Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February, 2018

Autocorrect Based on Contacts and Apps

Wil Shipley:

Imagine being in charge of an algorithm that hundreds of millions of users depend on every day and saying, “Hey, let’s take any word that’s capitalized in your contacts and just always capitalize it in text messages!”

It’s not just contact names that inform the autocorrect dictionary: any capitalized word in a contact record will be fed into the dictionary, as will installed apps. So, if you know someone who works at, say, Apple, or you have the Transit app installed, you will find yourself regularly undoing the automatic capitalization of those words when talking about fruit or the very concept of public transit. Sometimes, autocorrect will fix its aggressive capitalization after it is given more context by typing several more words; but, frequently, it does not.

A Third-Party Script Used by Government Websites Was Compromised to Mine Cryptocurrency

Scott Helme:

I had a friend of mine get in touch about his AV program throwing a warning when visiting the ICO website. The ICO bill themselves as:

The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.

They’re the people we complain to when companies do bad things with our data. It was pretty alarming to realise that they were running a crypto miner on their site, their whole site, every single page.

At first the obvious thought is that the ICO were compromised so I immediately started digging into this after firing off a few emails to contact people who may be able to help me with disclosure. I quickly realised though that this script, whilst present on the ICO website, was not being hosted by the ICO, it was included by a 3rd party library they loaded.

Scary as it is, this is arguably relatively minor incident; imagine if it were a more malicious script — something like a keylogger. It would be wise for web developers reliant upon third-party scripts to treat them as though they will, at some point, carry malware.

Equifax Continues to Be Useless and Terrible at Absolutely Everything

Zack Whittaker, ZDNet:

Hackers stole more data from Equifax in a breach last year than initially thought.

[…]

A letter published Friday by committee member Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to acting Equifax chief executive Paulino do Rego Barros summarized the senator’s five-month investigation into the Equifax breach, which said tax identification numbers (TINs), email addresses, and additional license information — such as issue dates and by which state — were not originally disclosed.

A reminder that Reuters reported earlier this month that the CFPB investigation into the Equifax breach is “on ice”.

An Apple Intern Reportedly Stole iOS Source Code and Leaked It to His Friends

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

According to these sources, the person who stole the code didn’t have an axe to grind with Apple. Instead, while working at Apple, friends of the employee encouraged the worker to leak internal Apple code. Those friends were in the jailbreaking community and wanted the source code for their security research.

The person took the iBoot source code—and additional code that has yet to be widely leaked—and shared it with a small group of five people.

“He pulled everything, all sorts of Apple internal tools and whatnot,” a friend of the intern told me. Motherboard saw screenshots of additional source code and file names that were not included in the GitHub leak and were dated from around the time of this first leak.

Baseband code from the same time period has also been leaked publicly.

Everything Easy is Hard Again

Frank Chimero:

If you go talk to a senior software developer, you’ll probably hear them complain about spaghetti code. This is when code is overwrought, unorganized, opaque, and snarled with dependencies. I perked up when I heard the term used for the first time, because, while I can’t identify spaghetti code as a designer, I sure as hell know about spaghetti workflows and spaghetti toolchains. It feels like we’re there now on the web.

[…]

I wonder what young designers think of this situation and how they are educating themselves in a complicated field. How do they learn if the code is illegible? Does it seem like more experienced people are pulling up the ladder of opportunity by doing this? Twenty years ago, I decided to make my own website, because I saw an example of HTML and I could read it. Many of my design peers are the same. We possess skills to make websites, but we stopped there. We stuck with markup and never progressed into full-on programming, because we were only willing to go as far as things were legible.

This essay resonated deeply with me. I wrote my first line of HTML about twenty years ago. I remember editing the Yahoo homepage in Netscape Composer around that time, and building a Geocities website not that long after. It felt easy and approachable, even if <table> syntax was often inscrutable and unpredictable. A few years later, the CSS wave hit the web and I learned about why it was appropriate to separate presentational code from the page’s markup.1 CSS has become more complicated since then, but it continues to make sense to me, even though I need to look up the flexbox syntax every time I use it.

