Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2017

Techno Moral Panic

John Herrman, New York Times, on reactions to the power of large tech companies in 2017:

The flip side of these companies’ new dominance is that, not unlike the first industrialists, they turn progress from something that manifests inevitably with the passage of time into something that is being done to us, for reasons that are out of our control but seem unnervingly and suddenly within someone else’s. This is a profound reorientation, which might explain why current anxieties about the internet make for such unlikely bedfellows. Conservative parents with moral complaints about inappropriate videos surfacing in YouTube kids’ channels find themselves inadvertently agreeing with leftist critiques of corporate power. Facebook’s inability to deal in any meaningful way with misinformation on the platform has loosely aligned an elitist critique of democratized news with populist anger at a company led by Silicon Valley elites. There are right-wing anti-monopolists and left-wing anti-monopolists setting their sights on Google and Facebook, claiming dangerous censorship or lack of responsible moderation or, sometimes, both at once — people who want different things, and who have incompatible goals, but who have intuited the same core premise. In these instances, the only people left telling us not to worry — rhyming their responses with the vindicated defenders of the nascent internet — have suspiciously much to lose.

Herrman wrote about the root of this nearly three years ago in an excellent article for the Awl:

In this future, what publications will have done individually is adapt to survive; what they will have helped do together is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry. Which sounds extremely lucrative! TV makes a lot of money, and there’s a lot of excellent TV. But TV is also a byzantine nightmare of conflict and compromise and trash and waste and legacy. The prospect of Facebook, for example, as a primary host for news organizations, not just an outsized source of traffic, is depressing even if you like Facebook. A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.

I’m going to bring this back around to net neutrality because the FCC’s vote is in about a week and I think it’s worth keeping that in mind. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has said, quite reasonably, that he is concerned about the influence of a handful of tech companies on our greater discourse. Whether that’s because he’s actually concerned about their influence or whether he’s using Silicon Valley as a scapegoat is irrelevant in this discussion. But it is more likely that a company can rise up to compete with, say, Facebook than it is that a startup could compete with a major ISP like Verizon or Comcast1 simply because of the high initial costs associated with building broadband infrastructure.2

Today’s tech giants were born in garages in the shadows of yesterday’s tech giants, so we hear, but major ISPs don’t have a comparable story. Allowing ISPs to treat websites differently or prioritizing traffic for a fee will more deeply entrench the dominance of the largest and wealthiest tech companies, and will make it less likely that an upstart can compete.


  1. Both of these ISPs actually run cable and their own infrastructure unlike, for example, smaller regional ISPs. ↩︎

  2. This is something that I seem remember the FCC acknowledging in their proposal (PDF) but I haven’t been able to find the passage. If you remember where it is, please let me know↩︎

Recode: Oracle Quietly Seeded Story About Android Location Tracking to Quartz

An important update to a story I linked to two weeks ago about an Android system service that was collecting location data even when location services were switched off — according to Tony Romm of Recode, Oracle seeded that story to Quartz as part of a PR campaign against Google:

Since 2010, Oracle has accused Google of copying Java and using key portions of it in the making of Android. Google, for its part, has fought those claims vigorously. More recently, though, their standoff has intensified. And as a sign of the worsening rift between them, this summer Oracle tried to sell reporters on a story about the privacy pitfalls of Android, two sources confirmed to Recode.

To be sure, the substance of Quartz’s story — Google’s errant location tracking — checks out. Google itself acknowledged the mishap and said it ceased the practice. Nor does Oracle stand alone in raising red flags about Google at a time when many in the nation’s capital are questioning the power and reach of large web platforms.

Still, Oracle’s campaign is undeniable. In Washington, D.C., for example, it has devoted a slice of its $8.8 million in lobbying spending so far in 2017 to challenging Google in key policy debates. It has sought penalties against Google in Europe, meanwhile, and it even purchased billboard ads in Tennessee just to antagonize its tech peer, sources said.

It is quite reasonable for people and companies to have questions about Google’s dominance in many online services and mobile operating systems and find that Oracle’s dirty tricks campaign somewhat sours the reputation of this story.

But I don’t necessarily think this reflects poorly on Oracle; if anything, it shakes my confidence in Quartz’s reporting. I don’t know what Quartz’s sourcing attribution guidelines are, but the New York Times’ style guide indicates that a source’s interest in the story should be communicated to readers as candidly as possible. In their story, Quartz did not indicate how they were tipped-off to Android’s behaviour.

