Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2019

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.

Samsung Is Working to Patch a Flaw With Their Under-Display Fingerprint Reader, Which Can Be Defeated With a Screen Protector

Ju-min Park, Reuters:

Samsung Electronics Co Ltd said on Thursday it will soon roll out a software patch to fix problems with fingerprint recognition on its flagship Galaxy S10 smartphone.

A British user told the Sun newspaper this week that a bug on her Galaxy S10 allowed it to be unlocked regardless of the biometric data registered in the device.

After she bought a third-party screen protector, her husband was able to unlock her phone using his fingerprint, even though it was not registered.

This is shockingly trivial. Methods for bypassing Touch ID that involved etching a PCB generated alarmist headlines about it being “no challenge at all”; circumventing Face ID was said to be accomplished in “less than 120 seconds” — assuming, of course, that you were able to get a jerry-rigged pair of glasses onto the iPhone owner’s face without resistance.

This is nothing like that; it is exactly as easily-defeated as reported. That’s embarrassing, sure, but where Samsung really loses me is its explanation for why this is happening:

The issue can happen when patterns of some protectors that come with silicone phone cases are recognized along with fingerprints, the South Korean tech giant said in a notice on its customer support app.

I could be reading this wrong, but what I’m understanding is that Samsung is blaming the screen protector for introducing a pattern that appears to the sensor to be a fingerprint. But if that were the case, this flaw would only exist if fingerprint registration was completed with the screen protector in place.

However, according to a video from Twitter user StaLight, that must an inadequate explanation because the fingerprint reader can be bypassed after a fingerprint has been registered without a screen protector with Samsung’s own screen protective film, as clarified later. In this example, the user completes a registration process without a screen protector, then successfully unlocks the phone with a different finger after putting a clear phone case between the display and their finger.

I would love to know what this flaw is, and how a software update may apparently fix what seems, to me, to be a critical hardware problem.

The Galaxy S10 also has facial recognition, but that’s defeated by a photo.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden Introduces National Privacy Act

Earlier this week, Michael Beckerman — the president of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft among its members — got an op-ed published in the New York Times strongly objecting to state-level privacy laws:

A patchwork of state laws means that a California woman who orders an item from a Missouri business that manufactures in Florida could have her data regulated by three separate laws, or by no applicable law. Despite California’s Consumer Privacy Protection Act the state’s residents cannot be assured that the protections that apply when they deal with a business covered by the law will apply when they shop at their corner store, travel across the country or engage in online transactions with companies that are not subject to California’s privacy law.

Not only will this add to consumer confusion around how data is handled, it will also undoubtedly lead to inconsistent treatment of data depending on a variety of factors, including the residency of the consumer and the type of businesses with whom they interact.

Beckerman argued for a national privacy law, and that’s what Sen. Ron Wyden is introducing today. You can read the bill in full, and Wyden’s office has put together a one-and-a-bit page summary (PDF) of the highlights.

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

First off, the “Mind Your Own Business Act” would finally arm the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with the power and personnel necessary to adequately punish out-of-control corporations. Companies would no longer simply get off with a warning the first time they break their users’ trust. Instead, they would face immediate fines of up 4 percent of their annual revenue. For companies the size of Google and Facebook, that means billions of dollars.

But here’s the kicker: Under the bill, executives who knowingly lie to the FTC about privacy violations could face up to 20 years behind bars, and their companies could then be forced to pay a tax based on the salary of the convicted executive.

I can’t imagine the successful passage of Wyden’s proposal to require companies to offer a paid version of their product or service that doesn’t track users, but I imagine the penalties able to be levied against privacy violations will be a deterrent.

Of course, this is extremely strict. It’s great for consumers. I bet the Internet Association is going to hate it.

It Currently Requires a Small Amount of Patience to Buy a New iPhone

Jason Koebler, in a Vice article bizarrely titled “It Is Currently Impossible to Exchange Money for an iPhone”. It’s bizarre because millions of people in the United States and around the world are buying new iPhones, often in exchange for money. But Koebler can’t buy a new iPhone — though, reading this, you’d imagine that it’s the last thing he wants to do:

I think that buying a new phone is a shameful but occasionally necessary activity to continue living in the modern world. I disagree with most of Apple’s corporate philosophies on recycling, repair, and its walled-garden, monopolistic approach to the App Store. I do not like spending time in Apple Stores, nor do I like giving the company money, but I appreciate Apple’s commitment to privacy and security, and my current phone is more than three years old, has been repaired three times, and no longer takes photos or connects to WiFi. It is, unfortunately, Time for a New Phone.

