Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2018

Google’s Mass Data Collection

Christopher Mims, Wall Street Journal:

As justifiable as the focus on Facebook has been, though, it isn’t the full picture. If the concern is that companies might be collecting some personal data without our knowledge or explicit consent, Alphabet’s Google is a far bigger threat by many measures: the volume of information it gathers, the reach of its tracking and the time people spend on its sites and apps.

New regulations, particularly in Europe, are driving Google and others to disclose more and seek more permissions from users. And given the choice, many people might even be fine with the trade-off of personal data for services. Still, to date few of us realize the extent to which our data is being collected and used.

“There is a systemic problem and it’s not limited to Facebook,” says Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist and assistant professor at Princeton University. The larger problem, he argues, is that the very business model of these companies is geared to privacy violation. We need to understand Google’s role in this.

This conversation is long overdue, but it’s vital we have it. How comfortable are we with (two) large American companies collecting and storing the vast majority of our online activities? If you are, that’s fine — Google and Facebook should have no objection to fully disclosing the extent of their tracking to gain your entirely-knowledgeable permission for doing so, but you should be able to turn it off any time you want. If you aren’t comfy with that — as, I think, the past couple months’ worth of stories about Facebook have suggested — shouldn’t that be fully respected by having none of your browsing tracked? Default cookie settings play a big role in the implied consent to tracking, of course, but more insidious means have also surfaced and which are impervious to changes in cookie settings, and with no easy way of opting out. Isn’t that obviously unethical?

SmugMug Acquires Flickr

Jessica Guynn, USA Today:

Flickr has been snapped up by Silicon Valley photo-sharing and storage company SmugMug, USA TODAY has learned.

SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill told USA TODAY he’s committed to breathing new life into the faded social networking pioneer, which hosted photos and lively interactions long before it became trendy. 

SmugMug, an independent, family-run company, will maintain Flickr as a standalone community of amateur and professional photographers and give the long neglected service the focus and resources it deserves, MacAskill said in an exclusive interview. 

He declined to disclose the terms of the deal, which closed this week.

The last time Oath — née Yahoo — showed any interest in Flickr was five years ago when they rethought the platform and gave everyone a terabyte of storage for free, and unlimited storage for just $25/year. And then they just sort of sat on it.

This is potentially good news because Flickr was, until this week, a Verizon company, and I think that it’s a little bit weird for an ISP and cable TV provider to be in charge of hosting your precious photographs. SmugMug, though, is a much smaller company, and it’s a good question whether they’ll be able to revitalize Flickr while retaining those high storage accounts.

Tim Cook Reiterates That Apple Isn’t Going to Merge the iPad and the Mac

Peter Wells of the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Tim Cook after Apple’s education event last month in Chicago:

“We don’t believe in sort of watering down one for the other. Both [The Mac and iPad] are incredible. One of the reasons that both of them are incredible is because we pushed them to do what they do well. And if you begin to merge the two … you begin to make trade offs and compromises.

“So maybe the company would be more efficient at the end of the day. But that’s not what it’s about. You know it’s about giving people things that they can then use to help them change the world or express their passion or express their creativity. So this merger thing that some folks are fixated on, I don’t think that’s what users want.”

Cook said basically the same thing a few years ago in an interview with Independent.ie.

One comment that he made in Wells’ interview stood out at me:

“I generally use a Mac at work, and I use an iPad at home,” Cook tells me, “And I always use the iPad when I’m travelling. But I use everything and I love everything.”

In 2014, Cook told the Wall Street Journal that he did about 80% of his work on his iPad; this is a subtle change in how he’s communicating what he uses to get work done. I’m not sure how much you should read into his comment — Apple kremlinology is often a waste of time — but it’s an interesting shift, I think.

