Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2016

“Kind of Unwelcoming”

Vauhini Vara, Bloomberg:

In the fall of 2013 a young software engineer named Charles Pratt arrived on Howard University’s campus in Washington. His employer, Google, had sent him there to cultivate future Silicon Valley programmers. It represented a warming of the Valley’s attitude toward Howard, where more than 8 out of 10 students are black. The chair of the computer science department, Legand Burge, had spent almost a decade inviting tech companies to hire his graduates, but they’d mostly ignored him. […]

Despite the apparent progress, Burge was circumspect when I called in September 2015 to ask about the companies that had started approaching Howard: “‘Started’ could mean many things,” he said. Howard was showing up in tech companies’ news releases, but it wasn’t yet clear how Burge’s students would benefit. Facebook, Dropbox, and Pinterest hadn’t yet hired any graduating seniors for a full-time position. In 2015, Google hired just one. This year, out of the 28 seniors in his department, Burge knows of only two who’ve lined up a Silicon Valley job: one at Google — its second Howard hire — and another at Pandora. “There’s a big disconnect,” Burge said.

Apple Releases iOS GarageBand Update and New Music Memos App

Music Memos looks like a pretty fun little app. Unlike the built-in Voice Memos app, Music Memos saves uncompressed audio, so it can continue to be used right through the production chain without sacrificing quality. Jim Dalrymple went hands-on:

Music Memos analyzes the recording for tempo and chord changes for guitar and piano. It places the chords you played right on the waveform so you can see them instantly.

The brilliance of the app is that Apple built-in a drummer and bass into the app. Simply tap on those instruments and you can hear your song idea with a full band. Like Drummer in GarageBand or Logic, you can choose a different type of drummer, go half time, or any number of other options.

Since Music Memos analyzed the audio track you recorded, it follows along with you, even if you sped up or slowed down during the recording.

I know what I’m doing as soon as I get home to my guitar.

Apple also released an update to GarageBand for iOS today, with iPad Pro support, a rad looping feature, and 3D Touch support. That no iPad yet has a 3D Touch screen seems even crazier now.

Extending the Life of an iPod Mini

Riccardo Mori:

… while the easiest way to repair a third-generation iPod is to find another small-sized Toshiba hard drive for it, the iPod mini is notoriously easier to upgrade. These iPods used MicroDrives as internal storage solutions, and they are essentially small hard drives with the same dimensions (and most importantly, same connection) as CompactFlash cards. Which means that you can replace them with CompactFlash cards and enjoy a few advantages in return.

The very first Apple product I bought with my own money was a silver first-generation iPod Mini. When I attempted to perform the same upgrade as Mori a few years ago, I didn’t consult a disassembly guide and therefore didn’t know that the white plastic caps on the top and bottom are glued to the internal metal frame. I snapped both in my attempt to pop them off. It’s a shame; the Mini remains one of my favourite products I’ve ever bought. I wish I had kept it.

What Three Words

Frédéric Filloux, writing for Quartz:

On Nov. 16 in New York, at the Next Billion conference, Chris Sheldrick, the CEO of What3Words, captured his audience with strong arguments: 75% of the earth population, i.e. four billion people, “don’t exist” because they have no physical address. […]

This is one of the world’s largest slums in the world, the Rocinha favela: 355 acres (143 hectares) of intertwined sheds hosting 70,000 people. Translated into density, this amounts to a staggering 120,000 persons per square mile (48,000 per square km). Now try to figure out how to deliver a package, or simply how to provide the most basic administrative assistance such as monitoring health or education.

Sheldrick’s company — What3Words — seeks to resolve that by assigning three unique words for every three-by-three-metre square of land in the world. An absolutely terrific and intriguing project. You can pop in your own address, and there’s even a developer API.

DRC Cobalt Linked to Battery Suppliers for Major Companies

Amnesty International:

The report documents how traders buy cobalt from areas where child labor is rife and sell it to Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd (Huayou Cobalt).

Amnesty International’s investigation uses investor documents to show how Huayou Cobalt and its subsidiary CDM process the cobalt before selling it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.

This is heartbreaking, and I hope that the companies implicated in the report will put pressure on their battery suppliers to rectify this.

