Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September, 2017

John Risby’s Apple Support Experience

John Risby was not treated as well as he should have been while trying to get his 15-inch MacBook Pro replaced over a known manufacturing defect:

They used to — or at least I seem to remember they used to — act like a a prestige car company. Stupidly expensive, yes, but in return the dealer knows you by name and they treat you as more than just another faceless customer.

Sadly Apple seem to have stopped trying to be the Porsche or Ferrari of computers, while keeping the same prices — or, in the case of this Macbook range, actually putting the prices up — but decided to adopt the customer services policies of a dodgy used car lot.

As Michael Tsai wrote, I’m not sure that it’s fair to treat this admittedly terrible experience as the new norm. However, the Apple Store is increasingly feeling, to me, like a more typical retail experience set inside gorgeous architecture.

There’s the little stuff: the up-selling that I had to repeatedly turn down when buying my 2017 iPad — no, I don’t want to buy an iPad Pro; no, I don’t need a larger-capacity device; no, I don’t need AppleCare, thank you — and the time that I went in for an iPhone 6S battery replacement and they didn’t have the battery in stock, despite me making the appointment explicitly about that issue.

And then there’s the more egregious stuff, like how they don’t offer a loaner unit while a machine is being serviced:

Apple, in their unquestionable wisdom, refuse to lend replacement computers when a machine has to go in for repair. I can understand this as a general policy, but sometimes — like maybe when you’ve had two laptops costing around 3k each in the space of 3 months, both faulty from the factory, countless trips to various stores, travel costs, petrol, toll roads, days off work, been called a liar etc — sometimes, you think they’d find a laptop to lend.

But no, they simply refuse.

Amazingly, a number of staff over the months suggested the solution I eventually used — to buy a new Macbook with the express intention of using it while mine was repaired and then return it under their 14 day returns policy. At one point I even considering buying everything I could afford just to mess with them. But I decided that was a tad childish.

Several years ago, about ten months after buying my top-of-the-line MacBook Air, I noticed a cluster of dead pixels on the display. As I was within the warranty period and I also had AppleCare, it should be a piece of cake to get that fixed.

Unfortunately, instead of being able to order the part in and having them swap the display in a matter of a few hours, I would have had to leave my computer with them for a week. I was in the middle of a project at the time, so I had to come back to the store a second time when it was least-inconvenient for me to be without my primary — and, realistically, only — computer. I didn’t have the cash sitting around to be able to just buy another computer, either. I get that there may have been several people in front of me, but why couldn’t they simply give me a call when they were ready to service my machine?

After I got it back, I noticed that the display had another defect. It is a minor one, and I wasn’t able to be without my Mac for yet another week at the time, so I have lived with it.

I get that one of the reasons Apple has been able to build a mountain of cash to be able to reinvest in the company is by effectively balancing their rapidly-rising income with reasonable expenditures. Building a new and exciting headquarters for employees is totally great, as is buying up renewable energy and investing in R&D.

But it disappoints me that the Apple Store seems to have been forgotten a little bit, at least on the inside. I’m not expecting Rolls Royce-level service but, as a long-time customer, I remember it being better.

See Also: Apple’s support gap, which I wrote last year. Since then, the Support app has become available in more countries, including Canada.

Update: Some additional support-related tidbits from the last year or so by me, Joel Spolsky, and Dr. Drang.

D22 and iOS 11 GM Leaks

John Gruber, on this weekend’s massive leak of the golden master build of iOS 11:

I wish I could say more about how I know what I know, but it’s good to see the BBC confirm this. The BBC doesn’t say definitively that the leak was sent by an Apple employee, but I can state with nearly 100 percent certainty that it was. I also think there’s a good chance Apple is going to figure out who it was.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about how amazing it was that a product as closely-watched as Apple’s next iPhone had not yet leaked in a substantial way. Yes, there were the occasional and inevitable part leaks showing a vertical cutout for the camera on the back, and there were lots of rumours about the new virtually bezel-less hardware and 50% greater pixel density display, but there was very little actually known.

And then the HomePod firmware leak happened, and gave everyone a rough idea of what the device would look like. A few codenames were found as well, some more obvious than others.

And then this weekend’s GM leak spilled everything wide open.

The thing I don’t understand is simply why someone would do this. It’s not an early tease of a few new features, like the lost (or stolen) iPhone 4 was, nor is it early enough for a competitor to be able to change course. Apple’s event is on Tuesday, so this leak is just a massive spoiler for anyone who likes surprises, and all the staff who have worked really hard to keep these products secret.

