Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for August, 2015

Manton Reece Will Return to Twitter When They Bring Back RSS

Manton Reece (via Michael Tsai):

There is one thing, though. There is one change that was made while rolling out the version 1.1 Twitter API: they removed support for unauthenticated RSS feeds of user tweets or timelines. If they reversed that one decision, the next day I would be back on Twitter.

Here’s a neat little story: I was at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam a couple of months after the “Touch and Tweet” exhibition opened, featuring a work that I assumed would be rather interesting. It was connected to Twitter’s RSS feed, though, and hadn’t been upgraded to API 1.1 by the time I saw it. It’s the same story with the first incarnation of my piece “Confessional”. I don’t understand why Twitter disabled unauthenticated RSS feeds; it was an immensely liberating way to interpret recent tweets.

Let’s Keep Talking About Amazon’s Corporate Culture, Shall We?

Jeff Bezos rebutted last week’s horrific assertions in the New York Times in a statement to employees, which was reprinted, in full, by the Times today:

The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.


I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

That’s a clear denial of the broad strokes of the article. I have no doubt that Bezos hasn’t seen this kind of behaviour amongst his employees, because a CEO has a lot to deal with — that’s one reason why managers exist. (The other reason, of course, is to suggest that nine women can deliver a baby in one month.)

But then there was a supporting story published today in Vice, for example, by an anonymous former employee:

My experience had not been as bad as those quoted in the piece, but every story rang true. The kicker of the feature comes from Amazon’s own recruiting video: “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.” This is the perfect embodiment of Amazon’s corporate culture: If you don’t like it, you are the problem.

Yet, from the same author:

Weirdly, I did like it. Despite the strangeness of the company’s bathroom culture, my experience at Amazon had been a positive one. I’d succeeded in my roles, been promoted once, given multiple raises, and worked on projects that I’ve been proud of. I left the company on good terms for an even better opportunity.

And then Mehal Shah chimed in on LinkedIn:

I’ve never personally seen people cry at their desk, but I have seen people hit the beer fridge at 11AM after a bad meeting, or slam the door of a small conference room shut for some desperately needed alone time. The image of Amazon as a high stress environment that is proud to be a high stress environment is, in my opinion, largely true.

Let’s be overly skeptical and assume that a full half of the Times article is exaggerated, out of context, or otherwise stretching the truth. That leaves an awful lot of frankly terrible stories that are fully attributed, indicative of a workplace that prides itself on inducing Stockholm syndrome in its employees.

I’ve heard a shocking number of people defend the company’s practices saying, broadly, “if you don’t like it, quit, or don’t work there”. That’s a load of crap. There are employment standards for a reason, and a lot of people can’t just jump ship. To suggest that the situations and stories in the Times piece are anything other than unacceptable is asinine.

On that note, I’ve updated my 2015 tech company diversity survey to include Amazon.

New Media’s Old Diversity Problem

Brendan James of the International Business Times surveyed major “new media” newsrooms and compared them against “old” media outlets, like the Washington Post. In some cases, like with Buzzfeed, the results are actually not bad:

Of the news outlets IBTimes spoke with, BuzzFeed is the only one that makes its diversity figures public: Its report last year, written by Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, showed that among 185 editorial employees, 72.7 percent were white, 7.1 percent Asian, 6.0 percent black, 9.8 percent Latino and 3.8 percent were of mixed race. Women outnumbered men, 52.52 percent to 47.8 percent.

A little over 27% non-whiteness isn’t terrible, though not the best; the male/female ratio, however, allows for perspectives and voices that aren’t heard at other publications.

Then there’s this:

When asked for internal exact numbers from Henry Blodget’s sprawling content factory Business Insider, Managing Editor Jess Lieberman did not address the question and instead gave a terse statement.

“Thanks for asking. Business Insider has a highly diverse editorial team,” Lieberman replied to an initial email. To a follow up question asking again for the numbers, she responded: “That’s our statement.”

Oy vey.