This is a weird way for one to convince themselves that they are not actually excited by technology and are resigned to the fact that they must exchange money for goods and services. I can imagine Koebler standing in a long line for brunch on a Sunday morning trying to convince himself that it’s an infuriating rip-off to pay twenty dollars for a halved English muffin with two poached eggs and some hollandaise overtop; and, instead of admitting that, yeah, it is actually kind of nice to indulge in this modicum of expensive joy every once in a while, he bashes out an article with the headline “It Is Currently Impossible to Exchange Money for Breakfast”.

Anyway:

The problem is that, at the moment, it is nearly impossible to exchange US currency for an iPhone 11 Pro.

Well that certainly narrows the vast scope that the headline suggests.

256GB iPhone 11 Pros (the objectively correct phone to buy, if you are going to buy a new iPhone) don’t ship until the end of the month if you order one online, and they’re sold out in stores all over the country according to the company’s website.

Oh, so it’s still not impossible, it just takes a couple of weeks? And this staggering level of impatience for a new product — that is, apparently, a reluctant purchase — is being displayed by the same guy who wrote and linked to an article in the previous paragraph about how you shouldn’t buy a new iPhone unless your old one is completely broken.

It’s fine to admit you like stuff and are excited by new things — even things from Apple. Nothing bad will happen to you; you will not be stuffed into a cannon and fired into the cloud hanging over Cupertino made of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field.

Google Launches Pixel 4 Line and New Pixel Buds

Dieter Bohn of the Verge got to spend time with the new line of Google Pixel 4 phones and was particularly impressed with its new facial identification system:

I’ll admit, it was a little jarring. Every phone I’ve ever used had some sort of secondary action between picking up the phone and getting into it: a tap on a fingerprint sensor or a swipe on the screen. With the Pixel 4, it’s like there isn’t a lock screen at all because you almost never get a chance to see it.

I’ll have to do some actual timing in the review because it’s 100 percent possible that this speed is more perception than reality. The phone begins its unlock procedure before you even touch it, using that Motion Sense radar to detect you’re reaching for it. (More on that below.) It also feels faster because it jumps right into the last thing you were doing instead of requiring a second action with no animation that I could detect.

As facial recognition becomes faster on all phones, I wonder if today’s interpretation of the look and function of lock screens could effectively vanish.

The main thing Motion Sense does is pay attention to whether you’re even near the phone or if you’re reaching for it. If you walk away from it, it detects that and turns off the always-on display. If you reach for it, it activates the screen and face unlock.

Motion Sense lets you skip forward or back when music is playing, too. But the best feature is dismissing alarms and calls. When you simply reach for the phone, the volume drops when the phone sees your hand. Then you can simply wave to dismiss the call or snooze the alarm.

Without trying this feature — and I know that’s a big caveat — it sounds almost like the inverse of 3D Touch. And we all know how that experiment ended.

Google has clearly always wanted to do their own Android phones: they started with the Nexus One in 2010 and keep launching new ones every year. But they’ve never really been a big sales hit. These could be great phones, and will almost certainly be the best Android experience you can buy — primarily because the experience is unashamedly cribbed from the iPhone playbook. But, based on sales numbers, there just isn’t a huge market for people who want an iPhone that runs Android. People who want an iPhone buy an iPhone; people who want a premium Android phone seem to want it to be very different from an iPhone.

Google also launched a bunch of Google Home stuff today that doesn’t interest me, and a pair of earbuds that does. The old Pixel Buds were panned by reviewers, but the new ones ought to be better.

Victoria Song, Gizmodo:

Battery life is the same at five hours, though Google says they can last up to 24 hours with the wireless charging case. Sound-wise, they have dynamic volume adjusting depending on your environment. Google also emphasized they thought real hard about stuffing all those components into a new design — a video described them as “floating computers.” They’re not exactly noise-canceling; Google described them as “noise-isolating.” Basically, it’s got a small spatial vent to let in outside air. Supposedly that makes for a more comfortable Pixel Bud, but we’ll have to try them out for ourselves.

I love the sound of that dynamic volume adjustment feature. Every morning, I put my AirPods in and start listening to something while I’m waiting for the elevator; a couple of minutes later, I’m walking down a busy street and find myself reaching for the volume up button. And then, a few minutes after that, I turn onto a quieter side street and need to turn it back down a bit. What a great idea.

