Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2018

Facebook’s Rulebook for Global Political Speech

Max Fisher of the New York Times, building on earlier reporting by Nick Hopkins of the Guardian, and Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox of Vice:

As detailed as the guidelines can be, they are also approximations — best guesses at how to fight extremism or disinformation. And they are leading Facebook to intrude into sensitive political matters the world over, sometimes clumsily.

Increasingly, the decisions on what posts should be barred amount to regulating political speech — and not just on the fringes. In many countries, extremism and the mainstream are blurring.

In the United States, Facebook banned the Proud Boys, a far-right pro-Trump group. The company also blocked an inflammatory ad, about a caravan of Central American migrants, that was produced by President Trump’s political team.

In June, according to internal emails reviewed by The Times, moderators were told to allow users to praise the Taliban — normally a forbidden practice — if they mentioned its decision to enter into a cease-fire. In another email, moderators were told to hunt down and remove rumors wrongly accusing an Israeli soldier of killing a Palestinian medic.

“Facebook’s role has become so hegemonic, so monopolistic, that it has become a force unto itself,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, an expert on the Balkans. “No one entity, especially not a for-profit venture like Facebook, should have that kind of power to influence public debate and policy.”

We’ve never had a private company able to so easily direct and limit speech for so many people. As Maya Kosoff wrote for Vanity Fair earlier this year — in response to Koebler and Cox’s reporting — this is a direct result of Facebook’s “tireless drive to expand”. They have constantly and consistently failed to control their platform, and antitrust regulators in the United States made no attempt to use existing laws to curb their growth. As a result, they now have unprecedented reach and control over worldwide dialogue.

One thing I’ve not seen answered in any of these reports is whether moderators specialize in a particular subject — hate speech regarding a specific group, for example — or more generalized. I don’t see either approach working well at Facebook’s scale, but at least a specialized moderator would be able to approach each posts with a unique understanding and context.

Netflix and Spotify No Longer Allow iTunes Billing for New Users

Manish Singh, VentureBeat:

Netflix is further distancing itself from Apple’s iTunes tax bracket. Earlier this year, the streaming giant enabled iOS users in more than two dozen markets to bypass the iTunes payment method as part of an experiment. The company now tells VentureBeat that it has concluded the experiment and has incorporated the change globally.

“We no longer support iTunes as a method of payment for new members,” a Netflix spokesperson told VentureBeat. Existing members, however, can continue to use iTunes as a method of payment, the spokesperson added.

Damien Basile:

Companies are doing this more & more. Spotify doesn’t allow you to pay via Apple. And why should they? 30% is a huge fee to give to Apple when you have the name and market presence. Makes me wonder what Apple will do if this trend proliferates even more.

This is despite changes made last spring to Apple’s cut of subscription pricing, which is now set at 30% for the first year and 15% for every year thereafter.

Apple’s cut is booked under the broad “services” category in their financial reports. Services revenue, as a whole, has been growing rapidly for the company, but I’d be curious to know how much these moves are impacting Apple’s take. My initial assumption was that it must represent a lot of lost revenue for Netflix and Spotify, but perhaps it’s such a small amount that it’s worth the risk of some potential customers giving up on figuring out how to subscribe.1

Regardless of how much lost revenue Apple’s cut represents for Netflix and Spotify, it strikes me that this is an option for only a handful of established companies. In addition to the aforementioned, Adobe can also forego Apple’s option in favour of their own Creative Cloud subscription. The only indie company I can think of that is trying a similar approach is Panic with Transmit 5: it’s $45 directly from them, or a $25 per year subscription if purchased through the Mac App Store. This doesn’t seem viable for most small developers because of the more circuitous route customers have to take without instruction — see footnote — nor does it seem very efficient or safe, given that it requires many small studios to build a paid account infrastructure.

Update: Lawrence Velázquez points out that 1Password has a similar purchasing and subscription arrangement to Transmit 5.


  1. Which, by the way, is something Apple makes more complicated because they forbid developers from mentioning subscription options outside of officially-sanctioned in-app purchases. ↩︎

The Case Against Marzipan

The “Uluroo”:

macOS needs different design paradigms than iOS does. With Marzipan, Apple is proclaiming to the software development world that these paradigms have merged, that it’s fine to slap a touch-first interface on a mouse-first device. But that is not fine. Even if it’s acceptable to many users, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The Mac needs Mac apps, not iOS apps. Marzipan apps are not Mac apps, they’re iOS apps. This is not a bug; this will not be fixed. This is a decision by Apple to ignore what makes Mac software great and to treat its most robust platform as a scaled-up edition of the iPhone.