‘Login With Facebook’ Data Hijacked by JavaScript Trackers

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Facebook confirms to TechCrunch that it’s investigating a security research report that shows Facebook user data can be grabbed by third-party JavaScript trackers embedded on websites using Login With Facebook. The exploit lets these trackers gather a user’s data including name, email address, age range, gender, locale, and profile photo depending on what users originally provided to the website. It’s unclear what these trackers do with the data, but many of their parent companies including Lytics and ProPS sell publisher monetization services based on collected user data.

The abusive scripts were found on 434 of the top 1 million websites including cloud database provider MongoDB. That’s according to Steven Englehardt and his colleagues at Freedom To Tinker, which is hosted by Princeton’s Center For Information Technology Policy.

There are clearly problems with trusting third-party code, and it is the responsibility of developers to adequately audit that code and ensure it is safe for end users. It’s getting to the point where scripts like these ought to be treated as potential malware.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn Favourably Compares Internet Fast Lanes to TSA Precheck

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Congressional Republicans want to impose “net neutrality” rules that allow Internet service providers to charge online services and websites for priority access to consumers. Making the case for paid prioritization Tuesday, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that paying for priority access would be similar to enrolling in TSA Precheck.

Blackburn is clearly counting on the public’s well-known admiration of the TSA to sell this proposal to them, whether it’s because they’re waiting in line for two hours, being groped by an agent, or having their knitting needles confiscated and their shampoo tossed in the trash.

Blogging Is Most Certainly Not Dead

Jason Kottke:

Social media is as compelling as ever, but people are increasingly souring on the surveillance state Skinner boxes like Facebook and Twitter. Decentralized media like blogs and newsletters are looking better and better these days…

They certainly are. I look forward to opening my RSS reader on my iPhone, even, in a way I don’t for any social media app. I even enjoy receiving the latest editions of the handful of email newsletters that I subscribe to.1 The former consists of stories from websites I trust in reverse-chronological order, and nothing more; the latter is a daily dose of links curated and placed into context by smart, reputable people.


  1. Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources”, Charlie Warzel’s “Infowarzel” — truly a terrific name, too — and Dave Pell’s “NextDraft”. ↩︎

The Facebook Media Backlash

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

Using publicly available information pulled from the APIs of USA Today, the New York Times, the Guardian, and BuzzFeed, researcher Joe Hovde compiled over 87,000 articles about Facebook published by the four outlets between 2006 and 2018. Then he ran a sentiment analysis on them, scoring words on a positive-to-negative scale of -5 to +5 — for example, a negative word like “fake” was scored -3, while a more positive word like “growth” was scored +2. The results were grim.

Hovde’s chart shows a steep increase in almost exclusively negative sentiment about Facebook beginning in late 2016, around the time of the presidential election. It also reveals a steady decline in positive sentiment between 2006 and 2016.

What this study seems to show is that the media is reacting solely to the remarkably shitty outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, arguably partially enabled by Facebook’s micro targeted ads. What it actually reveals is that Facebook — and Silicon Valley firms more generally — should have been covered with much more scrutiny and skepticism for years. The growing influence of algorithmically-tailored information based on mass data collection has always been worrying for now-obvious reasons, and more mainstream outlets should have explored that angle sooner and more frequently.

Dieter Bohn’s Suggestions for Improving iOS Notifications

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

The iPhone, though… Apple and I have fundamentally different philosophies about how we should relate to notifications. I see them as a new kind of email: annoying, necessary, and ultimately super useful. I want a framework for managing notifications — just like I have a framework for managing email.

Apple seems to believe that I shouldn’t go in for all that. Notifications are fundamentally distracting, so I think Apple’s solution is to convince us to stop giving them so much attention. Turn them off, let them float by, don’t worry about reaching “notification zero” (so to speak). My colleague Vlad Savov called it “an endless scrolling list of puffy notification clouds” and I think that’s apt. The result of this philosophy, I think, is that the tools Apple provides for dealing with notifications are blunt instruments. But I also think it’s the wrong philosophy. Some notifications are actually super important, but they’re too easy to miss in that endless pile of clouds.

