Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2019

An Airbnb Scam Demonstrates the Site’s Toothless Policies

Allie Conti, Vice:

I was thankful I’d gotten the last-minute agreement in writing, but I also started to wonder what had actually happened in Chicago. Unable to shake the sense that this was more than a run-of-the-mill bad host, I started to look for red flags I must have missed. It didn’t take long to find a few. For one, the phone number that the Airbnb host had called me with was a Google number that couldn’t be traced. Through a reverse image search, I also realized that the profile picture Becky and Andrew had used on Airbnb was a stock photo from a website that hosts surfing-themed desktop wallpapers. And when I started going through other people’s reviews of Becky and Andrew’s properties, I noticed some other renters had reported experiences that strangely mirrored my own. A woman said she was forced to switch up her itinerary three minutes before check-in due to alleged plumbing issues. A man said that he was promised a refund because his rental was “falling apart,” though it never materialized.

Even some of the positive reviews of Becky and Andrew’s Chicago rentals seemed odd, especially those left by other pairs of hosts. Kelsey and Jean, for example, said Becky and Andrew were “awesome and communicative guests.” But they themselves were based in Chicago, where it seemed they had at least two properties of their own. Why would they need to rent from someone else there? Even stranger, Kelsey and Jean’s photo also had been cribbed from a travel site, and the language they used to describe their home (“Westloop 6 Bed Getaway – Walk the City”) seemed similar to that of Becky and Andrew’s (“6 Bed Downtown / Wicker Park / Walk the City”). It wasn’t long before I found what looked an awful lot like the apartment I’d originally booked with Becky and Andrew—the one on North Wood Street—listed by Kelsey and Jean as well. There was no mistaking it: The couch, coffee table, dining room set, and wall art were all the same.

I started to wonder whether “Becky and Andrew” and “Kelsey and Jean” existed at all.

This is a brilliant investigation, well told.

It’s almost as though operating businesses free of regulation under the guise of “disruption” leads to predictable consequences that scale-obsessed platform owners struggle to solve.

iOS 13.2 Is More Aggressive at Killing Background Apps and Tasks

Yours truly on Twitter yesterday:

I thought it was just a beta thing, but iOS’ memory management has taken a big step back — as in, back to the pre-multitasking days of quitting and launching apps instead of switching between them.

Natalia Ossipova:

Lost a 3+ hours @GoZwift ride because of that. Had to switch to Settings to restore Wi-Fi connection and on return to Zwift the app was relaunched. An all-time 5 min power peak, two KOMs and a lot of kudos gone. Staying alive in the background is crucial to fitness apps.

Marco Arment:

I’ve noticed this since the first 13.2 betas, and Overcast users keep reporting it as well: background apps seem to be getting killed MUCH more aggressively than before.

(Especially on the iPhone 11 if you use the camera, presumably because it needs so much RAM for processing.)

I’m used to the camera purging all open apps from memory on my iPhone X, but iOS 13.2 goes above and beyond in killing background tasks. Earlier today, I was switching between a thread in Messages and a recipe in Safari and each app entirely refreshed every time I foregrounded it. This happens all the time throughout the system in iOS 13: Safari can’t keep even a single tab open in the background, every app boots from scratch, and using iOS feels like it has regressed to the pre-multitasking days. As bugs go, this is isn’t a catastrophic one, but it absolutely should be the highest of priorities to fix it. It’s embarrassing that all of the hard work put into making animations and app launching feel smooth is squandered by mismanaged multitasking.

G/O Media’s Plan to Juice Its Ad Numbers Backfires After Farmers Insurance Pulls Its Million-Dollar Commitment and Deadspin’s Staff Quit en Masse

A bit of followup related to yesterday’s dumpster fire at Deadspin: you may recall that one source of the rift between editorial and management staff at G/O Media has been the company’s recent carpet bombing of autoplaying video ads across the websites it owns, in a move not unlike someone cutting their own fingers off and wondering why they are in so much pain. Everyone knows that autoplaying video ads are a violation of an implicit code between websites owners and visitors — I can’t imagine a single person finding them anything less than obtrusive, and their distraction is disrespectful to readers and writers alike.

Sahil Patel, Wall Street Journal:

The Farmers deal, which began last month and is worth $1 million, required G/O Media to deliver nearly 43.5 million ad impressions through September 2020, according to internal G/O Media emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The publisher’s media and ad operations teams believed it was unlikely G/O Media could deliver that many, according to the emails.

After failing to hit ad impression targets within the first few weeks of the campaign, G/O Media decided to start playing videos with the sound on as soon as pages loaded, according to people familiar with the matter. That included stand-alone video ads for Farmers inside article pages as well as preroll ads before editorial videos.