Unfortunately, while Google said today that these new Pixel Buds could do a lot of very cool new things, they won’t be shipping until next year and the demo models they showed to the press were non-functional.

Nevertheless, I’d love to try them, and one of these new Pixel phones.

Dan Seifert wrote a good piece in the Verge before today’s Google press event about the wireless earbud market:

While a few niche startups were first to put truly wireless headphones on the market, Apple really defined the scene with its 2016 release of the AirPods, showing what a good execution on the idea is like: reliable wireless connectivity, at least five hours of battery life, and a compact, easy-to-use charging case.

Since then, we’ve seen Samsung release several iterations of its own wireless earbuds before landing on a (mostly) working formula with this year’s Galaxy Buds. Many smaller companies, such as Jabra and Jaybird, have put out products that try to address the remaining AirPod faults, such as the lack of a customizable fit or poor sound blocking characteristics. Even Apple is selling multiple versions of truly wireless earbuds between the AirPods and its Beats brand.

It’s a crowded space. It’s also the category of tech products that, I think, comes closest to feeling futuristic today — especially with features like the new Announce Messages with Siri option coming in iOS 13.2.

Gig Services to Become More Costly As Investors Begin to Question Valuations

Derek Thompson, the Atlantic:

Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.

I’ve read Seated’s guide for restaurants and a 2017 review and I still don’t understand how they’re able to offer a thirty percent money back reward for restaurant reservations booked through the app. It’s even more ridiculous than the Boost feature on Square’s Cash card, which only received compensation from a participating retailer earlier this year. It can’t possibly be paid for out of interchange fees, nor would any restaurant willingly refund a third of the cost of a menu item against already-slim profit margins.

Anyway — Thompson:

Starting about a decade ago, a fleet of well-known start-ups promised to change the way we work, work out, eat, shop, cook, commute, and sleep. These lifestyle-adjustment companies were so influential that wannabe entrepreneurs saw them as a template, flooding Silicon Valley with “Uber for X” pitches.

But as their promises soared, their profits didn’t. It’s easy to spend all day riding unicorns whose most magical property is their ability to combine high valuations with persistently negative earnings — something I’ve pointed out before. If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year. If you use Lime scooters to bop around the city, download Wag to walk your dog, and sign up for Blue Apron to make a meal, that’s three more brands that have never earned a dime or have seen their valuations fall by more than 50 percent.

These companies don’t give away cold hard cash as blatantly as Seated. But they’re not so different from the restaurant app. To maximize customer growth they have strategically — or at least “strategically” — throttled their prices, in effect providing a massive consumer subsidy. You might call it the Millennial Lifestyle Sponsorship, in which consumer tech companies, along with their venture-capital backers, help fund the daily habits of their disproportionately young and urban user base. With each Uber ride, WeWork membership, and hand-delivered dinner, the typical consumer has been getting a sweetheart deal.

It’s going to be a disaster if many of these arguably predatory businesses go bust: cities’ transportation networks will have to adjust, warranties won’t be honoured, and gig economy workers will be looking for jobs. When they raise their prices — even to a break-even point — we will all realize that these services are just as expensive as any traditional version of whatever they disrupted.

Canadian Telecom Lobbyists Influence Swedish Firm to Stop Including Canada in Worldwide Price Report

Anja Karadeglija, the Wire Report:

Tefficient, a Swedish consulting company that has released a number of telecom price reports highlighting Canada as one of the highest-priced jurisdictions for such services, will no longer be including the country in at least one future research report, The Wire Report has learned.

The “fact that the data is reported so late for Canada (and since none of the carriers report data traffic or usage) we aren’t too interested in incorporating Canada in our analyses going forward,” Fredrik Jungermann, founder of Tefficient, said in an email when asked about the company’s information on Canadian telecom pricing. He noted that was “primarily” the driver of that decision.

He said that “another reason is the workload created when lobbyists try to shoot down the credibility of the whole report because they don’t like to see Canada presented as an outlier. We have no business in Canada and have, unlike lobbyists, no agenda.”

Canadian cellular plans are among the highest in the world by an obscene margin. We pay more than those who live in any other developed country; this is something that multiple studies have confirmed for years. Everyone knows it, and the lobbyists for our major telecom providers want us to forget it.