Inside the Sadomasochistic Hellscape That Is Amazon

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, in a blistering report for the New York Times on the employment conditions at Amazon. Not in the warehouses, mind you — in the corporate offices:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Any good product or decision requires plenty of discussion, which can sometimes turn heated. That’s okay. But I firmly believe that disagreements on business strategy or the resiliency of new ideas should come from a place of fully comprehending the original position and empathizing with it. Amazon’s corporate culture seems to thrive on and encourage destructive criticism:

Of all of [Jeff Bezos’] management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

It’s extraordinarily infantile to think that the choice is between couched praise and destroying ideas. As I said above, there’s no reason that a pinch of empathy cannot breed better thought and more productive discussions.

The other components of that opening paragraph are worrisome, too. Privately snitching on colleagues is childish, and there’s an employee ranking system in place that’s awfully similar to Microsoft’s stack ranking system. But perhaps most shocking is the erosion of a balance between work and life. Here’s another excerpt:

Some veterans interviewed said they were protected from pressures by nurturing bosses or worked in relatively slow divisions. But many others said the culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being “vocally self-critical” is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster. Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.


Motherhood can also be a liability. Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required.

There’s nothing heroic about this; nobody’s job performance or their level of satisfaction should be tied to their amount of overtime hours. And making veiled threats about motherhood affecting promotional considerations is both outrageous and sexist.

The scariest thing about this article is the number of responses I’ve seen that say something along the lines of “it’s not just Amazon; you’ll probably hear similar stories from employees at other companies”. That’s depressing. A culture of nonstop work is not healthy. It is not something that we should strive for, nor is it something we should celebrate. We need time to dedicate to ourselves, and those we love and care for. Granted, I’m not in charge of a multibillion-dollar company, nor am an employee at one, but I do not think history will be kind to the dedication some employers today expect out of their employees.

Update: Tim Bray says he’s never seen anything like his since he started working at Amazon.

NSA and AT&T Sittin’ in a Tree

T-A-P-P-I-N-G. At least, according to Julia Angwin, et. al. in a ProPublicaNew York Times joint report:

While it has been long known that American telecommunications companies worked closely with the spy agency, newly disclosed NSA documents show that the relationship with AT&T has been considered unique and especially productive. One document described it as “highly collaborative,” while another lauded the company’s “extreme willingness to help.”


One document reminds NSA officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting: “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

Planes, “Planes”, and Automated Fare Pricing

Paul Kafasis (via Michael Tsai):

$353 is rather pricey for a one-way flight. Let’s check some other options. Philadelphia is about 30 minutes farther than Newark from central Jersey, and presumably you’re not a defenseless robot, so you should be safe there for a few minutes. Set Philadelphia as your destination instead, and hey, why not turn on the “Search Nearby Airports” checkbox?

Hey, now there’s a better deal. You can get home for just $149! But hang on a sec. A close look shows that rather than Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), this flight winds up at “ZFV”, which is labeled as a “rail station”. How exactly is a plane going to land there?

Very, very carefully, probably.

Zane Lowe Talks to Billboard About Beats 1

Jem Aswad of Billboard interviewed Zane Lowe about Beats 1, and they covered a lot of ground. When asked about the genre mix — something that came up earlier this week — Lowe had this to say:

We’ve played country music, Mexican house music, South American EDM, German hip-hop. I’ve never been a fan of, “We’ve got to get 22 percent of rock, 17 percent of R&B; where’s our 16 percent of hip-hop and our 9 percent of country?” If you do it that way, you’re not basing it on the merit of the music. You’re basing it on some kind of obligation.

Maybe there’s just a lot more great hip-hop being made these days. It certainly seems like it: this year has been absolutely golden.

Lowe again, on working with Trent Reznor:

I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to sit with Trent, but he’s one of the most intelligent, eloquent, passionate people I’ve ever met, not just for art, but also the way people can use it. He’s really committed to the user experience, so his whole thing was like, “People have been splintered off into individual experiences — let’s see if we can bring them back together and if so, what would that feel like for the user? What if they’re using it on a device in a music service, and not in the traditional places where radio is experienced?”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the collective and genuine appreciation for both music and pushing its distribution forward is a big reason why Apple wanted to acquire the Beats Music team.