Via John Voorhees at MacStories:

[…] I agree with Bohn that adding the ability to jump directly to an app’s notification settings from the notification itself would go a long way on iOS. As Federico and I discussed recently on AppStories, periodically evaluating and adjusting notifications is essential to avoiding notification overload on iOS, but it’s also something that becomes a project because it requires a lot of hunting and tapping. With a system like Android’s, I can imagine making fine-tuned adjustments to notifications more frequently because doing so would be less likely to disrupt what I was doing when I’m interrupted.

More than almost anything else on the system, managing notifications on iOS can quickly become a lot of work. I think a big reason for that it because we think of notifications as varying in importance — from high-priority phone calls and iMessage conversations right down to ads — but the system treats the vast majority of notifications similarly. There are basically four levels of notification, roughly in order of attention prioritization:

  1. Screen takeover, used for things like phone calls and the timer that have the highest priority notifications.

  2. Persistent banners.

  3. Temporary banners.

  4. Icon badges.

Most apps default to using temporary banners regardless of the notification’s priority, but that style is often way too intrusive, yet not helpful enough. With the exception of badges, notifications almost always cover part of an open app, which isn’t as passive as a “puffy notification cloud” ought to be. In addition, ways to handle notifications without having to open the spawning app have been added over time, with features like inline replies and richer notifications, but many apps don’t take full advantage of these characteristics.

In my ideal world, notifications would somehow not cover what I’m looking at, would be less prone to inundating me, and would do a better job of managing themselves without my intervention. I have no idea how to get to that point, but one thing I absolutely do not want, from Bohn’s list, is the ability for apps to add themselves to the status bar. That seems like an easy recipe for clutter, particularly with the notched status bar of the iPhone X.

Gurman: Apple Plans a News Subscription Service

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. plans to integrate recently acquired magazine app Texture into Apple News and debut its own premium subscription offering, according to people familiar with the matter. The move is part of a broader push by the iPhone maker to generate more revenue from online content and services.

The Cupertino, California company agreed last month to buy Texture, which lets users subscribe to more than 200 magazines for $9.99 a month. Apple cut about 20 Texture staff soon after, according to one of the people.

The world’s largest technology company is integrating Texture technology and the remaining employees into its Apple News team, which is building the premium service. An upgraded Apple News app with the subscription offering is expected to launch within the next year, and a slice of the subscription revenue will go to magazine publishers that are part of the program, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private plans. Apple declined to comment.

If this is anything like Apple Music, I’d like to think that it could offer subscribers the opportunity to explore different perspectives in journalism while ensuring each publication gets paid.

With iCloud and Apple Music already, plus Apple News and a Netflix-like service rumoured, Apple is soon to offer a lot of subscription services. Is there a point at which it makes sense for them to offer something like an all-access pass for, say, $40 a month?

Also, for some reason, Gurman asked Gene Munster for comment on this article. You know — that Gene Munster. That Gene Munster.

Update: On a related note, I certainly hope Apple News comes to users outside of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Not just this rumoured subscription — though I hope that’s more widely available as well — but Apple News as an app.

Mignon Clyburn Steps Down From FCC

Kim Hart, Axios:

Clyburn, an Obama nominee, was a consistent advocate for low-income, minority and other marginalized communities. She was a strong supporter of net neutrality, media ownership reform and lowering prison phone rates. Clyburn often clashed with current chairman Ajit Pai over policy decisions.

While Clyburn’s resignation had been expected for some time, her departure leaves an open seat on the five-member commission until a replacement is nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate.

The FCC is now a four-member commission with only one remaining Democrat — and, not coincidentally, only one remaining supporter of net neutrality in its policy-deciding directorship.

Fifty Shades of Grey

To be fair, Michael Steeber of 9to5Mac has catalogued only twelve shades of greys and blacks that Apple has used since 2012. Several of those variations show very minor differences; I wonder if the shades of white and even the plain anodized aluminum shades Apple has used over the same time period also show similar — albeit more subtle — variations in colour.