To be clear: I have no problem with 9to5Mac or Steven Troughton-Smith picking their way through the firmware. But I think the Apple employee who did this was acting selfish by sending these links to rumour sites. It’s the kind of stupid act that is likely to create a more restricted environment for future software and hardware.

Equifax’s Breach Response Is Inadequate, Insecure, and Dangerous

Brian Krebs:

I cannot recall a previous data breach in which the breached company’s public outreach and response has been so haphazard and ill-conceived as the one coming right now from big-three credit bureau Equifax, which rather clumsily announced Thursday that an intrusion jeopardized Social security numbers and other information on 143 million Americans.

There isn’t a single aspect of Equifax’s response to their catastrophic breach that is not in some way deeply flawed, irresponsible, insecure, flippant, or dangerous. From the poorly-secured website they — or, more likely, Edelman PR — slapped together to the inconsistent and effectively useless safety checker,1 it is, as Krebs put it, a dumpster fire.

Even the FAQs are inadequate. For instance:

Why am I learning about this incident through the media? Why didn’t Equifax notify me directly?

Equifax issued a national press release in order to notify U.S. consumers of this incident and has established a website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, where U.S. consumers can receive further information.

That isn’t a response, it’s a dodge. The reason Equifax didn’t notify customers directly is because then the news would have leaked before it was timed for the close of markets on Thursday. One may reasonably argue that this is fair from a PR perspective, but their delayed response clearly puts shareholders above consumer protection.

Krebs provides some useful advice, too:

First off, all consumers have the legal right to instant access to their credit report via the Web site, annualcreditreport.com. This site, mandated by Congress, gives consumers the right to one free credit report from each of the three major bureaus (Equifax, Trans Union and Experian) every year.

Second, all consumers have a right to request that the bureaus “freeze” their credit files, which bars potential creditors or anyone else from viewing your credit history or credit file unless you thaw the freeze (temporarily or permanently).

But — and you’re not going to believe this — even Equifax’s credit freezing is flawed.

Tony Webster:

OMG, Equifax security freeze PINs are worse than I thought. If you froze your credit today 2:15pm ET for example, you’d get PIN 0908171415.

… I got mine a decade ago and now that I see it, it followed the same format back in 2007

A series of digits that exactly correspond with the time the freeze was implemented is not a personal identification number. While the average person is notoriously poor at picking passwords, there should at least be something more unique and secure than the date and time the credit freeze was requested.


  1. I have no idea what’s going on with that checker. The surname field doesn’t appear to be used — I tried with the last name “Butthead”, because I am an adult, and “123456” as the six SSN digits, and was notified that “my” information may have been compromised. ↩︎

Siri Is Transforming Into the Glue for Apple’s Next Ecosystem

Dan Moren, Macworld:

More to the point, Siri isn’t just, well, Sir anymore. In addition to the agent you talk to—and who talks back to you—Siri has become Apple’s catch-all for a variety of intelligent technologies designed to predict how you want to use your device: what apps you want to launch, what things you want to search for, even what you want to say. It’s all part of Apple’s very assistant-like attempt to help you figure out what you need before you know you need it. Perhaps the most prominent example of that is the Siri watch face in the upcoming watchOS 4, which displays contextual information and controls depending on your time and location.

So, Siri is available to us via pretty much all of our devices, and it reaches deep into the operating systems that run them. But it’s not yet taken the step that will turn it from a feature into a game-changing way for us to interact with technology. In order for that to happen, there are still a few steps along the way.

I love Moren’s way of framing a ubiquitous Siri that doesn’t care what device you’re using, and becomes a sort of universal layer above an operating system. But there’s a long road in front of anything like that. It would help if it could maintain context or not be completely disobedient, for a start.

For what it’s worth, I love the Siri face in WatchOS 4; it completely changes how I use my Apple Watch, especially with fitness updates, reminders, and rain notifications served up when relevant. I like Siri’s new voice in iOS 11. But these seem like incremental improvements when you consider that Siri has been integrated with iOS for six years now. Yet, I had hoped for far more progress in iOS 11, especially considering the HomePod’s forthcoming release.

Movie Studios Are Blaming Rotten Tomatoes for a Miserable Summer

Brooks Barnes, New York Times:

Studio executives’ complaints about Rotten Tomatoes include the way its Tomatometer hacks off critical nuance, the site’s seemingly loose definition of who qualifies as a critic and the spread of Tomatometer scores across the web. Last year, scores started appearing on Fandango, the online movie ticket-selling site, leading to grousing that a rotten score next to the purchase button was the same as posting this message: You are an idiot if you pay to see this movie.