Over the last five years or so, even the most basic website stopped being treated as a collection of documents and started being thought of as software. Over the same period of time, I have gone from thinking that I know how to build a website quickly and efficiently to having absolutely no clue where to start learning about any of this stuff. I can’t imagine being eight years old again and being interested in the web as something anyone can contribute to.

See Also: Chimero’s spoken, longer-form version of this essay, given as a talk at Mirror Conf.


  1. And, yet, the easiest way to make a few boxes side-by-side that have the same resulting height despite allowing a flexible amount of text in each remains display: table-cell. The same technique allows perhaps the easiest way to vertically centre an unpredictable amount of text. Like tables for layout purposes, it still isn’t semantically correct, but we use it anyway. ↩︎

Reports of Google’s Newfound Design Prowess Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There is something unique about deliberately contrarian-for-the-sake-of-being-contrarian positions that irks me so much, and I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know that it’s because these arguments are poor so much as it is that they’re easily shown to be poor. Maybe it’s the author’s optimism that convinces them that their piece is worth publishing, or maybe it’s just provocative for its own sake — the latter of which is even more irritating for me because I know that my frustration with the argument is entirely the author’s intention, and I’d rather not play into that. Whatever the case, it’s the sort of thing that rattles around inside my head.

Which brings me to two pieces written by Joshua Topolsky last autumn. The first, “Apple is Really Bad at Design”, posits that Apple’s recent products no longer represent the pinnacle of design in the industry. To be fair to Topolsky, he may sincerely believe that there’s value in challenging the assumption that these products are well-designed, and I think that’s completely reasonable. It’s that article’s companion piece, “Google is Really Good at Design”, that occasionally creeps up in my mind.

Topolsky:

The concepts inherent in Material Design — a system of literal layers that evoke the tactility of a stack of paper, but offers the flexibility of digital spaces; a responsive layout concept that assumes no two devices may be exactly the same size or shape; a bold use of typography, motion, and color — showcase a decidedly different approach than Apple has taken. Where Jony Ive and company have produced a scattered, visually unmoored solution that seems to be solving small problems bite-by-bite, Google essentially blew up what had come before and reset. This radical rethink has spread into Google’s deep web pockets, meaning that a logical system of navigation and connectivity not only informs what you see on your phone when you interact with apps and services, but what you get on the web, on a laptop, or on a TV. Gmail is Gmail is Gmail, responding to whatever screen it’s on. And sometimes, thanks to Google’s deep machine learning and natural language chops, Gmail is also the disembodied voice you talk to while you’re driving. In Google’s universe, its voice-activated Assistant isn’t middleware — it’s everyware, tapping deeply and natively into all of the company’s nodes.

Topolsky is generally right in saying that Google’s approach to user interfaces is remarkably consistent across everything, but I would argue that it represents why their products are often so frustrating and cumbersome to use.

Case in point: their new YouTube app for tvOS. The last version didn’t represent a dramatic design statement or look particularly special — it was pretty much the same as any of the default tvOS apps — but it worked, for the most part. It was the only app I’ve used on my Apple TV that would regularly kick me back to the tvOS home screen instead of the last screen in the app when I pressed the remote’s menu button while watching a video, and it had stability problems when searching, but it wasn’t terrible.

The new app, though, represents everything wrong with Google’s present UI design philosophy. It follows virtually none of the Apple TV platform conventions:

  • There’s a sidebar on the left that looks like an Android action bar.

  • Swiping to the left on the touch pad from any of the app’s menu screens will open a main menu panel, with navigation options for your subscriptions, video history, and own video library.

  • There’s also a horizontal navigation element, similar to the type that you would find in a default tvOS app.

  • None of these elements behaves as you might expect, primarily because the YouTube app doesn’t interpret swipes and scrolls like any other app. There’s no audible blip whenever you select something, and swiping around manages to be both sluggish and jerky.

    The frustratingly slow scrolling is especially pronounced on the aforementioned horizontal navigation element because swiping just a little too far to the left will open the modal main menu panel that covers a third of the screen.