This was done with the approval of Farmers, but it failed spectacularly, as Maxwell Tani reported for the Daily Beast earlier today:

Multiple sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that following the editorial team’s public criticism of the ads, Farmers informed G/O that it would not continue with the campaign which, according to the Journal, was worth $1 million and required the media company to deliver nearly 43.5 million ad impressions through next year.

As I wrote yesterday, a man who hates everything Gawker stood for bought the company and it backfired when he tried to ruin the company from the inside.

Oh, and then lots of reporters quit today. Like, pretty much any staff member who was able just walked out.

G/O Media’s management short of shrugged at having lost some of the most talented writers on the web as they attempt to turn each of their publications into the most generic version of itself.

Deep Fusion Is Brilliant

Speaking of photography on the iPhone 11, Matt Birchler illustrates the effect of Deep Fusion on a photo of his dog, and it is stunning. Even compared to RAW or the formidable Pixel 4’s camera, there’s nothing in it: Deep Fusion really does make an awesome amount of difference.

A Deep Look at the Software and Hardware Changes in the iPhone 11’s Camera System

Sebastiaan de With of Halide:

Last month, we took a look at what is new in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro’s camera hardware. You might’ve noticed two things from Apple’s iPhone announcement event and our blog post: the hardware changes seem fairly modest, with more attention directed at this generation’s software based processing.

It’s true: The great advances in camera quality for these new iPhones are mostly to blame on advanced (and improved) software processing.

I’ve taken some time to analyze the iPhone 11’s new image capture pipeline, and it looks like one of the greatest changes in iPhone cameras yet.

Come for the insightful explanation of the new iPhone 11 camera features, but stay for de With’s phenomenal examples. This is one of those articles that you’ll want to save for reading on the best display you’ve got.

What’s Happening at Deadspin Is a Travesty

Jeremy Gordon of the Outline, a website that I feel terrible for subjecting readers to as they have, for some ungodly reason, built their own layout engine which breaks scrolling but, hey, they can show those irritating animated squiggly lines, so that’s something:

For the past several months, the new owners have paid seemingly unique attention to diminishing Deadspin. Most egregiously was the request — long rumored, and made official on Monday — that the site “stick to sports,” in line with the completely facile line of logic that sports fans only want to know about the score and the game and not anything else. Besides the fact that sports themselves are frequently political, Deadspin also specifically flourished as an umbrella for topics often beyond the purview of straight sports. Its readers overwhelmingly responded positively to this, as verified anecdotally — is there a better writer on Donald Trump in this country than writer/editor David Roth? — and officially by traffic numbers published by former editor Timothy Burke.

Nonetheless, so the new diktat went, issued by men refusing to understand the websites they spent millions of dollars acquiring. On Tuesday, the staffers responded by only posting non-sports stories. They trafficked normally, of course, but corporate retribution followed a few hours later when deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired for, in his words, “not sticking to sports.” Petchesky, who’d worked there for a decade, and kept the site running as the search for a new editor-in-chief continued — because who would want to work for people like Spanfeller and Maidment, or for a staff already trained to sniff out a patsy? — produced thousands upon thousands of blogs (and more) for Deadspin. Firing a highly productive, widely beloved, well-tenured employee as petty revenge sounds stupid, but I guess I’m not smart enough to be the CEO of G/O Media.

Molly Lambert:

RIP blogging we all tried real hard to make the internet good and then corporations and rich idiots destroyed everything a generation of writers tried to build.

Brent Simmons:

You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work.

A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.

Again: you choose.

This isn’t even a question of economics, per se, as Deadspin — and, indeed, G/O Media entities as a whole — are profitable. Deadspin’s future isn’t in jeopardy because it wasn’t making enough money, but because a jury in Florida decided that Hulk Hogan was owed over a hundred million dollars because his public image was embarrassed, in a case bankrolled by Peter Thiel due to a personal vendetta against Gawker. The network of profitable sites was then sold to Univision and used as collateral by its private equity owners, which piled on billions of dollars of debt. Those sites were then sold to Great Hill Partners, another private equity group, which installed as CEO a guy who seems to hate everything about the sites, and who used to run the Internet Advertising Bureau — which might explain why all of these websites are now laden with garbage advertising.

All of this is to say that blogging is a format that is still very much alive, especially if you stretch the definition. But the most powerful people in the room desperately dislike the validity of independent and unconventional writing, and are doing all they can to dismantle it.

David Roth, Deadspin:

The work that those people do in those jobs touches the lives of many millions of other people; it can elevate and honor the dignity of those people’s lives or it can deny it for reasons relating to avarice or arrogance or stupid abject cruelty. It is not rude to look straight at this, and it is not wrong to be angry when and where it fails. There really is something that every person owes to everyone else, and it is not deference. Our leaders owe us more of that than we owe them, but the crowds do owe at least one thing to the people in the owner’s boxes. When they are wrong—when they dishonor us and themselves, when they are vicious and lazy and shortsighted and demand to be celebrated for it—we should let them hear it.

