Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2019

IRS Reforms Free File Program, Drops Agreement Not to Compete With TurboTax

Remember how, earlier this year, tax preparation companies were caught preventing search engines from indexing their free products?

Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel, ProPublica:

Under the nearly two-decade-old Free File deal, the industry agreed to make free versions of tax filing software available to lower- and middle-income Americans. In exchange, the IRS promised not to compete with the industry by creating its own online filing system. Many developed countries have such systems, allowing most citizens to file their taxes for free. The prohibition on the IRS creating its own system was the focus of years of lobbying by Intuit. The industry has seen such a system as an existential threat. Now, with the changes to the deal, the prohibition has been dropped.

The addendum also expressly bars the companies from “engaging in any practice” that would exclude their Free File offerings “from an organic internet search.” […]

Product naming will also be standardized so that Intuit can’t offer two slightly different “free” versions of TurboTax, where the main difference is that one of them is actually free.

In the Nick of Time, Apple Completes Promised 2019 Rollout of Revised Maps Across the United States

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple began rolling out its updated mapping app to customers starting in iOS 12, and at the 2019 Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple said all customers in the United States would receive the improved Maps app by the end of the year.

Apple has made good on that promise with the rollout of the new mapping terrain to large swathes of the United States, and the updated Maps are now available across most of the country. It could still take some time for all users in the Central and Southeastern areas of the U.S. to see the new content.

Apple drove and walked throughout cities around the world in 2019, including where I live in Calgary. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of their efforts — and hopefully soon.

Apple has rightfully caught a lot of flak for the quality of their web services this past decade. I think they’ve done a lot to shed their lacklustre reputation — with iCloud, iMessage, Apple Music, and Apple Maps. The latter, in particular, is far from perfect; Apple’s place data is still infuriatingly incomplete and inconsistent. But it is no longer ridiculous to consider Apple’s services viable competitors to those from longstanding giants of the web.

California’s New Data Privacy Law Has Muddled Expectations of Companies

Natasha Singer, New York Times:

Millions of people in California are now seeing notices on many of the apps and websites they use. “Do Not Sell My Personal Information,” the notices may say, or just “Do Not Sell My Info.”

But what those messages mean depends on which company you ask.

Stopping the sale of personal data is just one of the new rights that people in California may exercise under a state privacy law that takes effect on Wednesday. Yet many of the new requirements are so novel that some companies disagree about how to comply with them.

I’m not sure they’re “novel” as much as they are poorly defined. A couple of weeks ago, a piece in the Wall Street Journal explained how Facebook would be taking advantage of the confusion — at least until the actual expectations of these new regulations are hashed out in court in the coming years.

Laws like the CCPA, and GDPR in Europe, are necessary steps forward, even though they are incomplete and imperfect. But that’s part of the process; and, as new test cases come forward to challenge their measures, they will become better-defined. They should be paired with better antitrust enforcement, too, so that those companies which have huge market advantages cannot unfairly coerce consumers.

A Comparison of Bing, Google, and Yandex Reverse Image Search Engines

Aric Toler, Bellingcat:

The first and most important piece of advice on this topic cannot be stressed enough: Google reverse image search isn’t very good.

As of this guide’s publication date, the undisputed leader of reverse image search is the Russian site Yandex. After Yandex, the runners-up are Microsoft’s Bing and Google. A fourth service that could also be used in investigations is TinEye, but this site specializes in intellectual property violations and looks for exact duplicates of images.

Toler isn’t kidding around. In these comparisons, it isn’t even a close call between Yandex and any other reverse image search engine. Google even failed to identify an image from Google Street View.

It makes me wonder why Google’s search engine is so comparatively bad. It isn’t like they don’t do facial recognition or object identification; they frequently promote their abilities in both. How are they so far behind when it comes to indexing the web’s photos?

Travis Kalanick Severs Ties With Uber

Annie Palmer, CNBC:

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick will step down from the board, effective Dec. 31, and a spokesperson said Tuesday he has sold all of his stock in the ride-hailing company he co-founded 10 years ago.

It’s unclear how much Kalanick’s total stake is worth, but the latest public filings show it’s about $2.5 billion.

