Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2016

Apple Is Working on a Fix for iCloud Calendar Spam

Apple PR, in a statement to Rene Ritchie:

We are sorry that some of our users are receiving spam calendar invitations. We are actively working to address this issue by identifying and blocking suspicious senders and spam in the invites being sent.

I used to be getting a few invitations a day. I haven’t received a single spam invitation since Monday, even by email.

Tim Cook: AirPods Expected to Ship Within the Next Few Weeks

Remember that scene in “Temple of Doom” where Indiana Jones ducks under the rapidly-closing door and then leans back to grab his hat? The iPhone 7 is Indy, the hat represents the AirPods, and the door is Christmas.

This is not a good start for the clinching argument for why the iPhone no longer has a headphone jack, and it has been exacerbated by poor communication. This can’t be a W1 issue, because there are two Beats models that are shipping right now. But the Beats X earbuds — probably the closest analogue to the AirPods in size and form — also aren’t shipping. Curious.

The Tenth Anniversary of (Product) Red

John Paczkowski interviewed Tim Cook for Buzzfeed:

“My view on this — which I recognize is different from that of some others — is that just as people have values, so too should corporations,” Cook told BuzzFeed News. “One of ours at Apple is the idea that part of being a great company is leaving the world better than you found it.”

Paczkowski notes that Apple is responsible for about a third of the contributions to (Product) Red. Impressive stuff.

Default Apps on iOS

Kirk McElhearn, Macworld:

Apple’s desktop and mobile operating systems provide a full suite of applications that allow you to do most of what you want without downloading any additional apps. You can browse the web, send and receive email, manage calendars and contacts, and much more, all with the stock apps included in macOS and iOS.

But on macOS, you have the choice to not use those apps. Say you want to use Microsoft Outlook instead of Apple Mail; you can make this change, and when you click a link to send an email, Outlook will open. Or if you want to use Chrome instead of Safari, the same thing will happen: URLs you click will open in Google’s browser.

[…]

But iOS offers no such option. If you tap a URL, it opens in Safari. If you tap a link to send an email, it opens in Mail. The default calendar is Apple’s Calendar app. And so on. You may not want to work that way and because Apple doesn’t give you any choice, you’re stuck with workarounds: using share sheets to open a web page in a different browser; copying an email link or address to create an email; and so on.

Federico Viticci:

I’ve argued in favor of third-party default apps many times in the past (see ‘Personalization’ here). Clearly, this isn’t a technical problem per se; I think Apple is more concerned about the strategic and security implications of default apps.

This clearly isn’t a technical limitation, but a conscious design decision. However, it is far more noticeable in iOS 10 than in previous versions of iOS because of the ability to hide default apps, which can leave gaps in typical interactions. Tapping on a mailto: link when Mail is hidden will display an inelegant modal dialog telling the user to reinstall Mail, even if they have a third-party Mail app installed. I’ve also come across the occasional instance where I couldn’t add an event to my iCloud calendar because Calendar wasn’t installed, though I’m not sure what circumstances precipitated this.

Gaps like these, by the way, and the recently-restored ability to lose entire text messages due to a mis-tap are worrying to me. These are problems that I have no doubt came up during testing internally — never mind by thousands of developers and public beta testers — and are either unaddressed or have a poor stopgap solution, as is the case for mailto: links. It’s these lingering and obvious issues that cause me greater concern for the state Apple software today than the ongoing failure of iTunes syncing or the seemingly slow pace of improvements to iCloud. If these relatively simple details can’t be worked out — or, in the case of the quick reply bug, are reintroduced after being fixed — it reduces my faith in Apple’s ability to improve their most substantial software products and fix larger and more complex problems.

Update: A few people have told me that the quick reply bug I mentioned above has been fixed in iOS 10.2, but the “fix” is pretty half-assed: if you accidentally tap outside of the keyboard, the reply context will still disappear, but the text will be preserved if you open Messages.

This doesn’t fix other apps, however; for example, invoking the reply action on a Tweetbot notification and tapping outside of the keyboard area will cause the reply context and the text to vanish into the ether.

New York Times Subscription Growth Soars Tenfold

Matthew J. Belvedere and Michael Newberg of CNBC:

From the election on Nov. 8 through Saturday, the Times has seen “a net increase of approximately 132,000 paid subscriptions to our news products,” the media giant said in an exclusive statement to CNBC.

“This represents a dramatic rate of growth, 10 times, the same period one year ago,” according to the statement issued ahead of a CNBC interview Tuesday with New York Times CEO Mark Thompson.