This post is about the U.S. President getting booed during Sunday’s World Series game — of course it is, because Roth has dutifully stuck to sports.

Of course.

Molekule Is Using the California Wildfires to Sell Its Crummy Air Purifier

Sarah Emerson, OneZero:

California is again on fire. In Sonoma County, the Kincade Fire is ripping through communities and threatening to reach the Pacific Coast. It is one of half-a-dozen major fires currently threatening the state. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes throughout the county, and even more are facing power blackouts by PG&E.

And Molekule is once again advertising against the disaster, running promoted posts on Instagram that play on the public’s fear of wildfire smoke. Molekule isn’t the only brand that stands to benefit from a burning California, but the company’s ads feel opportunistic. Compared to other air purifiers, Molekule’s air purifier is wildly expensive, and looks like something you’d find in a millionaire’s doomsday bunker.

Earlier this month, the Wirecutter published their roundup of the best air purifiers on the market. They included the Molekule in their tests and were shocked by how badly it performed. Also, it has one of those bright blue LED lights that cannot be turned off while it’s in use which, while not quite as bad as selling an air purifier that doesn’t really do the thing it says it does, ought to be enough to disqualify the purchase of any product.

Elon Musk is also using the wildfires as a marketing opportunity, though Justine Calma of the Verge frames it somewhat differently. It’s subtle, but see if you can spot it:

Musk offered $1,000 off [solar panels and Powerwalls] to customers who are affected by the outages. His generosity is likely to benefit more affluent Californians’ who are coping with the power loss, given the price of a home installation. On its website, Tesla lists the average price of a Solar Roof as $33,950. Its home battery system, the Powerwall, costs roughly $14,100 for a 2,200-square-foot home. The company unveiled Solar Glass Roof tiles just three days ago.

It is, of course, a good thing to make solar power more accessible. It is vulgar to tie this promotion to a disaster of staggering proportions.

Update: Molekule is apologizing, says that they’ve donated products to the fires — which is a weird way to phrase a donation to, I assume, those affected, but okay — and has pulled the ads.

The Advertising Industry Begins to Realize That Bombarding Audiences Doesn’t Work

Tiffany Hsu, New York Times:

In the predigital days, advertising agencies were ruled by swaggering creative directors who gorged on lavish client contracts and sometimes created campaigns that set the cultural agenda and captivated the public.

Nearly every piece of that equation has changed. Agencies are better informed than ever before about consumers, having amassed huge stores of their data. But many of those consumers, especially the affluent young people prized by advertisers, hate ads so much that they are paying to avoid them.

At the same time, companies that hire ad agencies are demanding more from marketing campaigns — while paying less for them.

As a result, the advertising industry faces an “existential need for change,” according to a blunt report published on Monday by the research firm Forrester. Now the agencies must “disassemble what remains of their outmoded model” or risk “falling further into irrelevance,” the report concludes.

There used to be an art to advertising. That’s not to say that all ads were art, but there was an expectation that creative directors would put in the effort to be, well, creative. It’s hard to argue that Google and Facebook ads are anything of the sort, while advertisers become increasingly desperate. It’s disappointing to see the slow demise of this applied art form.

Apple’s Obese Marketing Webpage for the AirPods Pro

John Gruber:

The AirPods Pro “overview” web page is a strange beast. It pegs my 2015 MacBook Pro’s CPU — I closed the tab a few minutes ago and my fan is still running. The animation is very jerky and scrolling feels so slow. There’s so much scrolljacking that you have to scroll or page down several times just to go to the next section of the page. The animation is at least smooth on my iPad and iPhone, but even there, it feels like a thousand swipes to get to the bottom of the page.

It is a truly obscene webpage. By the time I got to the bottom on my non-Retina MacBook Air, it had loaded over 66 MB of assets and had chalked up over 1,600 HTTP requests — for one webpage.

At least it’s not the iPad Pro marketing page, where vertical scrolling is converted to sideways scrolling.

Apple Releases iOS and iPadOS 13.2

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple today released iOS 13.2, the second major update to the iOS and iPadOS 13 operating systems. The new software updates come two weeks after the release of iOS/iPadOS 13.1.3 and over a month after the initial release of iOS 13.

If you’re shocked by the speed of Apple’s software update rollout this autumn, you’re not inventing things. iOS 12 didn’t get to 12.2 until March of this year. Only about half of iOS releases ever saw a x.2 version, and most of those were released in December, with only a couple near the end of November. None have been released in October.