Uber’s disastrous second quarter this year resulted in losses of $5.2 billion, of which $3.9 billion was attributable to IPO payouts. In the third quarter, the company lost $1.2 billion, which is similar to their second-quarter non-IPO-based losses. So, if those losses are similar this quarter, and if Kalanick’s $2.5 billion worth of now-sold shares was locked up until the current quarter, they could be in for another multibillion-dollar loss this quarter. They’re probably going to cross $20 billion in total losses since 2016.

Uber is a predatory company, and it sure seems that even Kalanick is not convinced of its long-term prospects.

Publishers’ Decisions Have Made Electronic Books Less Attractive Than Online Music and Movie Stores

Howard Oakley:

Did you give or receive any books for Christmas? If so, were they physical books, or electronic ones? I suspect that, while many of us have exchanged real, printed books as presents, eBooks were far less popular, and unless you give a voucher, they’re almost impossible to give as presents anyway. So why have eBooks failed so miserably, when other media such as movies and music now sell and rent so well online?

There are surely plenty of people who own and use an Amazon Kindle, and others who have stuck with Apple Books on their iPad — you may be among them. But a physical book has remained a far more attractive premise. In the past few years, I’ve read several dozen paper books, but only a handful of ebooks.

Finally, apart from enhanced search facilities, few eBooks offer any advantage in use over their physical equivalents. eBook readers are still incredibly primitive, and won’t even let you refer to two or more sections of the book at the same time. You can’t photocopy them, copy quotations, or do anything remotely advantageous. What should have been a liberation from the printed page turns out to be the imposition of more restrictive rules.

What amazes me about all this is that the many penalties and drawbacks of eBooks aren’t the result of the medium itself, but have been cunningly devised and implemented by eBook publishers. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to license eBooks in the first place. Or have they just become so greedy that they think they’ll win either way?

These two paragraphs close Oakley’s piece, and I find them contradictory. Many of the drawbacks I experience — in addition to those in the preceding paragraph — are an inherent result of the medium: ebook software is subject to the most irritating aspects of its device, like software updates, battery consumption, and a distracting environment. The often multipurpose nature of these devices also flattens the context of books; when they’re as interchangeable in the same frame as a webpage or a video, I find it harder to get lost in them.

Ebooks should have an advantage over music and movies, though: because they’re often just text, ebook files are a few hundred kilobytes, or maybe a couple of megabytes. They’re tiny. For those who are okay with the drawbacks of the medium, ebooks should be as successful as Netflix. They’re even available in libraries, though publishers are doing their damndest to scuttle that advantage. But, of course, libraries also offer physical books, and which would you rather have?

Jason Snell’s 2019 Predictions in Review

Jason Snell, Macworld:

With the arrival of Mac Catalyst this summer, as promised by Apple last year, the Mac has started to benefit from apps developers originally on iOS. But I predicted that it would be a major onslaught that would dramatically change the Mac forever, and this was my biggest miss. Some combination of a rough summer of developer betas and limitations of the technology itself mean that there aren’t nearly as many Catalyst apps as I thought, and a bunch of my favorite iOS apps still aren’t anywhere close to shipping Mac versions. Catalyst may still change the Mac forever, but it’s going to take a lot more than one year to make it happen.

For users and for the Mac ecosystem, I hope that Catalyst gets better. But there’s a little voice in my head that thinks it would be better if SwiftUI makes the difference and Catalyst is, in the future, a sad and largely-forgotten experiment. There’s a long way to go between today’s iPad apps running on the Mac, and the promised cross-platform apps that feel right on each device.

End the Razor-and-Blades Business Model

Kim Lyons, the Verge:

Obviously, we won’t see an end to such gadgets because too many products rely on what economists refer to as the “two-part tariff,” where you buy the product (razor, floss dispenser, coffee maker) and then pay a per-unit fee for the items (blades, floss, coffee pods) that make the product usable. Every subscription razor blade company has this figured out: it’s why the razor itself is usually relatively inexpensive, but the specialized blades are pricey.