The Hilarious Life and Agonizing Death of Online Comedy

Alison Herman and Victor Luckerson of the Ringer wrote a fantastic look at how online comedy sites have evolved over the past couple of years, with major changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithms, the rise of the present American administration, and — to borrow Onion editor-in-chief Chad Nackers’ term — the “Onionization” of the world. I thought this was revealing:

Newell estimates that less than 10 percent of Reductress’s traffic is direct. Most users follow a link from an external site like Facebook or Twitter rather than navigating to the site’s homepage. Social media has so fundamentally altered internet users’ behavior that it’s difficult for individual sites to overcome. “Nobody goes on their computer and types in ‘Funnyordie.com,’” says Adriana Robles, a former staff writer at Funny or Die. “You don’t type in any website like that.”

This, in turn, created a feedback loop in which companies put fewer resources into websites and other hubs that could compete with social media. “We’re now at a point where, because everyone became dependent on Facebook, we all let our websites atrophy,” Klinman says. The big Onion website redesign in 2015 was undone when the company was acquired by Univision just eight months later and, late last year, transferred all its articles to Kinja, the same aesthetically spare publishing system used by Gizmodo, Jezebel, and other former Gawker Media sites that now share a corporate umbrella with The Onion.

The Onion is now a Gawker blog,” Klinman says. “We’ve just erased the idea that things have had importance on the internet — that it’s important to have a home, that it’s important to have a place that’s distinct and is what your brand is. Instead, we’ve flattened everything out so that it will do well on Facebook’s version of the internet.” And on Facebook’s version of the internet, everything looks the same, making it difficult for individual websites to stand out and build a distinct reputation — even voicey, incisive sites like The Onion, Reductress, and Very Smart Brothas, which have a well-honed ability to announce themselves with catchy, clever headlines.

Herman and Luckerson also profile websites like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which have managed to adjust, stabilize, and even grow.

Previously: I wrote a little about the ruinous sameness of Kinja websites.

Techniques for Locking Down Your Privacy and Security Online

Natasha Lomas and Romain Dillet of TechCrunch have assembled a good guide on how to remain more private and secure online. If there’s one thing I took away from this list, it’s that it’s doable, but often very difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try — you should, and you can pick-and-choose — but know that you’ll also find your newly-private browsing somewhat less convenient and straightforward.

I loved this, by the way:

Are you really getting so much value from an app that you’re happy for the company behind it and anyone else they partner with to know everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, the stuff you like and look at — even to have a pretty good idea what you’re thinking?

Think about that: how much are you actually getting out of the apps and services you use; and, how much are they getting out of you?

Personalized ‘Hey, Siri’

A new update on Apple’s machine learning blog explores their approach to speaker recognition in detecting “Hey, Siri”. It’s obviously fairly technical, but I found this bit interesting as it describes how they measure the success of the key phrase activating Siri:

The overall goal of speaker recognition (SR) is to ascertain the identity of a person using his or her voice. We are interested in “who is speaking,” as opposed to the problem of speech recognition, which aims to ascertain “what was spoken.” SR performed using a phrase known a priori, such as “Hey Siri,” is often referred to as text-dependent SR; otherwise, the problem is known as text-independent SR.

We measure the performance of a speaker recognition system as a combination of an Imposter Accept (IA) rate and a False Reject (FR) rate. It is important, however, to distinguish (and equate) these values from those used to measure the quality of a key-phrase trigger system. For both the key-phrase trigger system and the speaker recognition system, a False Reject (or Miss) is observed when the target user says “Hey Siri” and his or her device does not wake up. This sort of error tends to occur more often in acoustically noisy environments, such as in a moving car or on a bustling sidewalk. We report FR’s as a fraction of the total number of true “Hey Siri” instances spoken by the target user. For the key-phrase trigger system, a False Accept (or False Alarm, FA) is observed when the device wakes up to a non-“Hey Siri” phrase, such as “are you serious” or “in Syria today.” Typically, FA’s are measured on a per-hour basis.