Apple Is Reportedly Seeking Testing Space for a Vehicle

Pretty clever reporting from Mark Harris of the Guardian. Apple isn’t obligated to say anything about their plans, but government agencies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act:

In May, engineers from Apple’s secretive Special Project group met with officials from GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre former naval base near San Francisco that is being turned into a high-security testing ground for autonomous vehicles.

In correspondence obtained by the Guardian under a public records act request, Apple engineer Frank Fearon wrote: “We would … like to get an understanding of timing and availability for the space, and how we would need to coordinate around other parties who would be using [it].”

According to LinkedIn, Frank Fearon worked at Lit Motors until January of this year.

I’m not yet sold on the idea that Apple is making an entire car, but every piece of it makes sense. Apple knows how to make great batteries, they’re experts in aluminum, and they love to control every part of the production. They’re going to loathe the automotive paparazzi, though.

See Also: Marc Newson’s interview with the Wall Street Journal from yesterday.

Diversity of Tech Companies by the Numbers: 2015 Edition

Note: Making these tables responsive is the biggest pain in the ass. If you’re on a phone, save this to Instapaper or something and come back to it on your tablet or desktop.

Updated August 17: Added Amazon.

Updated August 28: Updated Twitter’s numbers to their 2015 figures and added related commentary.

Last year was the first year that most big tech companies began to report their employee diversity figures after attention was called to their lack of diversity, particularly for women of all ethnicities. I’ve gathered up the latest round of diversity reports from the same companies — Apple, Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Yahoo — to see how they’ve done with the past year to grow. As with last year, these figures are compared against the latest available national statistics, from 2013, and some analysis will follow.

Please note that Twitter has not yet made updated diversity data public. I have reached out to them for comment or any indication of updated numbers and will update this if they choose to release their figures this year (they are not required to do so publicly). For comparison’s sake, I’m using 2014 data.

Gender Diversity

Almost all available data in this selection of companies solely reports a male/female split. Yahoo is the only company that has an “other/not disclosed” option. Please note that Google and Microsoft have retail operations which are not made distinct from the corporate side of the company. This year, Apple did break out its retail operations — see analysis.

Gender Diversity, USA
Category Male Female
USA Overall (approx.) 49% 51%
USA Workforce (PDF) 53.2% 46.8%
Gender Diversity in Tech Positions

Last year, Microsoft did not separate tech and non-tech workers; this year, they did, so the table data isn’t necessarily comparable. Amazon does not separate tech and non-tech employees.

Company Male Female
Amazon (see note) 63% 37%
Apple 79% 22%
Facebook 84% 16%
Google 82% 18%
LinkedIn 82% 18%
Microsoft (see note) 82.8% 16.7%
Twitter 87% 13%
Yahoo 84% 16%
Gender Diversity in Non-Tech Positions

Last year, Microsoft did not separate tech and non-tech workers; this year, they did, so the table data isn’t necessarily comparable. Amazon does not separate tech and non-tech employees.

Yahoo reports 1% of their non-tech employees identify with a gender other than male or female, or do not disclose their gender.

Company Male Female
Amazon (see note) 63% 37%
Apple 63% 37%
Facebook 48% 52%
Google 53% 47%
LinkedIn 50% 50%
Microsoft (see note) 56.8% 42.8%
Twitter 50% 50%
Yahoo (see note) 45% 54%
Gender Diversity in Leadership/Executive Positions

The “USA” row uses the “management, business, and financial operations” data row from the BLS report, as a rough and imperfect approximation. This is different than my table last year, which used the “management occupations” row; my impression is that the row that includes business operations is a better approximation of what the tech companies are actually reporting.

Company Male Female
USA (PDF, pgs. 21-23) 56.7% 43.3%
Amazon 75% 25%
Apple 72% 28%
Facebook 77% 23%
Google 78% 22%
LinkedIn 70% 30%
Microsoft 82.5% 17.4%
Twitter 78% 22%
Yahoo (see note) 76% 24%

Ethnic Diversity

As Google says in their report, “ethnicity refers to the EEO-1 categories which we know are imperfect categorizations of race and ethnicity, but reflect the US government reporting requirements”. Please keep that in mind.

