Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2019

Tim Cook, Donald Trump, and U.S. Administration Officials Tour Contract Manufacturing Plant in Texas

Jack Nicas of the New York Times on Twitter:

President Trump just toured a Texas plant that has been making Apple computers since 2013 and took credit for it, suggesting the plant opened today. “Today is a very special day.”

Tim Cook spoke immediately after him and did not correct the record.

The President later made the same claim on Twitter, taking credit for “[bringing] high paying jobs back to America”, which is a lie. It is a manufacturing facility that has been producing the same low-volume product for the past six years. I wish Cook had corrected him, and also defended reporters subjected to the President’s abuse since Apple now runs a news subscription business.

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

The plant toured on Wednesday, operated by Flex, assembles the Mac Pro, a high-end computer that starts at $6,000. A previous model of the computer was made in the same facility starting in 2013. Apple doesn’t own or operate its own manufacturing and instead contracts with companies like Flex. A Flex spokesperson declined to comment.

This isn’t the first time the big wet President said some bullshit about Apple manufacturing products in the United States. In 2017, he claimed that Apple would open “three big plants, beautiful plants” in the U.S., because he doesn’t know how to match adjectives and nouns. While Apple has invested in American manufacturing, they have not built three factories in the U.S., not even small and ugly ones.

Killing Net Neutrality Was Even Worse Than You Think

Karl Bode, writing for OneZero:

The FCC’s Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” order certainly did kill rules preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from abusing their broadband monopolies to harm competitors and consumers. And it did so in a flurry of controversy and fraud, all while ignoring the opinions of a bipartisan majority of Americans who wanted to keep net neutrality in place.

But the industry-backed repeal quietly had a much broader objective: It all-but obliterated the FCC’s authority to hold ISPs accountable for any number of other bad behaviors. Instead, it dumped most telecom oversight on a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that experts say lacks the resources or authority to police the sector and punish bad behavior.

“The fight over net neutrality has always been about gutting the FCC’s legal authority to protect consumers and promote competition,” said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC lawyer and advisor who helped craft the agency’s original 2015 net neutrality rules.

If there is any consistent theme to this administration and its agencies, it is that they are being plundered for personal gain while being dismantled from the inside, with obviously devastating consequences that will only fully be realized in the years to come.

Please Stop Plopping Big Screens in the Middle of Car Dashboards

Sean O’Kane, the Verge:

Ford’s newly revealed electric Mustang SUV, the Mach-E, is quickly becoming one of the more buzzed-about car reveals of the last few years. But while the new EV looked competent at its LA Auto Show debut, the company pretty much whiffed on one really important part of the Mustang Mach-E: the software.

The performance and practicality of the Mustang Mach-E will be big determinants of its success, but the new Sync 4 software that will power the giant 15.5-inch touchscreen at the center of the dashboard will have a major impact on day-to-day life inside this car. That’s why it was disappointing that Ford didn’t offer much of a chance to interact with the software, and in some cases was actively discouraging people from trying to use it.

That’s pretty embarrassing, but so is the Mach-E’s approach to automotive interior design. Just go look at the pictures: there’s a big 15-inch laptop screen just sort of screwed into the dash. It’s not just Ford, either; Volkswagen’s otherwise nice-looking electric wagon concept has the same problem. I’d think it was case of these companies aping Tesla, but new cars from Mercedes-Benz, Mazda, and Hyundai — among many others — also have poorly-integrated screens of various sizes. The Mercedes and Volkswagen examples are particularly ridiculous — the integration of the display in the E-Class is fine, and the screen in our Golf sits perfectly in the centre console.

This is just lazy.

U.S. Department of Justice Seeks to End Anti-Monopoly Laws Regulating Film Distribution

Alex Weprin, the Hollywood Reporter:

In a speech Monday to the American Bar Association, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim said that the DOJ’s Antitrust Division is moving to terminate the decrees, “except for a two-year sunset period on the bans on block booking and circuit dealing.” The sunset period is designed to allow the movie studios and theater chains time to adjust to the change. The DOJ will require court approval to terminate the Consent Decrees.

“We have determined that the decrees, as they are, no longer serve the public interest, because the horizontal conspiracy — the original violation animating the decrees — has been stopped,” said Delrahim.

Translation: because the policy has worked for a very long time, it’s time to get rid of it. What kind of logical catastrophe could possibly encourage such a categorically stupid position?

The DOJ antitrust division announced in August 2018 that it would be reviewing the Paramount Decrees, which were created after the 1948 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures. The major film studios at the time essentially controlled all aspects of filmmaking, from the talent to the productions to the theaters. The Supreme Court ruling and the Consent Decrees have been in force, with no sunset period, ever since.