The Marzipan apps that Apple has shipped so far are about a half-step better than Electron apps. They are interesting experiments; they are bad Mac apps that should not have been shipped to users. If this is what Apple expects developers to produce, I am not looking forward to where the MacOS software ecosystem is heading.

How Much of the Internet Is Fake?

Max Read, writing for New York in one of my favourite pieces I’ve read all year:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.

Aram Zucker-Scharff started a Twitter thread with some more indicators in the web on which you cannot rely: advertising, social media trends, readers, viewers, and more. If it’s a number that is important, you can bet that it is manipulated for a price.

Update: Ellen K. Pao on Twitter:

It’s all true: Everything is fake. Also mobile user counts are fake. No one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users, as I learned at reddit. Every time someone switches cell towers, it looks like another user and inflates company user metrics.

The most alarming aspect of statistical fakery is not necessarily that it exists, but what will likely be done to combat it. Instead of admitting that these stats are likely to be manipulated and are, at best, wildly inaccurate estimates — and, therefore, that decisions should not be made based on what is reported — it is far more likely that this will lead to calls for more data collection. There will be attempts to make user identification more precise and more pervasive, particularly across devices.

This already happened with reCAPTCHA. Several years ago, the system required users to type the words in distorted scans of books. By 2014, however, computers did better than humans at the test. Since reCAPTCHA is owned by Google, they took advantage of the extent to which Google spies on web users to create a usually-invisible CAPTCHA. The more you use the web — and, in particular, Google properties — the less often you’ll be asked to manually verify your humanity. That may be more convenient, but it’s hard to deny how much creepier it is.

Of course, not even that has stopped people from trying to bypass it. Researchers have demonstrated loopholes in audio CAPTCHAs, have figured out technical workarounds, and have simply thrown people at the problem.

Jason Snell on Apple’s 2018

Jason Snell wrote a well-rounded retrospective of Apple’s 2018 for Tom’s Guide that is, I think, spot on. The product side was generally positive: the new iPad Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Mini models are excellent computers. The Series 4 Apple Watch really does seem like a slam-dunk. The iPhone XR is a product with the same processor and modern iPhone design language as the XS, but in a wide range of colours at a lower price.

But it’s not all gold. The iPhone XR may cost less than the XS, but it’s still $50 more expensive than the base model iPhone 8, and $100 more than the base iPhone 7. Price increases were a standard story across the board, too, for the Mac and iPad Pro lines. Make no mistake — these are, indeed, better products, but customers have to spend more for them than previous versions.

Then there’s the lack of updates to the MacBook or iMac, and the conspicuous absence of any mention of the AirPower teased last year for a 2018 release.

As far as software goes, 2018 was, as Snell puts it, a “calm before the storm”:

Speaking of surprise advance product announcements, in June Apple announced that it would provide iOS developers with the ability to move their apps to the Mac… in 2019. It’s a move with huge ramifications, and it’s my top candidate for the Apple story of 2019.

But this announcement was more about providing an explanation for four new apps that Apple brought from iOS to macOS as a proof of concept in macOS Mojave in the fall. I appreciate Apple’s commitment to learning about how to make this transition the hard way, but the apps Apple brought over to the Mac (Home, Voice Recorder, Stocks, and News) just aren’t very good. Apple has plenty of time to rectify this before third-party developers get their hands on this stuff next year, but right now the four object examples of the iOS-to-macOS app transition are mediocre at best and weird and broken at worst.

Then there’s iOS 12, an update that brought some perfectly nice features and provided increased stability and speed for older iPhone models. It’s a great update as far as it goes, but I’m listing it in this collection of Apple’s failures because it utterly ignored the iPad Pro. A month after iOS 12 arrived, the new iPad Pro models arrived to a critical consensus that they were amazing pieces of hardware that were let down by their software. That’s on iOS 12.

After some increased bugginess in recent iOS releases, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by iOS 12’s stability and speed. It feels refreshed on every device I’ve used. However, the iPad still feels like it hasn’t been given the authority to be true to itself. Plenty of progress has been made in iOS more generally, but very few iPad-specific improvements have been made over the last several releases; iOS 9 was the last major version with iPad-focused changes.

