Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2017

A New Vocabularity for Net Neutrality

DeRay Mckesson:

Does someone have a better name than “net neutrality” to describe the issue? It’s not resonating with people at all.

Mckesson is right: net neutrality needs a more effective name. However, more than not resonating, I think the almost bureaucratic wording of the phrase “net neutrality” has allowed it to become politically twisted and skewed. Remember this word salad tweet from Ted Cruz in 2014?

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.

This doesn’t even come close to making sense.

Mckesson’s followers chimed in with great suggestions for clearer and more direct messaging. “Internet freedom” and “internet liberty” were common terms, both of which sound very American. If I got to vote for a name, though, it would likely be for “net equality”. Instead of erring on the side of describing how traffic is treated, “net equality” promotes the effect of network neutrality. More than that, it makes clear what net neutrality advocates are protesting: network inequality proposed by ISPs.

Tech Companies Should Stop Hiding Behind Shady Privacy Policies

Karissa Bell, Mashable:

[…] the problem is not that Unroll.me was scraping data from users’ inboxes and selling it (in anonymized form) to third parties, but the lack of transparency that this was happening. The company’s entire business model is predicated on data collection but nowhere on the company’s app, website, sign-up page, or anywhere else was that made clear. (Hedaya has said he plans to address this.)

Even if you took the time to read their privacy policy — and, let’s be real, no one does — it doesn’t explicitly spell this out. “We may collect and use your commercial transactional messages and associated data to build anonymous market research products and services with trusted business partners,” it says. But in no way does it make clear that Unroll.me is literally in the business of selling data.

Think about the laws and common-sense ethics that are skirted when it comes to data sharing. Practically every web service stretches what they can get away with, requires opting out of practices that users may find objectionable, and only requires opting into something when it’s required by law. Just look at the super grossDark Patterns” that try to trick users into allowing their information to be shared and sold widely, with little oversight.

I can’t think of anyone who would think that this is a good idea. I can think of lots of people who see this trickery as profitable, but who actually believes that these now-commonplace anti-privacy practices are ethical, or something that they would like to be subjected to as a user?

The Circle Is Our Boring Dystopia

For Gizmodo, Christina Warren reviewed James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel:

This is a film that had the opportunity to be timely and relevant. If anything, the film didn’t go far enough, because everything seems so plausible. That plausibility — the fact that we’re already living in a world the film is trying to portray as a scary future — hurts the film. Whatever it’s trying to say, it never really lands.

While flawed, Eggers’ novel was a decent argument of our near-future dystopia. Based on Warren’s review, it seems that the amount of time between the book’s release and the film seems to have blunted much of its criticism; or, at least, what was once merely realistic has become reality. What a shame.

Twitterrific Update Rejected for Alternative User-Selectable Icons

The Iconfactory’s Sean Heber on Twitter:

Try to do something fun and get an App Store rejection for it.

[…]

We could change the app icon on each update but letting the user choose between those same icons at will is TOTALLY AGAINST THE RULES.

We could have a light or a dark icon because we have light and dark themes. And that’s it. Any other choices are right out!

To be clear, it appears that Twitterrific was rejected for using the new icon changing API to allow users to change the app‘s icon. Apparently, this is because the alternative icons are too different from the standard app icon or, in some way, are not reflective of the app’s branding.

First off, I’ve seen the alternative icons Heber is referring to here. They’re not that far off from the default — certainly not enough to cause you to confuse Twitterrific for another app. They add a nice smidgen of customizability.

Second, multiple users pointed out the inconsistency between the App Review team’s rejection of Twitterrific after approving two sports apps that allow users to change the app icon to the logo of their favourite team.

Third, I don’t see anything in the App Review guidelines that indicates parameters for what constitutes acceptable — or unacceptable — alternative icons. Apple’s guidelines might be relatively straightforward and agreeable, but without publishing them, it looks like they’re favouring gigantic enterprises over independent developers or using a different rulebook.

Update: Ged Maheux:

Hey, guess who I just got a call from? A very nice rep at Apple saying we can put the alternate app icons back in Twitterrific. Woot!!