Oracle is also one of the otherwise-anonymous backers of the named-for-irony Google Transparency Project lobbying group.

Contributors to Popular Websites Have Taken Payments for Inserting Brands Into Stories

Jon Christian, the Outline:

[…] Interviews with more than two dozen marketers, journalists, and others familiar with similar pay-for-play offers revealed a dubious corner of online publishing in which publicists, ranging from individuals like Satyam to medium-sized “digital marketing firms” that blur traditional lines between advertising and public relations, quietly pay off journalists to promote their clients in articles that make no mention of the financial arrangement.

People involved with the payoffs are extremely reluctant to discuss them, but four contributing writers to prominent publications including Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur told me they have personally accepted payments in exchange for weaving promotional references to brands into their work on those sites. Two of the writers acknowledged they have taken part in the scheme for years, on behalf of many brands. Mario Ruiz, a spokesperson for Business Insider, said in an email that “Business Insider has a strict policy that prohibits any of our writers, whether full-time staffers or contributors, from accepting payment of any kind in exchange for coverage.”

There are a couple of different kinds of writers that, according to Christian, took payments in exchange for mentioning or linking to brands in their articles. Some publish to “contributor networks”, which are blogs hosted by major publications but not edited by them. TechCrunch used to have one of those, but they shut it down earlier this year because they noticed an increase in posts that they “strongly suspected were ghost-written by PR”, which should come as no surprise. These contributor networks tend to be filled with self-promotional garbage. I don’t understand what positive effects a contributor network has on an established publication, but it seems like it’s trading away hard-earned authority for cheap traffic.

The more insidious acts Christian profiles are those from writers ostensibly creating articles where a brand pays for very subtle placement:

Yael Grauer, a freelancer who’s written for Forbes and many other outlets, says she’s gotten as many as 12 offers like Satyam’s in a single month, which she always rejects. Some are surprisingly straightforward, like a marketer who simply asked how much she charged for an article in Slate or Wired. Others are coy, like a representative of a firm called Co-Creative Marketing, who heaped praise on her writing before asking whether she could get content published in Forbes or Wired on behalf of a client. Another marketer offered Erik Sherman, a business journalist, $315 per article to mention her client’s landscaping products in Forbes, the Huffington Post, or the Wall Street Journal — though she cautioned that the mentions would need to “not look blatant.” Sherman declined, telling the marketer that the offer was “completely unethical.”

You’d probably expect this kind of thing to be pervasive in Forbes’ contributor network, but if a similar offer were accepted by a writer for an esteemed imprint like the Wall Street Journal, it would undermine your confidence in that publication overall — especially since it’s a business publication, as opposed to something more general-interest.

For what it’s worth, even I — writing at a fairly tiny site — receive offers like these a few times every week. I have never accepted any of them, of course.

MarsEdit 4

Daniel Jalkut:

Big news today: MarsEdit 4 is out of beta and available for download from the MarsEdit home page and the Mac App Store. This marks the end of a long development period spanning seven years, so it’s a great personal relief to me to finally release it. I hope you enjoy it.

MarsEdit 4 brings major improvements to the app including a refined new look, enhanced WordPress support, rich and plain text editor improvements, automatic preview template generation, and much more.

I’ve been using MarsEdit 4 betas for several months and I love the improvements in this version — particularly, the new Safari extension. Jalkut has created a very clever trial scheme; I highly recommend you take advantage of it if you have a blog and have never tried MarsEdit before. It’s terrific.

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos Officially End ‘Every Frame a Painting’

I can’t imagine many of the readers of this website are unfamiliar with “Every Frame a Painting”; but, if you aren’t familiar, three of my favourite episodes are their ones on Buster Keaton, David Fincher, and the presentation of technology in film.

What I like about this postmortem is that it’s the script to what is almost the “Every Frame a Painting” episode of “Every Frame a Painting”, particularly in this detail:

In order to make video essays on the Internet, we had to learn the basics of copyright law. In America, there’s a provision called fair use; if you meet four criteria, you can argue in court that you made reasonable use of copyrighted material.

But as always, there’s a difference between what the law says and how the law is implemented. You could make a video that meets the criteria for fair use, but YouTube could still take it down because of their internal system (Copyright ID) which analyzes and detects copyrighted material.

So I learned to edit my way around that system.