I’ve been extremely impressed by the performance of “Hey, Siri” over the last couple of years. Not only does it reliably wake my device, it also does not wake my girlfriend’s — and vice-versa, when she says “Hey, Siri”.

What Siri does after that leaves much to be desired, of course.

The Other Irresponsibility

Following Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward and tedious testimony before the House and Senate came several great pieces from journalists covering it, as well as Facebook as a whole. I wanted to collect a few of the best that I found as a sort of highlight reel of irresponsibility.

Sam Biddle, of the Intercept, on Zuckerberg’s frequent claims that he didn’t know the answer to a question, :

After watching the Facebook founder and CEO’s 48-hour trip to Capitol Hill, there are two possible conclusions: either Mark Zuckerberg deliberately misled Congress, or Mark Zuckerberg knows very little about his own company. Both are bad.

Again and again, before both Senate and House committees, Zuckerberg pleaded ignorance about the company he created and has controlled for 14 years. Zuckerberg wasn’t dodging questions about obscure corners of the company or corporate minutiae, but the most plainly fundamental aspects of Facebook’s business and privacy policies. Rather than the congressional beatdown many had expected, the most striking aspect of Zuckerberg’s testimony wasn’t his painful apologias or excuse-spinning, but his ability to spend nearly 10 hours saying almost nothing. The hearings may prove to be a sea change moment for Facebook and the greater data-mining industrial complex, but it would be hard to say the public learned much of anything.

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

During his two-day marathon testimony in Washington this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg looked particularly uncomfortable answering basic questions about how Facebook tracks people when they’re not using Facebook. In case you hadn’t already heard, yes, it’s true: Facebook can track your online activity even if you aren’t signed in to Facebook.

Paris Martineau, the Outline:

Facebook claims that you can download a copy of everything it has on you here. Mark Zuckerberg said the same during his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday (“Congressman, I believe that all of your information is in that — that file.”). However, according to Facebook’s own Privacy Operations Team, both of these statements are wrong. Even better, Facebook has told users it cannot give out this information because it’s too difficult to access and package into a readable format.

Alexis C. Madrigal, of the Atlantic, expands on the same topic:

This apparent contradiction relies on the company’s distinction between the content someone has intentionally shared — which Facebook mines for valuable targeting information — and the data that Facebook quietly collects around the web, gathers from physical locations, and infers about users based on people who have a similar digital profile. As the journalist Rob Horning put it, that second set of data is something of a “product” that Facebook makes, a “synthetic” mix of actual data gathered, data purchased from outsiders, and data inferred by machine intelligence.

With Facebook, the concept of owning your data begins to verge on meaningless if it doesn’t include that second, more holistic concept: not just the data users create and upload explicitly, but all the other information that has become attached to their profiles by other means.

Gennie Gebhart, for the EFF:

Facebook’s ethos of connection and growth at all costs cannot coexist with users’ privacy rights. Facebook operates by collecting, storing, and making it easy to find unprecedented amounts of user data. Until that changes in a meaningful way, the privacy concerns that spurred these hearings are here to stay.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times:

When Google first introduced Gmail in 2004, this newspaper raised questions about the prospect of users objecting to a service that displayed advertising to them based on the content of their email: “For many, the bottom line appears to be that sifting through personal email with an eye toward making a sale is beyond the pale.”

Well, now more than 1.2 billion people have active accounts with Gmail, a service that until the end of last year sifted through your private messages. Apparently, it wasn’t beyond the pale.

For consumers, the transaction has always been pretty clear: The convenience of free service in exchange for information that allowed advertisers to specifically target us. The distinction in that equation was motivation; we figured our data was being used by benign companies seeking to sell us that pair of sneakers we wanted, not by bad actors trying to influence our political votes — or incite violence in places like in Myanmar.