The “USA Workforce” row uses data provided by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (PDF). Their demographics information (indicated page 9) is kind of a pain in the ass, though: the unemployed column is a percentage of the labour force, but the employed column is a percentage of the total population. I’ve done the math, though, and the results are what’s shown below. In addition, the BLS does not separate out those of Hispanic descent because “[p]eople whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.” As such, the row will not add to 100%, but the percentage of Hispanics in the workforce has been noted per the table on page 10.

Similarly, the “USA Overall” row uses data from the CIA World Factbook, and they, too, do not note those of Hispanic descent separately. This row will also not add to 100%.

Google and Microsoft have retail operations which are not made distinct from the corporate side.

Ethic Diversity, USA
Category White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
USA Overall 79.96% 4.43% 15.1% 12.85% 1.61% 1.15%
USA Workforce (PDF) 79.4% 5.5% 15.9% 11.9% 1.3% 1.2%
Ethnic Diversity in Tech Positions

This year, I’ve added a row for the USA tech workforce as a whole, for comparison. It uses the “computer and mathematical operations” data row from the BLS report. Amazon does not separate tech and non-tech employees.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
USA (PDF, pg. 25) 70.9% 18.5% 6.3% 8.3% N/A N/A
Amazon (see note) 60% 13% 9% 15% N/A 3%
Apple 53% 25% 8% 7% 2% 6%
Facebook 51% 43% 3% 1% 2% 0%
Google 59% 35% 2% 1% 3% <1%
LinkedIn 34% 61% 3% 1% 1% <1%
Microsoft (see note) 55.8% 35.4% 3.9% 2.2% 1.2% 0.7%
Twitter 56% 37% 3% 1% 1% 2%
Yahoo 31% 61% 3% 1% 1% 3%
Ethnic Diversity in Non-Tech Positions

Amazon does not separate tech and non-tech employees.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Amazon (see note) 60% 13% 9% 15% N/A 3%
Apple 55% 11% 14% 10% 3% 7%
Facebook 62% 24% 7% 3% 3% 1%
Google 64% 23% 4% 4% 4% <1%
LinkedIn 66% 25% 4% 3% 2% <1%
Microsoft (see note) 67.6% 13.8% 8.0% 6.1% 1.3% 0.8%
Twitter 62% 24% 4% 4% 1% 5%
Yahoo 66% 19% 6% 3% 3% 3%
Ethnic Diversity in Leadership/Executive Positions

The “USA” row uses the “management, business, and financial operations” data from the BLS report, as a rough and imperfect approximation of the broad US national trend.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
USA (PDF, pg. 24) 84.3% 6.1% 8.4% 7.4% N/A N/A
Amazon 71% 18% 4% 4% N/A 3%
Apple 63% 21% 6% 3% N/A 6%
Facebook 73% 21% 3% 2% 1% 1%
Google 72% 23% 1% 2% 1% <1%
LinkedIn 63% 30% 4% 1% 2% 0%
Microsoft 71.1% 21.3% 3.9% 2.2% 0.7% 0.4%
Twitter 72% 28% 0% 0% 0% 0%
Yahoo 73% 19% 2% 1% 2% 3%


Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a white twenty-something Canadian who graduated from art college. Analysis of statistics of racial and gender diversity at American tech companies is not exactly my strongest suit. But, hey, you’ve made it this far. I want to be as fair as possible to everyone represented in these stats. If there’s a problem, please let me know.

  • Most companies made only tiny gains in their tech worker diversity in the past year, on the order of singular percentage points. Apple, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook all posted single percentage point gains in their male/female split (i.e. Facebook went from an 85/15 split to 84/16). An improvement, but nothing to shout about.

  • Microsoft’s gender stats were thrown off by their lack of a tech/non-tech breakdown last year, but it shows just how male-dominated their workforce is, though not as extreme as Yahoo or Apple.

  • This year’s report from Apple makes their retail operations’ demographics distinct from their corporate demographics. It’s much more transparent.

    I’m surprised at how male-dominated their retail side is. I had a hunch that there would be a much more even split between males and females, and that it was potentially tipping their corporate data last year, but that does not appear to be the case.

  • The non-tech side of most tech companies has a much better male/female ratio than the tech or leadership reports. Sometimes, as in the case of Facebook and Yahoo, it’s actually female-dominated. Apple is the outlier here, with a very male-heavy staff overall.