I’m glad to hear that this has been resolved in favour of the Iconfactory, but developers shouldn’t need to deal with the confusion and ambiguity that comes from a situation like this. Rules should be clear and applied consistently to all developers regardless of size.

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria

A fascinating pair of articles came out earlier this month on the ambition and lacklustre reality of Google Books. I’ve read them both and I’ve very little to add other than my recommendation that you read them both.

James Somers, for the Atlantic, focuses his story mainly on the lawsuit and failed settlement between the copyright holders, authors, librarians, and Google:

It was the first project that Google ever called a “moonshot.” Before the self-driving car and Project Loon—their effort to deliver Internet to Africa via high-altitude balloons—it was the idea of digitizing books that struck the outside world as a wide-eyed dream. Even some Googlers themselves thought of the project as a boondoggle. “There were certainly lots of folks at Google that while we were doing Google Book Search were like, Why are we spending all this money on this project?,” Clancy said to me. “Once Google started being a little more conscious about how it was spending money, it was like, wait, you have $40 million a year, $50 million a year on the cost of scanning? It’s gonna cost us $300 to $400 million before we’re done? What are you thinking? But Larry and Sergey were big supporters.”

In August 2010, Google put out a blog post announcing that there were 129,864,880 books in the world. The company said they were going to scan them all.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This particular moonshot fell about a hundred-million books short of the moon. What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”

Scott Rosenberg’s story for Backchannel is shorter than Somers’, but it’s a good overview at the myriad complications of scanning and indexing tens of millions of books, including concerns about a private tech company having so much control over information:

When Google partnered with university libraries to scan their collections, it had agreed to give them each a copy of the scanning data, and in 2008 the HathiTrust began organizing and sharing those files. (It had to fend off the Authors Guild in court, too.) HathiTrust has 125 member organizations and institutions who “believe that we can better steward research and cultural heritage by working together than alone or by leaving it to an organization like Google,” says Mike Furlough, the trust’s director. And of course there’s the Library of Congress itself, whose new leader, Carla Hayden, has committed to opening up public access to its collections through digitization.

In a sense each of these outfits is a competitor to Google Books. But in reality, Google is so far ahead that none of them is likely to catch up. The consensus among observers is that it cost Google several hundred million dollars to build Google Books, and nobody else is going to spend that kind of money to perform the feat a second time.

Tangentially, yesterday was World Intellectual Property Day, which serves as a reminder that much of the world’s information is kept in private hands for an increasingly-indefinite period of time.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai to Propose Sweeping Changes to Net Neutrality Rules

Well, you knew this was coming, and here it is. Cecilia Kang of the New York Times:

The chairman, Ajit Pai, said high-speed internet service should no longer be treated like a public utility with strict rules, as it is now. Instead, he said, the industry should largely be left to police itself.

The plan is Mr. Pai’s most forceful action in his race to roll back rules that govern telecommunications, cable and broadcasting companies, which he says are harmful to business. But he is certain to face a contentious battle with the consumers and tech companies that rallied around the existing rules, which are meant to prevent broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast from giving special treatment to any streaming videos, news sites and other content.

“Two years ago, I warned that we were making a serious mistake,” Mr. Pai said at the Newseum in Washington, where he laid out the plan in a speech. “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”

For once, I agree with Pai: yes, the more heavily you regulate the ways in which internet service providers can create a private rigged market that they control, the less of that you’re likely to get. For some reason, he sees that as a bad thing.

When I wrote yesterday about the creativity some startups might need to explore due to constraints in a more cautious investment climate, I was reminded by Dean Young of how important regulatory policy can be for the same reason. Strongly regulating ISPs can ultimately be a very good thing for consumers, as they’ll have to compete more aggressively on service quality, speed, and price, rather than distracting subscribers with a few zero-rated services like Spotify or Hulu. It’s telling that the only defence ISPs can muster against common carrier classification is that the law is old.

Rollin Bishop, the Outline:

It just depends on which part of the government picks up the fight, if any. If Pai and the FCC fail to scrub the 2015 order, Congress could attempt legislation to give the FCC clear rules on how to proceed, and if both the FCC and Congress fail, it’s possible that the trade associations that had litigated previously would do so again.