One last thing: something that Apple managed to avoid doing in 2018 was to be at the centre of any major controversy. While its peers were stumbling from one dumpster fire to another, the sole scary story in Apple’s year turned out to be a dud.

Safari Extensions in the Mac App Store

Jeff Johnson:

Earlier this year, Apple announced that .safariextz files are deprecated, and starting January 1, 2019, new extensions will no longer be accepted to the Safari Extensions Gallery. Apple now prefers that Safari extensions be distributed via the Mac App Store. In Safari 12, the “Safari Extensions…” menu item in the Safari main menu no longer takes you to the Safari Extensions Gallery but rather to the Safari Extensions section of the Mac App Store. Let’s examine that customer experience. We’ll take a glance at the old Mac App Store on High Sierra and then move on to the new Mac App Store on Mojave.

Placing Safari Extensions in the Mac App Store makes sense to me, but its implementation has been pretty lacklustre so far. First of all, the menu item links to an App Store story that cannot be viewed in a web browser, which is irritating.

When you get to that story, you’ll see that it is titled “Getting Started: Safari Extensions”, which implies that this is just a small selection of a much broader library of extensions. Here are the first ten in the collection:

  • Ghostery Lite

  • 1Blocker

  • MarsEdit

  • Magic Lasso AdBlock

  • Blogo

  • Ka-Block!

  • Bookmarx

  • Valt

  • Utility Cube

  • StopTheMadness

Not a terrible selection, but not great — as Johnson points out, Utility Cube is made by some developer who releases crap like a $2.79 version of Safari’s private browsing mode, several PDF scanning apps, and loads of other repackaged Apple APIs as apps. I would not trust the developer’s electronic wallet app. Why would Apple allow these apps into the store in the first place, much less highlight something they’ve made?

Anyway, if you try to find every Safari Extension in the App Store, you’ll have a very difficult time. As far as I can work out, it’s completely impossible. If you search for “Safari extensions”, you’ll get a list of results that is completely different from the ones in the collection above. Just two extensions from the list of ten above are returned in the entirety of the store’s search results. Eight of them just don’t show up anywhere.

Siri’s Performance on the HomePod in Second Loup Ventures Test

Gene Munster and Will Thompson of Loup Ventures:

We recently tested four smart speakers by asking Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana 800 questions each. Google Assistant was able to answer 88% of them correctly vs. Siri at 75%, Alexa at 73%, and Cortana at 63%. Last year, Google Assistant was able to answer 81% correctly vs. Siri (Feb-18) at 52%, Alexa at 64%, and Cortana at 56%.

[…]

Aside from HomePod’s 22 point increase due to the enabling of more domains in the past year, Alexa had the most noticeable improvement. The largest advancement came in the Information section, where Alexa was much more capable with follow-on questions and providing things like stock quotes without having to enable a skill. We also believe we may be seeing the early effects of the new Alexa Answers program which allows humans to crowdsource answers to questions that Alexa currently doesn’t have answers to. For example, this round, Alexa correctly answered, “who did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with?” and “what is the circumference of a circle when its diameter is 21?”

Their tests indicated that all four smart speakers transcribed virtually all of their queries perfectly, and that all are improving their responses compared to previous tests. However, this is only for smart speakers; Siri, in particular, is tuned differently for each device. In about seven months, Loup Ventures will publish the results of their digital assistant test performed on smartphones. That’s the one I’m most interested in seeing because of the much wider impact it has.

Even though Siri is improving, I think it’s going to take a lot for it to win back those who have become frustrated with it for anything other than setting timers. It’s the same problem Apple Maps faces: it is much better than it used to be, but plenty of people gave up on it after they couldn’t rely on it, and the competition hasn’t stood still either.

It’s a lot to ask, but I wish Loup Ventures would release a full list of all questions asked and how each device answered.

We Should Replace Facebook With Personal Websites

Jason Koebler, Vice:

There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Facebook has of course become something much larger than a single website, and has, despite its flaws, “helped connect the world” for better or worse. But Facebook tapped into a trend that was already happening — it didn’t invent the idea of letting people put stuff about their lives online, it just monetized it better.