However, the gadgets that are flooding the marketplace (and Kickstarter) now are a generation removed from razor blades, which actually do take some precision to manufacture. The gadgets I’m ranting about are ones that try to convince you to spend more for a relatively inexpensive, readily available product: floss dispensers with proprietary floss (it’s just string, people); garbage cans with specialty garbage bags; even a manicure machine that paints each fingernail individually using — wait for it — pods of its proprietary nail polish.

The razor-and-blades model simply refuses to die. The Juicero thing happened in 2017, the same year Albert Burneko wrote my favourite thing that has ever been written about Keurigs. HP began offering a subscription model for their printers, which allowed them to claim ownership over the cartridges used and add DRM to prevent third-party refills. This business model is wasteful, expensive, and should be abolished — not expanded.

The Public Cost of Delivering Millions of Parcels Every Day

Ken Bensinger and Caroline O’Donovan of Buzzfeed News, reporting alongside James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, and Doris Burke of ProPublica:

Investigations by ProPublica and BuzzFeed News this year revealed that drivers delivering Amazon packages had been involved in more than 60 crashes that led to serious injuries, including 10 deaths. Since then, the news organizations have learned of three more deaths.

Amazon, which keeps a tight grip on how drivers working for contractors do their jobs, has told courts around the country it was not responsible when delivery vans crashed or workers were exploited. It is a position that is facing more legal and legislative challenges, as some states seek to force tech companies such as Uber to take more financial responsibility for the contract workers who underlie their businesses.

Matthew Haag and Winnie Hu, reporting earlier this year for the New York Times:

Officials are racing to keep track of the numerous warehouses sprouting up, to create more zones for trucks to unload and to encourage some deliveries to be made by boat as the city struggles to cope with a booming online economy.

The average number of daily deliveries to households in New York City tripled to more than 1.1 million shipments from 2009 to 2017, the latest year for which data was available, according to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems.

“It is impossible to triple the amount,” said José Holguín-Veras, the center’s director and an engineering professor at Rensselaer, “without paying consequences.”

Households now receive more shipments than businesses, pushing trucks into neighborhoods where they had rarely ventured.

It is perhaps inevitable that some accidents will occur, and Amazon’s total of at least sixty-three since 2015 is lower than, say, Uber’s — they reported nearly one-hundred fatal accidents in 2017 and 2018. But delivery contractors for Amazon are typically driving larger and heavier vehicles that present greater danger to drivers of smaller cars, cyclists, and pedestrians.

In the case of both companies, however, these injuries and deaths — and the congestion described in the Times article — are a result of unproven but eagerly-adopted developments. Many vehicles might not be on the road if it were not for Amazon’s high-pressure rush delivery options. It is worrying that these companies are aware of the negative results of programs like Amazon Prime, but are slow to make changes for the better as they continue to hurry packages along. If they bore some responsibility for the damage they inflict, I imagine things may be different.

New York Times Journalists Received Location Data and Were Easily Able to De-Anonymize It

Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, New York Times:

Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.

After spending months sifting through the data, tracking the movements of people across the country and speaking with dozens of data companies, technologists, lawyers and academics who study this field, we feel the same sense of alarm. In the cities that the data file covers, it tracks people from nearly every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Va., or luxury towers in Manhattan.

The page that delivers this alarming news also contains analytics scripts from a dizzying number of third-party providers. Their app contains user tracking SDKs provided by ComScore, Google (Firebase), and Localytics. If you’re a U.S.-based print subscriber, the Times will sell your address to third-party companies without telling you.

Yes, there absolutely should be laws in place that restrict how this data may be collected and shared. But the parties controlling websites and apps also bear responsibility for the privacy-destroying software they include, and business practices that are similarly compromising.

Update: To their credit, the Times provides a decent guide to setting up your phone for better privacy protections, and they have previously acknowledged that they collect visitor data. It is not the fault of Thompson and Warzel that their employer uses tracking technologies on the very investigation that points to abuses of collecting this information. But it is their employer’s responsibility to understand what they’re reporting and change their practices.