And that’s why, even with the odds stacked against them, advocates are optimistic. It’s a continuing fight, and there’s opportunity to influence policy at every step. Comment on the FCC public docket. Call representatives. Just participating in the fight at all is one of the biggest steps any one person can do. Public opposition is part of what killed the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 with grassroots organizations as well as companies like Google and Facebook opposing such a broad expansion of online copyright infringement policies.

I know there’s a lot going on in the United States, between attempts at undoing all sorts of protections and rules introduced by the previous administration, and new laws targeted at immigrants and women. I know many of you have been encouraged to call your representatives regularly. But, please, keep doing so. A phone call to your representative’s office will remind them that they should be listening to you.

Update: Karl Bode, Techdirt:

The problem Pai faces now is two-fold. One, net neutrality has broad, incredible bi-partisan support, and those consumers are certain to give him an earful during the public comment period that will begin after the May 18 vote. If Pai isn’t familiar with the concept of backlash and overreach, he may want to bone up on some history. Pai will also need to show to the courts that the market has changed dramatically enough since the FCC’s June 2016 win over ISPs to justify a massive reversal of the rules. If he can’t, his entire effort will be struck down.

As a lawyer Pai knows this, which is why I still think Pai’s playing a game of good cop, bad cop. Under this plan, Pai saber rattles for a few months about his intent to kill net neutrality, at which point the GOP shows up with some “compromise” legislation (likely this summer) that claims to codify net neutrality into law, but is worded in such a way (by the ISP lawyers that will inevitably write it) so the loophole-riddled “solution” is worse than no rules at all. If I were to guess, the legislation will come from Senator John Thune, who attempted to derail the 2015 net neutrality rules using a similar strategy.

Watch this space.

The Value of Twitter

Kia Kokalitcheva of Axios covers Twitter’s latest earnings report:

The company now has 328 million monthly active users, up by 9 million since the previous quarter, and growing its daily active users by 14% since the year-ago quarter.

Though it beat analyst estimates, Twitter’s quarterly revenue dropped to $548 million, down from $717 million the previous quarter, and an 8% year-over-year decrease. However, the company managed to shrink its quarterly net loss to $62 million, its lowest in the past year.

Bob Lefsetz:

So celebrate the company that is driving the zeitgeist, where all stories get started, where those addicted to news live. Newspapers come second. TV is a comparative joke. And everybody worth their salt in either medium is right there on Twitter, whether it be Rachel Maddow or Margaret Sullivan.

[…]

We want people to make us think. We want to know where it’s all going and what it all means.

And there’s no better place to do this than on Twitter.

If you’re an information junkie, there really is no better place to be today than on Twitter. In the ten years that I’ve been a member, I’ve had my constantly-updating feed always open on my desktop. It’s nothing like any other platform — including, by the way, in the amount of harassment experienced by its members.

Steven Levy of Backchannel interviewed Jack Dorsey on a wide range of topics including Twitter’s harassment problem:

We recognized that the very nature of the product was giving unfair advantage to people who wanted to harass. So we needed to change the product experience. We made it a priority last year, but to be very frank and honest, we only shipped one meaningful thing all year. So our progress is not something that we are proud of.

Why was that? Why did you fall short?

A variety of reasons. We recognized that at the end of the year, in December, and we just took on a completely different mindset. We had people drop what they were doing and really focus on this as an issue. And in the past three months we’ve been shipping every single day against this, and I think have made meaningful progress, [even though] it’s not felt as much. We also, in the previous year, put a lot of burden on the victim instead of taking the burden upon ourselves So we learned a bunch in that past year around how slow we were, and we just completely shifted our mindset.

December? December? Who would have thought that filling leadership and technical roles primarily with white men would make Twitter really bad at prioritizing and executing anti-harassment policies and features?

Amazon Echo Look

Jonathan Sawyer, High Snobiety:

First off, Echo Look takes photos and/or videos via voice command, with built-in lighting and a depth-sensing camera that allows you to blur the background of your image, further highlighting your outfit. These clean, full-length photos can then easily be shared with friends.