It’s pretty wild how easily the ISPs that have become multimedia conglomerates are escaping investigation into possible antitrust violations. While the DOJ is looking into big tech companies, it is simultaneously eager to allow increasing dominance by Disney as well as telecom companies that own movie studios. Hanlon’s razor is getting duller by the day.

The Wall Street Journal Bungled Its Investigation Into Google’s Search Engine

Kirsten Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan, and John West, Wall Street Journal:

Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.

The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.

But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Instead of blockbuster findings of manual intervention that favour specific viewpoints or political parties, though, it seems that the Journal completely botched this report.

Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land (via Michael Tsai):

The truth is, I spoke to a number of these Wall Street Journal reporters back in both March and April about this topic, and it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them. They seemed to have one goal: to come up with a sensational story about how Google is abusing its power and responsibility for self gain.

Google is not certainly perfect, but almost everything in the Wall Street Journal report is incorrect. I’ll go through many of the points below.

I think Schwartz’s piece says almost everything that needs to be explained about how badly the Journal got this one wrong, but I’ll add two additional observations:

  • The Journal has a neat feature where you can pick from the search queries they tested and compare Google’s results against those of Duck Duck Go and Bing. I like and use Duck Duck Go regularly, but it’s clear that Google’s results are often stronger for more vague search queries.

    For example, a Google search for Elizabeth Warren always resulted in links to Warren’s campaign website, her Wikipedia page, and her U.S. Senate page — note that the Journal does not preserve rankings but, instead, lists pages based on how often they appeared in results. However, the same query in Duck Duck Go returned different results: while her campaign website and U.S. Senate age also appeared 100% of the time, so, too, did her shop, plus a page on a website called “Married Wiki” which has the title “Elizabeth Warren wiki, affair, married, Lesbian with age”. This page of questionable reliability only appeared in 58% of the Journal’s tests when they tried with Bing, and none for Google.

    More shocking and egregious is the way Duck Duck Go and Bing handle the query How do I kill myself: both almost entirely list results that answer the question directly. That’s logical from a purely technical perspective, but it’s callous and uncaring compared to Google’s choice to show suicide prevention resources, including placing the National Suicide Prevention Line’s phone number (1-800-273-8255) in an information box above all other links.

  • The Journal cannot seem to decide how to frame this story — they frequently hint towards corporate malfeasance, partisanship, and underhandedness, but they never quite stick the landing and fall back on ways in which they simplified public statements to officials who lack any and all understanding of tech companies.

    Part of this mongering is a result of speculation about Google’s ranking methodology, as the company deliberately keeps that a secret. Part of it is lack of understanding. And part of it is that there are people out there who are simply too drunk with ideological rage to see that the Gateway Pundit is not a reliable news source; it is completely legitimate for fiction to rank poorly in search queries related to current events.

Why Criticize Apple for Nonsense When You Could Instead Criticize the Things It Has Actually Done?

The Macalope:

One of the things that frustrates The Macalope is that pundits spend way too much time criticizing Apple for nothingburgers. Have you heard of these nothingburgers? The burgers, they make them from nothing these days.

Often Apple is criticized for things it hasn’t even done. Just one example: this summer saw the Forbes contributor network and exclusive distributors of the Impossible Nothing Burger spend months telling us how ugly the iPhone 11 Pro would be. It wasn’t. But they are glibly on to the next thing.

Why would you do that when there are actual things to criticize Apple for?

Some tech pundits have spent their careers spinning fault from Apple’s decisions regardless of their merit. So, when there are actual things to criticize about the company, those commentators have nowhere to go — they’ve used up all their adjectives. False equivalency and crying wolf go hand-in-hand.

Oh, Please, Not This Nonsense iPad vs. PC Story Again

Chris Matyszczyk, writing for ZDNet — a website that thinks so little about its readers that it runs two autoplaying video ads on every page, covers stories in multiple modal sheets asking for your email address or whatever, and begs you to turn on notifications — says that “Apple finally admits iPad Pro won’t replace your PC”.

Surprised? Me too; that surely does not sound like something Apple would say, especially after, as Matyszczyk recounts, the company has spent years saying the opposite:

Two years ago, Apple presented an ad in which a young woman, devoted to her iPad Pro, claimed not to even know what a computer was.

In case you’re wondering: yes, Matyszczyk will liberally be linking to himself writing several iterations of this argument in previous unsubstantial articles.

The year before, the company insisted iPad Pro was a computer and appealed to users to merely imagine what that computer could do. Microsoft burst out laughing. Yes, publicly.

It sure is embarrassing when Microsoft executives are laughing in public about their competitors’ products.

Apple was undeterred. Last year, it presented five reasons why iPad Pro is a computer. One of which was that, oh, it has that indispensable computer element: a pencil.

Another was that it “goes anywhere.” Because your MacBook Air simply refuses to fly United Airlines.