This, despite — or, perhaps, because of — Donald Trump’s repeated lie that the Times is “failing”, that the paper is biased against him, or that they’re “treating him badly”.

On a similar note, “Hamilton” broke Broadway records for the highest-grossing week of shows and the highest average admission price after Trump called for its boycott.

Seventy Years of Sony

For decades, Sony designed some of the most interesting, futuristic, and downright beautiful hardware in the tech industry. Of note, Steve Jobs was reportedly game to license Mac OS X to be used on just one other computer brand: Sony’s VAIO machines.

Archiving the Internet in Canada

Jordan Pearson, Vice:

The Internet Archive is a US-based nonprofit that has been archiving the web for 20 years. So far, they’ve cataloged petabytes worth of web pages and claim to continue to archive 300 million new web pages each week. Their massive database allows the organization to run services like the Wayback Machine, which anyone can use to visit an archived version of most web pages, sometimes dating back years.

The group prefers to refer to itself as a kind of library, and as it noted in a blog post on Tuesday, “the history of libraries is one of loss,” whether through natural disaster or political regime change. With a potentially pro-censorship Trump regime looming, the Internet Archive isn’t taking any chances and is planning on opening an “Internet Archive of Canada” in the land of toques and Labatt brews. Digital information stored abroad wouldn’t be subject to US censorship laws.

If you rely upon the Internet Archive as much as I do, you can give them money to keep preserving websites, live audio recordings, classic PC games, and loads more.

See Also: Jason Scott’s explanation of the cost — in bytes and dollars — of creating a backup of the Internet Archive.

Protecting Your Web History With HTTPS

With today’s passage into U.K. law of the Investigatory Powers Bill — which requires British ISPs to retain the web browsing activity of their customers for a full year, and allows access to that history to government organizations from the GCHQ to the Food Standards Agency — I thought it would be helpful to highlight a simple strategy for Britons to protect their right to privacy: HTTPS.

Eric Mill, writing last year for Vice:

In short, I see power moving away from the leafs and devolving back into the center, where power has been used to living for thousands of years.

What animates me is knowing that we can actually change this dynamic by making strong encryption ubiquitous. We can force online surveillance to be as narrowly targeted and inconvenient as law enforcement was always meant to be. We can force ISPs to be the neutral commodity pipes they were always meant to be. On the web, that means HTTPS.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy — Mariot Chauvin and Huma Islam of the Guardian explain some of the hurdles they encountered when transitioning their massive web property to HTTPS. Even for my relatively tiny site, ensuring that HTTPS works really well took a little bit of effort.

I believe it’s worth the effort for all websites to implement HTTPS. While national security concerns are very real, the logical conclusion to solving investigational gaps is not bulk surveillance for entire countries.

Update: Bruce Schmoetzer reminded me that Let’s Encrypt allows users to create HTTPS certificates for free. However, maintaining the certs can be a pain in the ass if you do it yourself. Some web hosts now support Let’s Encrypt within their administrative panels, and it’s typically all managed for you; that’s probably the most straightforward route to take.

Macs and ARM CPUs

Jason Snell, in an editorial for Macworld:

Okay, so the 680×0 era lasted 10 years. The PowerPC era lasted 12 years. We’re now almost 11 years into the Intel era. All things being equal, the time seems right for a fourth processor transition, and soon.

It could definitely happen. I don’t want to say that it won’t, because Apple’s desire to chart its own course and not be beholden to other companies for key parts of its products is well known. Having proven itself a capable chip designer with the A series, Apple could very well dump Intel and strike out on its own.

But I don’t think Apple will.

Snell’s reasons are manifold, but the biggest is cost: rewriting the components of MacOS that aren’t already forked for ARM would likely not be trivial, especially for a company that seems to dedicate fewer engineering resources towards the Mac.

David Sparks disagrees with Snell:

I can’t help but think that Apple’s tendency to want to control everything would probably be enough for them to commit resources to switching to ARM. If Apple designs their own silicon, they’ll never rely on Intel again. Also, with the ever increasing race for better battery life, I’d expect Apple could make a MacBook that runs a very long time on an ARM-based chip. Jason Snell’s a pretty smart guy and been around this racket much longer than I but I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple does bring ARM to the Mac at some point, even if it is just the lower-powered, super-long battery MacBooks.

There’s potentially a different avenue that Apple could take that would allow them some independence from Intel while also not requiring them to recompile MacOS for ARM: they could start developing their own x86 processors. It’s likely to cost far more than switching to ARM on the Mac, but it would give Apple the flexibility to build processors that meet their requirements for high-performance hardware well into the future.