Style Check in turn combines the best in machine learning with advice from fashion specialists. You can compare/contrast two particular outfits, as Style Check will then give you a recommendation on what to wear, based on current trends and what looks best on you.

Jason Koebler, Vice:

Amazon store images and videos taken by Echo Look indefinitely, the company told us. Audio recorded by the original Echo has already been sought out in a murder case; to its credit, Amazon fought a search warrant in that case.

“All photos and video captured with your Echo Look are securely stored in the AWS cloud and locally in the Echo Look app until a customer deletes them,” a spokesperson for the company said. “You can delete the photos or videos associated with your account anytime in the Echo Look App.”

Motherboard also asked if Echo Look photos, videos, and the data gleaned from them would be sold to third parties; the company did not address that question.

Amazon is introducing this product two weeks after that one Burger King ad that triggered Google Home. I don’t think it’s paranoia to suggest that having a constantly-connected hands-free camera sitting where you usually get dressed is a gigantic red flag for privacy.

Silicon Valley Investors Are Getting Pickier

Eliot Brown, Wall Street Journal (bypass the paywall using Twitter):

In 2014 and 2015, mutual funds, hedge funds and other investors pumped billions into companies that they now see as overvalued, and unlikely to pull off an initial public offering. As venture capitalists became more discerning, investment in U.S. tech startups plummeted by 30% in dollar terms last year from a year earlier.

[…]

Venture-capital firms remain flush with cash: They raised $44 billion last year, the most since the dot-com boom.

But investors are staying away from scores of initially well-funded startups that once looked like relatively safe bets, forcing these companies to fight for survival as they burn through their stockpiles of cash and scramble for new money or buyers.

On a related note, everyone’s favourite story of the past month just keeps on giving with Ben Einstein’s teardown of a Juicero:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120M over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10M and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have a fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699. Or maybe with a more iterative approach, they would have quickly found that customers vary greatly in their juice consumption patterns, and would have chosen a per-pack pricing model rather than one-size-fits-all $35/week subscription. Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

I’m not sure it’s always the case, but limitations tend to produce better solutions to complex problems. Perhaps venture capitalists’ newfound hesitance can translate into lower-cost better products that appeal to a wider customer base. Maybe there will be fewer startups trying to solve the irritations of the wealthy.

The Internet Archive and Robots.txt

Mark Graham of the Internet Archive:

Robots.txt files were invented 20+ years ago to help advise “robots,” mostly search engine web crawlers, which sections of a web site should be crawled and indexed for search.

Many sites use their robots.txt files to improve their SEO (search engine optimization) by excluding duplicate content like print versions of recipes, excluding search result pages, excluding large files from crawling to save on hosting costs, or “hiding” sensitive areas of the site like administrative pages. (Of course, over the years malicious actors have also used robots.txt files to identify those same sensitive areas!) Some crawlers, like Google, pay attention to robots.txt directives, while others do not.

Over time we have observed that the robots.txt files that are geared toward search engine crawlers do not necessarily serve our archival purposes. Internet Archive’s goal is to create complete “snapshots” of web pages, including the duplicate content and the large versions of files.

Ed Summers:

Up until now the Internet Archive have used the robots.txt in two ways:

  • their ia_archiver web crawler consults a publisher’s robots.txt to determine what parts of a website to archive and how often

  • the Wayback Machine (the view of the archive) consults the robots.txt to determine what to allow people to view from the archived content it has collected.

If the Internet Archive’s blog post is read at face value it seems like they are going to stop doing these things altogether, not just for government websites, but for the entire web. While conversation in Twitter makes it seem like this is a great idea whose time has come, I think this would be a step backwards for the web and for its most preeminent archive, and I hope they will reconsider or take this as an opportunity for a wider discussion.

I get where Graham is coming from here. The Internet Archive is supposed to be a snapshot of the web as it was at any given time, and if a robots.txt file prevents them from capturing a page or a section of a website that would normally be visible to a user, that impairs their mission.