Every Major U.S. Payment Processor Has Exited Facebook’s Libra Project

Russell Brandom, the Verge:

When Libra launched on June 18th, it seemed like an alarming new front in Facebook’s megalomaniacal expansion. Having captured billions of users and tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, the company would now be taking over currency itself. The company’s head of blockchain, David Marcus, laid out his plan for Libra in a detailed white paper, with some of the financial world’s most powerful companies already signed on to help govern the new currency as part of the Libra Association. It was Facebook’s vision for an international currency, and based on the company’s partners, it seemed unstoppable.

That was then. The first to ditch Libra was Paypal, which withdrew on October 4th. Then, over the course of a few hours on October 11th, Visa, Mastercard, Stripe and Mercado Pago all bailed on the project, with eBay tagging along for good measure. That meant every major US payment processor has exited the association. (The final remaining payment processor, PayU, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.) It’s an alarming turnaround for the Facebook-backed project, and the first clear indication that Libra’s founders may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Losing five companies in the span of a couple hours might seem like a panicked rush for the door, but the timing matters. On October 14th, all the founding members are set to convene in Geneva for the first ever Libra Council meeting. That’s where they will hammer out the different roles to be played by the different parties and try to answer all the governance questions that aren’t spelled out in the initial white paper. Ultimately, that will result in a formal charter, with each member signing their name to the new agreement.

A promising start.

China’s Powerful Marketplace Is Encouraging Studios to Succumb to Censorship

Alex Kantrowitz and John Paczkowski, Buzzfeed News:

In early 2018 as development on Apple’s slate of exclusive Apple TV+ programming was underway, the company’s leadership gave guidance to the creators of some of those shows to avoid portraying China in a poor light, BuzzFeed News has learned. Sources in position to know said the instruction was communicated by Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of internet software and services, and Morgan Wandell, its head of international content development. It was part of Apple’s ongoing efforts to remain in China’s good graces after a 2016 incident in which Beijing shut down Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies six months after they debuted in the country.

I think it’s important to be highly critical of efforts to succumb to the demands of an authoritarian state. But this is not a story about Apple’s practices, as the eighth paragraph of this article points out:

Apple’s tip toeing around the Chinese government isn’t unusual in Hollywood. It’s an accepted practice. “They all do it,” one showrunner who was not affiliated with Apple told BuzzFeed News. “They have to if they want to play in that market. And they all want to play in that market. Who wouldn’t?”

The bigger story here can be found in an article yesterday from Shane Savitsky in Axios:

While the U.S. reckons with the fact that China’s market power can stymie free speech after the NBA’s firestorm, Hollywood — America’s premier cultural exporter — has long willingly bent to Chinese censorship to rake in profits.

China is set to become the world’s biggest movie market in 2020, and with its 1.4 billion citizens, it won’t relinquish that title anytime soon. That means it’s key for Hollywood studios to do all they can to ensure that their tentpoles can pass the standards of the country’s strict censors.

This is a far greater cultural question to contend with. Films have been compromised for decades to meet specific MPAA ratings in the United States, but Chinese censors are even more unwelcoming:

Perhaps the most extreme example was the 2018 decision to not allow Disney’s “Christopher Robin” to be released, purportedly because Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh had become a joke among activists who resisted the country’s Communist regime.

Ludicrous.

MacOS Catalina’s Teething Problems

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple rolled out Catalyst, the technology to transition iPad apps into Mac versions, on Monday. It’s the initial step toward a bigger goal: By 2021, developers should be able to build an app once and have it work on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers through a single, unified App Store. But the first iteration, which appears to still be quite raw and in a number of ways frustrating to developers, risks upsetting users who may have to pay again when they download the Mac version of an iPad app they’ve already bought.

From a user’s perspective, buying different apps on different platforms is the status quo; and, as the subscription model continues to grow in popularity, it makes little difference.

Gurman, continued:

Developers have found several problems with Apple’s tools for bringing iPad apps over to Mac computers. Some features that only make sense on iPad touchscreens, such as scrollable lists that help users select dates and times on calendars, are showing up on the Mac, where the input paradigm is still built around a keyboard and mouse or trackpad.

Troughton-Smith said Mac versions of some apps can’t hide the mouse cursor while video is playing. He’s also found problems with video recording and two-finger scrolling in some cases, along with issues with using the keyboard and full-screen mode in video games. Thomson, the PCalc developer, said some older Mac computers struggle to handle Catalyst apps that use another Apple system called SceneKit for 3-D gaming and animations.