More than once, upon giving my personal email address to someone, have I been asked how I managed to set up a website of my own. It is seen as impressive when, theoretically, it ought to be very simple. The tools have been made a bit easier; Squarespace, for example, is far easier to use than preceding DIY website builders. But they are not easy enough, and there is still a psychological barrier, not to mention financial constraints.

Online Advertising’s ‘Willful Enshittening’

Dan Sinker, Esquire:

As far as major corporations go, Facebook isn’t alone in being shitty, of course. But they’re very, very good at it. So good, in fact, that the biggest companies in the world have worked overtime to enshitten themselves to keep up. The reason why YouTube is suggesting you watch WarGamer69’s treatise on the white race when all you were looking for was a new pie recipe? Because Facebook gobbled up video views when they introduced autoplay a few years ago, forcing YouTube to build their own autoplaying feed that’s been totally corrupted by the far right. When Facebook introduced Instant Articles and threatened to take traffic off the greater web and keep it all inside Facebook, Google countered with a technology that basically created a second internet for mobile devices and is part of the reason that your Google search results suck now. That, of course, came after Google tried to out-Facebook Facebook with the disastrous Google+ which is being shut down due to a massive data breach—which, come to think of it, is about the most Facebook thing they could have done. Credit to Twitter for not trying to out-Facebook Facebook, but mostly because they’ve been busy stomping on their own dick while Nazis flooded the platform.

And what greater purpose was all this willful enshittening for? To show you ads. You know how at the end of the day all nuclear power does is boil water? All of the advanced technology that’s been developed over the last decade has ultimately been about being better at advertising than the other guy. We literally broke most of the actual world and almost the entire damn Internet so that a crappy ad for something you’re probably not buying could follow you around the web that much better.

See also, of course, the second half of Maciej Cegłowski’s talk on the website obesity crisis.

Apple Promotes John Giannandrea to Executive Team

From Apple’s press release:

Apple today announced that John Giannandrea has been named to the company’s executive team as senior vice president of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Strategy. He joined Apple in April 2018.

Giannandrea oversees the strategy for AI and Machine Learning across all Apple products and services, as well as the development of Core ML and Siri technologies. His team’s focus on advancing and tightly integrating machine learning into Apple products is delivering more personal, intelligent and natural interactions for customers while protecting user privacy.

For what it’s worth, Giannandrea already reported directly to Tim Cook.

You can tell a lot about Apple’s focus by who is on their leadership page. Aside from the more typical corporate roles — CEO, COO, CFO, and Chief Counsel — the rest of the executive team can tell you almost exactly what the company makes, how they sell it, and what they think is important. By that logic, this promotion indicates how valuable they see Giannandrea, as well as machine learning more generally.

Some Android Apps Using Facebook’s SDK Transmitted Sensitive User Data to Facebook

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

Major Android apps like Tinder, Grindr and Pregnancy+ are quietly transmitting sensitive user data to Facebook, according to a new report by the German mobile security initiative Mobilsicher. This information can include things like religious affiliation, dating profiles, and healthcare data. It’s being purposefully collected by Facebook through the Software Developer Kit (SDK) that it provides to third-party app developers. And while Facebook doesn’t hide this, you probably don’t know about it.

[…]

As long as you’ve logged into Facebook on your mobile device at some point (through your phone’s browser or the Facebook app itself), the company cross-references the Advertising ID and can link the third-party app information to your profile. And even if you don’t have a Facebook profile, the data can still be transmitted and collected with other third-party app data that corresponds to your unique Advertising ID.

[…]

A Facebook representative clarified to BuzzFeed News that while it enables users to opt out of targeted ads from third parties, the controls apply to the usage of the data and not its collection. The company also said it does not use the third-party data it collects through the SDK to create profiles of non-Facebook users. Tinder, Grindr, and Google did not respond to requests for comment. Apple, which uses a similar ad identifier, was not able to comment at the time of publication.

The only reason this is allowed is because users don’t know it’s happening. Very few people would actually approve of Facebook doing this if it were spelled out in plain language terms.

Developers, for their part, should not be using SDKs that connect to Facebook — or, for that matter, other surveillance companies such as Google. That can be difficult; these companies have either created or purchased some of the most critical and widely-used components in many a developer’s toolchain. It is imperative that non-surveillance alternatives are developed and promoted further.