I’ve been running the betas and 13.2 feels like the release that iOS 13 should have been. It’s less buggy than the general release — though there are still plenty to go around — but it’s more feature complete. My favourite new thing is Announce Messages with Siri.

If you have a set of AirPods or PowerBeats headphones with an H1 chip, you can now have Siri read incoming messages as they arrive and reply to them immediately — all without going through a whole “Hey, Siri” process. On its surface, this is magic. When it works and it’s in the right place at the right time — say, while I’m walking or cycling, or when I’m expecting a message from someone — it’s really nice to not have to touch my phone, especially when I’m wearing a traditional watch. Even if you’re using an Apple Watch, this feature is quite nice because it means you can be even more selective about what buzzes your wrist.

It lowers the volume of music you’re listening to or pauses your podcast, plays a unique notification chime, and Siri reads the message you’ve received. I still can’t believe the Siri voice is entirely synthetic; it sounds terrific, like having a narrator reading your friend’s incoming messages. Then, you can reply just by speaking, if you want. You don’t need to say “hey, Siri” — you can just talk and it will send it as a reply. If you don’t say anything for a few seconds, your music will fade back or your podcast will resume playing.

A nice touch is that subsequent messages from the same person will be read in a conversational tone, like “Rebecca also says…”. Something I did not expect is that message announcements are limited by length. Messages of over — I think — 256 characters won’t be read in full by Siri; it will only say “a message”.

If you’re popular, I imagine that it could get quite irritating to have your music or podcast constantly interrupted — I wouldn’t know, firsthand. In this feature’s settings — under Siri and Search, then Announce Messages with Siri — you can limit message announcements to just favourites, recents, contacts, or allow Siri to read messages from everyone. You can also add a tile to Control Centre which, when expanded, allows muting for an hour or the rest of the day, in addition to switching it on or off entirely.

This feature isn’t limited to Apple’s Messages app, etiher: third-party developers can support Announce Messages with Siri by adding INSearchForMessagesIntentIdentifier to their app’s notification category.

Announce Messages with Siri is one of the things I was thinking of when I wrote that AirPods feel like the future. It’s such a smart, simple feature that allows you to keep your phone in your pocket or bag, but still get the messages that matter most.

There are loads of new features in 13.2 aside from this: Deep Fusion support for those with an iPhone 11, privacy options for Siri and dictation, support for the new AirPods Pro headphones announced this morning, and new emoji. Good things all around, with one caveat: on my iPhone X, I’ve noticed apps getting booted from memory much sooner than in previous releases, often as soon as I’ve switched to another app. I’m not sure if this bug is present in the release version or if it’s something specific to my phone, but I hope this doesn’t persist.

Bundling, Unbundling, and Rebundling

Drew Austin, writing for Real Life:

Things that have been unbundled rarely remain unbundled for very long. Whether digital or physical, people actually like bundles, because they supply a legible social structure and simplify the complexity presented by a paralyzing array of consumer choices. The Silicon Valley disruption narrative implies that bundles are suboptimal and thus bad, but as it turns out, it is only someone else’s bundles that are bad: The tech industry’s unbundling has actually paved the way for invidious forms of rebundling. The apps and services that replaced the newspaper are now bundled on iPhone home screens or within social media platforms, where they are combined with new things that no consumer asked for: advertising, data mining, and manipulative interfaces. Facebook, for instance, unbundled a variety of long-established social practices from their existing analog context — photo sharing, wishing a friend happy birthday, or inviting someone to a party — and recombined them into its new bundle, accompanied by ad targeting and algorithmic filtering. In such cases, a bundle becomes less a bargain than a form of coercion, locking users into arrangements that are harder to escape than what they replaced. Ironically, digital bundles like Facebook also introduce novel ambiguities and adjacencies in place of those they sought to eliminate, such as anger about the political leanings of distant acquaintances or awareness of social gatherings that happened without you (side effects that are likely to motivate future unbundling efforts in turn).

A thoughtful essay that challenges our perceived gains from disassociating discrete components from their combined whole, some of which touches on themes similar to Alexis C. Madrigal’s essay about the servant economy.

Zuck Testified Before the House Financial Services Committee and It Did Not Go Well for Him

Tony Romm, Washington Post:

Congressional lawmakers delivered a broad lashing of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, sniping at his company’s plans to launch a digital currency, its pockmarked track record on privacy and diversity, and its struggles to prevent the spread of misinformation.

The wide-ranging criticisms came largely from Democrats during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, which convened the session to probe Facebook’s plan to launch a cryptocurrency, called Libra. Facebook’s efforts have catalyzed a rare alignment of opposition from the party’s members of Congress and some Trump administration officials, who are concerned Libra could trouble the global financial system.