But, much as I love the Internet Archive, I think Summers’ criticism is entirely valid: ignoring robots.txt files would violate website publishers’ wishes. It’s as simple as that. Even though I wish FFFFOUND didn’t block the Internet Archive from capturing the site, I think that request should be respected by the Archive. Robots.txt is a simple, straightforward format for publishers to designate which areas of their site are off-limits to scrapers and crawlers, and that should be respected.

Apple Cuts Affiliate Commissions on Apps and In-App Purchases

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today, Apple announced that it is reducing the commissions it pays on apps and In-App Purchases from 7% to 2.5% effective May 1st. The iTunes Affiliate Program pays a commission from Apple’s portion of the sale of apps and other media when a purchase is made with a link that contains the affiliate credentials of a member of the program. Anyone can join, but the Affiliate Program is used heavily by websites that cover media sold by Apple and app developers.

In the four hours since I received Apple’s notice in my inbox earlier today, I’ve been completely puzzled by this move. Why drop the affiliate commission, but only for apps? Why now? Would this make more sense if we knew of any plans Apple might have for the App Store that they could unveil at WWDC?

While I’m part of the iTunes Affiliate Program, I rarely link to anything and I’ve made something like $70 in the entire time I’ve had the account. It doesn’t affect me directly, one way or another, but this sucks for any online publication with a revenue stream dependent on affiliate commission.

Update: This has been clarified by Apple, as of May 4: only in-app purchase commissions are being cut.

Unroll.me’s CEO Responds to Backlash

One more tasty nugget from Mike Isaac’s excellent profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been making the rounds:

They spent much of their energy one-upping rivals like Lyft. Uber devoted teams to so-called competitive intelligence, purchasing data from an analytics service called Slice Intelligence. Using an email digest service it owns named Unroll.me, Slice collected its customers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber. Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft’s business. (Lyft, too, operates a competitive intelligence team.)

Slice confirmed that it sells anonymized data (meaning that customers’ names are not attached) based on ride receipts from Uber and Lyft, but declined to disclose who buys the information.

Unroll.me bills itself as a way to “clean up your inbox” by bundling together bulk emails and newsletters into daily digests, which sounds just great. In order to do that, they need to be able to monitor your emails. And they’re a free service, so you can do the math on how they make their money.

Anyway, Unroll.me’s CEO Jojo Hedaya is shocked — shocked — that anyone would find this objectionable:

Our users are the heart of our company and service. So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

No shit. I suppose our parent company spies on your online purchases for marketing purposes is a less-agreeable tagline.

Sure we have a Terms of Service Agreement and a plain-English Privacy Policy that our users agree they have read and understand before they even sign up, but the reality is most of us – myself included – don’t take the time to thoroughly review them.

Hedaya certainly hasn’t read either of these agreements, as the Terms of Service specifically prohibits the links in his post — and, incidentally, in mine:

The Website must not be framed on any other site, nor may you create a link to any part of the Website other than the homepage.

Oops.

Hedaya again:

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only.

If a company owned by one of the largest retailers in the world recorded every receipt you’d received via email, do you think that you’d be completely anonymous? That’s a false promise; much like most other “anonymous” big data sets, the combination of attributes can easily reveal individual users even without explicitly knowing their names.

A Profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Mike Isaac’s profile for the New York Times of Travis Kalanick includes some fascinating reporting, but little more is as shocking as the opener:

Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.

For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had secretly been tracking iPhones even after its app had been deleted from the devices, violating Apple’s privacy guidelines.

But Apple was on to the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

Isaac explains later in the article what happened: Uber decided to fingerprint iPhones — contrary to App Store rules — to prevent a common scheme that exploited how drivers were compensated, then hid that code whenever the device was in Cupertino to prevent the App Review team from seeing it. That’s a deliberate deception. It’s a gross privacy violation of every Uber member that used an iPhone.

Yet Apple’s behaviour is also concerning. When AppGratis was found to be violating App Store rules, Apple gave them a heads-up on the Friday before the weekend during which their app would be removed. Based on Isaac’s reporting, Uber was provided with the opportunity to correct a more egregious violation of the App Store rules.