    The slow scrolling is also apparent in the main menu panel. The scrolling “friction”, for lack of a better term, is such that swiping down just a little is unlikely to have any effect, and swiping down just a little bit more will move the selector down two menu items. It can be very difficult to get it to move one menu item at a time.

  • There’s no sense of transition between screens or states. Instead of fading, screens simply change; instead of smoothly sliding left or right when scrolling across thumbnails, there will often be a sudden jump to load the new set of thumbnails.

  • Swiping horizontally across the remote while a video is playing will scrub the video. This is something Apple quickly changed after the fourth-generation Apple TV debuted because of how easy it was to accidentally invoke it.

  • Tapping on the remote’s touch pad to display onscreen controls automatically selects the play/pause button instead of the scrubber, as in other tvOS apps, and there are two levels of controls in the custom player.

  • The app is also an ugly sea of mid-tone greys.

It isn’t unheard-of for an Apple TV app from a major third party to fail to adhere to platform conventions. The Amazon Prime app doesn’t look or behave anything like a native app because it’s basically a web app. Hulu and Netflix also have some pretty crappy apps that don’t really function like a tvOS app ought to.

But this also isn’t unlike Google, which has completely disregarded platform standards with their major iOS apps for years. There’s nothing wrong with making apps of a particular style — my favourite developers all have their unique quirks and styles that help identify their apps as theirs — but Google’s apps frequently feel less like they’re trying to create branded iOS apps and more like they want their Android apps to run on iOS.

This isn’t a new argument, and Google has become a moderately better citizen on iOS over the past couple of years: their sharing glyph now looks like the system standard one instead of lazily copying the shape they use on Android, for example. This new YouTube app for tvOS is a step back, however. It feels like a half-assed port. When there’s no clear effort by a huge company like Google to even try to make their products fit a different platform, it indicates a lack of care and attention to detail. It also demonstrates that users’ expectations and learned behaviours are less important than self-promotion and branding.

What it shows, ultimately, is a lack of consideration for design.

The Facebook Flattening

Matt Klinman of Funny or Die, in an interview with Sarah Aswell of Splitsider on the effect of Facebook’s algorithmic timeline changes on independent media:

This writer John Herrman writes about this a lot — he used to write for The Awl, rest in peace — he talks about how Facebook flattens everything out and makes it the same. That’s how we have a Russian propaganda problem. An article from something like, I don’t know, Rebel Patriot News written by a Macedonian teen or something looks exactly the same as a New York Times article. It’s the same for comedy websites. There’s a reason that Mad magazine looks different from Vanity Fair. They need to convey a different aesthetic and a different tone for their content to really pop. Facebook is the great de-contextualizer. There’s no more feeling of jumping into a whole new world on the internet anymore — everything looks exactly the same.

The premise of this piece is that “Facebook is killing comedy” — Funny or Die had to lay off a bunch of writers because of reduced traffic from Facebook. I’ve written about that before because, while I think websites like Funny or Die should be less dependent on traffic from any one source, but Facebook is not entirely blameless either.

This pullquote, though, is one of the best encapsulations I’ve seen of the effects of Facebook’s ecosystem, particularly its ability to erase context.

FCC Says Releasing ‘Jokes’ It Wrote About Ajit Pai Colluding With Verizon Would ‘Harm’ Agency

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

At its own discretion, the Federal Communications Commission has chosen to block the release of records related to a video produced last year in which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and a Verizon executive joke about installing a “Verizon puppet” as head of the FCC.

In a letter to Gizmodo last week, the agency said it was withholding the records from the public in order to prevent harm to the agency — an excuse experts say is a flagrant attempt to skirt federal transparency law.

I’m not certain internal records are required to damage the agency’s reputation these days.

The Apple Music Long Game

Kirk McElhearn:

As streaming takes over from buying music, what’s the endgame? If Apple rolls in a major video offering – either as part of the Apple Music service, or as an add-on – then will Spotify be bought out by, say, Netflix? Amazon already has both, and there probably won’t be room for more than two or three players in that market.

Netflix doesn’t offer a free tier. Why would Apple offer one with a subscription to streaming music — and so far, at least — original video programming?