Podcasts in Catalina and Catalyst

“Waffle”:

Podcasts should be the optimal poster child for Catalyst because it exists on many platforms, and I think it could be made to work so much better by being responsive to ways in which a Mac is not an iOS device. But what upsets me is not a lack of polish as such, it’s that this was deemed anywhere near good enough to ship. It’s not a good podcasting app, it’s not a good Catalyst example, it’s not a good macOS citizen and it’s not even a good reincarnation of the Podcasts app. It’s just a mess.

It was somewhat concerning to see a collection of tech demos ship as user-facing apps in Mojave last year. But to have recurring complaints of basic MacOS features after a year — why the hell are picker controls still touch-based spinners? — is inexcusable.

Is it good for MacOS, as a platform, to have a bunch of officially-supported bad iOS ports? It sure is not a great sign that Apple enables and seemingly encourages abject laziness.

As Part of a Pending FTC Settlement, Facebook Agrees Not to Exploit Information Provided for Security Purposes, With Caveats

In 2018, Kashmir Hill reported for Gizmodo that Facebook was allowing advertisers to target users based on user data provided solely — according to Facebook — for security purposes, such as two-factor authentication phone numbers. Additional reporting by Zack Whittaker of TechCrunch from earlier this year indicated that Facebook indexed two-factor phone numbers in their friend finder tool, without a way to opt out.

Katie Paul, Reuters:

Facebook Inc will no longer feed user phone numbers provided to it for two-factor authentication into its “people you may know” feature, as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of its privacy practices, the company told Reuters.

[…]

It had already stopped allowing those phone numbers to be used for advertising purposes in June, the company said, and is now beginning to extend that separation to friend suggestions.

I believe this is the first explicit acknowledgement that two-factor phone numbers were being used for People You May Know, in addition to the ways in which they were previously exploited.

Sounds good, right? Well, this is Facebook, so its not like this change is available now and applies to all accounts:

Michel Protti, a long-time Facebook executive who took over as chief privacy officer for product this summer and is leading the overhaul, told Reuters the two-factor authentication update was an example of the company’s new privacy model at work.

The change – which is happening in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Libya and Cambodia this week and will be introduced globally early next year – will prevent any phone numbers provided during sign-up for two-factor authentication from being used to make friend suggestions.

Existing users of the tool will not be affected, but can de-link their two-factor authentication numbers from the friend suggestion feature by deleting them and adding them again.

So, unless you reconfigure your two-factor authentication settings — and live in one of the five named countries — the phone number you thought would be used solely for security will keep being usurped for building Facebook’s people finding tools.

If this is an example of Facebook’s radical new privacy-focused business model, well, that seems about right to me.

Movies Should Be Much Shorter

Katie Heaney, the Cut:

The best web page I’ve found recently, which I will bestow upon you now, is this IMDb guide to “Best Movies Less Than 100 Minutes Running Time.” This will be the list I turn to when I am in the mood to watch something but not in the mood to commit to what feels like half my life to a movie that probably isn’t even that good. Movies are getting longer, but they are not getting better, and I have had enough.

I am fully aware of how much I sound like an old grouch when I write that movies are way too goddamn long. “Avengers: Endgame”, the biggest movie of the year, was over three hours long, and I felt every single minute of it. The second-biggest movie of the year, “The Lion King”, was just a shade under two hours long — which doesn’t sound too bad, until you compare it to the original, and realize that the extra thirty minutes in the terrible new one added nothing.

It’s not just movies, either: many albums are also way too long, despite the inherent flexibility of music streaming. Drake is notorious for padding the run time of his records. He has released a new full-length solo album every year for the past four years; the shortest one is one hour and thirteen minutes long, and it’s just a collection of off-cuts and outtakes.

Catalyst and Cohesion

Jack Wellborn:

[…] Developers using first party tools from Apple shouldn’t have to swim upstream to build cohesive Mac versions of their apps. I am not saying that the existence of any incongruous Catalyst ports is worrisome — incongruous ports are inevitable and Catalyst is an opportunity to make them better — what’s worrisome is that incongruity seems to be the default with Catalyst.

Look no further than Apple’s own Catalyst ports. Developers have enjoyed a variety of good first party examples on both Mac OS and iOS. Mail, TextEdit, Preview, Notes serve as examples of what good cohesive apps on those platforms should look like. Outside of maybe the Podcasts app, Apple made Catalyst apps feel like ports.