Quickly, though, the hearing expanded in focus, reflecting the simmering frustrations on Capitol Hill with practically the entirety of Facebook’s business. […]

The questions from the most prepared representatives today were illuminating and appeared to take Mark “I’m Not Sure” Zuckerberg by surprise.

Cecilia Kang, Mike Isaac, and Nathaniel Popper, New York Times:

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, pointed to Facebook’s promise in its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 to keep the messaging app separate from the main Facebook platform. A few years later, Mr. Zuckerberg announced it would merge data between the two apps.

“Do you understand why this record makes us concerned with Facebook entering the cryptocurrency space? Have you learned that you should not lie?” Ms. Velázquez said.

“Congresswoman, I would disagree with the characterization,” he said before getting cut off by further questions.

Rep. Katie Porter had one of the most memorable exchanges:

Rep. Porter: Facebook’s known as a great place to work: free food, ping pong tables, great employee benefits. But Facebook doesn’t use its employees for the hardest jobs in the company. You’ve got about 15,000 contractors watching murders, stabbings, suicides, and other gruesome, disgusting videos for content moderation — correct?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, I believe that’s correct.

Rep. Porter: You pay many of those workers under $30,000 per year, and you’ve cut them off from mental health care when they leave the company, even if they have PTSD because of their work for your company. Is that correct?

Zuckerberg: Um, congresswoman, my understanding is that we pay everyone, including the contractors associated with the company, at least a $15 minimum wage. In markets and cities with a high cost of living, that’s a $20 minimum wage. We go out of our way to offer a lot of —

Rep. Porter: Thank you, I take your word at the wage. Reclaiming my time. According to one report I have — and this is straight out of an episode of Black Mirror — these workers get nine — nine — minutes of supervised wellness time per day. That means nine minutes to cry in the stairwell while someone watches them. Would you be willing to commit to spending one hour a day for the next year watching these videos and acting as a content monitor, and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?

Zuckerberg: Uh — congresswoman, we work hard to make sure we give good benefits to all of the folks who are doing this.

Rep. Porter: Mr. Zuckerberg — reclaiming my time — I would appreciate a yes or a no. Would you be willing to act as a content monitor — to have that life experience?

Zuckerberg: I’m not sure it would best serve our community for me to spend that much time —

Rep. Porter: Reclaiming my time. Mr. Zuckerberg, are you saying you’re not qualified to be a content monitor?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, that’s not what I’m saying.

I can’t work out whether the expression on Zuckerberg’s face when he delivered that last line is one of frustrated politeness, or if he was smirking because he saw where Rep. Porter was going with her line of questioning.

One topic that kept coming up today was Facebook’s recent loosening of a longtime ban on falsehoods in political ads.

The Times, again:

Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg on Facebook’s desire not to fact-check political campaign advertising.

Ms. Tlaib said the practice had resulted in widespread hate-mongering and a flurry of false information about her, personally. “It is hate speech, it’s hate, and it’s leading to violence and death threats in my office,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation in 2020 elections and in the future. So, I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year. Under your policy — you know, and using census data as well — could I pay to target predominantly black zip codes and advertise to them the incorrect election date?

Zuckerberg: No, congresswoman, you couldn’t. We have — even for these policies around the newsworthiness of content that politicians say, and the general principle that I believe that —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: But you said you’re not going to fact check my ads.

Zuckerberg: If anyone, including a politician, is saying things that can cause — that is calling for violence, or could risk imminent physical harm, or voter or census suppression — when we roll out the census suppression policy — we will take that content down.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: So you will — there is some threshold where you will fact-check political advertisements. Is that what you’re telling me?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, yes, for specific things like that where there is imminent risk of harm —

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?

Zuckerberg: Sorry, can you repeat that?

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements — I’m just trying to understand the bounds here. What’s fair game?

Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably.

I struggle with this policy shift. I’ve previously argued that this clearly benefits bad faith arguments and politicians that have a most tenuous relationship with facts. I think it’s especially worrying that advertisements on Facebook can be highly targeted, so lies can be broadcast to much smaller groups of individuals and, therefore, being easier to evade detection. In the recent Canadian election, both the Liberal Party and Conservative Party targeted ads containing lies at Chinese-language Facebook users. That’s obviously appalling, as are the threats towards Rep. Tlaib that she says result from ads containing falsehoods.

There is no easy segue here, but I do wish to point out two things. First, I struggle to believe that Facebook would be an effective moderator of the truth. Also, Facebook’s policy shift brings the website in alignment with longstanding policy that generally exempts politicians from false advertising standards — this is also true for Canadian ads. Legally, politicians can lie in ads all they want about their own record or their opponents’ as long as they play dumb when asked about it, but overestimating the lifespan of lightbulbs is verboten. Oh, and you can claim that your drink comprising over 99% apple and grape juice is a pomegranate blueberry blend — that’s fine, too.

