Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2014

No Place to Hide

I sped through Glenn Greenwald’s new book, “No Place to Hide”, over the past day or so, and it’s as much of a spy thriller as you’d like, except it’s entirely real. Emily Bazelon of Slate reviewed it:

“No Place to Hide” doesn’t offer an in-depth portrait of the leaker. In Greenwald’s protective hands, Snowden is a two-dimensional hero, ever brave and calm, sleeping soundly every night even during the tense initial phase of collaboration a year ago, when Greenwald and Poitras flew to meet him in Hong Kong. If you want to get under Snowden’s skin, read the Vanity Fair profile of him. But if you want to get a handle on what was at stake when he downloaded the government’s most precious secrets onto a thumb drive, this book is your primer.

For most of its length, “No Place to Hide” is a mix of rehashed and new, specific details of the NSA’s surveillance efforts. By sequencing these leaks in a singular narrative instead of spreading the leaks across several months and multiple newspapers, Greenwald has created an environment in which we can get a better idea of the breadth and depth of electronic surveillance.

The final chapter of the book is where it degrades into something approaching a rant against the newspapers and television programs that often wish to receive clearance or comment from the government prior to running a story. By doing so, the press may create an environment wherein it is impossible for the public to be fully informed. However, as Reuters’ Jack Shafer explains, this critique is misguided:

Greenwald seems to want to damn national security reporters for talking to national security officials about national security issues, thinking that it compromises them somehow or prevents them from publishing empire-shaking scoops. But talking to the government isn’t the same thing as taking orders from it. National security reporters can write more insightful and more accurate stories by discussing the leaks they obtain. They can also avoid publishing stories that are detrimental to my immediate safety, your immediate safety, the immediate safety of Glenn Greenwald’s life as well as the lives of U.S. troops. The cartoon Greenwald paints of a weakling press taking orders from the government clashes with the well-documented accounts of how contentious and brutal the reporting and publishing process can get.

Greenwald’s book is insightful, compelling, and absolutely shocking, but don’t forget to exercise your skeptical muscles. This is, after all, a long-form essay from a single writer. It has, of course, been vetted and edited, but it is still one part of a broader picture.

To promote the book and provide some additional context, Greenwald granted interviews to GQ magazine and NPR’s “Fresh Air”. Ominously, in the GQ interview, Greenwald is insistent that the biggest stuff is still to come:

We published the first article [about the NSA collecting Verizon phone records] while I was in Hong Kong last June and won’t stop until we’re done. I think we will end the big stories in about three months or so [June or July 2014]. I like to think of it as a fireworks show: You want to save your best for last. There’s a story that from the beginning I thought would be our biggest, and I’m saving that. The last one is the one where the sky is all covered in spectacular multicolored hues. This will be the finale, a big missing piece. Snowden knows about it and is excited about it.

I guess that’s something to look forward to, or be slightly afraid of.

“No Place to Hide” is available on Amazon and the iBookstore. Both of those are affiliate links, so if you like my little corner of the internet and would like to support it financially, please consider purchasing through one of those links. I won’t hold it against you if you don’t, though.

Gell-Mann Amnesia

I wanted to take a look at how some of the more mainstream (that is, non-specialist) publications are reporting on today’s decision by the FCC to allow advanced discussion on, amongst other topics, the implicit segregation of internet traffic. As a reminder, though, here’s Michael Crichton on the Gell-Mann amnesia effect:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

With that in mind, here are the first two paragraphs of the New York Times’ Edward Wyatt’s coverage (emphasis mine):

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to move forward with a set of proposed rules aimed at guaranteeing an open Internet, prohibiting high-speed Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against legal content flowing through their pipes.

While the plan is meant to prevent data from being knowingly slowed by Internet providers, it would allow content providers to pay for a guaranteed fast lane of service. Some opponents of the plan argue that allowing some content to be sent along a fast lane would essentially discriminate against content not sent along that lane.

Wyatt is no dummy, but he’s a financial reporter. Meanwhile, the Times’ tech columnists have yet to publish anything on today’s decision.

Gautham Nagesh of the Wall Street Journal took a similar angle:

The Federal Communications Commission advanced new Internet rules that would ban broadband providers from blocking or slowing down websites, but allow them to strike deals with content companies for preferential treatment.