Wellborn’s use of the word “cohesive” is inspired and speaks to the root of my worries about Catalyst. Great MacOS apps are often not entirely consistent, but they are cohesive — apps with unique user interfaces, like Coda and Tweetbot, feel very Mac-like, even though both are from third-party developers and neither one looks especially like Mail or Preview.

It worries me that some of Apple’s own MacOS apps lack cohesion; and, though Catalyst is the purest expression of this concern, it is not solely at fault. The redesigned Mac App Store that debuted in Mojave certainly looks like a Mac app, but it feels and functions like a crappy port from some distant platform. It launches by zooming in from the desktop; editorial collections open with an absurd sliding animation and cover the entire app like a sheet; it contains a truly bizarre combination of large click targets and tiny buttons. And none of this can be blamed on a bad Catalyst port, because the Mac App Store is not a Catalyst app, as far as I can tell.

It is frustrating to see Apple release a mediocre porting utility like Catalyst, but it is truly concerning that some of their newer Mac apps feel this incongruous. It would be one thing if it were a third-party developer, but these are first-party apps. As much as I am excited by the prospects of SwiftUI, I have to wonder whether this current stage of cross-platform-influenced Mac development is a distraction, or portends the lazy Mac experience of the future.

Update: Now that my MacBook Air is running MacOS Catalina, I see that the Mac App Store is improved compared to Mojave. It no longer features the comical zoom animation at launch, and the escape key can now be used to dismiss editorial collections. But it still doesn’t feel like a Mac app. Also, the JetEngineMac framework has been moved from within the Mac App Store app package to /System/Library/Private Frameworks, along with a new JetUI framework.

Tim Cook’s Apple

Walt Mossberg emerged briefly from retirement today to publish a decade’s-end column about Apple for the Verge. The nutshell version of his column goes something like this: Apple’s biggest hardware introductions came in 2010 with the iPad, iPhone 4, and the modern MacBook Air — all of which were done while Steve Jobs was still in charge. But, while Apple has grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, the company under Tim Cook’s tenure has failed to produce a “blockbuster” product. I disagree:

Both of these Cook-era hardware innovations [AirPods and Apple Watch] made the top 10 in The Verge’s list of the 100 top gadgets of the decade. In fact, Apple not only took first place, but placed a total of four products in the top 10, the only company with more than one product in that tier.

Still, neither of these hardware successes has matched the impact or scale of Jobs’ greatest hits. Even the iPad, despite annual unit sales that are sharply down from its heyday, generated almost as much revenue by itself in fiscal 2019 as the entire category of “wearables, home and accessories” where the Apple Watch and AirPods are slotted by Apple.

This wasn’t entirely Cook’s fault. Industries go through secular phases, and this hasn’t been a decade of new blockbuster consumer gadgets on the scale of the iPhone for any company. The closest thing may be Amazon’s Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice assistant, but they’re no match for the smartphone in sales or impact — at least, not yet.

Let’s acknowledge that comparing just about any product category to the modern smartphone, as defined by the iPhone, is a flawed premise. I maintain that the smartphone is a generation-defining convergence device of near-universal functionality, with an impact that might not be replicated by any foreseeable device.

But I find it hard not to consider either the AirPods or Apple Watch blockbuster products. While both are accessories, I don’t think that diminishes their impact on Apple, the tech industry, and society at large — in fact, if anything, it indicates that we should not be so quick to dismiss the power of a dependent product. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the iPhone and iPad couldn’t update their operating system without requiring an iTunes connection.

By the sole criteria of how they set the standard for their respective categories, the AirPods and Apple Watch are absolutely blockbusters. The sales figures implied by Apple’s earnings only reinforce that.

Other products of the Cook era that I feel have been a wild success are the introduction of class-leading biometrics — first with Touch ID, and then the successful transition to the Face ID era — the percolation of Retina Displays across the entire product line, the company’s rapid advancements in chip design, and the breakthroughs in iPhone camera quality.