Just thinking aloud here, but have these studios considered — oh I don’t know — making better movies? For example:

Kersplat: Paramount’s “Baywatch” bombed after arriving to a Tomatometer score of 19, the percentage of reviews the movie received that the site considered positive (36 out of 191). Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote of the film in a research note, “Our high expectations appear to have been crushed by a 19 Rotten Tomatoes score.”

“Baywatch” did poorly because it was a terrible film — all critics did was confirm that fact. If you filter its Rotten Tomatoes page to show only reviews from top critics, the news isn’t much better: just 23% of them were okay with the movie.

Browse through Rotten Tomatoes’ summer scorecard and you’ll note that many of the bigger-budget films were simply not good. And, yet, most of them found an audience. People went to see “The Emoji Movie”, despite it being objectively appalling; people even went to go see “The Mummy”, and the latest “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, despite both of those getting crappy reviews.

But the better films of the summer — “Baby Driver”, “Wonder Woman”, “Girls Trip”, and “Dunkirk” — performed even better at the box office. Maybe that’s a clue: it’s not the fault of Rotten Tomatoes for pointing out that bad movies are bad, but the fault of studios for making expensive bad films. So, maybe make better movies.

Arbitration Clauses Lean on the Scales of Justice

Cabel Sasser and Zack Whittaker have each noticed that Equifax requires them to agree to TrustedID’s terms of service before confirming whether their private information was impacted by Equifax’s security breach. The catch? TrustedID’s terms include a binding arbitration clause:

By consenting to submit Your Claims to arbitration, You will be forfeiting Your right to bring or participate in any class action (whether as a named plaintiff or a class member) or to share in any class action awards, including class claims where a class has not yet been certified, even if the facts and circumstances upon which the Claims are based already occurred or existed.

Attorney Michael Fuller confirmed Sasser and Whittaker’s interpretation of this on Twitter. Similar arbitration clauses have become extremely common amongst software and technology companies especially. Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Robert Gebeloff wrote about this in 2015 for the New York Times:

By banning class actions, companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination, court records show.

“This is among the most profound shifts in our legal history,” William G. Young, a federal judge in Boston who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview. “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach.”

Equifax’s responsibility was to securely hold the private data of half the American population. One of their other jobs is to provide services that monitor for the misuse of that private data. They failed at their primary job and, to have even a hope of succeeding at their other job, people must agree not to sue TrustedID. That may not be a protection racket, but it sure sounds duplicitous and unethical.

Update: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman:

This language is unacceptable and unenforceable. My staff has already contacted @Equifax to demand that they remove it.

In this instance, at least, the right thing may be done. But arbitration clauses ought to be found unenforceable altogether for consumer terms of service agreements.

On Equifax’s Offer of Their Own Credit Monitoring Service

Brian Krebs:

Credit monitoring services rarely prevent identity thieves from stealing your identity. The most you can hope for from these services is that they will alert you as soon as someone does steal your identity. Also, the services can be useful in helping victims recover from ID theft.

My advice: Sign up for credit monitoring if you can, and then freeze your credit files at the major credit bureaus (it is generally not possible to sign up for credit monitoring services after a freeze is in place). Again, advice for how to file a freeze is available here.

The fact that the breached entity (Equifax) is offering to sign consumers up for its own identity protection services strikes me as pretty rich. Typically, the way these arrangements work is the credit monitoring is free for a period of time, and then consumers are pitched on purchasing additional protection when their free coverage expires. In the case of this offering, consumers are eligible for the free service for one year.

There may be nothing inherently unethical about Equifax using a product of their own to try to assist people affected by their breach, but it feels scummy. Even if Equifax disables subscription renewal notices for anyone who takes advantage of their offer — and I sincerely doubt they will — it still looks like they’re taking advantage of one of the worst data breaches in recent history to pitch one of their products.

143 Million Americans’ Highly Sensitive Data Leaked From Equifax

Bill Brenner, writing on Sophos’ Naked Security blog:

To understand how bad the data breach at Equifax is, consider this: the US has a population of approximately 324m people. The credit services provider says its breach may have affected up to 143m Americans: nearly half the population is potentially involved.

[…]

What kinds of customer data did the culprits access? Names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers, according to Equifax chairman and CEO Richard Smith. In addition, he said, credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 US consumers and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for approximately 182,000 US consumers were accessed.