Matyszczyk is so lazy, he even copied his joke from last year:

Unlike your laptop, which, I assume, insists on flying First Class or it’s not going to get on that darned plane with you. Not even for Thanksgiving.

Nailed it. I mean, it isn’t quite as punchy as the ad embedded immediately above this very sick burn wherein the iPad is implied being used in the middle of a forest because it’s connected over LTE and has really long battery life, but still: nailed it.

Anyway, Matyszczyk meanders through his alternate history of Apple’s iPad marketing before arriving at his thesis:

The company’s senior vice-president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, can reach for haughtiness on occasion, such as when he insisted that if your kids use Chromebooks they’ll fail at school.

However, in the same interview, he offered CNET these life-affirming words: “We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we’ll go down that path.”

And into these two generalized sentences Matyszczyk has somehow read that Apple will no longer say that the iPad could conceivably replace a PC for many tasks. Think that’s something of a leap? Not as much of a leap as the way Matyszczyk has skillfully excised that quote from its original context:

Roger Cheng: Today’s news is all about the MacBook Pro 16 and Mac Pro, but where does the iPad Pro fit in this pro lineup?

Phil Schiller: We look at these things a bit independently. […]

So now there are a lot of cases where people will use iPad, especially with Pencil, as an artist-creation tool or as a field-compute tool. What we find is there’s a fair number of people who actually spend more of their compute time on their iPad than personal computer. They didn’t choose one or the other. That’s just where they spent a lot of their time.

What the team has done is try to find ways that the two can work together, where one plus one equals three instead of two. We’ve created technologies like Sidecar that allow your iPad to work alongside your Mac, and that you do use the Pencil on Mac applications. The idea of a second display on the road, that’s flexible enough when you travel, is a really cool solution for pro users. And so that fills a need…no one’s ever done that before.

We allow customers to decide which one they want to spend more time on and then we try to find ways they work together if you happen to have both.

Cheng: You don’t envision a future where they merge?

Schiller: No, that’s not our view. Because then you get this in-between thing, and in-between things are never as good as the individual things themselves. We believe the best personal computer is a Mac, and we want to keep going down that path. And we think the best tablet computing device is an iPad, and we’ll go down that path.

iPad benefits because we assume that you need to be able to do most everything with touch, and we don’t have to trade off on that experience. Mac assumes you want to do most everything with a keyboard and mouse input. We don’t have to trade off on that path. You can look at some of the other products that will try to go halfway between the two. They end up just compromising experiences. That’s not good.

Schiller was responding to a question that Apple has been asked since they launched the first iPad with an answer that has remained effectively unchanged in that time. Besides, if Apple were really pulling back on their messaging of the iPad as a computer, don’t you think they’d update the second slide of their terrible iPad Pro marketing page?

Matyszczyk continues:

What lifts my soul, however, is that Schiller has finally conceded that there’s more than one way of being productive.

Schiller has made this argument several times previously, most notably in what Philip Elmer-DeWitt calls his “grand unifying theory” of Apple:

As a rule, Philip Schiller told Backchannel’s Steven Levy, you should be using the smallest possible device to do as much work as possible, before going to the next largest gadget in line.

And then Matyszczyk gets weird:

Indeed, he appeared to concede that typing on an iPad Pro is as elegant as rushing to your lover’s house on a Segway.

An analogy that paints quite the vivid picture, if I do say so myself.

So now I can open my iPad Pro and watch obscure foreign TV series — have you seen Norway’s “Unge Lovende”? It’s really quite good — without deep injections of guilt searing through my sinews.

The metaphor farm is closed for the season; all that’s left are these scraps.

I truly am looking forward to hearing the continued adventures of the Segway-using lover in Matyszczyk’s next piece about Apple’s continuing references to the iPad as a computer, which I assume will drop days-to-weeks following the release of a new iPad. He gets paid to write this stuff, you know.

The FCC Is Working on a Replacement for Its Terrible Electronic Comment Filing System

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

The Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS), first launched in 1998, allows anyone to contribute input about proposed FCC rules when subject to its notice-and-comment rulemaking process. Originally, the ECFS was used primarily by industry stakeholders and telecom attorneys trying to sway FCC policymakers via written legal argument. More recently, the public at large has become aware of the system through the massive grassroots campaigns surrounding the FCC’s net neutrality proceedings.

Leaked to Gizmodo, an email by an FCC official dated this week encourages those “who comment frequently at the FCC” to attend roundtable discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday this week regarding the creation of the new system. Two sources familiar with internal FCC correspondence regarding the ECFS confirmed its authenticity with Gizmodo.

Good start. But will the FCC actually pay attention to the system that replaces it? Or will they continue to insist that it’s just a place for the public to vent unless they’re legally trained and willing to write policy?