Mossberg also addressed a troubled decade for the Mac:

But Cook does bear the responsibility for a series of actions that screwed up the Macintosh for years. The beloved mainstream MacBook Air was ignored for five years. At the other end of the scale, the Mac Pro, the mainstay of professional audio, graphics, and video producers, was first neglected then reissued in 2013 in a way that put form so far ahead of function that it enraged its customer base.

Michael Tsai:

I think these, and even the notebook keyboard fiasco, are smaller issues than this decade’s decline in software quality. Even in the best scenario, it would take years to dig out, and so far Apple does not seem to be on that path. Cook is also responsible for the services strategy, still in the early stages, which is infecting the software design by making it AAPL-first rather than customer-first.

These are, I think, the most worrying trends of the last decade. The MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular Mac; it should have evolved more than a megahertz bump in the five years been 2013 and 2018. The Mac Pro’s six-year stagnation remains scarcely believable.

And then there’s the software. It’s hard to reconcile the leaps-and-bounds improvements in iCloud services, and radically great new features like CarPlay, with the egregious regressions across Apple’s platforms. It’s almost like all development energy is put toward new features, leaving no room for refinements, fixing bugs, and getting out of technical debt.

Shopping Is Complicated by Overwhelming Choice, Bad Search Options, and Well-Meaning Professional Reviews

Casey Johnston, Vice:

For a long time, our problem was there were not enough things to choose from. Then with big box stores, followed by the internet, there were too many things to choose from. Now there are still too many things to choose from, but also a seemingly infinite number of ways to choose, or seemingly infinite steps to figuring out how to choose. The longer I spend trying to choose, the higher the premium becomes on choosing correctly, which means I go on not choosing something I need pretty badly, coping with the lack of it or an awful hacked-together solution (in the case of gloves, it’s “trying to pull my sleeves over my hands but they are too short for this”) for way, way too long, and sometimes forever.

The degree to which you feel this problem definitely depends on your income, or at least, being in the privileged position of not having to make do with the only thing you can afford. But for people with even a limited ability to make an investment purchase, if it’s worth it, there’s even more pressure to get it right. Knowing you wasted a big chunk of money on a cheaper, worse thing that falls apart when you could have spent a little more money on a thing that is good and lasts feels like failure. You’ve then wasted your money, wasted your time, you’ve contributed to global warming, and now you have to start the entire thing over again and hope you don’t somehow end up making the exact same mistake.

We’ve known since at least the 1970s that too much choice feels far from freeing; it is anxiety-inducing and causes us to feel paralyzed.1 In a bid to narrow down our options, we’ll probably turn to professional reviews — particularly from sites like the Wirecutter, where Johnston was a senior editor.

Matt Hartman, the Outline:

This obsessive tendency is as obviously silly as it is widespread. Culture journalist Eliza Brooke pointed out that “Google searches for ‘best” have been steadily rising for years.’” Product recommendation sites have been springing up across the internet, including scientific reviews and influencer reviews and trend reviews and aggregated reviews and bad SEO-driven reviews and even worse copies of all of the above. “Googling ‘best air fryer’ is not a path to enlightenment, but into a spiral of comparison between publications,” Alyssa Bereznak said of the impact at the Ringer.

The worst part, though, is that I don’t actually care about pants or pillows or travel mugs. I just want to be a man with warm coffee, a covered crotch, and no neck pain. Mediocre products would suffice. But I can’t help but enter the product review trap for every little item because I live in the United States in 2019 and so I am constantly taught that I must make the best purchases because buying good things is also a moral good.

I get why people want the “best” of something, but I think that’s the wrong term for review sites to be using. I assume it’s for Google ranking reasons that they do.

Review websites are fantastic starting points for product categories that you know virtually nothing about, and for larger purchases that are supposed to last a long time. As an example, I’ve been trying to find a decent portable vacuum for cleaning detritus out of the car, and a few review roundups saved me from buying a model that wasn’t going to be powerful enough, even though it was from a well-known brand.