Twelve People Get Different Jobs

Mike Isaac reports for the New York Times on CNN’s acquisition of Beme, the small video-based social network:

With millions of people regularly tuning in to his YouTube video blogs every morning, Casey Neistat has a millennial fan base coveted by both marketers and media companies. Now, one of those big media outlets is bringing Mr. Neistat — and, it hopes, his youthful audience — in-house.

That’s the lede, and it contains absolutely nothing about the app itself or why it — not Neistat — was acquired. I stole the headline on this post from Nate Boateng because it’s basically what Isaac’s article is all about: twelve people are getting hired by CNN, and the app they used to make is going away. That’s it.

Beme was intended to be a social sharing application that Mr. Neistat described as “more authentic,” a way of putting four-second bursts of video out into the social sphere without giving users the ability to edit or tweak the content. Taking video was as simple as holding a smartphone’s front-facing sensor to one’s body, as if the camera were an extension of one’s chest.

Mr. Neistat hopes to bring that idea of authenticity to a news and media environment to draw in a younger audience largely untapped by the cable news network. CNN will shut down the Beme app, which had 1.2 million downloads before losing steam.

“A huge part of my particular audience sees news and media as largely broken,” Mr. Neistat said in an interview. “My dad sees it as the word of God, but I think the young people definitely do not.”

I don’t think “the young people” are aching for publications that are more “authentic”, in the way that Beme was apparently chasing that particular nebulous characteristic. People of all ages are growing increasingly frustrated with headlines and stories that parrot lies, treat idiotic viewpoints on issues as inherently equal, and publish utter nonsense.

Power Users and the New MacBook Pro

Adam Geitgey:

A million hot takes have been posted about how the late-2016 MacBook Pro with USB-C is the undeniable proof that Apple doesn’t care about developers anymore. They took away all the ports! No Esc key! It’s just a more expensive MacBook Air!

But in some ways, the new MacBook Pro is the most techy and expandable laptop Apple has ever made. They are trusting their pro users to wade into murky USB-C waters in search of the holy grail of a universal, open standard for moving data and power between devices.

The openness and interoperability of USB-C is fantastic, but I don’t see Apple changing over their iOS devices from Lightning at any point in the near future. In a fit of irony, that means that the benefits of USB-C are mostly apparent to users with Android phones and tablets.

Margaret Hamilton Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Jenni Miller, New York magazine:

President Barack Obama presented boundary-breaking software engineer Margaret Hamilton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on the software behind the Apollo 11 mission. Hamilton, who wrote code by hand for the on-board guidance software, was one of many programmers who made it possible for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to safely land on the moon instead of aborting their mission entirely.

For some perspective, I’m posting this on my lunch break, after grumbling to myself that the IDE I’m using has poor code autocompletion. She wrote code — by hand — for a computer that had less storage than the size of many websites today, to be used in the unknowns of space, with her four-year-old daughter by her side.

Preventing iCloud Calendar Spam

I first started receiving spam event invitations in my calendar about a month ago — a vector I didn’t know was utilized — and have been seeing them constantly since. I wasn’t able to figure out a way to prevent them, but Aaron Douglas did. Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of his solution is that it requires signing into iCloud.com; I wasn’t able to find the same controls on MacOS or iOS.

Update: Turns out that this is a more widespread issue than I first thought. Even after performing the steps suggested in the linked article, I received a couple of spam notifications this afternoon, though it might be an issue with the syncing or propagation of the new settings.

One way to deal with these invitations is to simply decline them. However, that will indicate that the email address is in use; I noticed a significant increase in the number of these invitations I received after declining one. Unfortunately, Calendar on MacOS and iOS does not appear to support simply ignoring an invitation.

However, you should know that Fantastical does support ignoring and deleting a calendar invitation without notifying the sender. It’s probably your best bet for now. Hopefully, Apple can fix this by passing calendar invitations through a standard spam filter.

In the MacBook Pros, the Connector to Nowhere Goes Somewhere

When iFixIt tore into the new 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros, they discovered a covered connector inside that appeared to go nowhere. They speculated that it might be either a diagnostic port or a way to get at the soldered SSD for data recovery. Turns out that it’s the latter. Jordan Kahn, 9to5Mac:

Apple’s new customer data migration tool is specifically designed for the 2016 MacBook Pro and includes a logic board holder with power adapter that allows repair staff to insert your logic board and connect it via USB-C to another MacBook Pro. That’s what the mystery “connector to nowhere” is for, and below is a photo of the new migration tool in action with a logic board inserted in the holder ready to transfer data.