  • Leadership positions, as you may expect, did not significantly change over the past year in either gender or ethnicity distribution. The exception is Yahoo, which became much more white over the past year.

  • While the comparison isn’t perfect, leadership positions, as a whole, are far more male dominant than the USA as a whole.

  • Black and Hispanic Americans are hired at significantly disproportionate rates in tech positions compared to the national distribution, and also when compared to computer science graduates.

  • More companies released their full EEO-1 reports this year than last year, demonstrating a desire for more transparency but also revealing in much greater detail just how few improvements they’ve made. Facebook, for example, hired precisely 36 black Americans this year, out of over a thousand new employees. For comparison, Microsoft hired 249 new black Americans out of about 2,000 new employees, and Apple hired 561 new black employees out of 5,000 hires. This appears to conflict with Tim Cook’s statement that they “hired more than 2,200 Black employees” in the U.S., so my reading of the EEO-1 might be wrong, or they experienced some employee churn. I’m looking into this.

  • Tim Cook: “Additionally, in the first 6 months of this year, nearly 50 percent of the people we’ve hired in the United States are women, Black, Hispanic, or Native American.” That’s huge.

  • As Amazon has extensive non-tech operations — delivery drivers, warehouse employees, and the like — the blending of non-tech and tech employee diversity figures is very misleading, especially if their tech position demographics are comparable to other companies surveyed.

  • Twitter’s diversity improved only marginally this year, like most other companies surveyed. While they did improve their male-female balance, they are — as a whole — more white than last year.

  • I’m not sure what to make of Twitter’s goal to “[increase] women in tech roles to 16%” from 13%. It’s pretty disappointing that a three percentage-point difference is considered a goal. On the other hand, their 50-50 non-tech split is among the best here.

Windows 10’s New Licensing Scheme

Ed Bott explains how Windows 10’s licensing works. In short, it now ties a Windows 10 license to the hardware and stores it on Microsoft’s servers, so it’s possible to wipe your system and do a reinstall without having to enter the key again. Smart. It even covers most kinds of hardware updates, so upgrading a hard drive shouldn’t affect this tech. But:

The one exception is a motherboard replacement, which will inevitably cause the Software Licensing Management utility to recognize the device as a new PC and require reactivation, typically over the phone. A motherboard upgrade, even if you reuse storage, video, memory, and a case, is considered a new PC. In that case, if the underlying Windows license is from a retail copy, that license can be transferred. If you are upgrading (and not replacing) a motherboard on an OEM PC that was sold with Windows preinstalled, the license agreement prevents the license from being transferred.

That seems like a confusing, unnecessary and an ultimately customer-unfriendly distinction. It’s still licensing by machine, not by person. If the technology exists for storing the license key in the cloud, why not link it to a Microsoft account?

An Interview With Marc Newson

The Wall Street Journal interviewed1 current Apple contract designer Marc Newson:

My design pet-peeve is: the automotive industry. There were moments when cars somehow encapsulated everything that was good about progress. But right now we’re at the bottom of a trough.

Compare that answer to, say, Tim Cook’s at D11 in 2013, when asked about wearables:

So, what does Cook think of Google Glass? The Apple CEO says the device has some merit, but might be targeting the wrong part of the human body.

“I think there are some positive points in the product,” Cook said. “I think it’s probably more likely to appeal to certain vertical markets. … I wear glasses because I have to. I don’t know a lot of people that wear them that don’t have to. They want them to be light and unobtrusive and reflect their fashion. … I think from a mainstream point of view [glasses as wearable computing devices] are difficult to see. I think the wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural.”

  1. Where by “interviewed” I mean “asked a series of fill-in-the-blank questions, a la one of those viral surveys that made the rounds on Hotmail fifteen years ago”. ↩︎

A Month of Beats 1 Songs

Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz:

Beats 1 has something that is rare in the world of digital music: scarcity. Listeners can’t choose a song and play it over and over. (They can do that elsewhere on Apple Music.) But curation doesn’t mean songs aren’t repeated. We counted 12,445 tracks but only 3,371 unique songs, meaning each track was played an average of 3.7 times. Eighteen of the 20 songs in the table above were played over 50 times.