You may be wondering how this could happen, considering that tech companies have, for a while, been posting supplier codes of conduct. Apple has one (PDF), as do Samsung and Microsoft, and they all state that they require suppliers not to use conflict materials at any point of the supply chain. This is required by U.S. federal law per Dodd-Frank. However, the only “conflict minerals” disallowed by Dodd-Frank are tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold — cobalt is not subject to these or similar federal regulations. Ideally, all raw materials could be amended to these regulations to prevent the use of anything that benefits child labour, war criminals, and the like. As the U.S. consumer electronics market is one of the world’s largest, this would effectively require the supply chain to be provably conflict free.

Apple Releases Latest EEO-1 Diversity Report

Sai Sachin R, Reuters:1

Apple Inc has made progress on boosting gender and racial diversity in its U.S. workforce, a regulatory document filed by the iPhone maker showed. […]

Apple added 1,475 black employees in the thirteen months ended Aug. 1, 31 percent more than a year earlier, the filing showed on Tuesday.

The company added 24 percent more Hispanic workers and 29 percent more Asians, compared with numbers reported in a July 2014 filing.

These numbers, while not spectacular, represent progress nevertheless. The EEO-1 is a confidential document; Apple is one of very few tech companies to make it public. And they’re getting shit for their results.

A couple of things do stand out, though. First, there are the numbers for women and executives:

About 30 percent of Apple’s U.S. employees were females as of August, compared with 28.7 percent.

Of the 103 executive and senior management positions, 86 were held by white employees, 12 by Asians, 4 by black employees and 1 by a hispanic, the document filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed.

That’s not brilliant.

Additionally, there are discrepancies between the EEO-1 figures and Apple’s self-reported numbers. Megan Rose Dickey, TechCrunch:

What’s odd is that, according to Cook, Apple hired more than 2,200 black employees in the U.S. over the last year, but the EEO-1 report says otherwise.

Recall that the EEO-1, as reported above, listed 1,475 black employee hires. It’s not an isolated case, either – Apple says that 28% of their executive employees are women, but their reporting shows that just 18 executive positions were held by women (PDF), or about 17%.

On their self-reporting page, Apple explains this discrepancy:

We make the document publicly available, but it’s not how we measure our progress. The EEO-1 has not kept pace with changes in industry or the American workforce over the past half century. We believe the information we report elsewhere on this site is a far more accurate reflection of our progress toward diversity.

They would not provide further clarification to Dickey, nor anyone else I could find. As the discrepancies are so significant, I hope for an official explanation as to how Apple’s counting differs from the required reporting standards. For women in leadership roles, it could perhaps be as simple as Apple counting retail managers while the federal standards may require those roles to be reported differently.

  1. Does Reuters’ internal style guide equate sentences with paragraphs? ↩︎

Videos From the Layers Design Conference

During WWDC last year, Jessie Char and Elaine Pow put on the very first Layers Design Conference; they’ve now posted videos from the event. These are all high-quality talks from people like Netta Marshall, Gabe Levine and Mike Monteiro, Soroush Khanlou, May-Li Khoe, and the legendary Susan Kare, among others. I highly recommend watching as much from this conference as you can if you’re even the slightest bit interested in creative processes.

App Store Prices to Increase in Many Countries

In what is starting to feel like an annual tradition, Apple is set to increase the price of apps in several countries. Joseph Keller, iMore:

App Stores affected by the change will be those in Canada, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, and South Africa. Those using in-app subscriptions in Russia and South Africa will need to resubscribe.

These sorts of adjustments are not uncommon. The changes in pricing are expected to take place across these countries in the next 72 hours, according to an email sent to developers by Apple.

The new pricing hasn’t been announced yet, as best as I can find, but I’m guessing that $1.19 apps in Canada (the equivalent of a $0.99 app in the US) will increase to $1.29.

In the email to developers, Apple notes:

Two new low-price tiers will be available for the Canadian and New Zealand App Store: Alternate Tier A and Alternate Tier B. We’ll automatically update the prices for existing apps and In-App Purchases that already use the Alternate Tier A and Alternate Tier B price tiers.