These are all very good points made by astute writers in publications that I trust. Yet, most of these web properties — the EFF’s and the Intercept excluded — use some form of Facebook’s tracking scripts, whether that’s a Like or Share button, Beacon, or Pixel. That means they’re part of the problem; in a way, I am, too, by linking to them but, in my defence, Facebook’s scripts are among the web’s most popular, as are — surprise, surprise — Google’s.

The Outline uses Facebook’s Custom Audience and Pixel tracking, according to Ghostery. However, you may not be aware of that because it isn’t exactly something they advertise. To find it, you’d have to open the hamburger menu on the above linked page, click the small “Legal” link at the bottom, and look under the second section of their privacy policy where they link to a help article about the Facebook Pixel without outright stating that they’re using it.

They’re not alone; many websites don’t fully disclose their use of these trackers, and most do so only in a byzantine and buried privacy policy. The New York Times, for example, has a tiny grey “Privacy” link nestled in their footer. Then, you must scroll about halfway down the page to the “Third Parties” section, where you may “click here” to view a list of third-parties that “may be using cookies”. However, Facebook does not appear on this list despite the Times absolutely using their scripts. I was unable to find a reference on their website to the Times’ use of Facebook’s advertising and targeting scripts.

What’s absolutely clear here is that websites need to stop using Facebook’s tracking scripts — and Google’s too, while they’re at it.

For what it’s worth, users can and should make it harder for advertising companies to collect their browsing data. In iOS, under Privacy in Settings, you can switch on the Limit Ad Tracking option, and turn on Prevent Cross-Site Tracking under Safari settings. The latter option is also available for Safari on MacOS. Zack Whittaker at ZDNet has more information on opting out. You can also use a script or ad blocker to prevent tracking scripts from loading.

I completely understand that these scripts provide many advantages from a marketing and advertising perspective. I also get that the realities of the news business mean that publishers feel forced to make hard choices that increase revenue despite potentially compromising on principle. But websites that embed these scripts are contributing to these privacy-violating platforms. All web property owners — but especially highly-trafficked properties — have a responsibility to their visitors. Participating in a web-wide tracking scheme betrays that trust. It must be stopped.

Gurman: HomePod Sales Are Middling So Far

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

At first, it looked like the HomePod might be a hit. Pre-orders were strong, and in the last week of January the device grabbed about a third of the U.S. smart speaker market in unit sales, according to data provided to Bloomberg by Slice Intelligence. But by the time HomePods arrived in stores, sales were tanking, says Slice principal analyst Ken Cassar. “Even when people had the ability to hear these things,” he says, “it still didn’t give Apple another spike.”

During the HomePod’s first 10 weeks of sales, it eked out 10 percent of the smart speaker market, compared with 73 percent for Amazon’s Echo devices and 14 percent for the Google Home, according to Slice Intelligence. Three weeks after the launch, weekly HomePod sales slipped to about 4 percent of the smart speaker category on average, the market research firm says. Inventory is piling up, according to Apple store workers, who say some locations are selling fewer than 10 HomePods a day. Apple declined to comment. The shares gained 1.4 percent to $173.83 in early trading.

This doesn’t surprise me. I mean that in the sense that the HomePod isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, a very good product yet, but also because it’s a version one Apple product that doesn’t have a wide rollout. Some analysts were disappointed with initial Apple Watch sales, too, and it launched in nine major markets instead of the three that the HomePod is currently available in. That’s not to say that miserable sales are good or that the HomePod’s launch has been all rosy; I just wouldn’t read too much into this report.

Meanwhile, Juli Clover at MacRumors is reporting that Siri has been updated with — and you’re not going to believe this — more jokes. Truly, what we have all been waiting for.

Behind the Music

After I linked to Kirk McElhearn’s piece about Apple Music’s limited search capabilities, Erin “Syd” Sidney pointed me to a three-year-old post he wrote about the lack of detailed creator information available on the platform:

Liner notes are how my friends became walking encyclopedias who could draw a line, no matter how thin, between records that spanned genres and generations.