Apple’s Mysterious Search Engine Already Exists

Something fishy is going on in the world of Apple-centric websites. Yesterday, I posted a link to a silly piece arguing that Apple Music needs a free tier. Today, Dennis Sellers of Apple World Today is surprised by the idea that Apple might be working on a search engine:

A couple of years ago, Apple posted a listing to its Jobs at Apple page describing an engineering project manager position for “Apple Search.” Could the company could be working on a full-fledged search engine for use on macOS and iOS platforms?

This already exists. It’s built into Spotlight on MacOS and the iOS search function that used to be called Spotlight. It’s also baked into Safari and Siri, the latter of which Sellers notes in his article.

It’s almost like both of these pieces were written by people completely unfamiliar with Apple’s ecosystem. Maybe I’m wrong — maybe I’m just being cocky, and Apple is working on a rival to Google.com. Maybe I’m completely misguided here. But I don’t think so; both of these articles seem pretty boneheaded.

HomePod Review Roundup

Reviews of the HomePod are going live across the web this morning ahead of its release this Friday, and it seems like it’s living up to what was promised: a very good speaker with extraordinary audio engineering and limited Siri capabilities.

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

[Kate Bergeron, vice president of hardware engineering,] was speaking to a small group of tech bloggers, including myself, last Monday in Apple’s Cupertino, CA-based audio lab, just minutes from the new Apple Park spaceship campus. About six years ago, according to Bergeron, the company began working on HomePod by attempting to answer this question: “What if we decided to design a loudspeaker that we could put in any room, and it wouldn’t affect the sound?”

This question is very different from the question the Amazon Echo and Google Home are trying to address. Those speakers’ primary aim is to offer hands-free help, by way of turning on the lights in the living room, telling you what traffic to work is like, setting timers, and playing podcasts while you’re busy cooking breakfast.

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

The sound that comes from the HomePod can best be described as precise. It’s not as loud as some others like Google Home Max or as bright (and versatile) as the Sonos Play 1, but it destroys the muddy sound of less sophisticated options like the Amazon Echo. To genuinely fill a large room you need two but anyone in a small house or apartment will get great sound from one.

[…]

While you can send texts and take notes and set reminders and handle phone calls begun on your iPhone, that’s about all of the extracurriculars and they’re all focused on single-user experiences. If you’re logged in to your iCloud account, all of the messages and calls are yours and come from you. That’s great if you’re a single dude living alone, but it completely falls apart in a family environment. Apple allows you to toggle these options off as the iCloud account owner and I recommend you do before it all ends in tears. Unless you live alone in which case Mazel, it sounds peaceful.

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

There are other problems I won’t shut up about: Many people will put a HomePod in the kitchen, yet it can’t set two simultaneous cooking timers. It can’t wake me up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” either. Echo and Google Home can do both. Apple says it is improving Siri all the time.

[…]

Siri turns out to be quite a good butler. Through the Home app, you can set up various HomeKit-compatible smart-home devices, and the voice prompts to control them. With Philips Hue lightbulbs and three iHome smart plugs, I was quickly commanding Siri to change my nightlight to a fuchsia hue, make tea via my electric kettle and turn on the humidifier.

Brian X. Chen:

Most bizarre thing about HomePod: It didn’t play music relevant to my listening history or prefs when asked “Hey Siri, Play some music.”

Siri should be better on HomePod because it’s the primary way to control it. But yeah, it’s worse.

I don’t think it’s a mistake to question whether Siri’s lacklustre abilities will be a hindrance to the success of the HomePod. Apple may be positioning it as a great speaker first and a smart speaker second, and the market will get to tell them whether that’s a reasonable way to judge the product. And, perhaps, people will love it for a speaker alone — it’s clearly a very good one. The more damning thing to consider about Siri is not that it is poor on the HomePod, but that it is poor everywhere. Fortunately, software can be updated, so that just means that we need to see some commitment from Apple that Siri is a high priority.

Ajit Pai’s FCC Cites Obama-Era Broadband Investments

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but an assessment made based on the actions of the current American administration has been undermined by their complete lack of scruples.