I’m pretty sure it’s not a badge of honour for my country to have an exchange rate so shit so as to create two new lower-priced tiers.

Wikipedia Turns 15

I’m not sure if you can recall what it was like before Wikipedia, but I can. I remember doing web searches for basic information on a subject and coming across a hopelessly-outdated, subscription-only Encyclopædia Britannica article. Now, up-to-date information that’s pretty accurate can be found for free on subjects far more comprehensive than any printed encyclopædia could ever hope to cover. Wikipedia is one of the best things the web has ever produced.

Update: Apparently, Portuguese Wikipedia users are particularly interested in paper sizes, and Chinese users in Tiananmen Square.

Apple’s Diversity Distraction

Alice Truong, Quartz:

[…] ahead of a shareholder meeting in February, Apple’s board of directors is recommending that investors vote against a proposal to increase the diversity of its board and senior management. […]

The proposal by investor Antonio Avian Maldonado II criticizes Apple for being “painstaking slow” to increase representation of minorities in its leadership and board.

The proposal reads (PDF), in part:

Shareholders opined that companies with holistic comprehensive diversity policies and programs, and strong leadership commitment to implementation, enhance their long-term value; reducing the Company’s potential legal and reputational risks associated with workplace discrimination and build reputations as a fair employer. Equally, shareholders opined that the varied perspectives of a diverse senior management and board of directors would provide a competitive advantage in terms of creativity, innovation, productivity and morale, while eliminating the limitations of “groupthink”, as it would recognize the uniqueness of experience, strength, culture and thought contributed by each; strengthening its reputation and accountability to shareholders.

Therefore, shareholders ask the Company to assist investors in evaluating the company’s effectiveness in meeting its commitment to equal opportunity and diversity in senior management and board of directors, in any meaningful way that would not cause the company to breach the assurances of confidentiality and privacy that it has made to its employees.

Apple’s response, from the same document, is:

This proposal would require the Board to adopt an accelerated recruitment policy for increasing diversity among senior management and the Board. We believe that the proposal is unduly burdensome and not necessary because Apple has demonstrated to shareholders its commitment to inclusion and diversity, which are core values for our company.

Jason Snell:

Apple’s “ongoing efforts” are funding college scholarships at historically black college and universities, providing technology to underserved schools, and sponsoring other pro-diversity events. […]

[…] writing checks to good causes won’t change the composition of Apple’s board and senior management — only action will.

Apple’s board and executive staff are, indeed, changing for the better. In July 2011, for example, there was only a singular nonwhite, non-male person — Andrea Jung of Avon — among their board and executive team. One wishes that it would improve faster, and that’s what this shareholder proposal encourages. Steps have been made, but the proposal seeks to understand the effectiveness of those steps, and throwing money at the problem isn’t entirely enough. Neither, for what it’s worth, is changing the homepage.

The New Way of Bypassing Gatekeeper: The Same as the Old Way

Hey, remember that crazy simple Gatekeeper exploit from September?

The hack uses a binary file already trusted by Apple to pass through Gatekeeper. Once the Apple-trusted file is on the other side, it executes one or more malicious files that are included in the same folder. The bundled files can install a variety of nefarious programs, including password loggers, apps that capture audio and video, and botnet software. […]

“If the application is valid — so it was signed by a developer ID or was (downloaded) from the Mac App Store — Gatekeeper basically says ‘OK, I’m going to let this run,’ and then Gatekeeper essentially exits,” Wardle told Ars. “It doesn’t monitor what that application is doing. If that application turns around and either loads or executes other content from the same directory… Gatekeeper does not examine those files.”

Apple said that they patched the problem after it was discovered, but they did a lousy job. Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Patrick Wardle said the security fix consisted of blacklisting a small number of known files he privately reported to Apple that could be repackaged to install malicious software on Macs, even when Gatekeeper is set to its most restrictive setting. Wardle was able to revive his attack with little effort by finding a new Apple trusted file that hadn’t been blocked by the Apple update. In other words, it was precisely the same attack as before, except it used a new, previously unblocked Apple-trusted file.

“Your vault is really insecure with all of those wide open windows. Let me show you by pointing to this one right here.”

“Okay, we’ve closed that one. Job done.”