The more cynical will see this as a solution to a problem that shouldn’t have been created. Others will see this is as a simple way to ensure the safety of a user’s data in the unlikely event that the SSD stops working. If you’re American and you happen to be checking your phone under the table, maybe bring this up during the dessert course as a way to lighten the mood.

Reddit’s CEO Edited User Comments Directed Towards Him

Bryan Menegus, Gizmodo:

During its tumultuous year on the site, Reddit’s Donald Trump community (r/the_donald) has been a constant source of strife for users and moderators alike. Huffman was a constant target for abuse for the_donald members, who hurled insults at him at every turn (“fuck u/spez” or “u/spez is a cuck” were the most common—spez being his on-site pseudonym) Finally, he snapped, and decided to edit the posts of users mocking him without their knowledge or consent.

The_donald caught the changes and logged them in a thread, wherein Huffman admitted to the act, noting that he acted alone and without the consent of the employees he entrusted to handle this exact sort of abuse.

Amelia Tait of the New Statesman:

Normally when a comment is edited on Reddit – by a user or a moderator – a small asterisk will appear after the time stamp to indicate that it has been changed. In this instance, no such asterisk appeared, meaning Huffman ostensibly has the ability to edit comments without a trace. This is crucial because two months ago, a Redditor was taken to court for comments he left on the site. Huffman’s editing powers could clearly be abused to cause trouble for individuals.

Beyond this, however, Huffman chose the wrong Reddit community to anger. Those on r/the_donald are already deeply convinced by conspiracies, and, in a way, Huffman has now validated their claims. It is not yet clear how they will retaliate or whether Donald Trump, who did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the subreddit earlier this year, will comment.

The users of /r/The_Donald already thought Reddit was suppressing their views whenever one of their posts left the /r/all cesspool. Can you imagine how much this is feeding their paranoia?

Facebook Reportedly Created a Censorship Tool to Get Back Into China

Mike Isaac, New York Times (autoplaying video warning):

The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.

[…]

Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party — in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company — to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.

So Facebook has the ability and determination to build a tool like this to suppress news in some countries for political reasons, but can’t be bothered to build something similar to filter out fake news articles that undermine discourse in countries with a free press?

Speechless

A good piece from Jeffrey Mincey:

So, Siri on the Mac is a good thing, right? After all, if Siri gets used in the car, while rummaging around with chores at home, or even watching Apple TV, then Siri on the Mac must be another blessing. Right?

Oh. You haven’t used Siri on the Mac much, either, huh?

Yeah. Me, too. And I’m not exactly sure why. The keyboard shortcut works perfectly, as does the click to the Siri icon in the Menubar. No complaints. Siri opens apps and performs a few other parlor tricks but I’ve decided that my use and workflow on the Mac is different than on the iPhone or iPad, and definitely on Watch, so that distinction inhibits Siri usage on the Mac.

I’ve noticed an inverse correlation between screen size and my use of Siri. I rely upon Siri all the time on my Watch,1 frequently on my iPhone, and almost never on my iPad and Mac. Maybe it’s something to do with the utility of a larger display and full-sized keyboard, or my habitual commitment to a computer workflow that hasn’t ever included a voice assistant.

Despite this, I have been pleasantly surprised by a few of the things I’ve done with Siri. A couple of days ago, I wanted to play a genre-based radio station while I was cooking dinner. I found it far easier to invoke Siri and tell it what I wanted to listen to than to futz around with iTunes. Whether that speaks more to the directness of Siri or the complexity of iTunes, I’m not sure. But its ability to untangle the keyboard-and-mouse paradigm of computing is something I imagine less experienced users would be appreciative of as well.

Another area where Siri on the Mac has potential is to improve the system’s accessibility. But, as Steven Aquino pointed out back in June, it doesn’t quite cut it yet:

I’m a stutterer, which causes me a lot of social anxiety. It’s hard at times to converse with people because of it, out of fear of judgment or shame that I inevitably will stutter. Sometimes I get so nervous that I will talk as little as possible (or avoid it altogether) because of my speech. I share these feelings not to garner pity or sympathy, but rather to explain how stuttering affects me emotionally.

Siri isn’t a real person, of course, but the fact of the matter is voice-driven interfaces are built assuming normal fluency. This is to be expected: most people don’t stutter, but I (and many others) do, so using Siri can be incredibly frustrating. So, while accuracy has gotten better over time, there’s no getting around the fact abnormal speech patterns like mine don’t mesh well with Siri. It wreaks havoc on the experience.