As did Reuters’ Alina Selyukh:

U.S. telecommunications regulators on Thursday formally proposed new “net neutrality” rules that may let Internet service providers charge content companies for faster and more reliable delivery of their traffic to users.

All of these reports do include references to the disputed fairness of these proposed rules, but all of them couch them in “critics say”-type language. The “fast lane” terminology that the FCC is using, meanwhile, is given adequate play, despite being complete bullshit.

I still haven’t heard a clear explanation as to why preferential treatment deals are not implicitly creating the slow traffic that Wheeler is ostensibly opposed to.

Coda 2.5

Cabel Sasser of Panic, on the status of Coda 2.5:

Coda 2.5 is essentially complete. But, we’re still encountering sandboxing challenges. So, in the interest of finally getting Coda 2.5 out the door and in the hands of you, our very eager and patient customers, we’ve decided it’s time to move on—for now.

In short: Coda 2.5 will not be sandboxed, and therefore will not be available in the Mac App Store.

Please note that this doesn’t mean Coda 2.5 was rejected by Apple, rather that we’re going ahead and proactively making this call since all Mac App Store apps are required to be sandboxed and Coda 2.5 will not be.

There are a few takeaways here:

  1. While sandboxing is generally a great security measure, it doesn’t work with all kinds of apps. Coda is a developer-centric app that needs permissions outside of the sandbox; forcing it into a sandbox would restrict its functionality.
  2. With (1.) in mind, this doesn’t necessarily mean that sandboxing is a bad thing. Many apps shouldn’t be allowed to read or write outside of their designated boundaries, and will not lose functionality by sandboxing them.
  3. Panic is doing a hell of a job transitioning users who purchased Coda via the Mac App Store.
  4. It sounds like Apple did a pretty good job trying to find workarounds and fixes for issues with sandboxing and Coda, but all the fixes in the world simply aren’t going to work.

Rumour Mill Keep on Churnin’

Mark Gurman, the guy with a red phone direct to Cupertino, has the detail everyone’s been looking for regarding the — spoiler alert — larger iPhone (iPhones?) set to launch later this year: display resolution. Specifically, 960 × 1704 pixels.

Back in October, I guessed that the next iPhone would have a 720p display resolution — that much I got wrong. But what I think I got right, and what doesn’t make sense about Gurman’s article, is this bit:

The sources say that core user interface elements, from iOS functions like the Home screen, Notification Center, and Settings panels, will simply appear like larger versions of those functions on the current iPhone display. However, sources also say it is likely that developers and Apple itself will be able to optimize some applications to better utilize the larger screen area. It is possible Apple could revamp the Home screen and other functions between now and this fall’s launch.

Back in October, I said that regardless of what the new iPhone’s display resolution actually is, I doubted that it would be the same as the iPhone 5S resolution. I also doubted that the UI would simply be a stretched version of the existing UI:

I doubt there’s a point in simply increasing the size of the iPhone’s display without increasing what can be shown in that space.

I still think that’s the case here. I don’t anticipate a radically different UI or anything, but I would expect the additional pixels to allow many UI elements to remain at the same physical size and therefore increase the amount of space available to show content.

About Damn Time

Dominic Rushe, the Guardian:

In a live chat on Twitter, Gigi Sohn, the FCC senior counsel for external affairs, said the regulator’s “open internet” proposals, to be published on Thursday, will seek comment on whether broadband internet access should be treated in the same way as electricity, telephone calls or water, where consumers have equal access to the same service.

This is ludicrously overdue.

The Everything-but-Hachette Store

You know how Amazon is pressuring users to buy books from literally any publisher except Hachette because those companies are bickering? Funny story — you probably wouldn’t have heard about this if you read the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. Alex Shepard, director of digital media for Melville House (via Harry Marks):

There’s another interesting wrinkle in this story. Last summer, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post and promised he wouldn’t interfere with the paper—Post publisher Katherine Weymouth has said that Bezos “understands that the paper is going to write articles about Amazon and him and his friends that he may not like, and he understands that.” The New York Times has published two stories about Amazon’s spat with Hachette. As of midnight on Sunday, The Post has posted zero.

Funny, that. I mean, the Post has published a few articles post-Bezos ownership about the Apple-publisher-collusion stuff, but none about this. Odd.