Google Expands Its Reach Into Fitness, Health, and Finance, but Pinky Promises With a Cherry on Top That It Won’t Use This Data for Advertising

I present a remarkable triptych of stories from the past week or so, beginning with Peter Rudegeair and Liz Hoffman of the Wall Street Journal:1

Google will soon offer checking accounts to consumers, becoming the latest Silicon Valley heavyweight to push into finance.

The project, code-named Cache, is expected to launch next year with accounts run by Citigroup Inc. and a credit union at Stanford University, a tiny lender in Google’s backyard.

[…]

[Google executive Caesar Sengupta] said Google wanted to bring value to consumers, banks and merchants, with services that could include loyalty programs, but it wouldn’t sell checking-account users’ financial data. The company said it doesn’t use Google Pay data for advertising purposes and doesn’t share that data with advertisers.

Beth Mole, Ars Technica:

Google quietly partnered last year with Ascension—the country’s second-largest health system—and has since gained access to detailed medical records on tens of millions of Americans, according to a November 11 report by The Wall Street Journal.

The endeavor, code-named “Project Nightingale,” has enabled at least 150 Google employees to see patient health information, which includes diagnoses, laboratory test results, hospitalization records, and other data, according to internal documents and the newspaper’s sources. In all, the data amounts to complete medical records, WSJ notes, and contains patient names and birth dates.

Google issued a statement reassuring those concerned that patient data is encrypted, siloed, kept private in accordance with HIPAA rules, and won’t be combined with Google’s own user data.

Shirin Ghaffary and Rani Molla, Vox:

Google’s parent company Alphabet announced Friday that it is acquiring wearable smartwatch maker Fitbit for $2.1 billion, marking the search giant’s latest push into the health market.

Google’s acquisition raises concerns about data privacy for Fitbit users. Google says Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads, but it did not specify where else in its empire it might use that data. The acquisition also gives more fodder to regulators who are already scrutinizing whether the company is too big and should be broken up.

There’s a common thread here: Google is acquiring massive amounts of deeply personal information, but it insists that you can trust it — the company promises that it won’t use this data for advertising purposes nor will it mix it with behavioural data it has collected about you.

And you know what? I believe Google when it says that it won’t do that right now — I really do. But will it uphold the same promise in five years, or ten? Will it keep the same promise if new legislation comes into effect that would make it harder to collect new behavioural data? Will Google maintain the same stance if it becomes financially stressed, or if a creepier person takes the CEO chair, or if it becomes otherwise compelled to strip mine users’ personal data on every level? I’m much less certain, particularly as less than eight years ago it consolidated all user information under a single privacy policy. Why wouldn’t Google do the same thing again? What’s stopping it?

Even if you believe that this collection of highly personal information is kept perpetually secret, why is it the case that companies that have a primary business of behavioural data mining are able to dabble in industries that necessarily require a privacy firewall? I think of this in much the same way that financial institutions in the United States were once prohibited from being in consumer businesses and investment banking under Glass–Steagall. As the housing market collapsed in 2007, the devastating loss to Americans was exacerbated by Glass–Steagall’s repeal just eight years prior.

Why risk a privacy catastrophe?


  1. My collection of links here is primarily about Google’s continuously-expanding reach over huge amounts of data, but I think the third paragraph of this Journal article is misleading:

    Big tech companies see financial services as a way to get closer to users and glean valuable data. Apple Inc. introduced a credit card this summer. Amazon.com Inc. has talked to banks about offering checking accounts. Facebook Inc. is working on a digital currency it hopes will upend global payments.

    Rudegeair and Hoffman falsely equate Apple’s credit card with Facebook and Google’s data acquisition efforts in finance. The Apple Card is explicitly pitched a privacy-focused credit card: “Apple does not know where a customer shopped, what they bought or how much they paid”. ↩︎

Disney Plus Crops the 4:3 Aspect Ratio of Classic Episodes of the Simpsons to 16:9, Thereby Ruining Them

Matthew Gault, Vice:

Unfortunately, Disney fucked it up, and The Simpsons I knew from my childhood isn’t the The Simpsons that Disney+ is showing. The classic episodes originally aired in a 4:3 format, which fit televisions in the pre-HD era. Disney+ is showing reformatted HD episodes in a widescreen 16:9 ratio. The images fill up a modern TV screen, but they’re cropped and stretched. As fans have noticed, the crop can cut sight gags from the Disney+ release.

For example, the Duff Brewery gag about all Duff being the same is completely lost in the crop. Besides missing gags, the crop is generally annoying and bad. When I watched “Marge Versus the Monorail,” for example, Lyle Lanley sang about the a town with money in extreme close up. Characters’ faces are often as stretched and distorted as Marge’s smeared face on a novelty T-Shirt.

Legal, full-quality access to episodes of the Simpsons is pretty much the only reason I was thinking about getting a Disney Plus subscription, so this is hugely disappointing.