Apple Says Some 2018 iPad Pros Ship Bent and They Don’t Consider It a Defect

I first heard about this over a month ago when two people in a small Slack room mentioned that they were seeing bending in their new iPads. One of those people took it to an Apple Store where it was captured by a technician, along with two other brand new iPad Pros opened in front of them.

Most rumours of bending devices are the result of someone applying excessive pressure in an attempt to bend them. These products are made of metal so, yeah, they’ll bend at some point. That’s an artificial controversy.

In this case, though, Apple says that bending of the 2018 iPad Pros is a result of the manufacturing process and that they do not consider it a defect. I don’t think that’s acceptable. These are thousand-dollar devices designed and engineered by a company known for its fastidious attention to detail; there is simply no excuse why they should be bent as a result of its manufacturing.

Is it functionally problematic? No, and Apple says that it won’t worsen over time. But is it a defect? Yeah, totally. A manufacturing process that left a dent would not be tolerated; why should this?

Faked Influence and Sponsorship Deals

Taylor Lorenz, the Atlantic:

A decade ago, shilling products to your fans may have been seen as selling out. Now it’s a sign of success. “People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”

But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer” — that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money — is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: Fake it until you make it.

Something about this is just so fascinating to me. It kind of reminds me of the sports attire you can buy that has brand logos all over it, or the tuning company decals you can buy for the fender of your car to make it look a bit like Pirelli is sponsoring your daily commute. I get it — it’s a way to indicate that someone has enough influence to have made them worth sponsoring — but it’s fascinating that this is now an aspirational lifestyle.

See Also: Olivia Pettter in an article earlier this year for the Independent about hotels being “overwhelmed” with requests from hopeful Instagram and YouTube users.

Facebook’s Corporate Partnerships Allowed Unregulated Private Data Sharing Without Explicit Consent

Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nicholas Confessore, in an astonishing investigation for the New York Times:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

[…]

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

Shira Ovide:

It was only nine months ago that Facebook had a massive scandal over how its partners harnessed user data, and here we are again.

Casey Johnston:

Facebook can’t even get its story straight about data that it freely gave to a Russian search engine […] that the Russian government, and in particular the FSB (formerly KGB) routinely raids and fucks with constantly.

Kashmir Hill, whose own investigations for Gizmodo of — among other things — Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature have helped open the books on what the company does with users’ data unbeknownst to them:

In the summer of 2017, I asked Facebook if it used signals from “third parties such as data brokers” for friend recommendations. Kicking myself for not recognizing the evasion in their answer.

Facebook said that they don’t get information for People You May Know from data brokers; they didn’t say anything about acquiring it directly.

Zeynep Tufekci:

So, as many suspected, Facebook combined data from wherever it could in order to suggest “people you may know” — also outing psychiatrist’s patients to one another etc. What this reporting shows is that Facebook exchanged people’s *data* (without informing them) to get that data.

Richard Tofel:

Only in, by my count, the 36th graf of this otherwise excellent story does the NYT reveal that it entered into one of these agreements. Seems like that might have been worth mentioning earlier.

I am still struggling to understand how any executive at Facebook — or, indeed, many of the companies with which they had partnerships — could set aside the obvious ethical concerns about sharing users’ personal data, including their private messages without clearly asking them first. Major corporation behaves in unconscionable manner is, sadly, nowhere near as rare a story as it ought to be, but I am surprised by just how morally bankrupt Facebook is as an organization.

Moreover, the fact that there are virtually no laws in the United States to restrict such an egregious exploitation of users indicates a de factor authorization of the selling-out of Americans on an unprecedented scale.

The Danger of Data Brokers

The New York Times editorial board (via Sarah Jeong):

But search engines put the home addresses of the entire nation a few keystrokes away. And there’s an entirely legal industry that peddles that and other personal information for a price. Search for a name in Google, and you may very well find a number of data brokers offering to sell information for a couple of dollars — if not offering it up for free.

The data comes from a number of places, including property and voting records, which are often public. (In some states, voters may apply to have their information in public voter rolls concealed by filing a form stapled to a copy of a restraining order or an affidavit that they fear for their safety.) But the data also could have been sold through the private sector — harvested, for instance, from a grocery store rewards card.

Once the information is out, it spreads — sometimes scraped, sometimes bought and sold — among data brokers. Some are sites that operate as low-touch private detectives, hanging their shingle on the first page of Google results. Anyone trying to remove information must contact dozens of different services to do so. Some remove information only for a fee.