Even if you’re comfortable with the idea that big companies can have a different set of App Store rules and responses — and I’m not sure I am — I don’t think this should have remained a secret. It’s a flagrant and sneaky violation of users’ privacy. Ultimately, Uber is to blame, but Apple could have handled their discovery in a way that was more consistent with their commitment to privacy. Without Isaac’s report, this story likely would have remained secret.

My favourite sentence in this article is a parenthetical midway through:

Uber is grappling with the fallout. For the last few months, the company has been reeling from allegations of a machismo-fueled workplace where managers routinely overstepped verbally, physically and sometimes sexually with employees. Mr. Kalanick compounded that image by engaging in a shouting match with an Uber driver in February, an incident recorded by the driver and then leaked online. (Mr. Kalanick now has a private driver.)

Even the CEO of Uber doesn’t use Uber. Why should anyone else?

Update: Kate Conger, TechCrunch:

However, Uber told TechCrunch that it still uses a form of device fingerprinting in order to detect fraudulent behavior. If a device has been associated with fraud in the past, a new sign-up from that device should raise a red flag, an Uber spokesperson said. Uber suggested that the practice of fingerprinting was modified to comply with Apple’s rules rather than discontinued altogether.

If this uses the advertising identifier provided by Apple, I think that’s reasonable. If it’s fingerprinting devices through an alternative means that users cannot control, I see that as overstepping expected app behaviour.

Net Neutrality Is Alive and Well in Canada

Emily Jackson, Financial Post:

With its ruling that Internet providers can’t give free data to consumers who stream certain music or video content, Canada’s telecom regulator broke from its American counterpart by reiterating its position that carriers should simply act as pipes.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission reinforced its position on net neutrality rules Thursday with a decision that confirms Internet providers will be treated as common carriers that cannot pick favourites among the content that travels across their networks.

Michael Geist:

The impact is significant as the Commission notes that it can affect competition, innovation, consumer choice, access and affordability as well as privacy in a section of the decision that comprehensively makes the case for the harms associated with zero rating. For example, with respect to competition, the CRTC states:

The Commission considers that competition in the retail Internet access services sector is best served, and the telecommunications policy objectives set out in the Act are best achieved, when ISPs compete and differentiate their services based on their networks and the attributes of the services on those networks, such as price, speed, volume, coverage, and the quality of their networks.

The Commission also believes that differential pricing practices that favour particular services, technology, or content would generally negatively affect innovation.

This is terrific news on two fronts. First, while zero-rating sounds alluring, it creates a de facto private marketplace with little oversight or regulation. In effect, it allows ISPs to determine which companies should succeed and which should fail on their network. This decision ends that capability.

Second, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for internet and smartphone service. I hope this decision will truly require ISPs to compete more effectively on price.

Sleep and the Quantified Self

Chris Matthews:

Recently, I got curious again: I was still tracking all the sleep data, but wasn’t doing anything with it. I’d gotten bored, complacent, and so the data piled up without much to say for itself. Today, in a fit of rainy day pliability, I tediously copied data into an excel sheet. This was my first gripe: Pebble doesn’t allow csv exports (but then again, hey, they don’t exist anymore). SleepNumber doesn’t allow data exports (they once did, but “retired” the feature because reasons), and their customer service reps are pretty tight lipped on why I can’t access my own data, yet their TOS says they’re allowed to sell it. Only SleepCycle lets you export and study your own data, so thumbs up to them.

SleepCycle and SleepNumber both track total sleep time, and assess a 1–100 score for the night, based on “who-knows-what-exactly”. Pebble only assesses total sleep time, no score. So I built a couple graphs using the past few months of data. The results were dreadful.

Matthews’ comparison is by no means scientific but, then again, neither are the numbers these apps and devices are spitting out: I have noticed no correlation between Sleep Cycle’s “sleep quality” value and how rested I feel when I wake up.