Apple Introduces a 16-Inch MacBook Pro With a New Keyboard

Apple:

Featuring a new Magic Keyboard with a redesigned scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel, the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers the best typing experience ever in a Mac notebook. The 16-inch MacBook Pro also includes a six-speaker sound system, longer battery life, Touch Bar, Touch ID, the Force Touch trackpad and the Apple T2 Security Chip.

“Our pro customers tell us they want their next MacBook Pro to have a larger display, blazing-fast performance, the biggest battery possible, the best notebook keyboard ever, awesome speakers and massive amounts of storage, and the 16-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of that and more,” said Tom Boger, Apple’s senior director of Mac and iPad Product Marketing. “With its brilliant 16-inch Retina display, 8-core processors, next-gen pro graphics, even better thermal design, new Magic Keyboard, six-speaker sound system, 100Wh battery, up to 8TB of storage and 64GB of fast memory, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the world’s best pro notebook.”

The battery is the maximum capacity that the FAA allows, and it has accordingly pushed up the weight of this MacBook Pro by 170 grams compared to the 2019 15-inch model. It’s now more-or-less the same size as the 2015 pre-Touch Bar 15-inch model.

Also of note is the new display, which is not just the old display cut slightly larger: its pixel density is greater than the 15-inch; it’s equivalent to the density of the 12-inch MacBook that Apple discontinued earlier this year. Because this 16-inch configuration replaces the 15-inch model, this is the first time since January 2001 that Apple has not offered a new 15-inch laptop.

And then there’s the new keyboard.

Roger Cheng of CNet interviewed Phil Schiller — these are Schiller’s words:

As you know, a number of years ago we started a new keyboard technology with this butterfly keyboard and began it with MacBook. It had some things it did really well, like creating a much more stable key platform. It felt more firm and flat under your finger — some people really like that, but other people weren’t really happy with that. We got sort of a mixed reaction. We had some quality issues we had to work on. Over the years we’ve been refining that keyboard design, and we’re now on the third generation, and a lot of people are much happier with that as we’ve advanced and advanced it.

But a few years back, we decided that while we were advancing the butterfly keyboard, we would also — specifically for our pro customer — go back and really talk to many pro customers about what they most want in a keyboard and did a bunch of research. That’s been a really impressive project, the way the engineering team has gotten into the physiology of typing and the psychology of typing — what people love.

As we started to investigate specifically what pro users most wanted, a lot of times they would say, “I want something like this Magic Keyboard, I love that keyboard.” And so the team has been working on this idea of taking that core technology and adapting it to the notebook, which is a different implementation than the desktop keyboard, and that’s what we’ve come up with [for] this new keyboard. We’re doing both in advancing the butterfly keyboard, and we’re creating this new Magic Keyboard for our Pro notebooks.

Nilay Patel:

Apple’s marketing spin on these new MacBook Pros is all about “listening to “customers,” but it’s pretty important to note that @caseyjohnston and @joannastern are the actual people who highlighted the problems with the previous keyboards over and over again in their reporting.

Marco Arment:

I’m on cloud nine. Look at this glorious keyboard! An Esc key! Inverted-T arrow keys! A millimeter of key travel! Enough spacing between the keys for our fingers to accurately orient themselves! And keystrokes will probably work, 100% of the time, for years!

Five years ago, nobody would’ve considered any of these noteworthy, and readers would’ve suspected you weren’t of sound mind if you included them in a review.

Five years ago, laptop keyboards were fine. Everyone was pretty much satisfied with the ones they had, they worked, and we never had to talk or think about them.

Today, finally, we begin heading back to that world.

There are two key words in that last sentence: “begin” and “finally”. Apple has not announced new models of the MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro, both of which still ship today with an unreliable keyboard, so this absolutely is just a first step. There’s also an open class action suit in California concerning the keyboards in Apple’s laptops from 2015 through this year, and that highlights the “finally” aspect of this improved keyboard. Having a reliable input system is basically the ground floor in computer hardware, and it’s absurd that this design was able to ship at all, let alone across three product lines for four years.

Alas, here we are: Apple has discoveryd’d the problematic butterfly keyboard in favour of a scissor switch design based on the Magic Keyboard. By all accounts I’ve read today, this is entirely the correct decision. If it feels like the Magic Keyboard I have on my desk and it’s similarly reliable, I can’t imagine a better keyboard in a laptop.1 Of course, whether these changes improve long-term reliability is something that will reveal itself after months of real-world exposure. There’s also a separate Touch ID key — like on the MacBook Air — and a physical escape key, with the unchanged (apart from in size) Touch Bar nestled in between.