Equifax apparently discovered this breach on July 29, and it’s huge — not only in quantity, but in the kind of information that was leaked. Equifax is one of three major credit rating agencies in the United States, and their reports have the power to approve or reject housing, transportation, and financial services for millions of Americans.

Moreover, the leak of tens of millions of Social Security numbers is likely to wreak havoc, as it’s basically a single birth-to-death numerical identifier for all Americans with very few restrictions protecting its use. Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg, as quoted by Jason Koebler, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, and Derek Mead for Vice:

It is important to emphasize the unique status of the Social Security Number in the world of privacy. There is no other form of individual identification that plays a more significant role in record-linkage and no other form of personal identification that poses a greater risk to personal privacy.

Justin Paterno:

Equifax: you missed a cc payment 3 yrs ago. How irresponsible. Good luck buying a home

Also, Equifax: Your SSN’s were hacked. Shit happens

But wait — there’s more to this story. Anders Melin, Bloomberg:

Three Equifax Inc. senior executives sold shares worth almost $1.8 million in the days after the company discovered a security breach that may have compromised information on about 143 million U.S. consumers.

The trio had not yet been informed of the incident, the company said.

So, to summarize: Equifax is a private corporation that retains extremely confidential records of tens of millions of Americans’ financial habits. They are disclosing this breach over a month after it was discovered. Members of their executive team sold nearly $2 million worth of shares shortly after it was discovered, and the company’s defence is that these executives were not informed of a major confidential data breach within several days of it occurring. Got all that?

Wait, what? Members of their executive team weren’t immediately informed?

Equifax is offering a year of their own credit monitoring services, but I’m guessing that the fallout from this breach will last for a decade or more, based on the size and scope of this data set.

At this point, it’s very likely that different pieces of your personal and confidential data have been leaked multiple times in the last ten years. The last couple of years have been especially bad for big breaches: you may remember that personal details from hundreds of millions of people were leaked from a Republican National Committee database, or repeated announcements from Yahoo, or announcements from various other social networks.

At this point, if you live on Earth and have ever used money or the internet, your personal information has probably been leaked.

And, yet, there seems to be very little accountability. Between nefarious incidents, corporate acquisitions, and information sharing agreements, user data gets shuffled around all the time with seemingly no restrictions or adequate protections. Your consent to do this is probably buried in the privacy policies that almost nobody reads before agreeing to.

There’s a lot to be despondent about, but I think the most worrying thing is that there is almost no incentive for Equifax or any other company to take user privacy seriously. The company has already lost about $2 billion in value, and they might pay millions of dollars in fines. But in a year or two, do you really think it will make much of a difference? Earlier this year, even after several major security breaches were reported by Yahoo, Verizon still paid nearly the previously-agreed price to acquire the company. I genuinely doubt that, in a year, Equifax will still be feeling the effects of such a huge breach of responsibility.

The Long-Term Price of AMP

Ethan Marcotte:

I’ve had a few conversations with members of the Google AMP team, and I do believe they care about making the web better. But given how AMP pages are privileged in Google’s search results, the net effect of the team’s hard, earnest work comes across as a corporate-backed attempt to rewrite HTML in Google’s image. Now, I don’t know if these new permutations of AMP will gain traction among publishers. But I do know that no single company should be able to exert this much influence over the direction of the web.

Marcotte’s concerns echo my own.

Here’s the thing: if AMP were pitched by a big web company that is not Google and was similarly preferred in search results, I would not find it quite as objectionable — I would still object, but I don’t think it would be quite as serious an issue. If AMP were not preferenced by Google in search results, I would have less of a problem. If AMP did not require a Google-hosted JavaScript file to render correctly and be validated, I would have less of a problem.

But it is all of these things combined that creates a conflict-of-interest problem and makes AMP objectionable. Add to that Google’s already-dominating power on the web — in search, email, analytics, advertising, video, maps, music, and more — and it makes Google’s push for publishers to adopt AMP as a total power grab.

If AMP is anything other than a power grab, then Google should have no problem submitting its spec to W3C and untangling its own involvement in it other than through official W3C channels. I doubt that they will ever do that.

Behind Siri’s New Voice

David Pierce, Wired (sorry):

This fall, when iOS 11 hits millions of iPhones and iPads around the world, the new software will give Siri a new voice. It doesn’t include many new features or tell better jokes, but you’ll notice the difference. Siri now takes more pauses in sentences, elongates syllables right before a pause, and the speech lilts up and down as it speaks. The words sound more fluid and Siri speaks more languages, too. It’s nicer to listen to, and to talk to.