The Guardian Pulls Out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

A quick followup on a story I covered last week on publishers’ growing resistance to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. I wrote:

Instant Articles was seen by many as the future of news distribution, much like Apple News and Google’s AMP Project. However, while more people have been using Apple News after its iOS 10 redesign — as the Verge noticed — and AMP has become popular thanks to Google’s promise to elevate the format in search rankings, Instant Articles doesn’t really have the same kind of draw.

It appears that not all publishers are seeing the same kind of boost from Apple News as the Verge has, as Jessica Davies explains for Digiday:

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.

[…]

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

I’d wonder how pulling out of Instant Articles would affect the Guardian’s visibility on Facebook, but it seems like we might have an answer courtesy Kurt Gessler of the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this week, he posted some stats showing that while more people “liked” the Tribune’s Facebook page since last year, the reach of its posts has dropped:

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

Facebook made major changes to Instant Articles beginning in December in an attempt to give the rather stagnant platform a nudge. This timeline seems to coincide with Gessler’s observations at the Tribune. I doubt Facebook will make any changes to increase the reach of non-promoted or non-IA posts.

As far as Apple News is concerned, I’d love to hear more from anyone who’s seeing unusual spikes or dips in subscribers or traffic. I still haven’t converted this site’s feed to the Apple News Format, so I have no reference points available.

WSJ: Google Plans Ad-Blocking Feature in Chrome

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

Unacceptable ad types would be those recently defined by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that released a list of ad standards in March. According to those standards, ad formats such as pop-ups, auto-playing video ads with sound and “prestitial” ads with countdown timers are deemed to be “beneath a threshold of consumer acceptability.”

In one possible application Google is considering, it may choose to block all advertising that appears on sites with offending ads, instead of the individual offending ads themselves. In other words, site owners may be required to ensure all of their ads meet the standards, or could see all advertising across their sites blocked in Chrome.

Because they struggle with consistency, Google offers an interstitial ad unit, YouTube frequently serves up non-skippable “prestitial” ads, and there’s nothing in Google’s AdSense policies that explicitly prohibits the use of a modal overlay to display an ad. This seems a little bit like Marlboro also selling anti-smoking aids, doesn’t it?

Apple Plans to Make Devices Entirely From Recycled Materials

Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice:

Apple has one of the most aggressive sustainability and recycling programs in tech, but it still pulls plenty of metals and toxic rare-earth materials out of the ground to make iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and other products.

That’s about to change. The company is set to announce a new, unprecedented goal for the tech industry, “to stop mining the earth altogether.”

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

If they can do this, it’s going to be huge, but it’s a tall order. Jason Koebler’s reporting on Apple’s recycling practices suggests that their desire to one day quit mining raw materials will require a complete rethinking of their current disposal chain:

“Electronics recyclers are filled with heaps of broken iMacs and MacBooks, which due to economics and the requirements of certifications are most often scrapped rather than repaired or sold,” John Bumstead, a refurbisher who sells MacBooks that he salvages and frankensteins together from broken ones that he gets from recyclers that don’t work with Apple, told me.

A document submitted to North Carolina’s Department of Environment Quality in September 2016 shows that Apple’s must-shred policy hasn’t changed in recent years, even as it continues to position itself as a green company: “All of the equipment collected for recycling is manual and mechanically disassembled and shredded. The resulting fractions are sorted into plastics, metals, and glass and sold as stock feed in the manufacturing process.”

On its face, this might not seem so bad: At least these products are getting recycled, right? But in practice, the premature recycling of an iPhone or a MacBook is not ideal. Bumstead still sells computers from 2009 and 2010 for hundreds of dollars to people looking for entry-level laptops.

The saying is “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and those words are in that order for a reason: recycling is better than creating new raw materials, but not as good as reusing what already exists. Neither of these options are as good as minimizing the consumption of new products altogether.

Obviously, Apple would prefer to sell more products, and many customers love having newer products than hanging onto the same device for five or six years. Improvements to their recycling program ought to have a significant impact on the resources required to create new devices and components. But it seems as though their desire to improve their products’ impact on the environment is contradicted somewhat by their stance against right-to-repair legislation, something Apple VP Lisa Jackson touches on in her interview with Vice:

Jackson also defended Apple’s history of making products that are hard to repair. Allowing customers to repair Apple products themselves “sounds like an easy thing to say,” she said. But “technology is really complex; it is sophisticated to make it work, to ensure that you have security and privacy, [and] that somebody isn’t giving you bad parts.”