There’s a lot to love about this new model: apparently, the speakers and mic are surprisingly great, and you can run two of Apple’s forthcoming Pro Display XDRs off one of this things, which is nuts. Apple doesn’t say, but I assume that last supporting two external 6K displays requires the highest-end graphics card, which is a reasonably-priced $200 configuration option.

There seem to be very few negatives to this MacBook Pro model. The still-absent SD card slot and the lack of port variety are probably its biggest knocks, but those things are relatively minor quibbles. The crappy keyboards in Apple’s laptop lineup was a primary reason I bought an iMac in January, and I’m glad I did, but this update shows that Apple is listening and will throw away stuff that doesn’t work. I just wish they’d done so sooner.


  1. And speaking of the Magic Keyboard, if that gets updated with an inverted-T arrow key layout, I’d be sorely tempted to buy a new one just for that improvement. ↩︎

John Oliver Takes On SLAPP Suits and Anti-SLAPP Laws

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

Ever since coal boss Bob Murray threatened and then sued John Oliver and HBO over their story mocking his supposed concern for coal miners, I’ve been publicly (and possibly privately*) bugging Oliver and his team at HBO to do an episode specifically about SLAPP lawsuits and anti-SLAPP laws. And I’m happy to say that they listened! This past Sunday, Oliver’s big story was all about SLAPP suits and anti-SLAPP laws, and focused again on Bob Murray, who finally dropped his case against Oliver and HBO earlier this year. It is well worth watching all the way up until the end.

I had no idea where this episode was going when I sat down to watch it Sunday, but it exceeded every possible expectation I had. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it; Masnick embedded a U.S.-only clip of the entire segment, and it is absolutely worth twenty-five minutes of your day.

Anti-SLAPP laws are hugely important. A couple of years ago, a guy who invented an application called “Email” back in the late 1970s sued Techdirt and Gawker separately for pointing out that he cannot really claim to be the “inventor of email”. I wrote about this a few times here because it so beguiled me. Every time I hit “publish”, though, there was a small twinge of worry about whether I, too, could face a lawsuit for simply pointing out the facts. As Oliver points out, the plaintiff does not need to win the suit for it to effectively silence the defendant. And, obviously, I’m not big-headed enough to think that I would actually be a target.

But that momentary worry was effective in making me doubt whether I could publish factual, well-cited information that countered a hyperlitigant’s misleading narrative. Even if I was completely okay from a legal perspective, it could cost me a fortune.

See Also: Libby Hill in IndieWire.

Investigation Launched Into Goldman Sachs After David Heinemeier Hansson Tweets About Discrepancies in Apple Card Credit Limit Between Himself and His Wife

David Heinemeier Hansson:

The [Apple Card] is such a fucking sexist program. My wife and I filed joint tax returns, live in a community-property state, and have been married for a long time. Yet Apple’s black box algorithm thinks I deserve 20x the credit limit she does. No appeals work.

Sridhar Natarajan and Shahien Nasiripour, Bloomberg:

A Wall Street regulator is opening a probe into Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s credit card practices after a viral tweet from a tech entrepreneur alleged gender discrimination in the new Apple Card’s algorithms when determining credit limits.

[…]

“The department will be conducting an investigation to determine whether New York law was violated and ensure all consumers are treated equally regardless of sex,” said a spokesman for Linda Lacewell, the superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services. “Any algorithm, that intentionally or not results in discriminatory treatment of women or any other protected class of people violates New York law.”

As Maciej Cegłowski put it in 2016, “machine learning is like money laundering for bias”. Goldman Sachs’ algorithm may be the culprit here, but Apple’s logo is on the card.

Update: Goldman Sachs has issued a statement.

Owen Williams Rounds Up

Hey, remember how a change was made to more accurately scan private API use for Mac App Store apps, and it caused Electron apps to be rejected because they rely upon Chromium? And even though these apps are still available for the Mac, they’re just not in the Mac App Store until the Electron project excludes said private APIs?

In Owen Williams’ eyes, this is nothing less than Apple “trying to kill web technology”. That’s right: Apple is trying to kill the web on all of its platforms, starting with the Mac:

But Apple has a reason not to like this recycling of web technology. It wants its Mac App Store to be filled with apps that you can’t find anywhere else, not apps that are available on every platform.

That’s why they’ve been so hesitant to promote cross-platform apps like those in the Microsoft Office and the Adobe suites, going so far as to only give them a few minutes of keynote time and publishing their press releases.

Electron has used these private APIs for years without issue. These private APIs allow developers to, for instance, drastically improve power usage whereas Apple’s sanctioned tools make the user experience worse. In the majority of these cases, Apple doesn’t provide real alternatives for developers who want to access these private API features.

Are private APIs unfair? Almost inherently so. Should the use of any API be withheld from distributed software until a public API is available for third-party developer use? That’s debatable.

But, again, Apple is not prohibiting the use of private APIs generally; they just don’t want apps in the Mac App Store that use private APIs. That’s a big difference.