Update: As of May 14, the Post has published a short article comparing the Times’ report to the net neutrality debate.

Square Pulls Square Wallet From App Store, Unveils New Order-Ahead App

Jason Del Rey reports for Recode:

That said, the company raised some eyebrows a few weeks back when it said it would charge businesses eight percent for these order-ahead transactions, rather than the 2.75 percent flat rate for most credit card purchases that run through Square’s platform. The reasoning, it said, was that the feature would help bring in new customers.

But critics countered that it seemed more likely that the capability would be used initially by a shop’s existing customers, which would mean Square was taking a larger than normal cut of purchases made by customers who were going to buy something from a given store anyway.

Compare to what Ben Thompson said last month

Credit card processing fees are one of the largest expenses a business faces, and every percentage point increase is a significant incentive for said business to go to the trouble of setting up and managing their own merchant account.

This is the blessing and curse of building on credit cards: you get instant ubiquity, but massive competition. The end result means Square is unprofitable, and getting the scale to make these numbers work – or, as Square tried to do, the user experience that makes paying these fees worthwhile – is a challenge that would be faced by anyone looking to build a payment system on top of credit cards, including Apple, Amazon, or Google.

Thompson’s takeaway was that Square couldn’t really charge more because merchants would seek other avenues that aren’t nearly as expensive to run. Square, on the other hand, is betting that they can charge more. Del Ray, again:

Varma admits that the Order app may initially appeal most to a shop’s current customers. That said, early results from a beta test show that these customers begin ordering more frequently than they previously did.

Over time, though, Square’s goal is indeed to drive new customers into businesses that use Order. How? Square is going to run advertising on behalf of businesses listed in the Square Wallet app, include them in loyalty programs and fund discounts to get new shoppers in the door, Varma said.

In Square’s favour, they’re launching this product amongst the typically higher-spending denizens of New York City and San Francisco. Against Square is that this service is available in fewer than two dozen stores between those two cities. I’m a little skeptical that many businesses will be willing to fork over 8% of every transaction made with the app, but remember that Google, Amazon, and Apple all charge around 30% (or more) for sales through their stores, and some businesses are willing to work with that.

FCC Head to Ostensibly Revise Broadband Rules Plan

Gautham Nagesh, Wall Street Journal:

The new language by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to be circulated as early as Monday is an attempt to address criticism of his proposal unveiled last month that would ban broadband providers from blocking or slowing down websites but allow them to strike deals in which content companies could pay them for faster delivery of Web content to customers.

[…]

In the new draft, Mr. Wheeler is sticking to the same basic approach but will include language that would make clear that the FCC will scrutinize the deals to make sure that the broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage, according to an agency official.

How can paid traffic segregation and prioritization deals exist without inherently putting nonpaying companies at a disadvantage? This seems to be the same corporate-lobbied deal with a catchy new spin of dubious efficacy.

Nerdz Wit Attitudes

So I jokingly asked:

Will Dr. Dre be an Apple employee? Because that would be fucking amazing.

Turns out it’s going to be fucking amazing in Cupertino, at least according to a new report from Hannah Karp and Daisuke Wakabayashi of the Wall Street Journal:

[A]s Apple completes a deal to buy headphone and streaming-service company Beats Electronics LLC from Mr. Iovine and his co-founder, rap star Dr. Dre, both men are likely to take senior positions with the Cupertino, Calif., tech company, according to people familiar with the matter, commuting from the Los Angeles area to Silicon Valley—or meetings elsewhere—as needed.

“The Ferengi Plan”

Kyle Drake of Neocities:

The FCC isn’t doing their job of protecting American consumers, or producers like Neocities users. Perhaps they got a dump truck full of money from the cable corporation lobby, or perhaps they’re too busy surfing Neocities sites. Well either way, it looks like they need some help remembering what their job is.

Since the FCC seems to have no problem with this idea, I’ve (through correspondence) gotten access to the FCC’s internal IP block, and throttled all connections from the FCC to 28.8kbps modem speeds on the Neocities.org front site, and I’m not removing it until the FCC pays us for the bandwidth they’ve been wasting instead of doing their jobs protecting us from the “keep America’s internet slow and expensive forever” lobby.