It’s wild to me that the White Pages has been made available online, and that it — like pretty much every other people searching website — requires you to opt out of having your address, phone number, and family connections publicly-available to anyone.

Sleeping Rough in the Mattress Economy

Ed Burmila, the Baffler:

Why do so many business and marketing types believe that the model podcast listener — a young, hip thirtysomething who needs a new fix since NPR went down the shitter — is clay waiting to be molded into a mattress buyer? On the surface it makes no sense. This demographic traditionally wants to make purchases that have, bluntly, some show-off value. This is the upwardly mobile, striving, status-seeking social climber. Not too long ago these people were pitched BMWs, Rolexes, and exotic vacations. The kind of stuff that tells the world you’ve Arrived.

How did that segment of the market become a combat zone for, of all things, mattress retail? Well, if you listen to a lot of podcasts, marketing data suggests you stand at the confluence of two powerful trends: high anxiety and lowered expectations.

I like the way this piece confronts the second trend of lowered expectations, but the anxiety of buying products like these is something that I’m fascinated by.

What makes Casper’s products and approach so different? A similar question can be asked of any of the large number of companies that sell specialized products directly to consumers: Warby Parker, et al., for glasses; Indochino for suits; Quip for toothbrushes — fashionable toothbrushes! — Allbirds shoes, and so on.

It’s not solely in the products’ marketing. I considered that it was perhaps that there are no physical retail locations, but all of these companies have either opened brick-and-mortar stores, or are selling through other retailers. It’s not home delivery; that’s not a new invention. And, even though they’re mostly selling directly to consumers, these companies aren’t necessarily charging substantially less.

I think the allure is the generally bullshit-free sales approach that helps lower buyers’ anxiety. Choice can be good, but every time I’ve visited a mattress store, I’ve felt completely overwhelmed. Same with eyeglasses — not only are there typically hundreds of frame options, but all sorts of coatings and lens options are available as well. Nobody wants glare in their glasses, so just build the cost into the lens.

I fully recognize how stupid this is, but my personal irritant is the oral care aisle in my grocery store. I don’t need fifty toothbrush choices at price points ranging from three to eight dollars, or a hundred toothpaste choices.

Google Isn’t the Company to Which We Should Be Ceding Control of the Web

Jack Wellborn:

Switching to Chromium in particular contributes to the problem that gave us awfulness of Internet Explorer – lack of diversity. Chrome controls somewhere between 60 and 70% of browser share, and while that’s no where near Internet Explorer’s former dominance, there have already been a handful sites that are Chrome-only/Chrome-first. Even more worrisome is the number of other Web Developers that disdainfully treat non-Chrome browsers as aberrations.

Edge used to be an independent voice in the web standards community. Now that voice will be lost in such a way that empowers the most powerful.

Peter Bright, Ars Technica:

This is a company that, time and again, has tried to push the Web into a Google-controlled proprietary direction to improve the performance of Google’s online services when used in conjunction with Google’s browser, consolidating Google’s market positioning and putting everyone else at a disadvantage. Each time, pushback has come from the wider community, and so far, at least, the result has been industry standards that wrest control from Google’s hands. This action might already provoke doubts about the wisdom of handing effective control of the Web’s direction to Google, but at least a case could be made that, in the end, the right thing was done.

But other situations have had less satisfactory resolutions. YouTube has been a particular source of problems. Google controls a large fraction of the Web’s streaming video, and the company has, on a number of occasions, made changes to YouTube that make it worse in Edge and/or Firefox. Sometimes these changes have improved the site experience in Chrome, but even that isn’t always the case.

JoshuaJB on Hacker News was, according to his resume, an intern for the past two summers at Microsoft:

I very recently worked on the Edge team, and one of the reasons we decided to end EdgeHTML was because Google kept making changes to its sites that broke other browsers, and we couldn’t keep up. For example, they recently added a hidden empty div over YouTube videos that causes our hardware acceleration fast-path to bail (should now be fixed in Win10 Oct update). Prior to that, our fairly state-of-the-art video acceleration put us well ahead of Chrome on video playback time on battery, but almost the instant they broke things on YouTube, they started advertising Chrome’s dominance over Edge on video-watching battery life. What makes it so sad, is that their claimed dominance was not due to ingenious optimization work by Chrome, but due to a failure of YouTube. On the whole, they only made the web slower.