Crazy, I know.

Earlier this year, the FCC voted to retain a faster definition of broadband established by the previous administration. As far as I could tell, the defeated proposal was simply a way to broaden the definition of broadband and give the impression in reports that access to broadband had improved for Americans without doing the work of actually, you know, investing in better networks. After it was voted down, I figured that this FCC administration would, at least, avoid resorting to ridiculous tactics to gain the impression of a policy win without any actually good policy. But I should have known better.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Anyone who is familiar with the FCC chairman’s rhetoric over the past few years could make two safe predictions about this report. The report would conclude that broadband deployment in the US is going just fine and that the repeal of net neutrality rules is largely responsible for any new broadband deployment.

But the FCC’s actual data—based on the extensive Form 477 data submissions Internet service providers must make on a regular basis—only covers broadband deployments through December 2016. Pai wasn’t elevated from commissioner to chairman until January 2017, and he didn’t lead the vote to repeal the net neutrality rules until December 2017. And, technically, those rules are still on the books because the repeal won’t take effect for at least another two months.

The timing means that it would be impossible for Pai to present evidence today that broadband deployment is increasing as a result of the net neutrality repeal. But the report claims that’s exactly what happened anyway and says that future data will bear that out. To support its argument, the report claims that broadband deployment projects that were started during the Obama administration were somehow caused by Pai’s deregulatory policies.

Not only are they counting Obama-era — and net neutrality-era — investment plans as evidence of improved broadband deployment thanks to rules friendly to giant ISPs, they’re also citing past investments that have since been curtailed due to policies implemented by this FCC administration. That’s some bullshit anti-consumer behaviour.

In the U.S., Apple Music is Growing Faster Than Spotify in Paid Users

Michael Simon, Macworld:

According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple is on track to overtake Spotify in U.S. paid subscribers, a sign that the three-year-old music service is making serious inroads in a highly competitive landscape. The report states that Apple Music has been gaining U.S. subscribers at a 3 percent higher clip than Spotify, a trend that would give Apple’s music service a higher subscriber rate by the summer, assuming it continues.

That’s terrific news for Apple Music, especially considering that it is only available as a paid service. I wouldn’t be surprised if many users are paying more for music now than they have for a long time. You might think — quite reasonably, I believe — that this indicates that Apple’s strategy is working well.

But not Simon:

With a free Apple Music tier, Apple would not only get music fans to flock to its service in droves, it could also use it as a way to advertise HomePod as the best way to listen to Apple Music at home and AirPods as the ultimate on-the-go solution. With quick ads between songs, it would be speaking directly to a captive audience who shares a love for music. Simply put, there’s no better way to advertise.

Without trying to predict the future, I don’t think this fits the existing Apple Music strategy. The HomePod’s integration is clearly best with Apple Music, but I’m not sure that’s a reason to provide a free tier; the free trial more aptly demonstrates the advantages of subscribing to Apple Music.

More than anything, I think Simon falls into the same trap many others do: Apple isn’t setting out to build the biggest user base, but a large paying user base. A free trial accomplishes that goal; a free tier does not.

Reuters: CFPB Investigation Into Equifax ‘Put on Ice’

Patrick Rucker, Reuters:

The CFPB has the tools to examine a data breach like Equifax, said John Czwartacki, a spokesman, but the agency is not permitted to acknowledge an open investigation. “The bureau has the desire, expertise, and know-how in-house to vigorously pursue hypothetical matters such as these,” he said.

Three sources say, though, Mulvaney, the new CFPB chief, has not ordered subpoenas against Equifax or sought sworn testimony from executives, routine steps when launching a full-scale probe. Meanwhile the CFPB has shelved plans for on-the-ground tests of how Equifax protects data, an idea backed by Cordray.

The CFPB also recently rebuffed bank regulators at the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency when they offered to help with on-site exams of credit bureaus, said two sources familiar with the matter.

An investigation of this size and scope will, of course, take lots of time and may not always take a linear direction, but there should never be a question about whether it is proceeding at all. Consumers should never have to wonder whether the Bureau is operating in their best interests, especially given the impact of the Equifax breach on virtually every American adult with a credit card, mortgage, or car.