Absolutely beautiful.

How Apple Beats the Demise of Music Downloads

Jon Maples:

Apple needed to hedge their bets and get into streaming. But instead of building another bolt-on to iTunes as the company did with their underperforming radio service, Apple decided to speed their way to market by purchasing a hot new service that had a lot of buzz, but hadn’t scaled so much that it was prohibitively expensive. Beats is the most viable of all acquisition targets.

Very smart take — the most convincing I’ve seen so far.

If this does pan out, I do wonder if the Beats Android app will continue to exist. I also wonder whether the Beats infrastructure will change. Critically, they do not own their own infrastructure, but rather use MediaNet. I wonder if a post-acquisition Beats will use iTunes as its underlying architecture. Combine these two ideas and, potentially, possibly, maybe, this is a way of bringing iTunes — or, at least, iTunes Music — to Android.

Gruber on Beats

John Gruber is puzzled by the rumoured Beats Audio acquisition. I am, too. But this, I think, is answerable:

Nothing from Beats looks like Apple. Not the brand, not the hardware.

Visually, sure. (He did say “looks”.) But conceptually, I think Beats Audio (not the headphones) is very Apple-y. It’s music streaming with direction. The “Sentence” feature alone would be great with Siri, too.1

Clearly, there are facets of the brand that Apple appreciates: if you’ve visited an Apple Store in the past few years, you might have noticed that there’s nearly an entire table dedicated to Beats headphones.

It’s an odd pairing, and I’m struggling to wrap my head around it. There are nothing but questions on my mind.


  1. Of course, that could be accomplished with a third-party Siri API. ↩︎

Mapping the International Availability of Entertainment Services

Amazingly comprehensive update to MacStories’ international availability guide by Graham Spencer. Something that didn’t surprise me, as a Canadian: nearly every major entertainment service is barely available outside of the US and a handful of other countries. Something I learned: there’s a music streaming service called Deezer which is available around the world except in the US.

Apple Reportedly Nearing Beats Acquisition

9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman reiterates a paywalled Financial Times report:

According to the Financial Times, Apple is in late-stage talks with Beats to acquire the music streaming and headphone maker for a deal worth $3.2 billion. The deal could be announced as soon as next week, according to the report. The report adds the senior management from Beats will report directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Beats headphone brand has been marketed by artist Dr. Dre for several years, and the company most recently launched a cross-platform streaming music service that has seem some success.

Three observations and a question:

  1. Beats strikes me as the most Apple-y streaming music service. It has a definite angle and focus, and isn’t simply an enormous library of music. They’re also a streaming service without a free tier.
  2. The report, according to Gurman, claims that Apple is looking at acquiring all of Beats, not just the Beats Music service — that would, apparently, include the headphone business.
  3. Apple rarely acquires large, established businesses or services. (Remember the “is Apple going to acquire Twitter?” speculation?) While this wouldn’t be a first, it would be an anomaly.
  4. Will Dr. Dre be an Apple employee? Because that would be fucking amazing.

Update: This is now being corroborated by the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Could just be one loudmouthed source, though.

Litely Looks to Improve Mobile Photo Editing

Intriguing new app from photographer Cole Rise. Billy Steele of Engadget:

[H]e’s quick to tell you that the features in Instagram and other mobile editing software help mask bad photos and are generally too heavy-handed to churn out truly compelling images. So with that in mind, and with a library of presets for Lightroom, Photoshop and Aperture already in his toolbox, he set out to make a non-destructive editor with a simple UI and subtle tools. Something to make film-like tweaks to good photos rather than improve mediocre ones.

I’ve been playing with Litely for the past hour or so, and it’s very exciting. It feels kind of like a mashup between VSCO Cam’s more subtle filters and Snapseed’s gestural UI, and that’s a really great start. Its UI feels very tailored to iOS 7, with blurred layering and a Facebook Paper-esque way of showing the edges of the photo when tilting your device.

It’s a pretty clever little app. Because it’s so gestural, it’s certainly easier to use one-handed than VSCO Cam. However, it’s also a very limited app: aside from presets, only controls for exposure, colour vibrancy, vignetting, sharpening, and cropping are available. That may not be a bad thing, requiring you to take great photos before you touch the editing options, but it is limiting.