Apple spent years re-architecting the technology behind Siri, transforming it from a virtual assistant into the catch-all term for all the artificial intelligence powering your phone. It has relentlessly expanded into new countries and languages (for all its faults, Siri’s by far the most worldly assistant on the market). And slowly at first but more quickly now, Apple has worked to make Siri available anywhere and everywhere. Siri now falls under the control of Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, indicating that Siri’s now as important to Apple as iOS.

I’ll have a bit more to say about my experiences with Siri’s new voice when iOS 11 ships, but my impression closely matches Pierce’s: there’s something far nicer about it. It’s down to very subtle factors, as he points out: slight variations in the way words are said depending on what comes next, for example. These tweaks do far more than you’d expect; they’re not just cosmetic.

There’s something else in this piece, too, which I found quite revealing:

From the beginning, [Greg Jozwiak] says, Apple wanted Siri to be a get-shit-done machine. It drives him crazy that people compare virtual assistants by asking trivia questions, which always makes Siri look bad. “We didn’t engineer this thing to be Trivial Pursuit!” he says.

It doesn’t matter how Siri was engineered or what it was intended to do; what matters is how people actually use it for real. Because its UI is largely non-visual and Siri has always been marketed as something that can assist you with lots of tasks, people are going to try different things with it. Perhaps those comparison tests truly don’t show Siri’s best side, but they do show an area of deficiency that is reflected in the real world.

‘An Incredibly Destructive Force’

Earlier today, I linked to a rather terrible op-ed in the Washington Post accusing Steve Jobs of creating the Trump presidency.

Jobs himself characterized what would eventually become the defining thrust of the Trump presidency before he died, in fact, as written in his biography by Walter Isaacson and quoted here by Steve Myers in Poynter:

“You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.”

Via Fark user “theflatline”.

Shiva Ayyadurai’s Idiotic Lawsuit Against Techdirt Has Been Dismissed

Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica:

A federal judge in Massachusetts has dismissed a libel lawsuit filed earlier this year against tech news website Techdirt.

The claim was brought by Shiva Ayyadurai, who has controversially claimed that he invented e-mail in the late 1970s. Techdirt (and its founder and CEO, Mike Masnick) has been a longtime critic of Ayyadurai and institutions that have bought into his claims. “How The Guy Who Didn’t Invent Email Got Memorialized In The Press & The Smithsonian As The Inventor Of Email,” reads one Techdirt headline from 2012.

Numerous articles that dubbed Ayyadurai a “liar” and a “charlatan” followed. That, in turn, led to Ayyadurai’s January 2017 libel lawsuit.

Good.

Masnick will still have to pay legal fees, which is unfortunate, and Ayyadurai will drag this thing into appeal which is going to cost Techdirt even more. All states should have anti-SLAPP laws to help prevent this kind of nonsense in the first place, and require those filing dumb lawsuits such as this to pay legal costs if they lose.

In case you’re wondering, Google’s instant answer box still says that Ayyadurai invented email, and of the ten normal search results displayed on the first page, five are links to either Ayyadurai’s own websites or puffy articles about him.

Facebook Discloses Information About 2016 Presidential Election Ads Linked to Russian Company

Scott Shane and Vindu Goel, New York Times:

Providing new evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin.

Most of the 3,000 ads did not refer to particular candidates but instead focused on divisive social issues such as race, gay rights, gun control and immigration, according to a post on Facebook by Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to some 470 fake accounts and pages the company said it had shut down.

Via John Gruber, who writes:

$100,000 (for about 3,000 total ads) is chump change for Facebook. In fact, chump change is probably too strong a word. Facebook reported $9.3 billion in revenue last quarter. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, and about 91 days per fiscal quarter. That means Facebook generates about $1,200 in revenue every second of every day.

Gruber’s right. $100,000 also isn’t a lot of money for a single major advertiser to spend — the Trump campaign spent 1,500 times as much. But it is a decent-sized lump of money for a single company that is ostensibly associated with a foreign government to spend on political ads — any money is a lot to spend by a government-connected company on ads for hot-button issues in another country.

See Also: Zeynep Tufekci on Twitter.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch

Jenny Odell (PDF) contributed this piece to the Museum of Capitalism’s opening exhibition:

On July 2017, a visitor to the Museum of Capitalism contributed a watch (from here on referred to as “our watch”) to the museum’s artifact drive. In his form, he noted that Folsom & Co., a supposedly San Francisco-based company, used Instagram to offer the watch “free,” but with $7 shipping.

