent Simmons in a product which costs $1,850 per year. For real:

I couldn’t believe that I’d been opted-in, without my permission, to any new product — and I was stunned when I saw how much it cost. And further surprised when I saw that I would have to make a phone call to deal with all this.

There’s no way this can be legal.

Making Changes

Matt Gemmell:

So I’m going to try this. Maybe it’s foolish, and from a commercial point of view it certainly looks that way, but I must try. As of this moment, I’m no longer developing software, either for myself or for others. I’m writing full-time.

Gemmell is consistently one of my favourite writers, and I’m excited to see him take this leap. I desperately hope that it works out well for him.

Apple Must Continue to Ignore People Who Say “Apple Must”

Harry McCracken, Time:

The stuff Apple must do usually amounts to following an industry trend in much the same way that everybody else is doing it, right this very moment.

Though Apple does frequently respond to industry trends, it’s not in the company’s nature to do so in precisely the way that everybody expects, and it often bides its time before doing anything at all.

Google Remarketing Ads Found To Violate Canadian Privacy Law

Ginny Marvin, of Search Engine Land:

Google’s own privacy policy states it “will not associate sensitive interest categories with your cookie (such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories) and will not use these categories when showing you interest-based ads”. […]

Google stated that remarketing criteria and user lists are determined by the advertiser directly. Google requires all advertisers using this platform to agree to specific policies, which prohibit all forms of interest based advertising involving sensitive categories, including the use of user lists based on “health or medical information”.  According to Google, it is up to each remarketer to determine the application of Google’s policies to any proposed remarking.

It seems to me that the first paragraph directly contradicts the second; or, at least, that the second is a weak-sauce excuse for lack of compliance with the first. I’m not sure why Google can’t directly control the terms advertisers are able to use. The small cynical part of me thinks that Google is able to control these terms, but chooses not to to maintain plausible deniability when an ad is targeted either incorrectly or in violation of their privacy policy.

Feedly Found a New Way to Steal Page Views From Publishers

Feedly has done it again, this time with links shared via Twitter. Nate Hoffelder:

In other words they slapped their brand on work they did not create. They want people to think of them as the source of the content, probably in the hopes that this will boost Feedly’s profile and its userbase. And to make matters worse they are pulling this trick both on the Twitter website and in the Twitter apps.

Seems pretty sleazy to me, especially as it’s opt-out, not -in.

Thank You

I wanted to thank everyone who purchased an album from my list of favourites from 2013 — thanks to all of you, the bills for Pixel Envy are covered for the upcoming year. I’ve got some great stuff coming up, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Music Timeline

This is insanely cool. Alison Cichowlas and Tony Lam of Google Research:

Today, we’re releasing a visualization to show which music has stood the test of time, and how genres and artists have risen and fallen in popularity. The Music Timeline uses aggregated data from Google Play Music to show the changes in music genres over the decades.

It’s fascinating how some genres ebb and flow, while others are driven almost exclusively by a handful of artists.

Everything You Need to Know About Obama’s NSA Reforms, in Plain English

If you watched Obama’s speech on the matter or read the transcript, you might be a little confused on the specifics. Brian Fung has parsed it out and translated it into plain English. One of the things that Fung doesn’t cover is this bit from the speech:

And given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations; I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.

While I understand what the President is saying, I don’t think these reforms would have happened without Snowden’s disclosures. There is an extremely trepidatious line to walk between the secrecy an intelligence organization requires to operate effectively and the ability for that secrecy to exist and be trusted in a democracy.

On a more positive note, the reforms of the phone metadata database are much warranted:

Until now, intelligence analysts have been able to “query” the database so long as they’ve determined a given phone number is subject to “reasonable, articulable suspicion.” Critics have said that gives the NSA too much power to snoop on people. So Obama is going to require that whenever an analyst wants to query the database, they’ll have to get permission from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first.

I’ve said this before, but it is critical to understand the differences in the way warrants work for telephone taps and the way they work for this database. For a phone tap, the intelligence organization needs to establish enough evidence to go to a court and request a warrant. Only after that request is approved do they have the authority to tap the phone.

Under this metadata database, all information is vacuumed up, and the warrant is required to look at the information. That’s too far-reaching, and too susceptible to abuse. This, and the ban on wiretapping allies, are important reforms.

Hoefler & Co.

Michael Burke, HF&J’s General Counsel:

Last week, designer Tobias Frere-Jones, a longtime employee of The Hoefler Type Foundry, Inc. (d/b/a “Hoefler & Frere-Jones”), decided to leave the company. With Tobias’s departure, the company founded by Jonathan Hoefler in 1989 will become known as Hoefler & Co.

This is the type nerd’s equivalent of the Marx Brothers falling out. There is, of course, another side to Frere-Jones’ story and, while a small part of me looks forward to reading it, a larger part of me just wants them to metaphorically kiss and make up. The output of HF&J is among the best in the industry, and it’s a shame to see the company change.

The Fight Over the Doves

Today’s news reminded me of a December 2013 article from the Economist:

Between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the west side of the bridge. He made around 170 trips in all from his bindery beside the pub, a distance of about half a mile, and always after dusk. At the start he hurled whole pages of type into the river; later he threw it like bird seed from his pockets. Then he found a small wooden box with a sliding lid, for which he made a handle out of tape—perfect for sprinkling the pieces into the water, and not too suspicious to bystanders.

Those tiny metal slugs belonged to a font of type used exclusively by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to destroy, so he concealed his trips from his friends and family and dropped his packages only when passing traffic would drown out the splash.

Frere-Jones Is Suing Hoefler for Half

Zachary Seward and David Yanofsky, Quartz:

Type designer Tobias Frere-Jones claims he has been cheated out of his half of the company by his business partner, Jonathan Hoefler. In a blistering lawsuit filed today in New York City, Frere-Jones says he was duped into transferring ownership of several fonts, including the world-famous Whitney, to Hoefler & Frere-Jones (HFJ) on the understanding that he would own 50% of the company.

What I’m feeling now must be similar to what normal people feel when their favourite celeb couple breaks up.