Major Publishers Are Turning Away From Facebook Instant Articles

Pete Brown, Columbia Journalism Review:

Of 72 publishers that Facebook identified as original partners in May and October 2015, our analysis of 2,308 links posted to their Facebook pages on January 17, 2018, finds that 38 publications did not post a single Instant Article — the platform’s fast-loading, native format. In the meantime, Facebook has continued to tout Instant Articles as a success among its journalism efforts. Instant Articles enjoyed rapid expansion in 2017, it says. But if many of the largest reputable outlets are falling out, which publications are driving that growth?

Do we think Facebook admits that Google AMP is winning the incredibly dumb race for proprietary news article format, that they keep trying to make Instant Articles work, or that they just give up on news altogether?

Women Once Ruled Silicon Valley

Emily Chang of Bloomberg has a new book coming out next week:

I’ve spent the last eight years covering Silicon Valley, most recently as the anchor of Bloomberg Technology. During that time, gender disparities have always hung in the background, present but often unacknowledged. Off-camera, guests would sometimes complain about a Silicon Ceiling — a sense that women’s opportunities in the tech world are severely limited — but they rarely wanted to discuss the subject on the record. And so, two years ago, I set out to investigate the problem and, more important, try to understand what the industry can do about it. The tragedy, as I argue in my book, Brotopia, is it didn’t have to be this way. The exclusion of women from technology wasn’t inevitable. The industry, it turns out, sabotaged itself and its own pipeline of female talent.

An excerpt from “Brotopia” was published earlier this year in Vanity Fair; in it, Chang lifted the lid on the drug-induced orgies thrown by prominent venture capitalists and attended by their clients.

WeChat, Already Deeply Entrenched in China, Begins Program to Integrate With National ID

Shannon Liao, the Verge:

China’s most popular messaging app, WeChat, has always had a close relationship with the Chinese government. The app has been subsidized by the government since its creation in 2011, and it’s an accepted reality that officials censor and monitor users. Now, WeChat is poised to take on an even greater role: an initiative is underway to integrate WeChat with China’s electronic ID system.

It may be hard for people outside of China to grasp just how influential WeChat has become there. “For all intents and purposes WeChat is your phone, and to a far greater extent in China than anywhere else, your phone is everything,” wrote Ben Thompson, consultant and founder of the blog Stratechery. “There is nothing in any other country that is comparable: not LINE, not WhatsApp, not Facebook.”

Here’s something that news stories like these make me increasingly convinced about: progress on the exciting parts of sci-fi — instant transportation to the other side of the world, flying cars, and the near-eradication of hunger and diseases in developing nations, for example — feels impossibly slow, but the scary and dystopian parts are already here.

Increase in Apple Music Commission Rate, But Decrease for iTunes Music

Apple:

As Apple Music continues to grow we are enhancing the affiliate program by increasing commissions for members of the base program. Beginning April 5th, 2018, we will increase payments to affiliates on Apple Music globally, paying twice as much as we do today. You will earn a one time 100% commission on the first month of a user’s subscription to Apple Music; this is twice the existing rate which pays 50%.

[…]

Also beginning in April, iTunes Music commissions will be reduced from 7% to 2.5% globally. The commission rate on movies, books, and TV will remain at the current 7% commission.

It isn’t notable that Apple is pushing Apple Music; it is notable, I think, that they’re pushing away from music sales on iTunes. I don’t think it necessarily betrays some hypothetical strategy of discontinuing music sales, but it’s a sign of the times. Remember when people wanted to own their music? That time is over — at least, for most.

Wired Launches Their Paywall

Wired has been one of the worst offenders for intrusive ads and overly-aggressive anti-ad blocking scripts that prevent you from reading the article. Subscribing online will drop all ads from their website, which is terrific, but there’s no word on whether non-subscribers will have a better reading experience to entice them to sign up. Based on what I’ve seen so far today, they don’t seem very worried that readers’ initial impression will still be pretty poor.