Facebook struggles with content moderation at a base level; expecting them to fact check politicians’ advertisements around the world seems like an implausible stretch. That’s not to say that Facebook should do nothing: I think it would be helpful to remove the ability to target political advertising by anything other than country and language. I also see the need for greater action against advertising falsehoods, because lying to consumers is a form of fraud in myriad contexts, and I don’t know why that standard ought to be different for politicians.

More importantly, I think these are all manifestations of an increasingly untrustworthy and untruthful climate. Coca-Cola should not be using the most careful reading of the law to label its apple and grape juice with other fruits — that shouldn’t even be a question. Nor should politicians feel like they should be able to spread outright lies in their promotional materials. This sounds incredibly naïve, I realize, but the current level of cynicism is not supportive of a functional democracy. We should not have such low expectations.

I remain perplexed, dismayed, and frustrated that “fine print” is something that exists at all, and that there is an expectation that public officials will knowingly lie to voters.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Argues for National Broadband Regulation

Marguerite Reardon, CNet:

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai worries a patchwork of local and state regulations on internet technologies could hurt the competitiveness of the US in the tech sector. 

Speaking at the WSJ Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, on Monday, Pai made the case for harmonizing regulation among federal and state and local governments. He said that entrepreneurs and innovators not only need to consider the complexities of federal regulation, but they must also navigate regulations imposed by each of the 50 state governments, hundreds of local municipalities, as well as the more than 500 federally recognized native American tribes, which all want to take “a bite of the regulatory apple.” 

He argued that “while that federalist system has served us very well” up to this point in our nation’s history, it’s time for Congress to consider “whether or not we can still maintain a multilayer regulatory system.” He said allowing states and local governments to pass their own laws regulating internet services, which inherently cross state lines, creates market uncertainty.

This follows a court decision earlier this month which upheld Pai’s undoing of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, but which allowed states to set their own policy.

It also happens to be something Pai said just a week after the New York Times published an op-ed — written by a lobbyist for Facebook and Google — arguing for a national privacy law instead of state-level laws. Later last week, Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a national privacy bill — which, incidentally, the aforementioned lobbyist’s organization has not publicly addressed.

In both cases, regulation at the national level would be more efficient than state laws, and it would set expectations of behaviour across the United States. But Pai spearheaded the dismantling of widely-supported FCC policies in favour of an anti-regulatory environment. He has only himself to blame.

Katie Couric Interviews Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit

Claire Landsbaum, Vanity Fair:

“I’m conscious that this clock is beeping at us,” Sheryl Sandberg said to Katie Couric onstage at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit, gesturing toward the lip of the stage. “They’re going to give me a little extra time,” Couric replied, smiling conspiratorially at the audience. Much to the crowd’s delight, Couric’s grilling of the Facebook COO did indeed go over time, backing Sandberg into perhaps the tightest corner in which she’s publicly found herself. As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify in Washington about Libra, the new cryptocurrency Facebook is backing, Couric pushed Sandberg to address topics like the measures Facebook has taken to protect elections, the prospect of Facebook being broken up, Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and Zuckerberg’s invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. that was rebuffed by his daughter Bernice King.

Matt Donnelly, Variety:

“My real fear is that in 2020, it is going to be the battle of the billionaires, of secret groups working for people aligned on both sides, who are trying to manipulate us at scale, online,” Couric quoted [Alex Stamos]. “What is Facebook doing to defend the platform against this kind of domestic threat?”

Sandberg ceded it was a good question, and responded that on Facebook “the transparency is dramatically different,” noting that content pages will now receive geotags identifying their origin points whether they like it or not.

Couric was not satisfied. “But then why did Facebook announce not to fact check political ads last month? The Rand Corporation actually has a term for this, ‘truth decay.’ Mark [Zuckerberg] himself has defended this decision even as the press have expressed concerns about the erosion of truth online. What is the rationale for that?”

Couric’s interview was incisive but fair for the chief operating officer of a company as manipulative and engrained as Facebook. The Vanity Fair link contains a full video of the forty-odd minute interview.

Google Is Shifting Some Products Toward Paid Subscriptions

Gerrit De Vynck, Bloomberg:

Google lured billions of consumers to its digital services by offering copious free cloud storage. That’s beginning to change.

The Alphabet Inc. unit has whittled down some free storage offers in recent months, while prodding more users toward a new paid cloud subscription called Google One. That’s happening as the amount of data people stash online continues to soar.

Google has made changes recently — such as ending unlimited original quality photo backups for buyers of Pixel phones — and is increasingly steering users towards paying for storage. That’s a strategy shift for an advertising company that has been known to offer ludicrous amounts of free stuff in exchange for personal data, and it aligns them more closely with companies that charge money for services.