Catalyst is a frustrating bridge between the entirely-discrete AppKit and UIKit worlds, and the ostensibly cross-platform SwiftUI model. It’s “frustrating” because apps built with it don’t feel like Mac apps, and it’s probably too early to start building with SwiftUI since it will likely change dramatically for developers over the next few years. It’s an awkward middle ground that isn’t as good as either. Apple’s promotion of it as “just a checkbox” in Xcode — and, weirdly, using that as part of its pitch to users — is overly optimistic.

That’s not to say that there are no good Catalyst apps. John Voorhees reviewed Lire for MacOS and was fairly impressed with its platform-specific customizations. But it’s a harder process than Apple promotes to developers, and I’m still not confident we’ll see truly great apps built with Catalyst.

Tyler Hall has compiled a list of bugs that he has run into so far:

I love the Mac and everything its software and hardware stand for. The iMac Pro and new Mac mini are phenomenal. The revamped Mac Pro (six years? really?) is a damn beast. And, honestly, I don’t even mind USB-C.

But the keyboards, the literally hundreds if not thousands of predatory scams on the Mac App Store, whatever the fuck is going on with Messages.app on macOS, iCloud Drive, the boneheaded, arrogant, literally-put-on-the-consumer-facing-marketing-website claim that iPad-to-Mac with Catalyst was merely a checkbox, all the dumb, stupid little bugs I mentioned above, and the truckload of other paper-cuts I’m sure to run into once I’m on Catalina for more than 48 hours…

My god.

It is absolutely clear that the Mac is far outside of what the upper-ranks of Apple is focusing on.

It is unsurprising to find bugs in an x.0 release of anything, but this post is maddening. The number and variety of bugs in iCloud-connected things is concerning when it displays error messages; it’s even worse when something silently fails.1

It’s not the fault of the engineers; it’s the fault of whichever parties have decided that software updates must ship annually. While I’m happy to see that they’re willing to delay features that aren’t ready, Apple’s operating system updates are promoted every June with features that may not ship for months after the initial release and the first versions are still full of absurd bugs. It feels chaotic and uncontrolled — like all middle managers for every organization are not on speaking terms.


  1. A quick aside that has little to do with Catalina but has everything to do with silent failure and bug reporting: I’ve written a couple of times about how the Home app simply doesn’t work for me on any device. It just displays a screen that says “Loading Accessories and Scenes” and has an infinitely-running spinner on it. There is no error message; there is no way to move past this.

    What’s supposed to happen, according to Apple, is that a button for resetting HomeKit should appear somewhere on that screen if you leave it open for half an hour. This is their official troubleshooting recommendation. I cannot possibly stress enough how absurd it is that someone decided that the best way to present a reset button is for a screen to be left on and running in the foreground for an entire episode of Last Week Tonight, and users should somehow expect to know that a button will emerge from an otherwise-empty space. It’s also silly that there’s no remedy for HomeKit errors anywhere between live with it and delete everything; why isn’t there a way to roll back to a known good configuration?

    Anyway, I’ve tried this several times on different devices across four versions of iOS — 10.0 through 13.2 — and in MacOS Mojave, and I’ve never seen this unicorn of a button.

    This wasn’t a big deal — I don’t have any HomeKit devices — until I updated to tvOS 13, which prompted me to add the device to my Home network. I tried; it failed, predictably. And I have an allergy to red notification dots in Settings. So I got in touch with Apple support. In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken on the phone for several hours, sent in a couple of sysdiagnose examples, and have repeatedly pointed out that this occurs on all of my devices, so it’s likely to be something iCloud related and all I want to do is start from scratch. I don’t blame the support representatives for their inability to fix this, but it is tedious and irritating that there is seemingly no way for me to fix this silently-presenting problem myself. ↩︎

The Transformation of Apple’s Deep Investment in China From Unique Advantage to Liability

Peter Kafka, Vox:

Plenty of US companies work in and with countries that require them to make moral compromises. Facebook, for instance, finds itself frequently pulling down videos and posts because they upset Turkey’s censors; Netflix took down an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia because it was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The standard argument these companies all make is that those countries are better off when they have access to their products.

This is Apple’s argument, too. “We believe our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information,” Cook told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a December 2017 letter. “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Left unsaid in Cook’s letter is that Apple has to do business in China.