If YouTube’s automatic flagging system didn’t exist, it’s likely that “Every Frame a Painting” would feel completely different. Whether it would have been better, I’m not sure, but I think the limitations of YouTube helped birth something truly unique and very, very good.

The Stationary Smart Speaker Mirage

Fascinating article by Neil Cybart:

I don’t think stationary smart speakers represent the future of computing. Instead, companies are using smart speakers to take advantage of an awkward phase of technology in which there doesn’t seem to be any clear direction as to where things are headed. Consumers are buying cheap smart speakers powered by digital voice assistants without having any strong convictions regarding how such voice assistants should or can be used. The major takeaway from customer surveys regarding smart speakers usage is that there isn’t any clear trend. If anything, smart speakers are being used for rudimentary tasks that can just as easily be done with digital voice assistants found on smartwatches or smartphones. This environment paints a very different picture of the current health of the smart speaker market. The narrative in the press is simply too rosy and optimistic.

I’m clearly not the target market for the HomePod, primarily because I live in Canada where the HomePod won’t be for sale at launch.1 I also live in an apartment small enough that I can semi-loudly say “hey Siri” and get a response from my phone on the other side of my place. But I also think that the reason I’m not that enamoured with the HomePod or any smart speaker yet is because I’m a daily Apple Watch wearer, so many of its functions are on my wrist instead of in a tube in my kitchen.

I’m guessing that these products would appeal more — not exclusively, but more — to people who live in larger homes, of course, but also people who don’t typically wear a smartwatch — Apple’s or otherwise.2 I also wonder if smart speakers are an intermediate product between a more traditional computer-user relationship and something that’s more environmental or spatial. If it is, I’d rather throw my hat in with a company that has a strict commitment to user privacy, rather than companies that serve up targeted advertising.


  1. And, if the rollout of Apple News is anything to go by, several years after launch. ↩︎

  2. The HomePod is only $20 more expensive in the U.S. than a Series 3 Apple Watch. ↩︎

The Power of RAW Photography on the iPhone

Sebastiaan de With, designer of the Halide camera app:

When you shoot JPEG, you really need to get the photo perfect at the time you take it. With RAW and its extra data, you can easily fix mistakes, and you get a lot more room to experiment.

What kind of data? RAW files store more information about detail in the highlights (the bright parts) and the shadows (the dark parts) of an image. Since you often want to ‘recover’ a slightly over or under-exposed photo, this is immensely useful.

It also stores information that enables you to change white balance later on. White balance is a constantly measured value that cameras try to get right to ensure the colors look natural in a scene. iPhones are quite good at this, but it starts to get more difficult when light is tinted.

I’ve been shooting RAW on my iPhone almost exclusively since I received a beta version of Obscura in the summer last year that used iOS 10’s RAW capture API. More time is needed to make a RAW photo usable than a JPEG out of the camera app and RAW files take up so much more space, but it’s completely worth it. So many of the photos I’ve captured since would have been impossible to make without RAW.

You can try this for yourself: get a manual camera app like Obscura, Halide, or Manual, and download either Lightroom or Darkroom. Capture a scene in RAW, then start playing around with the highlights, shadows,1 and white balance; in Lightroom, you can also adjust individual hues in a scene without degrading the image fidelity. It’s remarkable how much the iPhone’s sensor actually captures, especially in foliage and finer patterns.


  1. If it’s snowy where you live, this is extremely helpful. ↩︎

Apple’s Use of Swift in iOS 11.1 and MacOS 10.13.1

Alexandre Colucci:

On iOS 10.1 there were only 4 binaries using Swift. The number of apps and frameworks using Swift grew quite a lot in a year: There are now 20 apps and frameworks using Swift in iOS 11.1 […]

Similarly the number of binaries using Swift grew from 10 in macOS 10.12.1 to 23 in macOS 10.13.1.

It looks like most of the system components built in Swift are entirely new apps, or effectively so, as with Music and Podcasts. But it also appears that Apple is thoroughly porting both operating systems over to Swift. I have no idea how deep that will run — I imagine device drivers, for example, may not be rewritten — but perhaps the goal is to have everything the user interacts with be built in Swift, or something like that.

Whatever Apple’s specific goal may be, the apps they have ported to Swift so far are not little things or developer-specific utilities. These are critical apps that people use all the time. If that’s not eating your own dog food, I don’t know what is.