[…]

The page on the customer review site trustpilot.com that is supposed to be for Folsom & Co. instead contains reviews of a company called So coastal, which also sells “free” watches that are poorly reviewed. #So coastal shows up as a hashtag included in some of Folsom & Co.’s Instagram posts, alongside other misleading or nonsensical hashtags like #newyorkfashionweek (not during New York Fashion Week), or #foreverandeverdior. Looking further, So coastal turns out to be a near-identical website to Folsom & Co., except that it claims to be in the South of Fifth neighborhood of Miami Beach, with products inspired by Miami neighborhoods and phenomena, like “Art Basal (sic).” Our watch, called “The Jones” by Folsom & Co., is called “The Elite” by So coastal.

Literally the only difference between the sites is where they claim to be based. Folsom & Co. draws on the San Francisco hipster-barbershop aesthetic circa 2010, and names its watches after streets in San Francisco. So coastal, on the other hand, strives to seem more beachy, offering sunglasses in addition to watches. The header image of So coastal’s site is a royalty-free stock image of a surfer from Shutterstock. (Folsom and Co.’s header image, meanwhile, is ripped from an article about Simple Watch Company, an Australian brand.)

I absolutely love this piece.

Tangentially, you’ve got to wonder how many different industries have been radically overhauled by the rise of fast fashion. Half of the stores in your average mall and a bunch of the kiosks seem to be selling effectively the same products with different names on them. Go on Etsy these days and you can find dozens of copies of the exact same nautical-themed bracelet sold by different vendors. I’m not referring to similar-looking variants of the same item, but identical items sold under different brands.

As Odell notes in her piece, it isn’t any one factor — one-click DIY shopping websites, social media advertising, fast fashion, or increased access to fulfilment option — that has made this sort of thing possible. It’s all of those factors combined.

David Von Drehle’s Stupid Clickbait Article in the Washington Post

David Von Drehle, writing yesterday in the Washington Post:

Steve Jobs gave us President Trump

That is quite the headline. And you can probably see where it’s going already, can’t you?

Von Drehle compares Sen. Mitch McConnell to an abbott in a monastery, dutifully hand-writing and binding Bibles, then spends the next several paragraphs drawing the requisite comparison between the introduction of the iPhone to Gutenberg’s printing press, and how that helped fuel the Enlightenment and, by extension, the founding of the United States.

But one thing is clear after the election of 2016 — the first American election truly dominated by mobile communication and the social networking it sparks […]

Is it, though? Von Drehle’s use of the word “dominated” seems rather loose: the last U.S. Presidential election was huge on Twitter — if not at the same scale as this one, though I couldn’t find an equivalent official news release. The Atlantic specifically cited the effectiveness of Barack Obama’s social media strategy in their photo essay of the night, while one of the biggest stories of the night was Trump’s multi-tweet rant about the president losing the popular vote while winning the electoral college, despite that being false.

Von Drehle:

We saw last year that the power of the smartphone is vaporizing these [traditional functions of a political party]. Donald Trump captured the Republican ballot line even though he had no appreciable connection to the Republican Party. Nothing like it had ever happened to an American political party. Trump had his own access to television after decades as a public performer and provocateur. More important, though, was the way he leveraged his celebrity via smartphone. His millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook became a rapidly growing Party of Trump. His supporters felt a personal and authentic connection that left no room for mediation by GOP elites.

Considering this, it seems completely arbitrary to me cite Apple’s introduction of the iPhone under Steve Jobs as the single key thing that got Trump the presidency. Why not cite Heinrich Hertz for discovering electromagnetic waves, or Tim Berners-Lee for inventing the World Wide Web, or Jack Dorsey, et. al., for creating Twitter, or whoever was the project lead on the Samsung Galaxy S3, Trump’s personal phone?

It doesn’t need to be stated that the iPhone had an overwhelming impact on the industry. But its introduction did not make Trump president any more than it made Obama president. Citing Jobs as being a singlehanded force in either’s election is clickbait, and nothing more.

Von Drehle:

Moreover, it’s highly uncertain how much compromise is possible in this new age of direct connectivity. Any Democrat who votes for legislation that frees McConnell from a jam and gives the president an occasion to brag is likely to face a storm of Internet opposition.

In short, Pennsylvania Avenue is not the place to read the future of politics. Look instead toward Cupertino, Calif., where on Sept. 12 a new iPhone will remind us that change is the new normal.

Nice segue.