But the “best” product for you may vary from what reviewers recommend. You’ll know this if you know a particular product category well, or if you have fairly specific requirements. For example, when the Wirecutter tested food storage containers, they suggested Pyrex’s tempered glass containers. What Pyrex markets as an “eighteen piece set” — which is actually nine containers of various sizes and nine matching lids — costs about $30 in the United States. Their plastic pick was similar, except made by Snapware and about $10 less expensive for the same-sized set. I get the allure of both of these. But neither option fulfills three criteria that I consider essential: they must be perfectly stackable with and without a fitted lid, so they sit securely in my fridge or pantry when in use, but are compact when not in use; they must be cheap enough to leave behind, so they don’t feel precious; and they must all fit the same lid, so I don’t have to go hunting for a specific one in an oft-disorganized cupboard. And, for those reasons, I own fifty-count sleeves of half- and whole-litre heavy-weight plastic deli containers, and fifty lids that fit both sizes. I bought them from a restaurant supply store where I get a lot of my kitchen gear; this “hundred and fifty piece set”, as the marketing department might put it, cost me $15. Oh, and they’re microwaveable and machine-washable.

I think review websites could do a better job of making their criteria more apparent. I also think Amazon should make their website easier to use, especially for categories with thousands of options. Nobody needs that much choice. But we can do a better job of understanding the role of professional reviewers. They provide recommendations, but if you know better or have specific requirements, you shouldn’t take their “best” choice too literally.


  1. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I loathe shopping for toothpaste. Of all the goods in the world, why can I select from so many variations of that↩︎

An Editorial in the Hill Almost Makes a Good Point About Privacy

Bowman Heiden and Nicolas Petit write for the Hill about how they think those who have an “absolute” interpretation of privacy are missing the point:

Privacy absolutism comes from a world of physical privacy where moral agents are the norm. However, the digital world is different than the physical world. Leaving aside legitimate fears like information leaks, incorrect predictions or systemic externalities that may require appropriate regulations or technical standards, our policymakers must understand that users do not view digital privacy in black and white, but rather in shades of gray.

This is a fair point, but it is a strawman argument. I don’t think anyone asks for “absolute” privacy; the authors point to “doctors, lawyers and priests” as examples of people who frequently handle others’ private information. But we willingly give these professionals that information — and we have failed to translate that to the ease, speed, and scale of personal information aggregation on the web.

Here’s a wacky thought experiment from their piece:

You and your spouse are sleeping upstairs in your house after a long day of work. Downstairs, the living room and kitchen are a mess. There just wasn’t time to manage it all. During the night, someone sneaks in, takes a photo of the disorder, and then proceeds to clean it up.

What is there to learn here? At first blush, all of us should find the privacy intrusion intolerable. And yet, on further thought, some of us may accept the trade-off of saving money on a cleaning service and enjoying breakfast in a tidy room. […]

Earlier this year, an almost identical incident occurred to a Massachusetts homeowner who found it “weird and creepy”. I don’t know anyone who would not find this situation unacceptable, regardless of the benefit of having a clean house. But if I were to request a house cleaner, this would be fine, as I imagine it would be for anyone. Again: the difference is that permission has been granted.

Heiden and Petit also betray a level of ignorance that is scarcely believable for the co-authors of an article about privacy and tech companies:

It is not that hard to understand that no one at Facebook is passing moral judgment on photos of your carbon-intensive vacation, your meat consumption at a restaurant or your latest political rant. And when someone searches Google for “how to avoid taxes,” there’s no need to add, “I’m asking for a friend.” In both cases, there is just a set of algorithms seeing sequences of 1s and 0s. And when humans listen to your conversations with a digital assistant, they’re basically attempting to refine the accuracy of the translating machine that will one day replace them. How different is this from scientists in a laboratory looking at results from a clinical trial?

Let’s skip over the stock photo interpretation of how computers work and focus on the wildly myopic interpretation of how the accumulation of personal information at endpoints like Google and Facebook can be connected back to individuals. Google search data has been used as evidence in court; Facebook employees have been caught spying on users.

But these are minor blips in how collected data may be used and abused. The real problems — and, again, I must stress how badly the co-authors of this op-ed missed both of these things — are the lack of informed consent, and the scale and speed of personal information collection. We are only starting to understand the full unwelcome consequences of privacy-rejecting business models.