Now while I’m not sure I’m convinced that YouTube was changed intentionally to slow Edge, many of my co-workers are quite convinced – and they’re the ones who looked into it personally. To add to this all, when we asked, YouTube turned down our request to remove the hidden empty div and did not elaborate further.

Chromium is, by all accounts, an excellent rendering engine. It is not inherently bad for Microsoft to switch its rendering engine, and it is not even necessarily bad that there is less diversity amongst rendering engines. The concern is that Google’s rendering engine is not separate from Google as a company, and its manipulative and self-preferential tactics for directing the web in a direction it favours.

The web is not a Google product. We ought to do everything we can to spoil their attempts to make it one.

Twitter’s Reverse-Chronological Timeline Toggle Is Rolling Out on iOS Today

Casey Newton, the Verge:

Twitter began ranking the timeline almost four years ago. It was an effort to increase usage at a time when Facebook had pulled dramatically ahead of Twitter, raising doubts about the company’s future and setting it on a course to reinvent itself. Many users griped about the change, even though Twitter has always allowed users to switch back to the reverse-chronological feed temporarily.

The latest incarnation of the original Twitter feed can be accessed by tapping the cluster of small stars — the company calls it the “sparkle” and now so shall we all, forever — and switching to see the latest tweets. Over time, the company will learn your behavior. If you routinely switch to the latest tweets, Twitter will default you to them. This marks a change from the past, when the app would switch you back to the ranked timeline at unpredictable intervals.

This is unnecessarily complicated, especially when compared to the current behaviour. All anyone wants who uses the reverse-chronological timeline is to be able to set that as their preferred — and only — view. The app doesn’t need to “learn” a user’s preference over time. It just needs one setting. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

Apple Music Connect Pulls a Ping

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Apple today announced that its Apple Music Connect social platform for artists is in the process of shutting down, suffering the same fate as Ping, the company’s previous social network for music removed from iTunes in October 2012.

In a letter shared with artists, Apple said artists will no longer be able to post to Connect as of today, with the feature now removed from artist pages and the “For You” tab in Apple Music. Apple says all previously uploaded Connect content will remain searchable in Apple Music until May 24, 2019.

Connect was a ghost town within the first ninety days of Apple Music’s launch. When they demoted it a couple of years ago from having its own button in the tab bar to something that appears below everything else on the For You page and any artist’s page, that was a pretty clear signal that it was on its way out. I’m surprised it took this long, frankly.

Aside from Connect, I think Apple Music’s social features have been fairly successful. I check out what the users I follow have been listening to all the time in the For You section, and I like the new Friends Mix added a few months ago. I’ve even noticed a better selection of user-created playlists. I would love to see continued investment and promotion of these more passive social features, rather than another attempt to create a Twitter-but-for-music social network.

Negative Mount Pleasant

Sruthi Pinnamaneni reported for Reply All on the circumstances that led to Foxconn building a new factory in the village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. Josh Dzieza of the Verge also interviewed her about her report:

What’s your sense of the negotiation process? The village is giving them quite a lot of money and promising to buy land for Foxconn. Do you have a sense of how that came about and how the village assessed whether this factory was a good idea, or even feasible?

I think that they were basing a lot of the deal on assumptions. When you ask them, “Hey, the size of this incentive package that you’re offering is so very large, and you have a village whose budget is usually between $18 to $20 million, and you guys are offering an incentive package of $760 million, something you have to change is the state law to allow the village to do because it’s considered beyond the prudent borrowing ratio.” They say it was justified because the size of the deal was so large.

Meaning, Foxconn is offering them $10 billion, which is so much money, and so we obviously had to come back with an equally sweet deal to get them here. I mean, the problem with that is, when you talk to people who study Foxconn, or you just look at the way Foxconn has operated in other countries, is that they often come with a very large deal, and they walk back the deal to a place that seems comfortable for them.

The village now owes lenders hundreds of millions of dollars which, if it cannot meet its payment schedule, will be a debt spread amongst everyone in Wisconsin. Nothing about these incentives makes sense, and the way in which they were used to lure Foxconn to the town is heartbreaking and infuriating. This podcast is absolutely worth an hour of your time. Via Andy Baio.