[…]

Songwriters whose work we could admire and follow as they provided the musical framework for artists to develop. Producers. Engineers. Humans.

Each one of these people represents an industry, one being bulldozed over by what appears to be simply a lack of attention to detail.

Music purchased via the iTunes Store has long included a PDF version of the album booklet, and went even further in 2009 with the introduction of the interactive iTunes LP format. In an amazing coincidence, Apple just recently stopped accepting new iTunes LPs in the Store.

While I don’t think the full experience of the iTunes LP format was successful, I wish elements of that could be brought into Apple Music. Hip-hop producers and a handful of rock producers are well-represented in Apple Music playlists, but imagine if you could get detailed information about any track. Lyric support, introduced in iOS 10, is a great start for listeners to begin to explore music in greater depth,1 but songwriters, engineers, musicians, and non-superstar producers regularly go uncredited.2

Note that the absence of this information isn’t necessarily a technical issue. My understanding is that major artists submit directly to streaming platforms with track metadata set according to the ID3 spec and album metadata added separately; indie artists submit this information via intermediaries like CD Baby and Tunecore. If you’ve ever edited track or album information in iTunes, you’re familiar with several of the fields ID3 supports. However, there are several fields not shown in iTunes that are also supported, including the “TIPL” field, which stands for the “involved people list”.

It would certainly be a Herculean effort to add this information to all of the tens of millions of tracks in Apple Music — an effort that, in my fantasy world, would be totally worth it. For starters, many producers and songwriters are known for particular styles; adding more of this information could make for more accurate suggestions. But, along the lines that Sidney writes, it could also encourage deeper user discovery. There’s nothing like working your way through a songwriter’s catalogue, or understanding the widely-varied engineering career of someone like Steve Albini, or grasping the scope of every album Bob Ludwig has mastered.


  1. Not only does Spotify display lyrics, they went one step further and built in Genius support to help explain the lyrics. ↩︎

  2. I wonder if this is one reason why producers like Metro Boomin and Murda Beatz frequently tag the tracks they produced with a unique vocal signature. ↩︎

The Joys of Data Hygiene

The Economist describes Europe’s new data privacy law, GDPR, set to go into effect on May 25:

The new law was mostly written by privacy-conscious Germans. Consent to collect and process personal data now has to be “unambiguous” and for “specific” purposes, meaning that catch-all clauses hidden in seldom-read terms and conditions, such as “your data will be used to improve our services”, will no longer be sufficient. “Data subjects” can demand a copy of the data held on them (“data portability”), ask for information to be corrected (“right to rectification”), and also request it to be deleted (“right to be forgotten”).

[…]

As a result the GDPR ensures that all organisations which collect and keep data will take their use (and abuse) much more seriously. Take the fines. Under the GDPR’s predecessor, an EU directive dating from 1995, fines were negligible. The upshot was that firms gave data protection little attention and few resources. But the risk of hefty penalties has raised privacy to a board-level matter. “We have support from the top down,” says Susan Bandi, who is in charge of data security and privacy at Monsanto, an agrochemicals company.

There has never been a more consumer- and person-friendly data privacy law than GDPR. We can all hope for a ripple effect where adhering to GDPR’s rules becomes the easiest solution for companies worldwide; unfortunately, that’s not likely for giants like Facebook and Google. But it is a huge step forward for Europeans, and a model of what a good personal data protection law looks like.

Updates From Indonesia

I returned recently from another trip throughout Indonesia and want to share some observations and updates since the first time I visited two and a half years ago.

When I visited in 2015, 3G service was the norm, and even in densely-populated areas of Java and Bali, it was typical to see only two or three bars. Now, strong LTE service blankets much of both islands. That’s important: the only internet connection many people have is through their smartphone.

It’s also great for battery life. The iPhone X I used on this trip has a much bigger battery than the iPhone 6S I used last time, which obviously contributes to longer battery life, but so does the quality of the cellular signal.