I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be. And it’s not like users are going to keep trying Siri with every update, either: like all software, if something doesn’t work as expected, they’re less likely to try other things.


  1. Or, at least, I use it all the time when I’m at home. It’s still embarrassing for me to talk to my wrist in public. ↩︎

Billionaires Are a Unique Threat to Journalists

Emily Bazelon, New York Times:

In the half-century since New York Times v. Sullivan, the United States has often held itself up to the world as a beacon for the free press. American libel law, the theory goes, protects writers and publishers better than the laws of countries like Britain, where it’s easier to win a libel judgment. Yet giant jury awards don’t topple publications in the United Kingdom: The country has an unofficial damages cap of about £250,000 (plus legal fees). British publishers can, in essence, treat compensating someone whose reputation they have harmed as a cost of doing business. And it’s less risky for them to apologize for a story that turns out to be wrong. “There are limits on damages for malpractice suits against doctors,” says Robert Post, dean of the Yale Law School. “Why not for journalists?”

It’s tempting to treat Gawker’s demise as unique or deserved. But that’s a false form of reassurance, a former editor of the site, Tom Scocca, argued in August. Every publication “is prepared to absorb the damage when it makes a mistake,” he wrote on Gawker. “What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation.” The lesson, Scocca told his readers, is that “you live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business.”

This may seem like the flip side of the proverbial coin of the Breitbart and AppNexus story I posted earlier today, but I don’t think it is. There is a great difference between a tabloid knowingly publishing things that are either out of context or outright falsehoods, and a legitimate media organization making a mistake. No legitimate publication should have its fate subject to the whims of someone with deeper pockets and nothing better to do.

AppNexus Bans Breitbart From Their Advertising Network

Mark Bergen, Bloomberg:

AppNexus Inc., a major advertising technology provider, has barred Breitbart News from using its ad-serving tools because the conservative online publisher violated its hate speech rules.

AppNexus scrutinized Breitbart’s website after U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump tapped Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart, to be White House chief strategist last week. The digital ad firm decided the publication had breached a policy against content that incites violence, said AppNexus spokesman Joshua Zeitz.

“We did a human audit of Breitbart and determined there were enough articles and headlines that cross that line, using either coded or overt language,” he said.

Every major programmatic advertising network has a policy of the types of websites that are allowed to implement their ads and, conversely, the types that are not. Google, for example, prohibits their ad network on websites that “contain harassing or bullying content” or “[incite] hatred or promotes violence against individuals or groups”. AppNexus (PDF) prohibits their ads on “content that depicts, contains, or provides access to hate speech” and “content that AppNexus reasonably deems to be (a) morally reprehensible or patently offensive, and (b) without redeeming social value.”

The trouble is that so many websites are dependent upon these ads that it’s impossible for programmatic advertisers to verify compliance with every website placement. While providers attempt to monitor websites, they also depend on users reporting ads on bad sites.

I imagine that ad providers would find it particularly sensitive to restrict their advertising from appearing on websites that are, ostensibly, news publications. But — and this is not a political argument — Breitbart is not a news organization. Much like, for example, Natural News, it is a lightly-edited collection of conspiracy theories and out-of-context excerpts with a professional sheen. In the fight against fake news, sites that traffic in providing knowingly false or misleading information to a large audience should have their revenue squeezed. Their popularity is insulting to the difficult financial circumstances that have befallen major reputable news organizations.

Meet Trump’s FCC Advisors

April Glaser, Recode:

President-elect Trump formally named two advisers to help oversee his telecom policy agenda at the Federal Communications Commission today: Jeff Eisenach and Mark Jamison.

Both are fierce opponents of the network neutrality rules the agency passed last year and have long advocated against regulations aimed at reining in the already massively consolidated telecom industry, where most Americans have no more than one or two choices for broadband providers as it is.

Glaser, in a separate article on Recode:

When Comcast was considering a Time Warner takeover in 2013, Eisenach wrote, “The best thing that could happen for U.S. consumers would be substantial consolidation in the cable business.”

And when AT&T wanted to purchase T-Mobile in 2011, Eisenach likewise argued in favor of the merger, pointing out, “The wireless market is extremely competitive.”

It will come as no surprise that Eisenach and Jamison have both lobbied on behalf of major American telecom companies, but so did current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Wheeler did a complete turnaround on net neutrality while working at the FCC and ended up pushing forward a strong set of rules for ISPs and telecoms.

Based on his deluded statements about how consolidation is the “best thing that could happen” for consumers and that there’s ample competition in the U.S. telecom space, I doubt that Eisenach will ever change. That should worry you.