As a strategy shift, though, it has some hiccups:

When people hit those caps, they realize they have little choice but to start paying, or risk losing access to emails, photos and personal documents. The cost isn’t excessive for most consumers, but at the scale Google operates, this could generate billions of dollars in extra revenue each year for the company. Google didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Because Google offers a sizeable chunk of storage at no cost, users are far more invested in using their accounts when they hit its limit.

Use Your AppleCare Coverage Before It Expires

I don’t normally do public service announcements, but here’s one that I think is worthwhile: use your AppleCare benefits before they vanish. This advice applies mostly to those with AppleCare plans of a fixed term — two years for an iOS device; three for a Mac. If you have continuous AppleCare coverage because you’re on the iPhone upgrade plan or you’ve chosen an AppleCare subscription, this piece may be less relevant.

I’ve had AppleCare+ on my iPhone X since I bought it; the two-year plan expires at the beginning of November. I don’t normally buy AppleCare, but the fragility of a device with two large panels of glass combined with its expense encouraged me to pick it up. It’s been nearly two years since I bought my phone and, since I don’t plan on upgrading until next year, I thought it would be a good idea to make it feel new for a little while longer. I figured I’d try replacing my scratched display for the AppleCare cost of about $40 Canadian.

I booked an appointment Saturday as a “cracked screen” — there’s no option for “a few hairline scratches and my oleophobic coating has worn off” — and was completely honest with the Genius upon arriving about what I wanted to do. They said it was fine. I came back about forty minutes later to pick up my re-screened iPhone and was told that I’d be getting a new device because they found a swollen battery after opening it up.

This isn’t a suggestion to blag a new phone by exploiting AppleCare benefits. It’s a reminder to make the most of the coverage you already have. I’m glad I booked an appointment to address an issue that is arguably trivial and solely cosmetic. I think it’s worth getting an appointment near the end of a fixed-length AppleCare plan to verify that everything about your device is working correctly, and to fix or replace anything that may not be. It can keep your device feeling like-new for years to come.

Screen Time in Catalina Is a Sloppy Mac Port

Kirk McElhearn:

Screen Time is a feature that Apple added to iOS 12, which allows you to keep track of how much time you spend on each app you use, how many times you wake up your iOS device, and how many notifications you receive. This data can help you cut down on your device usage, and you can use Screen Time to set limits for your kids.

Screen Time was also added to macOS Catalina, with the same features. However, it doesn’t seem to work correctly. Rather than showing which apps are frontmost when you work, it shows how long apps are open.

This is an embarrassing Mac port of a good iOS feature. It’s fine for getting an idea of how long you’re spending in front of your Mac and it’s probably helpful as a parental control mechanism, but it tells you almost nothing about how you use the applications on your Mac.

Some terminology also hasn’t been changed:

Screen Time also records “Pickups.” While this makes sense for an iOS device — how many times you picked up your iPhone and woke it up — it really makes little sense on the Mac. A pickup on the Mac is the number of times you woke the device from sleep, or restarted it.

Screen Time isn’t useless on the Mac, but it is sloppy — a halfway-ported version of an iOS feature with little thought given to how MacOS is used differently. It’s as ill-considered as the implementation of full screen apps in Lion.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meaningless ‘Free Speech’ Defence of Facebook’s Inconsistent Moderation Policies

Kari Paul, the Guardian:

Mark Zuckerberg touted Facebook as a champion of “free expression” in a wide-sweeping speech, offering a staunch defense of the social media giant following several rocky years characterized by allegations against the platform of censorship and bias.

Speaking at Georgetown University on Thursday, the Facebook CEO invoked Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr and Black Lives Matter as a means of positioning Facebook as a champion for freedom of speech.

Zuckerberg defended the company’s decision to allow misinformation in political advertising on the platform, despite high-profile pushback against the policy.

Jillian C. York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, writing for Vice:

But, to free expression advocates like me, Zuckerberg’s speech feels like empty words in the absence of any concrete changes to the company’s questionable policies on speech. Just this month, the company announced controversial exceptions to its fact-checking policies and prohibition on hate speech for politicians, effectively creating a separate and higher tier for those whose words have more power to harm than those of ordinary citizens. Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg — himself a former politician — stated that he didn’t believe it would be “acceptable to society at large to have a private company … become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say.”

