Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for July, 2018

Updated MacBook Pros With Performance Improvements, True Tone Displays, and ‘Hey, Siri’ Support

Apple PR:

Apple today updated MacBook Pro with faster performance and new pro features, making it the most advanced Mac notebook ever. The new MacBook Pro models with Touch Bar feature 8th-generation Intel Core processors, with 6-core on the 15-inch model for up to 70 percent faster performance and quad-core on the 13-inch model for up to two times faster performance — ideal for manipulating large data sets, performing complex simulations, creating multi-track audio projects or doing advanced image processing or film editing.

Already the most popular notebook for developers around the world, the new MacBook Pro can compile code faster and run multiple virtual machines and test environments easier than before. Additional updates include support for up to 32GB of memory, a True Tone display and an improved third-generation keyboard for quieter typing. And with its powerful Radeon Pro graphics, large Force Touch trackpad, revolutionary Touch Bar and Touch ID, dynamic stereo speakers, quiet Apple-designed cooling system and Thunderbolt 3 for data transfer, charging and connecting up to two 5K displays or four external GPUs, it’s the ultimate pro notebook.

I like surprises and I like spec bumps, so this update is very much up my alley.

Dieter Bohn of the Verge was among a handful of journalists invited to a small demo event:

We got only minutes (and no more) to interact with the new hardware. So at best, I can tell you that the keyboard does seem quite a bit less clacky than current MacBooks, though key travel is the same.


When we asked Apple representatives at the event exactly how the keyboard was changed to make it quieter, they declined to specify.

I’m conflicted about this. There is evidence to suggest that Apple has been improving the durability of the keyboard in the MacBook Pro, and I would be surprised if that trend has not continued given the cost of repairs to them. Nothing has been mentioned to that regard, though; Apple’s statements about the keyboard have been fairly substance-free.

But would Apple mention reliability improvements if they had indeed made any? They’ve maintained that the reported problems with the keyboard are not widespread, and I’m sure Apple would rather not have press coverage around these updates be specifically about the keyboard, thereby refocusing the issue on its susceptibility to defeat by dust. But, also, given the coverage so far about the unreliability of the butterfly keyboards, wouldn’t they want users to know that they’ve heard the complaints and can trust the revised version?

Tenth Anniversary of MobileMe’s Launch

Overshadowed by the tenth anniversary of the App Store came another milestone this week: ten years since the launch of MobileMe. Stephen Hackett:

When MobileMe launched in 2008, Microsoft Exchange really was its most direct competitor, in terms of features. However, Google was steadily improving Gmail, Google Contacts and Google Calendar.

Starting in 2009 or so, it was possible to leave MobileMe behind with a handful of now-defunct applications. By 2010, syncing data from Google directly with iOS and OS X was trivially easy.

In October 2011, just over three years after announcing MobileMe, Apple replaced with a free service: iCloud.

When Steve Jobs introduced iCloud at WWDC 2011, he pointed out that MobileMe was “not [Apple’s] finest hour”, and he’s certainly right about that. I would argue that not seeing earlier that Google could usurp MobileMe’s position for many iPhone users was also a poor showing.

But, while imperfect — a free tier that hasn’t changed in seven years, for example — iCloud has proved that Apple can absolutely do a fantastic job in online services. I use nearly all of iCloud’s features, with the exception of iCloud Music Library, and it has been, for years, increasingly reliable, fast, and dependable.

The Power of Tech Giants

John Herrman, in an editorial for the New York Times:

The companies most vulnerable to easy questions tend to be the ones that can no longer be understood in terms of former competitors or current peers — because they don’t really have any. Google doesn’t have to worry about losing its users; it simply wants them to use Google more and to use more Google products. Vindicated by growth, these businesses take the liberty to redesign more of our online lives than any of us have asked for. As with Facebook, and to some extent now Amazon, there is no overarching pitch to its users beyond: Where else could you possibly go?

Are tech companies now too big to fail? It sure seems like it: Amazon and Google are now part of the infrastructure of the web; Facebook owns WhatsApp, which is an essential communications product for much of the world.

Univision Says It’s Exploring Sale of Former Gawker Sites and the Onion

Todd Spangler:

Univision Communications is officially looking to unload the Gizmodo Media Group — which mostly comprises the sites it acquired in the bankruptcy auction of Gawker Media — and its stake in comedy and entertainment publisher The Onion.