Also, for what it’s worth, the Mozilla post that Williams links to doesn’t actually say that they’re using any restricted or private APIs, just that they updated Firefox to use Core Animation to improve its battery life and performance on MacOS.

Developers could distribute their apps from their own websites, asking users to download them directly. But that means abandoning features like Apple’s auto-update mechanism from the Mac App Store and iCloud sync. And this direct-to-consumer method could soon be locked down, too, with Apple’s controversial notarization requirements potentially requiring their review.

Setting aside the ability to use iCloud syncing in apps not distributed through the Mac App Store, notarization does not equate to locking down MacOS to outside distribution, despite Williams’ scaremongering. I have problems with notarization and Apple’s strategy for MacOS security, but Williams’ interpretation is overly simplistic and dependent on fear.

Williams follows with a couple of examples of how Apple does not implement new web standards as quickly as other browser makers do, and that leads him to this thesis:

Apple’s subtle, anti-competitive practices don’t look terrible in isolation, but together they form a clear strategy: Make it so painful to build with web-based technology on Apple platforms that developers won’t bother.

First, the premise of this argument isn’t a secret, nor is it new. Apple has long said that apps which are basically wrappers around websites should just be websites — most recently in September.

Second, Apple continues to develop and improve upon in-app web functionality, including fixing things like lacklustre WebRTC support in third-party apps, something Williams complains about in his post.

Third, encouraging a distinction between apps and websites does not therefore lead to the headline “Apple Is Trying to Kill Web Technology”. That’s rounding up to the nearest crisis position, and is wildly misleading. Plenty of ostensibly native apps continue to use web technologies — even many of Apple’s.

Apple has done a lot of stupid and controlling things in the moderation of their App Stores, but this isn’t one of those instances, and it certainly does not produce the panic-inducing headline of Williams’ post.

An Oral History of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles

Recognizing that this month marks the time in which 1982’s Blade Runner was supposed to take place, Mike Roe of LAist interviewed many of those responsible for designing and building what was then a vision of the future. Art director David Snyder:

This is the first film that Ridley did in Hollywood, L.A. So he had this idea, the most brilliant idea of all: we would go night-scouting in downtown L.A., which was really treacherous, really tough.

And so, Ridley said, “Look — there’s 1920 on this building, and then they put a layer of 1940 on the building, and then they put a layer of 1960 on the building,” and it was a stratification thing.

So when it was decided that we were going to shoot on the Warner Brothers backlot — the buildings that were built on the backlot started in 1924. And then went through all those periods, from 1924 to 1980.

When we were in pre-production, Ridley took us into the screening room and we ran the film Logan’s Run. And at the end of the film, he said, “Do you see that? We don’t want to do any of that, at all. This is exactly what we don’t want to do — the Earth is leveled, and you start over again.”

Blade Runner and its sequel remain two of my all-time favourite films — the latter surprising me by just how good it was. While towers might not be as tall as the film predicted and we’re not all travelling through the air in Spinners, it holds up remarkably well: we are in an age of bleak climate crises, aggressive policing, and unthinkable technological advances.

iOS 13.2.2, Out Now, Fixes That Bad Multitasking Bug

This is a relatively quick fix for such a nasty bug, though I still can’t believe why it shipped in the first place. The first beta of iOS 13.3, released earlier this week, also appears to have fixed this problem.

Update: Can Duruk:

The silver lining here is that Apple now feels comfortable rolling out patches every 2-3 weeks, instead of yearly updates. The organizational change required to get into a cadence like that is very hard. Now, if they could get the updates smaller and faster…

This is true and merits acknowledgement. It is also true that this year’s series of software updates have come fast and furious because that’s what has been required; this has been a truly rocky autumn as far as software quality is concerned. I hope the ability to ship patches faster does not encourage a culture that prioritizes speed over quality, however — as it often has, in my experience, with software-as-a-service companies.

AT&T Adds 15 GB and $10 Per Month to Mobile Share Plans and Doesn’t Allow Customers to Opt-Out of This ‘Bonus’

Sean Hollister, the Verge:

AT&T has a gift for wireless subscribers on many of its old Mobile Share Value data plans: it’s giving them an extra 15GB of “bonus” data — and it’s making them pay an extra $10 a month for that “bonus.”

It’s almost like the company is forcing people to move to a more expensive plan, only AT&T figured out a way to make that not technically true. Instead, it’s worded in a way that suggests the company is providing you with a SURPRISE BENEFIT that costs you money! It is quite literally an offer you can’t refuse.

This comes one day — one day — after AT&T settled with the FTC for $60 million dollars over trying to redefine the word “unlimited” to mean “limited”.