One of the more notable changes is that most people are now carrying one smartphone, as opposed to the two or more per person that I saw previously. There are, I suspect, several reasons for this — phones are better, there’s better balance between performance and battery now, and high-end smartphones are more expensive — but, based on what I’ve been told and what I can figure out with the limited online reporting on this, it appears that Indonesian law now requires cellular plans with voice and SMS capabilities to be associated with a national ID number when they are registered. I don’t think this means that someone can’t have two or more cell plans, but my understanding is that it’s discouraged.

For that reason, I had a data-only plan purchased for me, with no voice or SMS capabilities. This time, I didn’t need to power-cycle my phone for my Telkomsel SIM to be recognized, but a weird thing happened where, because iMessage couldn’t send and receive its authentication text messages, it was unable to complete its setup on the Indonesian number.

The pre-paid SIM offer I got is no longer available, but it cost about $10 for 11GB. Instead of being in a single bucket of bytes, my data allotment was split: 7GB of general data, 2GB for WhatsApp and BBM, and 2GB for “VideoMax”. The general 7GB bucket was also split into different amounts for 3G and LTE data, and roaming within the country — the SIM card was purchased in Surabaya, but I travelled to Lombok, Bali, and Semarang as well. It wasn’t quite clear how this data was split up; all I know is that, after two weeks, I got a text message from Telkomsel that I had zeroed out my data allotment after using just 2GB, according to iOS’ cellular settings. Data continued to flow, however, without topping up the card.

I find this plan’s separation of data into different buckets confusing and ultimately unhelpful. If I don’t use WhatsApp or BBM, I forfeit 2GB of my plan; conversely, if I were a heavy user of these services, I would have to stop after 2GB was used, even if I had a lot of data available in the general bucket.

In addition to my phone, I also brought my MacBook Air on this trip: it’s a great — and legal — backup battery, and it means that I can offload photos from my SD card every evening and back them up for safety.

Unfortunately, MacOS tends to be quite aggressive about its internet use when given the opportunity, and there are limited controls to restrict it. For example, I have automatic software updates enabled, which means that hundreds of megabytes-to-gigabytes download in the background, even on lower-bandwidth connections. This is good for my computer’s security, but it can be a bit rude when using someone else’s internet connection with a monthly bandwidth cap, or a portable wireless hotspot. Furthermore, I use iCloud Photo Library, which tends to monopolize bandwidth while it uploads all those RAW photos.

There are controls to switch these functions off individually — though the button to pause iCloud Photo Library uploads did not reliably appear for me — but I feel like there should be some sort of global option to restrict the bandwidth consumption of these system service. MacOS could also do a better job managing this automatically. A third-party app called TripMode appears to work well for this — I just didn’t discover it in time for this trip.

Last time I visited, Samsung and LG phones were everywhere, but so, too, were BlackBerrys. Still. Now, the BlackBerrys are gone and, while the two giant Korean companies remain popular, newer brands from China are on the ascendance. Everywhere I went, I saw loads of people using phones from Vivo and Oppo. It was impossible to miss the giant green Oppo banners hung outside seemingly every phone vendor’s store. Both companies make shameless iPhone clones with iOS-styled versions of Android. iPhones remain very expensive in Indonesia: a 64 GB 4.7-inch iPhone 8 is Rp 12,599,000 — about $920 USD or nearly four months of minimum wage earnings in Jakarta.

Uber wasn’t able to make inroads in Southeast Asia, but two other companies have taken Indonesia by storm: Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asian business, and Go-Jek. Both operate platforms for multiple services. Go-Jek, appropriately, offers rides for a single person on a motorbike, but they also have car drivers and a partnership with Bluebird taxis for fixed-rate fares. In addition, they provide food delivery and even have a payment service built in. Based on what I’ve read, Grab is similar, but I only used Go-Jek.

On a non-technical note, leaving Indonesia for a second time was even harder than the first. It was and remains a beautiful country full of exceptionally generous people, delicious food, beautiful weather, and a depth and breadth of culture. I can’t wait until I get to go back.