In asserting a fresh stance on free expression, Zuckerberg might have, for instance, reconsidered Facebook’s long-criticized “authentic name policy” that puts users around the world at risk of harm, but which the company insists allows for greater civility, despite ample evidence to the contrary. He could have listened more closely to the women and non-binary users, as well as the artist communities of Facebook who have protested the company’s ban on “female nipples” as discriminatory and outdated (in his speech, he called pornography “harmful” but said nothing about nudity). Zuckerberg might have reconsidered the company’s ever-expanding use of AI to adjudicate hate speech, given its clearly negative impact on LGBTQ users. Or, when he was speaking pridefully about how the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag was first mentioned on Facebook, he might have also acknowledged his company’s role in silencing important speech related to the movement.

York’s piece is the article I was trying to write last night, but the right words didn’t appear in the right order. It’s a robust argument that the company does not support free speech to a meaningful degree, but it’s also not a well-moderated platform. Zuckerberg wants to be able to claim that Facebook is a champion of free speech when it’s convenient to them — for instance, when it’s making money by selling ads to liars — but doesn’t want to deal with the actual difficulties that a free-for-all platform enables — and it ends up being horrible at both.

Zappos’ Proposed Settlement for a 2012 Data Breach Affecting Millions Is a 10% Off Coupon

Josephine Wolff, Slate:

In January 2012, the Amazon-owned online retailer Zappos suffered a major data breach that exposed personal information of about 24 million of the site’s customers, including names, addresses, passwords, and the last four digits of their credit card numbers. The fallout from large-scale data breaches is never resolved quickly, but even by those standards, the settlement that Zappos proposed this fall was a little bit shocking both in how long it took to reach and how little it offered to victims of the breach.

The settlement, which was submitted for approval to the United States District Court for the District of Nevada in September, provides a 10-percent-off code for one Zappos order per affected customer, but the discount has to be used by 11:59 Pacific time on Dec. 31, 2019, or within 60 days of being distributed to affected customers, whichever is later. The deal has already received preliminary approval and is likely to be finalized in the coming weeks. It’s an astonishing step backward in data breach settlements and a disheartening reminder of how easy it is for major companies to still walk away from data breaches with minimal consequences.

No data breach is good, but the Zappos one is relatively minor in terms of the severity of data exposed. Contrary to Wolff’s reporting, passwords themselves were not exposed, only encrypted hashes. Names and addresses aren’t public, per se, but nor are they alarmingly private. Likewise, the last four digits of a credit card appear on receipts, so it’s not like they’re considered extremely sensitive either.

But the combination of these elements can be dangerous. The email account used for a Zappos account is likely tied to other services; home addresses don’t change often, either. Mat Honan’s accounts and computer were compromised, in part, because Apple relied upon the last four digits of a credit card number as a security measure. I’m not sure this is still the case with Apple, but I’ve been asked for the last four digits of my credit card number as a unique identifier several times within the past year by different companies.

Regardless of the actual impact of Zappos’ breach, this settlement is a joke. Those affected will only receive a benefit if they purchase something else with Zappos and, even then, the value of the settlement will be paltry. Zappos basically won a marketing blitz just in time for the holidays. You can opt out or express disapproval if you’re affected by this.

It sure would be great if there were some punitive measure to hold businesses accountable for the security of their vast and unnecessary hoarding of personally-identifiable details.

MacGeneration Finds an Icon for a 16-Inch MacBook Pro in the Latest Catalina Beta

Joe Rossignol, MacRumors:

Icons possibly depicting the widely rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro have been uncovered by French blog MacGeneration in the first two betas of macOS Catalina version 10.15.1, which has been in testing since last week.

The icon looks similar to the 15-inch MacBook Pro asset that is included in previous versions of macOS, but with slightly thinner bezels. The notebook is depicted in both Silver and Space Gray, with “16” in both filenames presumably referring to the larger 16-inch display expected for the rumored machine.

The way these files are named seems to be causing some confusion, as the next MacBook Pro would have an identifier of MacBookPro16,1 and, so, the “16” in the file name could refer to the model identifier instead of the screen size; the models released earlier this year are identified as MacBookPro15,1. But Apple has long named the files in the CoreTypes bundle in accordance with their physical characteristics. The 15-inch models have “15” in their names; the iMac icons are named according to screen size, too.

The weirdest part of the plist posted by Steven Troughton-Smith, however, is the Space Grey icon at the bottom. The plist says to display the 16-inch Space Grey icon for the MacBookPro14,2 model; that’s the 2017 13-inch Touch Bar model. A typo, surely, but an odd one, and it would not surprise me if the 16-inch had a 14-inch companion model. Update: I should clarify that I anticipate a 14-inch MacBook Pro would not be surprising if the 15-inch model is to be replaced with the new 16-inch model.

So it seems like there’s a new MacBook Pro coming, and the timing is right for an update to the iPad Pro line. Toss in an update to the shipping date for the new Mac Pro and maybe those rumoured AirPods (Pro?), and it sure sounds like one more product announcement (event?) is in store for the year — though, perhaps a little later than one might expect.