I like the Post; I’m even a subscriber. But this should never have moved past an editor, let alone be given the headline it ended up with. I would be fascinated to read an investigation of how direct connectivity enabled by social media gives the false impression of a celebrity like Trump being a relatable and personable guy. But slapping that headline on the article and devoting half of it to a meandering exploration of McConnell as an abbott turns this into empty clickbait more than a zeitgeist review.

Samsung’s Facial Recognition Feature Is Unreliable

Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

The iris scanner shines infrared light in your eyes to identify you and unlock the phone. That sounds futuristic, but when you set up the feature, it is laden with disclaimers from Samsung. The caveats include: Iris scanning might not work well if you are wearing glasses or contact lenses; it might not work in direct sunlight; it might not work if there is dirt on the sensor.

I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses and could only get the iris scanner to scan my eyes properly one out of five times I tried it.

When you set up the face scanner, Samsung displays another disclaimer, including a warning that your phone could be unlocked by “someone or something” that looks like you. (Hopefully you don’t have a doppelgänger in the primate kingdom.) In addition, face recognition is less secure than using a passcode. So why would you even use it?

Underscoring that last feature, Edoardo Maggio writes for Business Insider:

Web developer and user experience designer Mel Tajon ran a test with the Note 8, and found its facial recognition feature can be tricked with a photograph.

[…]

What’s worse is that even relatively low-quality pictures such as those uploaded on Facebook and Instagram can seemingly do the trick. “Confirmed: I’m also able to unlock the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 with people’s Facebook profile pics and Instagram selfies from my iPhone,” said Tajon.

Facial recognition may be hard, but if it doesn’t really work to reliably authenticate a specific user, why ship it at all?

Update: It has been pointed out to me that Tajon’s experience was with a Galaxy Note 8 in “kiosk” mode, which may not perfectly match the shipping device. I think that’s fair, but I also think it’s fair to consider that there’s a Touch ID demo on iPhones in Apple Stores, and it’s just as reliable as the shipping product. Also, as Chen notes, there is a disclaimer that appears when activating Samsung’s facial recognition feature, noting that similar-looking people could unlock the device. Do you think an iPhone with facial recognition would have a similar warning? I don’t.

The Persistence of Facebook

John Lanchester, in a lengthy essay for the London Review of Books, reviews three books published in the past year about Facebook and Silicon Valley’s dominance of the web generally:

What, though, if none of the above happens? What if advertisers don’t rebel, governments don’t act, users don’t quit, and the good ship Zuckerberg and all who sail in her continues blithely on? We should look again at that figure of two billion monthly active users. The total number of people who have any access to the internet – as broadly defined as possible, to include the slowest dial-up speeds and creakiest developing-world mobile service, as well as people who have access but don’t use it – is three and a half billion. Of those, about 750 million are in China and Iran, which block Facebook. Russians, about a hundred million of whom are on the net, tend not to use Facebook because they prefer their native copycat site VKontakte. So put the potential audience for the site at 2.6 billion. In developed countries where Facebook has been present for years, use of the site peaks at about 75 per cent of the population (that’s in the US). That would imply a total potential audience for Facebook of 1.95 billion. At two billion monthly active users, Facebook has already gone past that number, and is running out of connected humans. Martínez compares Zuckerberg to Alexander the Great, weeping because he has no more worlds to conquer. Perhaps this is one reason for the early signals Zuck has sent about running for president – the fifty-state pretending-to-give-a-shit tour, the thoughtful-listening pose he’s photographed in while sharing milkshakes in (Presidential Ambitions klaxon!) an Iowa diner.

Whatever comes next will take us back to those two pillars of the company, growth and monetisation. Growth can only come from connecting new areas of the planet. An early experiment came in the form of Free Basics, a program offering internet connectivity to remote villages in India, with the proviso that the range of sites on offer should be controlled by Facebook. ‘Who could possibly be against this?’ Zuckerberg wrote in the Times of India. The answer: lots and lots of angry Indians. The government ruled that Facebook shouldn’t be able to ‘shape users’ internet experience’ by restricting access to the broader internet. A Facebook board member tweeted that ‘anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ As Taplin points out, that remark ‘unwittingly revealed a previously unspoken truth: Facebook and Google are the new colonial powers.’

Much of this essay is stuff that you’ve read before, especially if you frequent this website. But to see it all in a single place and to pair it with observations about the depth and breadth of control that Facebook — and Google, and Amazon — has over the web is compelling. I regret reading this only now, and not before the long weekend, when many of you would have had more time to spend with it.