Next Year Is Perpetually the Year of Linux on the Desktop

John Moltz reacts to Dan Gillmor’s piece on switching to Linux:

Every year I try Ubuntu and every time I find it an excessively fiddly environment that gives you all the tasteless design choices of Windows with all the confusion of why your sound card isn’t working that you got installing your own Sound Blaster in 1995. […]

I get the arguments against Microsoft and Google and even Apple (although Gillmor can never seem to bring himself to mention Apple’s push back against back doors). But I guess I just don’t want to pay for them all day long by using a phone and computer I just don’t like working with.

There’s something to be said for the nebulous quality that is niceness. It’s impossible to quantify, yet completely noticeable when it’s lacking. I’ve spent a far amount of time with various operating systems, but I consistently find OS X and iOS to be nicer than competing OSes — niceness is the reason I’d pick Windows Phone over Android.

In a similar vein, I think some of the “low-hanging fruit” spotted in iOS and OS X recently is due to a decreasing feeling of niceness in both OSes. For my tastes, they’re both still better than the competition, but there has been a noticeable reduction in just how nice they feel to use every day. The significant introductions sprinkled throughout 2015 — a new Apple TV, Apple Watch, the iPad Pro, and the MacBook — makes it feel as though Apple has laid the groundwork for their near future, however. I’m looking forward to 2016.

A Fix for Malfunctioning Twitter URLs in El Capitan Is in the Works

After upgrading to El Capitan, I noticed that any twitter.com address — including shortened t.co links — would regularly fail to load. This issue occurred only for Twitter, only in Safari, and only on my Mac; any other combination of URL, browser, or device would be fine. I thought that I was both alone in this and that I was going nuts, until I saw a tweet from Michael Tsai:

Can’t quit Safari to make those http://t.co links load because Xcode is downloading.

Anyone who’s found a bizarre bug like this will identify with my relief that someone else was experiencing the same problem. Happily, Timothy Hatcher has some good news:

We have a Radar and a fix identified. It is lower level than WebKit.

I’d love to know what this issue is caused by and how it’s going to be fixed. Such a mysterious bug.

Political TV Ad Archive

The Internet Archive is launching a new project that will document political TV ads on American networks, typically on smaller local stations. Paul Sawers, VentureBeat:

One of the core problems, according to [Nancy] Watzman, is that local TV stations are frequently used to air political ads, yet these same stations provide little extensive reporting. So, in effect, the ads are used as propaganda tools, presented with little to no scrutiny. “The new Political TV Ad Archive will help reporters stop the spin cycle by providing contextual data and information to evaluate ads,” said Watzman.

The new archive project is using “experimental audio fingerprint technology” to track TV in 20 markets across eight states, and will cover the likes of Sioux City, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids in Iowa. Journalists will be able to embed videos of the ads and download relevant data, such as the date the ad aired and who sponsored it.

The Internet Archive is making a big contribution here, but it’s up to journalists to do the fact-checking legwork. To that end, it appears that they’ve partnered with PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, both of which — I assume — will be very busy this year.

No Backdoors

Jenna McLaughlin reports for the Intercept:

The Washington Post reported in September that the White House had decided not to pursue legislation against unbreakable encryption. But the intelligence community’s top lawyer was quoted in an email saying that that the administration should be “keeping our options open … in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

And [FBI Director James] Comey has been urging technology companies to voluntarily alter “their business model” and stop offering end-to-end encryption by default.

Despite the growing pressure tech companies are feeling from governments worldwide to stop letting terrorists take advantage of their services, [Tim] Cook has continued to defend the importance of encryption in protecting all digital transactions — from text messages and emails to bank information and medical records.

Apple — and Tim Cook, specifically — is the only major tech company currently defending encryption against intrusive surveillance to this degree. Every other company is either open to compromise publicly, has privately compromised, or has failed to take a firm stand.

Jon Ronson on Monocle

Speaking of Monocle, that company’s broadcasting arm recently interviewed Jon Ronson about the writing process that produced his newest book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. Well worth a listen, especially as it’s just thirty minutes long.