The GMG digital portfolio includes Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Splinter, The Root, Kotaku, Earther and Jalopnik and The Onion portfolio includes, The Onion, Clickhole, The A.V. Club and The Takeout.

Max Tani posted the email Univision CEO Vince Sadusky sent to all staff:

[Gizmodo Media Group] and The Onion are great assets. I read The Onion regularly in college and the many Gizmodo brands have become key sources for content to tens of millions of consumers.

Who writes like that? Also, a 53 year-old CEO referencing his long-past college years is not the first time that a Univision executive was kind of a dick about the Onion. Apparently, the company’s “head of digital” couldn’t remember a single article from the site that he liked.

Worth reading is this piece from May, by Kate Conger, David Uberti, and Laura Wagner, and published at the Univision-owned Special Projects Desk:

From routine human resources fuckups to vastly overselling the prospects of an IPO whose ultimate doom this March precipitated the company’s current cost-cutting spree, Univision has been deeply mismanaged and is in the midst of making huge cuts that have, among other things, already claimed vast swaths of Univision Noticias—the most vital newsgathering operation serving the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S.—and Fusion Media Group. Consultants from Boston Consulting Group, who have reportedly recommended budget cuts of up to 35 percent in some parts of the company, have been combing through the books for months, and more than 150 people have been laid off so far. Plenty more cuts are pending (Univision president of news Daniel Coronell reportedly described them as “catastrophic” to his newsroom), including at GMG, the staff of which fears the newsroom may be cut by up to a third by the end of June, perhaps as part of a broader pivot toward video and branded content. What is happening to the company is not ultimately a failure of editorial or even executive management, though: If Univision was a mammoth whose failure to adapt slowed it down, it was private equity investors, consumed by the thought of turning their riches into more riches, who brought it down and bled it dry.

Gizmodo, the Onion, the AV Club, Deadspin, the Root, Jezebel, Splinter — these publications are good, and the (semi-)indie media landscape would be worse if they did not exist. The predicament they face now is due in part to an excessively-aggressive settlement for publishing a Hulk Hogan sex tape, and now because of vulture capitalists of the type that also decimated Toys R Us.

Maintaining the Narrative

Andrew Orlowski, the Register:

One day Apple may look back on its great iPhone X adventure and view it as an embarrassing midlife crisis, like running off with the au pair.

The iPhone 8, based on a four-year-old design, was the best-selling phone in the world in May, according to Counterpoint Research. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus took second place. The X still sold well, but in third place.

Counterpoint Research attributes the success of the iPhone 8 to new advertising, but it’s also worth noting that the 8 and 8 Plus got the Product Red treatment this spring. Even so, May marks the first month since its launch, the iPhone X was not the best-selling iPhone model in the lineup, and the Register is treating this as confirmation that the iPhone X is a mistaken experiment. Even in this two-paragraph excerpt, Orlowski transitions from calling the iPhone X an “embarrassing midlife crisis” to acknowledging that it sold well.

Orlowski, later in this article:

The X is far from a flop, but Cook acknowledged it wasn’t the runaway success Apple wanted. Apple faced many questions about inventory on its most recent earnings, claiming that the lower-than-hoped demand had resulted in component glut (mostly someone else’s problem) rather than an iPhone X glut (definitely Apple’s problem).

No, you don’t have a giant gap in your memory: I looked for any indication that Tim Cook had ever stated that the iPhone X didn’t sell as well as expected — which would be quite the story — and can’t find anything matching that. The link on “acknowledged” goes to another story Orlowski wrote summarizing an anaylist’s research note issued ahead of Apple’s Q2 2018 conference call, where Cook confirmed that the iPhone X’s sales were strong every week since it launched. That linked article does not contain a single mention of Tim Cook.

I know that the Register is just a tabloid, but it’s also widely-read, and this is a clear example where the story is being driven by the narrative that the iPhone X is a flop. Orlowski so desperately wants that to be true, apparently, but I don’t understand why. What difference does it make to him which iPhone model is selling better?

Smart TVs in Millions of U.S. Homes Track Everything Users Watch

Sapna Maheshwari, New York Times:

Still, David Kitchen, a software engineer in London, said he was startled to learn how Samba TV worked after encountering its opt-in screen during a software update on his Sony Bravia set.