Of course, this wouldn’t be so bad if policymakers weren’t avid readers of the Hill. As it is, this tripe may help persuade some of them to relax their newfound and admirably aggressive stance on privacy.

The Dark World of Online Murder Markets

Brian Merchant, Harper’s:

For that reason, it can be hard to distinguish genuine intent from rage-clicking through a dumb-looking website. A user named Frankbill161 was apparently furious at the operators of the sports-betting website FanDuel for not refunding his money, which, he told Yura, “ruined my life.” So he’d paid $6,232 to order the murder of the customer service representative who delivered the bad news to him over the phone. This sort of spontaneous anger, which might otherwise be spent on a Twitter or Reddit thread, can now be unleashed on sites where users believe their clicks can kill.

So far, according to [Chris Monteiro], eight people have been arrested for ordering murders through Yura’s websites, on the basis of evidence Monteiro passed to law enforcement. One of them, a young Californian named Beau Brigham, had paid less than $5 toward a hit on his stepmother. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of soliciting murder and sentenced to three years in prison.

Murder marketplaces may force us to reexamine — and redefine — what constitutes criminal intent. Though judgments have been somewhat inconsistent, courts seem to regard making a payment of any amount as proof that the desire for harm is sincere. David Crichton, a doctor in the United Kingdom, was acquitted of attempted-murder charges after ordering a hit on a financial adviser who’d lost most of his pension, because he had never transferred any money to Yura. In court, Crichton claimed he had been trying to “clear his head” of his own suicidal thoughts, and that he’d never really wanted the killing to happen.

Marketplaces offering murder-for-hire have existed on the web for decades. But it’s only relatively recently — with the coalescing of legitimized storefronts, difficult-to-track payment systems, and what I perceive to be a shift in societal condition that is at best increasingly nihilistic and at worst misanthropic — that have resulted in what Merchant describes as the first documented death purchased through these means.

Facebook Plans No Changes to Web Tracking Services for Compliance With California Privacy Law

Patience Haggin, Wall Street Journal:

Once the California Consumer Privacy Act takes effect Jan. 1, websites with third-party trackers must add to their home page a button that says “Do Not Sell My Personal Information.” If a consumer clicks that button, the site is barred from transactions that send data to hundreds of third parties.

Those transfers have underpinned the digital-ad market for more than a decade, and are a core component of Facebook’s and Google’s powerful tools for collecting data on consumers and delivering relevant ads to them online.

In advance of the California law taking effect, Google has created a new protocol so sites won’t send data to the company if consumers have opted out. A Google spokeswoman said the protocol was intended to “help them [advertisers] as they work to comply with” the California law.

Facebook, however, has told advertisers that its trackers’ data collection doesn’t constitute “selling” data under the California law and that it therefore doesn’t believe it is required to make changes.

At first glance, this seems consistent with the framing privacy-insensitive companies like Google and Facebook have been using for this debate: they don’t sell personal data; they merely allow advertisers to bid on it. Similarly, a business does not sell Facebook information about who is browsing their website; they only share it.

But the CCPA appears to have been written with this in mind:

“Sell,” “selling,” “sale,” or “sold,” means selling, renting, releasing, disclosing, disseminating, making available, transferring, or otherwise communicating orally, in writing, or by electronic or other means, a consumer’s personal information by the business to another business or a third party for monetary or other valuable consideration.

While businesses generate no immediate financial benefit from using a Facebook pixel, its ad performance and analytics characteristics seem to me to be “valuable consideration”. But, of course, regulators will decide that beginning next year.

This is one of those cases where it seems that the letter of the law ought to have been far clearer to correctly convey its spirit.

‘I Hope You Enjoy Your Airbnb Stay At My Home, a Place I Have Never Resided Nor Visited’

Dave Powers, McSweeney’s:

Welcome! I’m excited about your upcoming stay at my home! I’m using the term “home” loosely here, as the living space you’ll be inhabiting is simply a piece of real estate I have purchased with the intent of skirting local zoning laws in order to turn a profit.

A cool thing about these “disruptive” enterprises is seeing the constant real-world flaws in their premise, and why we have laws and regulations in the first place.