International Limitations on Apple Services

Andrew Marinov:

It’s been years since I’ve started filing radars and hoping that Apple would add my native Bulgarian language to iOS and with each new release, the release notes are the first thing I pour through, looking for any new language editions.

Unfortunately, though, not only is Apple seriously behind on language support, with each year new features come that are geolocked and exclusive.

With each release more and more functionality is being showcased in keynotes that’s out of the reach of a big part of the world.

In this post I’ll go through a couple of major features and see how iOS compares to Android in regard to localization.

I sort of understand why Siri doesn’t support as many languages or features internationally — the complexity of different syntaxes combined with international availability of other services makes it difficult, or even impossible, to achieve total feature consistency worldwide.

But the continued restriction of apps like News to just the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia baffles me. These three countries are officially English-only, but I don’t see how that affects an app that basically aggregates articles from local and international news sources. The recommendation engine is the only hangup that I can see, but even that is ostensibly powered by Siri, which is available in far more countries.

See Also: The international availability of Apple’s entertainment services from MacStories, last updated in 2014.

Questions About the Reliability of Scheduled Tasks in MacOS Sierra

Howard Oakley (via Michael Tsai):

Some time after 2011, it appears that Apple started moving its own scheduled and background services, like Time Machine backup, to use a novel dispatching system involving two services, Duet Activity Scheduler (DAS) and Centralised Task Scheduling (CTS), the latter being intimately related or a part of the lightweight communication and dispatching system XPC. No one outside Apple seems to know when this happened, as DAS and CTS are almost completely undocumented.

In Sierra, the DAS and CTS dispatching system now manages more than seventy activities at most times, one of which is Time Machine’s scheduled backups. However, in Sierra at least, this system has a bug which results in its breakdown: backups suddenly become irregular or stop altogether, and the other activities also become unreliable.

My MacBook Air is nearly always connected to power and my Thunderbolt Display which, in turn, is connected to an external hard drive. This drive is partitioned down the middle, with half being used for Time Machine and the other half holding my iTunes library.1 When I’m at my desk, I’m almost always listening to music, which means that this drive is almost always mounted. I would notice if this drive were unplugged.

And, yet, I received a notification last night that my Mac had not been backed up in thirteen days. Thirteen days is a long time for a computer to not be backed-up; I would have expected a notification sooner than that.2 A reboot of my Mac fixed this for me, but two things: requiring a restart to work around a bug like this seems a bit Windows-y, and a bug that prevents Time Machine from working consistently is a very serious bug indeed. I don’t know for absolute certain whether I ran into this specific bug, but I have used Time Machine since Leopard was released and I have never had anything like this happen to me before.

In fact, the only reason I restarted in the first place is because I remembered reading this on Tsai’s blog during the day yesterday — ironically, for a bug in MacOS’ scheduling system, the combination of Tsai’s post and encountering the bug was timed absolutely perfectly.


  1. Each partition is also cloned regularly via Super Duper. I recognize that this is not a backup system of the highest integrity. I’d like to go offsite, but I have serious reservations about Backblaze’s fiddling with file metadata. Update: More from Michael Tsai on Backblaze (scroll to the bottom of the post). ↩︎

  2. It’s definitely possible that I did get notified earlier but I missed it, for some reason. ↩︎

The Time When Google Got Forbes to Pull a Published Story

Kashmir Hill writes for Gizmodo about the time when she worked for Forbes and published an article about the influence of Google Plus sharing buttons — remember Google Plus? — on search rankings:

Google promptly flipped out. This was in 2011, around the same time that a congressional antitrust committee was looking into whether the company was abusing its powers.

Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting. Instead, a Google spokesperson told me that I needed to unpublish the story because the meeting had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes. (I had signed no such agreement, hadn’t been told the meeting was confidential, and had identified myself as a journalist.)

It escalated quickly from there. I was told by my higher-ups at Forbes that Google representatives called them saying that the article was problematic and had to come down. The implication was that it might have consequences for Forbes, a troubling possibility given how much traffic came through Google searches and Google News.

Hill includes an email at the end of this post from a Google vice president reiterating their understanding that what was said during that meeting was protected by a non-disclosure agreement, and that there was a miscommunication between Hill and the Forbes staff about that.

Even so, Google’s heavy influence on the continued financial viability of many online publishers allows them to exert a soft but definitive influence. It doesn’t really matter whether that power was communicated by Google or was simply a fear of Forbes’ management — the fear itself of losing traffic from Google properties or having advertising income withheld is enough to cause worry.