Josh Topolsky Rumoured to Be Launching a Media Startup

Noah Kulwin, Recode:

According to sources, Topolsky aims for the new business to be akin to luxury lifestyle brand Monocle, which publishes a magazine 10 times a year and a website as well as producing a radio show and events. The editor wants to build an audience with the wallet and sensibility of old media prestige brands like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, they say.

Josh Topolsky:

Monocle is a little slow for my taste, just saying

I’m a longtime reader and fan of Monocle and I think that Topolsky is a uniquely interesting figure in the tech and media landscape, so I’m pretty excited for this. For what it’s worth, he owns dickwolves.com, in addition to the more sedate independentmedia.com.

Update: Probably a good time to re-read Topolsky’s post-Bloomberg post:

The reality in media right now is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs. In both execution and content, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the rat race for maximum audience at any expense. It’s cynical and it’s cyclical — which makes for an exhausting and frankly boring experience.

I think people want something better, something more meaningful. Something a lot less noisy.

Well said.

Update, January 14: Topolsky is disputing some of the style and format associations rumoured by Recode:

I have no interest in doing anything like [Monocle] at any point. @recode is way off on that.

And, in reply to the assertion that he “wants to build an audience with the wallet and sensibility of old media prestige brands like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair”:

yeahhhhh not quite

If anything, I’m even more intrigued.

Apple Rumoured to Be Stepping Back From In-House iAds

John Paczkowski for Buzzfeed:

Multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans tell BuzzFeed News that Apple is getting out of the advertising-sales business and shifting to a more automated platform.

While iAd itself isn’t going anywhere, Apple’s direct involvement in the selling and creation of iAd units is ending. “It’s just not something we’re good at,” one source told BuzzFeed News. And so Apple is leaving the creation, selling, and management of iAds to the folks who do it best: the publishers.

If it’s getting gutted to this extent, I’m surprised Apple would continue running iAd in any capacity. Why wouldn’t they get out of advertising almost entirely, with the exception of ads running on Apple Music?

Update: By “Apple Music”, I meant iTunes Radio, but that’s neither here nor there:

As part of the winding down of its iAd platform, Apple today sent out a notice to customers who listen to its radio service letting them know the radio feature is being discontinued at the end of January.

In the email, Apple says that Beats 1 radio will be the only free listening option available to those who do not subscribe to the Apple Music service. Customers who listen to radio stations sans ads with an iTunes Match subscription are also receiving the emails and will no longer be able to listen to radio stations as an iTunes Match perk.

Michael Tsai:

Apple’s advertising page currently mentions ads in News, “offers” in Wallet, ads in apps, and ads in Apple Music. So, as far as regular ads, it sounds like this leaves only News.

This jives with Paczkowski’s claim that publishers will be taking over. I’m not surprised Apple’s bowing out of advertising; I am surprised that it has taken this long.

Twitter’s Brainstorming Notes for Potential New Features

Jonathan “Jomny” Sun, writing for McSweeney’s:

How about a “Super Like” function where you can show you really, really like a tweet, but you only get one “Super Like” every day?

See, this is a great idea. If only Tinder hadn’t beaten us to it. We don’t want to seem too desperate to copy other apps. Except Instagram. Do we have any ideas that make us more like Instagram?

Ability to rate tweets on a 5-star scale instead of a 1-heart scale.

Actually, this works great for Yelp. Let’s do that. Let’s be the Yelp of opinions from random people on the Internet.


Hi, I’d Like to Add Myself to the New Yorker

Frank Chimero:

There is a seedy underbelly of prospective New Yorker caption writers, and they have been working for years to define the ultimate caption, one that works for all New Yorker cartoons, ever.

Their efforts have delivered two famous über-captions. First, there is the descriptive, “What a misunderstanding!” by artist Cory Arcangel. Next, the suitably dry, “Christ, what an asshole!” by Charles Lavoie. Some other wooden options linger around the internet, but they lack the humor and timeliness of a great New Yorker caption. The über-captions on record are blissfully unaware of selfie sticks. They have no ennui about our hyper-connected society, no opinion of Drake. Clearly, we can do better.

I gave this situation about twelve seconds of thought, and stumbled upon a universal caption of my own.

Chimero’s caption doesn’t just work for New Yorker cartoons, either.