The opt-in read: “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers. By cleverly recognizing onscreen content, Samba Interactive TV lets you engage with your TV in a whole new way.”


“The thing that really struck me was this seems like quite an enormous ask for what seems like a silly, trivial feature,” Mr. Kitchen said. “You appear to opt into a discovery-recommendation service, but what you’re really opting into is pervasive monitoring on your TV.”


Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said few people review the fine print in their zeal to set up new televisions. He said the notice should also describe Samba TV’s “device map,” which matches TV content to mobile gadgets, according to a document on its website, and can help the company track users “in their office, in line at the food truck and on the road as they travel.”

Do people truly want to be tracked for advertising purposes by nearly every device that they interact with? Survey after survey for years has indicated that they do not, yet we seem to have shrinking opportunities to object to it. Nearly every TV you’ll find at an electronics store today is a smart TV, and many of them have some form of this kind of tracking built in. The number of ways we’re being tracked on the web has exploded, and the number of companies that trade and collect that information in bulk keeps going up.

This is all buried in multi-thousand-word privacy policies that are not reasonable for the average user to read and interpret correctly. This is one reason I’m so supportive of GDPR — even though it doesn’t adequately regulate behavioural data collection, it does at least require full disclosure of privacy-intrusive practices to allow users more control the sharing of their data.

Technology companies are increasingly not operating in users’ best interests because users have few options besides disconnecting entirely.

Maheshwari, continued:

The Times is among the websites that allow advertisers to use data from Samba to track if people who see their ads visit their websites, but a Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said that the company did that “simply as a matter of convenience for our clients” and that it was not an endorsement of Samba TV’s technology.

As I wrote in April, website administrators have a responsibility to their users — and, in the Times’ case especially, their paying subscribers — to be careful with their website’s third-party data collection and sharing practices. Their agreement with Samba is an implicit endorsement that advertisers can target their users with data collected in an ethically-dubious manner.

‘Stylish’ Browser Extension Shares Browsing History With SimilarWeb

Robert Heaton:

Unfortunately, since January 2017, Stylish has been augmented with bonus spyware that records every single website that I and its 2 million other users visit. Stylish sends our complete browsing activity back to its servers, together with a unique identifier. This allows it’s new owner, SimilarWeb, to connect all of an individual’s actions into a single profile. And for users like me who have created a Stylish account on userstyles.org, this unique identifier can easily be linked to a login cookie. This means that not only does SimilarWeb own a copy of our complete browsing histories, they also own enough other data to theoretically tie these histories to email addresses and real-world identities.

I bet the vast majority of Stylish users have no idea that this simple browser extension would not be scraping their browsing history and selling it to a scummy marketing technology company. I bet that most of them would not have explicitly agreed to such an obvious privacy intrusion. This is deeply unethical.

Facebook’s Political Rule Blocks Ads for Bush’s Beans, Singers Named Clinton

Sarah Frier, Bloomberg:

The three ads have in common the use of the word “bush.” Facebook Inc.’s system automatically associated the word with the former presidents of that family name, flagging them as political and blocking them, pending verification of the advertiser’s identity. They now appear in Facebook’s searchable archive of political advertising – the company’s newly launched initiative to increase transparency around who is paying to promote certain political ideas. The archive is home to dozens of ads that don’t belong there, from various schools, towns, brands and people that happen to share names with presidents.


“Clinton” is one of the most popular names for cities in the U.S., not just the surname of the political family. In Clinton, Indiana, a vacation bible school was blocked from advertising a free lunch event for kids aged 3 to 12. “Come learn how COOL Jesus’s love is!” it said, including a picture of a flier featuring animated penguins. In Clinton, Iowa, an insurance company was blocked from advertising its annual family baseball night for customers and friends, featuring a backpack drive for needy children. And in Clinton, Tennessee, Facebook’s system took down an ad for performances of Twelfth Night and the Jungle Book, featuring actors from local high schools.

This is an indication to me that Facebook simply isn’t taking this problem seriously. Instead of employing more humans to verify automatically detected ads, they’ve apparently added a basic string matching filter. Consider, for a start, all of the public buildings in the United States named after former presidents and other officials. Text matching without context isn’t good enough to serve as a filter.