That’s a lot of repeats, and it’s something Beats 1 has been criticized for. An initial marketing push for Pharrell’s new single Freedom led to a Reddit thread called “Beats 1 Needs to Stop Playing Freedom.” Still, over a quarter of the songs in the dataset were played only once, so there is a reasonable amount of diversity.


The song data also challenge Apple’s insistence that Beats 1 is “a truly global listening experience.” Nearly every song is in English and produced by artists from the US, UK, or Canada.

Beats 1 is only bound by the guidelines of radio insomuch as there is a DJ in a booth playing tunes. Other than that, it should be boundless. There are certain expectations, of course — songs need to be universally palatable, so don’t expect to hear Black Flag or some of DMX’s deeper cuts on Beats 1 anytime soon — but I can imagine future Beats stations taking this so much further. I’d love to hear more international music and vastly more variety from lesser-known artists. I’d also like to hear deeper cuts from popular artists: if we’ve all heard the latest single multiple times, maybe throw in something from the same album that isn’t as widely-known. Lots of opportunity here.

CurrentC Needs More Development Time Before People Can Begin to Not Use It

Jason Del Rey, Recode:

CurrentC, the payments app being created by a consortium of big retailers known as MCX, may not launch widely this year as originally planned, MCX CEO Brian Mooney told Re/code in an interview on Tuesday. The company will begin a public pilot of its app in Columbus, Ohio, in a few weeks and will not rush a wider rollout if the product is not ready, he said.

“This is a long game,” Mooney said. “Certainly going faster is always better — that’s not necessarily a debatable point. But we’re going to do it right.”

“Right”, eh? How so?

Instead, CurrentC’s beta users can only pay using one of three options: Gift cards, a store’s private-label payment card or direct hookups with their checking accounts. Mainstream credit cards carry higher transaction fees than these options, which is a big reason why they aren’t currently part of the offering. Mooney said CurrentC could add support for mainstream cards in the future, but wouldn’t say when or which ones.

Why bother?

Designing Wildcard 2.0

Khoi Vinh has shared some of his thoughts on his design process behind Wildcard 2.0. There are plenty of clever ideas in here, starting with the method they’re using to make text legible when laid overtop an arbitrary image:

Like it says in the title of this post: blurring is the Auto-Tune of UI design. That is, it creates a pleasant enough effect, but it’s heavily overused (to put it politely). We set out to create an alternative and, given our new focus on news, decided to borrow from the print world by using a halftone effect that emulates the way photographs appear in newspapers. You’ll see it in full color in the headlines we have at the top of the app’s home screen and in monotone throughout the rest of the app.

Very nice. I very much appreciate the current ethos of pushing the content1 forward in UI, app, and web design, but it feels a bit samey. The current trends are pleasant enough, like someone dressed in a plaid shirt and dark denim, but a uniform approach isn’t necessarily effective. Good on the Wildcard team for thinking critically.

  1. [shudder↩︎

The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking

Marco Arment:

Web ads are dramatically different from prior ad media, though — rather than just being printed on paper or inserted into a broadcast, web ads are software. They run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.

All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.

To make matters worse, most publishers neglect to adequately inform their readers about what ad networks and analytics software they use, or how many of them are presently in operation.

Vox Media’s privacy policy is typical of most larger publishers’ policies. It notes that they or third parties can set cookies, use pixel tags, and serve (targeted) advertisements. It’s only deep into the privacy policy that they link to a page where they list some of their third-party providers. However, it is woefully out of date; Vox lists 13 third-party scripts, but Ghostery counts 26, including those from Aggregate Knowledge (cross-device targeting), Criteo (retargeting), and Lotame (cross-platform visitor tracking). Gross.

Some publishers, like Bloomberg, do not list third-party scripts in their privacy policy. Ghostery found 14 third-party scripts on their homepage, of which 12 are for advertising or tracking purposes.

Still other publishers, like BGR, don’t have a privacy policy at all don’t link to their privacy policy,1 because they are assholes. BGR uses 24 third-party scripts on their site, including 17 trackers and advertisers.