Because of this, Apple won’t be taking a “right to repair” approach to meeting its environmental goals. “All those things mean that you want to have certified repairs,” Jackson said. “I think trying to pretend that we can sort of make it easy to repair the product, and that you get the product that you think you’re buying — that you want — isn’t the answer.”

I get the stance Apple is taking, but it seems like there could be a safe middle ground. Right-to-repair legislation might be too broad as it’s currently written, but Apple could allow authorized service centres to repair more components with certified parts instead of performing whole-device swaps. More refurbished devices could be made available to sectors where having the latest products isn’t a primary concern.

I’m optimistic that Apple’s recycling goals can be met in due time. I hope they take a more comprehensive approach to their environmental efforts, however. They’re already showing promising results: their lastest report indicates that each new product emits 97 kilograms of carbon in its lifespan, down from a recent high of 137 kilograms in 2011. But the same report indicates that 77% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a new product come from its manufacturing — something that could be cut more dramatically by reducing or reusing components and products than it can by recycling.

Update: Lisa Jackson appeared on this week’s episode of the Talk Show and dove deeper into Apple’s progress on the environment. It’s a really good episode that highlights the company’s use of sustainable forests, how they reduce and reuse materials on the production line, and Apple’s awesome Earth Day animated shorts.

Lawsuit Alleges Bose Headphone App Silently Provided Users’ Listening Habits to Advertisers

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

After paying $350 for his QuietComfort 35 headphones, [Kyle Zak] said he took Bose’s suggestion to “get the most out of your headphones” by downloading its app, and providing his name, email address and headphone serial number in the process.

But the Illinois resident said he was surprised to learn that Bose sent “all available media information” from his smartphone to third parties such as Segment.io, whose website promises to collect customer data and “send it anywhere.”

This doesn’t appear to be a simple case of Zak failing to read the app’s privacy policy in full. I downloaded the Bose Connect app and read its privacy policy and terms and conditions. While both explain that the app uses analytics software, nowhere in either document does it say that it will transmit listening habits.

This is alarming when you consider how unique someone’s music library and listening habits are. Ben Dodson found that apps in iOS had an unlimited ability to dump a user’s music library into a text file and upload it to the cloud. In iOS 10, Apple began requiring authentication when an app wants to access the music library.

What I don’t see in Stempel’s report is anything indicating whether the Bose app was merely using library data, or if it was sending information about the actual audio passing through the app. That makes a big difference — imagine if a Bose owner received a phone call through the headphones.

When You Think About It, a $400 Bag Squeezing Machine Is Kind of Silly, Really

Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski, Bloomberg:

Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force — “enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”

You could tell this thing was bullshit from day one — a juice making machine that only works with premixed, DRM-encumbered fruit and vegetable blends from the company that sold you the machine.

Ah, but we haven’t even gotten to what is perhaps my favourite sentence I’ve read all week:

But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.

Albert Burneko, Deadspin:

I like this one, too (emphasis mine):

One of the investors said they were frustrated with how the company didn’t deliver on the original pitch and that their venture firm wouldn’t have met with Evans if he were hawking bags of juice that didn’t require high-priced hardware.

When we signed up to pump money into this juice company, it was because we thought drinking the juice would be a lot harder and more expensive. That was the selling point, because Silicon Valley is a stupid libertarian dystopia where investor-class vampires are the consumers and a regular person’s money is what they go shopping for. Easily opened bags of juice do not give these awful nightmare trash parasites a good bargain on the disposable income of credulous wellness-fad suckers; therefore easily opened bags of juice are a worse investment than bags of juice that are harder to open.

As a rule of thumb, any single-purpose kitchen gadgets are a gigantic waste of money, with the possible exceptions of espresso machines, pasta rollers, corkscrews, and sushi mats. Despite this, investors spent $120 million financing a $400 — $700, before a recent price cut — WiFi-enabled bag squeezing machine.