Re-Emphasizing the Decentralized Feed

Luc Lewitanski has a pretty good theory on why Google killed Reader five years ago Sunday:

@Google killed its Reader in 2013 because RSS as a format gives readers agency, doesn’t track browsing to sell ads, and lets the user chose what they want to read. As opposed to algorithmic personalisation which siloes [sic] us into increasingly homogenous demographics for advertisers

Aral Balkan:

Time was, you couldn’t browse the web without seeing RSS icons of all persuasions gracing the façades of Web 1.0’s finest. This was before they were mercilessly devoured by the tracking devices … ahem … “social sharing buttons” of people farmers like Google and Facebook.


[…] You can start making RSS more visible again today by finding the URL for your own RSS feed and exposing it visibly on your site.

It’s not complicated: just a link in the head of your page and a link in the body with an RSS icon and Bob’s your decentralised Uncle.

Badges, buttons, and links to RSS feeds used to be all over the web; now, they’re almost like a nerd calling card — it’s an indication that a website is cool with an audience reading new material on their terms. I’d like to think there’s a certain confidence in a website indicating to its readers that it doesn’t need a precise count of how many people visited the website, nor does it need all the tracking and surveillance nonsense that comes with that.

RSS and JSON Feed are both terrific formats for reading — not just on the web, but reading generally. They work with a lot of different client applications that can be set up to your liking, and you can subscribe to as many or as few websites as you like. You can be a completionist with your subscriptions, or you can let new posts flow by and only focus on a handful. You can even have a combination of the two, using something like Lire and its excellent Discover section — you can see that, even with an obnoxious amount of unread items overall, it’s possible to prioritize what to look at first. Best of all, you are in control of RSS and JSON Feeds, not a mysterious algorithm that you don’t fully understand.

Personal Data in 340 Million Records Leaked From Exactis Databases

Abrar Al-Heeti, CNet:

If you’re a US citizen, your personal information — your phone number, home address, email address, even how many children you have — may have just become easily available to hackers in an alleged massive data leak.

Florida-based marketing and data aggregation firm Exactis exposed a database containing nearly 340 million individual records on a publicly accessible server, Wired reported. Earlier this month, security researcher Vinny Troia found that nearly 2 terabytes of data was exposed, which seems to include personal information on hundreds of millions of US adults and millions of businesses, the report said.

“It seems like this is a database with pretty much every US citizen in it,” Troia told Wired.

It’s remarkable and deeply troubling how a private marketing company in Florida that most people haven’t heard of could conceivably have a database containing every American citizen. I doubt Exactis is the only company in possession of a database like this, too.

Some Third-Party Email Apps Let Employees Read User Emails

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Return Path, a service for email marketers that has 163 app partners, two years ago allowed its employees to read approximately 8,000 full customer emails to train the company’s software.

Similarly, Edison Software, a company that makes the Edison Mail app for iOS, had employees read the emails of hundreds of users to craft a new “smart replies” feature.

According to The Wall Street Journal, neither company asked users for specific permission to read their emails, but have said the practice is covered in their user agreements. Employees who read the emails were governed by “strict protocols,” and in Edison’s case, user information was redacted.

I’m still uncertain why anyone would pass their email through any third party like these, nor why either of these companies would think that this is a good idea even if it’s theoretically covered by their privacy policy.

500px Nukes Over One Million Creative Commons Photos

Michael Zhang, PetaPixel:

500px just shut down its Marketplace stock photo platform in favor of selling photos directly through Getty Images and VCG, as the company announced a month ago. And as part of the major change, 500px has wiped out over 1 million of the Creative Commons photos photographers had uploaded to the service.

Creative Commons licensing allows photographers to make their works freely available for others to build upon and share while following certain guidelines. 500px introduced the licensing option back in 2012, following in Flickr’s footsteps.

But overnight, all of the CC photos that have been uploaded since 2012 have been nuked from 500px. Users can no longer choose a CC license during uploading, search for CC photos, or download them.

And prior to the wipeout, 500px provided no migration path for 500px users wishing to keep their CC photos on the service alive.

This sucks for anyone who wants to share their photography while maintaining control over its use or licensing it to third parties.

Flickr, meanwhile, has been shuttled around from owner to owner before landing with SmugMug earlier this year. Aside from Instagram, there really aren’t any successful photo-centric sharing websites or services — at least, not in North America. Why is that? Is it simply because Instagram consumes the entire market in much the same way that YouTube is the video sharing platform?