  1. BGR’s privacy policy hasn’t been updated in decades. “When visiting our site, some general information is collected including […] Operating system (e.g., Windows 95) Browser software (e.g., Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape) Internet Service Provider (e.g., Earthlink, Verizon).” ↩︎

L Is for Legal

Here’s how the Google-to-Alphabet transition will occur (via John Gruber):

Later this year, Google intends to implement a holding company reorganization (the “Alphabet Merger”), which will result in Alphabet owning all of the capital stock of Google.  Alphabet will initially be a direct, wholly owned subsidiary of Google. Pursuant to the Alphabet Merger, a newly formed entity (“Merger Sub”), a direct, wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet and an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of Google, will merge with and into Google, with Google surviving as a direct, wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet.  Each share of each class of Google stock issued and outstanding immediately prior to the Alphabet Merger will automatically convert into an equivalent corresponding share of Alphabet stock, having the same designations, rights, powers and preferences and the qualifications, limitations and restrictions as the corresponding share of Google stock being converted. Accordingly, upon consummation of the Alphabet Merger, Google’s current stockholders will become stockholders of Alphabet.  The stockholders of Google will not recognize gain or loss for U.S. federal income tax purposes upon the conversion of their shares in the Alphabet Merger.

It’s the kind of corporate legal deal that makes sense for esoteric and nuanced reasons, yet sounds kind of like that species of spider where the offspring eat their mother. That link has a picture of a spider, naturally, if that sort of thing rustles your jimmies.

(Also, Alphabet’s ticker symbol will be “GOOG”. Is that weird or what?)

Alphabet Buys Google

A lot of people probably saw a few companies being acquired by Google this year, but I can’t imagine anyone predicted that Google itself would be acquired this year.

Okay, so Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin created the company — Alphabet — and it’s basically a massive restructuring that allows them to move their atypical businesses outside of Google Inc. ownership, but that’s what it is.

Improved Typographic Feature Support Coming to WebKit

Safari is not the new IE, but one area where it lags embarrassingly behind other browsers is in CSS and OpenType typographic feature support. This is particularly glaring for a company that has traditionally focused on reproducing type as great as it can be on screen. This set of changes to WebKit largely remedies that, with support for enhanced ligatures, alternate character sets, and more. This is fabulous news for anyone who cares about great typography on the web (he wrote in twelve-point Helvetica).

200 Million People Worldwide Reportedly Use Ad Blockers

Mark Scott, New York Times:

[Like] a growing number of people, [Guillermo] Beltrà, a Spaniard who works for a consumer protection organization in Brussels, decided to block [ads] by downloading software for his desktop browser that removed any online advertising from his daily Internet activity.

While he acknowledged that advertising was often the primary source of income for many websites, Mr. Beltrà said he remained wary of how much data companies were collecting on his online activities.

“If I don’t know what data is being collected on me, I’d rather block it,” he added.

The bulk of growth in web advertising companies today is on mobile devices. Google highlighted that growth in their most recent quarterly report, while mobile ads now account for 76% of Facebook’s total ad revenue. While Apple is adding content blocking to Safari on iOS, it doesn’t impact content shown in apps, meaning Facebook’s revenue seems much safer than Google’s. I anticipate the latter pushing their mobile app much more readily.

HTC Trading Below Cash Leaves Smartphone Brand With No Value

Tim Culpan, Bloomberg:

A 60 percent plunge in HTC Corp.’s stock this year pushed its market value to below its cash on hand. That means investors were effectively saying the smartphone maker’s brand, factories and buildings were worthless. […]

“HTC’s cash is the only asset of value to shareholders,” said Calvin Huang, who has a NT$46.50 price target on the stock at Sinopac Financial Holdings Co. in Taipei. “Most of the other assets shouldn’t be considered in their valuation because there’s more write-offs to come and the brand has no value.”

Ouch. Things change fast, but this is a real bummer. As far as I’m concerned, HTC has long been the only Android hardware manufacturer that has a semblance of taste in their industrial design. Yes, there’s a little bit of Apple-copycat stuff going on, like unibody aluminum shells and the use of Helvetica in some of their UIs, but it actually felt like they cared about that kind of stuff. Shame.