Unlike tech companies that haven’t broken into the country or only do minor business in it, Apple is now so deep in China that leaving it could be catastrophic. Even if the company was willing to forgo the $44 billion a year in sales it makes in China, it can’t leave the deep network of suppliers and assemblers that build hundreds of millions of iPhones every year.

Just a few months ago, Tim Cook denied that the company was exploring other places to build their products. The depth and extent of the electronics supply chain in China beggars belief — and, in one of those decades-old twists of fate, Cook helped make it so. There are loads of American tech companies that build products in China; Apple’s particular investment, though, is notable.

Tim Cook’s Internal Email Regarding the Removal of HKmap.live App

Tim Cook to Apple employees, as leaked to the app’s developer:

It is no secret that technology can be used for good or for ill. This case is no different. The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign. […]

When the developer previously submitted the app to the App Store, it was rejected on the basis that the app “facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal”. Presumably, that refers to its ability to locate police on a map. If it were “benign” — as Cook says and which I agree with — why was it rejected in the first place?

[…] However, over the past several days we received credible information, from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau, as well as from users in Hong Kong, that the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present. This use put the app in violation of Hong Kong law. Similarly, widespread abuse clearly violates our App Store guidelines barring personal harm.

Maciej Cegłowski, who has been reporting on the protests from Hong Kong since August, says that this does not comport with what the app actually shows:

Moreover, what are these incidents where protesters have targeted individual police for a premeditated attack? Can Mr. Cook point to a single example? Can anyone?

When Hong Kong police have been in danger, it is invariably because they broke off in small groups into a sea of demonstrators and got separated from their colleagues. I witnessed this personally in Prince Edward on 9/2; many others have seen or videotaped similar situations.

So not only is there no evidence for this claim, but it goes against the documentary record of 18 weeks of protests, and is not even possible given the technical constraints of the app (which tracks groups of police).

Meanwhile, HKmap.live remains available on Google Play stores in Hong Kong and China. Google did remove a game that allows you to role-play as a protester at the behest of the Chinese government.

Stories From Uber and Lyft Drivers About Their Working Conditions and Pay

Hamilton Nolan, Splinter:

After a monumental political battle, California passed AB5, a law that will make it much harder for gig economy companies to classify their workers as “independent contractors.” Now, the same political battle is coming to New York. That means it’s a perfect time to hear from Uber and Lyft drivers, in their own words.

[…]

When California was considering its bill last month, we asked Uber and Lyft drivers, who are the most visible class of gig employees who would be directly affected by these changes, to email us and tell us about their working conditions. Hundreds did. As New York wrestles with the same questions, let’s hear from more of the people whose lives could be changed.

Given that drivers pay for fuel, increased-wear-and-tear on their vehicles, and insurance, this simply isn’t a very profitable enterprise for individuals — or, seemingly, the companies they work for. I’m also not convinced that it’s particularly effective as an occasional gig for people to pick up a little extra cash: if there’s a collision, an insurance company could deny coverage if the driver has typical auto insurance instead of commercial insurance, for example.

On a related and upsetting note, Splinter is shutting down. Nolan, the author of the linked piece about gig economy drivers, wrote a very relevant and thoughtful piece last year about private equity’s pitfalls.

Chinese State Media Accuses Apple of ‘Protecting Rioters’

Verna Yu, the Guardian:

The app HKmap.live, which crowdsources the location of police and anti-government protesters, was approved by Apple on 4 October and went on its App Store a day later, after the company reversed an earlier decision to reject the submission, according to an anonymous developer cited in the South China Morning Post. The app displays hotspots on a map of the city that is continuously updated as users report incidents, hence allowing protesters to avoid police.

The headline of the People’s Daily commentary carried by its official microblog on Wednesday said: “Protecting rioters – Has Apple thought clearly about this?”

It went on to say: “Allowing the ‘poisonous’ app to flourish is a betrayal of the Chinese people’s feelings.”

Someone in the Chinese government ought to familiarize themselves with the Streisand Effect — if Techdirt isn’t already blocked in the country.

Apple should absolutely not acquiesce to China’s demands. HKmap.live ought to remain in the App Store. But it is extraordinarily risky for Apple to resist an authoritarian force that controls the export and, therefore, sale of nearly every product they make.

Update: In an inauspicious development, John Keefe of Quartz says that Apple has succumbed to Chinese government pressure and pulled the publication’s app from the App Store in Hong Kong.

Update: Apple has removed HKmap.live from the App Store in Hong Kong. Shameful.