This subtlety carries through the app: presets are applied at 50% to start, and it’s really hard to get cartoonishly oversaturated colours. And you can forget any textures or stupid “comic effect” filters; the app is called “Litely”, after all.

I quickly edited a couple of photos in both Litely and VSCO Cam so you can get an idea of what it does. I did my best to make everything look great, but I put this together quickly, so consider it a general example. I’ll probably end up using it in conjunction with VSCO Cam, but the latter will still be my go-to editing app.

Litely is free on the App Store, and includes something like nine presets to start; additional presets are available for about $2 per set.

iCloud Feels Like Another Apple Hobby

Ben Lovejoy, writing for 9to5Mac:

This isn’t just about the Apple tax, where we expect to pay a premium for something better. This, to me, is about signalling the relative importance the two companies place on cloud storage. Google, by matching the SSD capacity of a fully maxed-out MacBook Pro with Retina display, is telling us that cloud storage is a serious, practical option. Somewhere we can store most of our documents. And if 1TB isn’t enough, Google allows us to buy cloud storage plans right the way up to 30TB (at a price, of course).

Apple’s pricing and 55GB maximum is, in contrast, telling us that cloud storage is a nice-to-have. Somewhere we may want to store some of our documents, but not key to the way in which we work. It is, in short, treating it as a hobby.

Katie Cotton

Katie Cotton — the person in charge of Apple’s public relations and, therefore, a large part of their voice to the world — is retiring. John Gruber closed an anecdote of one of his encounters with Cotton like so:

Most big corporations employ outside PR agencies. Not Apple. Apple’s internal public relations team is itself a world-class agency. That team was built entirely under Cotton’s leadership.

Cotton’s retirement rivals the departure of Scott Forstall and the retirement of Bob Mansfield as far as her importance to Apple and the mark she made on the company.

Safari’s Shared Links

Kirk McElhearn doesn’t like Safari’s Shared Links feature:

As for Apple’s Shared Links, how can anyone find this useful? If you use Twitter, then you’ll be able to click from the links you see in tweets; why does anyone think it’s useful to have them in another location? Yes, you can search the list of Shared Links, but I wonder if anyone bothers with that.

I disagree: for many people, Twitter is their RSS feed. They follow their local paper, a national paper, some blogs, and some other things. They probably don’t follow people as much as they follow feeds. They’re not the type who use Tweetbot on their Mac; they probably use the Twitter web interface. They could click on links there, but Shared Links is almost like having a Twitter client built into their browser.

Granted, that’s a pretty specific use-case, but I think it’s one that can be applied to many people. It’s a gradient, too: I’m (obviously) not one of the kinds of users I described above, but even I fire up Shared Links and flick through articles people have shared, without the cacophony of other tweets. Think of it as being kind of similar to Tweetbot’s media view, where only tweets with photos or videos are displayed.

McElhearn has an interesting suggestion, though:

I don’t think anyone wants to wade through such a long list of links. It would make more sense if Safari’s Shared Links only showed you links from tweets you favorited. That way, if you want to check out a link later, you can just favorite it in your Twitter client or on the Twitter website, and you’ll be able to get to it where you want.

I like this idea, but I get the feeling that this is both a misappropriation of the way favourites are “supposed” to be used (even though I frequently do this, too), and I suspect Apple would reply “that’s what Reading List is for”.

After Facebook Deal, Moves App Changes Privacy Policy

Reed Albergotti, Wall Street Journal:

As recently as Friday, Moves’s privacy policy said the company did not “disclose an individual user’s data to third parties,” without a user’s consent, unless compelled by law enforcement. The policy said it would stay in place even if Moves were acquired.

On Monday, the policy permitted a wider range of data sharing. “We may share information, including personally identifying information, with our Affiliates (companies that are part of our corporate groups of companies, including but not limited to Facebook) to help provide, understand, and improve our Services,” the policy says.

[…]

The data gathered by Moves could be valuable to Facebook. After the Moves acquisition, a Facebook spokeswoman said the two companies would not commingle data. Monday, the spokeswoman reiterated that position. But she said the companies plan to share the data.

Remember how Whatsapp also stated that they weren’t going to be sharing their data with Facebook upon acquisition? Do you feel lucky, punk?