Shaw, my ISP, uses this kind of sleazy tactic all the time. My bill goes up every six months or so, and when I call to negotiate a better rate, the plan I’ve been on somehow no longer exists. I then have the option of one plan that’s more expensive but with a slower connection speed, or another plan that’s much more expensive and has unnecessarily fast speeds.

The bill I received just a couple of days ago indicates that they’ll be raising my bill by a few dollars again come January. I’ve just checked their plans and the pattern has continued — my current 100 Mbps plan is no longer available, but I can either have a 50 Mbps plan for $85 per month, or 300 Mbps for $105. The way I use the internet hasn’t changed a lot in the last five years, but I’m now paying nearly $40 per month more than I used to for the same utility.

Internal Facebook Communications Describe Plan to Limit Data Access to Potential Competitors Under the Guise of User Privacy

Katie Paul and Mark Hosenball, Reuters:

One executive, writing in 2013, described dividing apps into “three buckets: existing competitors, possible future competitors, [or] developers that we have alignment with on business models” as part of the project to restrict access to user data, dubbed ‘PS12N’.

Those in the last category were able to regain access by agreeing to make mobile advertising purchases or provide reciprocal user data to Facebook under “Private Extended API Agreements,” according to the emails.

As thousands of developers lost access to user data, the executives decided to announce the changes publicly. They elected to link what they referred to as the “‘bad stuff’ of PS12N” to an unrelated update of the Facebook login system which gave people greater control over their privacy.

Olivia Solon and Cyrus Farivar, NBC News:

For example, Facebook gave Amazon special access to user data because it was spending money on Facebook advertising. In another case the messaging app MessageMe was cut off from access to data because it had grown too popular and could compete with Facebook.

Because these are exhibits from just one side of this lawsuit, it’s possible that they do not represent a fuller picture of what Facebook was intending to do. But it is remarkable just how forthcoming Facebook’s staff are about their bald-faced anticompetitive maneuvers. Does it rise to an antitrust court case? I’m not sure; it’s Facebook’s private platform, not an open market. The company seems very happy to walk the line between ruthless and criminal — which, surely, is not an indication of a company behaving ethically and responsibly.

Also, NBC News has inexplicably decided to publish many thousands of pages from hundreds of documents of varying sizes in a single 600 MB PDF.

Unlike Netflix or Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus Can Be a Hobby

Dallas Lawrence, VentureBeat:

For Netflix, the streaming wars are life or death. For Disney, it’s about futureproofing the business and ensuring its incredible IP sustains its value in a changing media ecosystem. For Amazon, it’s about making Prime stickier. For Apple, however, streaming is really more of value add play — a vehicle for the world’s most valuable company to continue its evolution away from a pure hardware company into a services business.

This is a playbook Apple has effectively deployed in the past and one we are already beginning to see take shape as it competes in the streaming landscape. One only needs to look back at the Apple Music launch to understand the strategy. By building an ecosystem for Apple hardware users to seamlessly integrate music into their digital life, Apple managed to overtake Spotify’s subscriber growth in the U.S. and ultimately reach more than 60 million subscribers (and growing) for its music service. According to the most recent quarterly earnings released last week, Apple’s services business alone is growing at more than 20% annually — surpassing $12 billion in the latest quarter.

Just as Jeff Bezos once famously said that every time an Amazon original wins a Golden Globe it helps the company sell more shoes, with Apple News+, Apple Music, Apple Arcade, and now Apple TV+, Apple is building ever deeper connections into every aspect of the consumer content experience that will pay dividends far beyond the streaming wars.

I’m swayed by the argument that an arbitrary hardware-and-services company does not need a movie production business to succeed, but I am not persuaded that this makes sense as Apple’s strategy. The shows that have been released by the company have — “Planet of the Apps” notwithstanding — been greeted by warm but not effusive reviews. They’re fine. Some of them may even be even good.

But Apple doesn’t do fine or even good. They don’t sell Macs because they help maintain a sticky connection to their services; they don’t update the iPhone’s camera every year because they hope you’ll buy more iCloud storage. They’re the best products in their class. Sure — Apple doesn’t sell truly cheap versions of these products, but people are willing to hand over a much larger lump of money to the company with the knowledge that they’re getting a premium product.

Apple TV Plus doesn’t fit that archetype — not yet, anyway. This becomes plain if you compare it to the closest television equivalent to an Apple product that I can think of: HBO — a premium cable channel that features must-watch shows that are defined as much by their quality as their budgets, all without being interrupted by ads. Apple TV Plus is, so far, serving up fine shows with astronomical budgets, all for either a low monthly cost or, if you’ve bought a new Apple product recently, a free year’s trial. Are they going for subscription volume?

Apple TV Plus has just launched, and the app is more of a storefront for more established players in the streaming video market. They can get better at this, and they should. But I want to hear a reason for Apple to be in the streaming business beyond ARPU and subscription stickiness.