Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for February, 2020

Buzzfeed News Obtains Clearview AI’s Client List

About a week ago, Hoan Ton-That, the CEO of Clearview AI — the creepy facial recognition company that the New York Times revealed in January and which has a database filled with photos posted to social media — claimed in an interview on Fox Business that his company’s technology was “strictly for law enforcement to do investigations”. That has been revealed to be a lie after Buzzfeed News acquired a leaked copy of Clearview’s client list.

Ryan Mac, Caroline Haskins, and Logan McDonald:

The internal documents, which were uncovered by a source who declined to be named for fear of retribution from the company or the government agencies named in them, detail just how far Clearview has been able to distribute its technology, providing it to people everywhere, from college security departments to attorneys general offices, and in countries from Australia to Saudi Arabia. BuzzFeed News authenticated the logs, which list about 2,900 institutions and include details such as the number of log-ins, the number of searches, and the date of the last search. Some organizations did not have log-ins or did not run searches, according to the documents, and BuzzFeed News is only disclosing the entities that have established at least one account and performed at least one search.

[…]

“This is completely crazy,” Clare Garvie, a senior associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School, told BuzzFeed News. “Here’s why it’s concerning to me: There is no clear line between who is permitted access to this incredibly powerful and incredibly risky tool and who doesn’t have access. There is not a clear line between law enforcement and non-law enforcement.”

Ryan Mac on Twitter:

Reporting this story was surreal. Numerous organizations initially denied that they had ever used Clearview. We then followed up, and those same orgs later found that employees had signed up and used the software without approval from higher ups. This happened multiple times.

A lack of general privacy principles written into law makes it possible for Clearview to indiscriminately sell its highly accurate facial recognition software with little oversight. That is extremely concerning. It should not be so trivial to reduce the overall expectation of privacy to zero for a company’s profits.

About That Squiggle

I am not good at writing meta-type posts about this website. I worry that it comes across as unnecessarily self-promotional — you’re already reading, so why would I advertise myself to you? So, please bear with me for a couple of paragraphs.

I designed this iteration of Pixel Envy something like eight years ago. At the time, I didn’t have a proper logo and didn’t want to spend the time to design one, so I just wrote “PIXEL ENVY” into the header and called it a day. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that its launch did not depend on the completion of a logo because I am my own worst design client.

At any rate, there is now a proper logo in the upper left. You may have seen it if you’ve visited this week or your RSS reader has recently dumped its cache. Creating a logo isn’t just a box I had to tick; it was often difficult for me to figure out what I should use for things like social media icons. Alas, I now have something I’m pretty happy with, and I hope you like it too — or, at least, that it’s inoffensive enough that it doesn’t detract.

If you click the link for this post, you’ll see the embarrassingly Design School 101 explanation for what the logo means. At least it’s not that Pepsi rebrand.

The Embarrassing State of 5G

Dieter Bohn of the Verge reviewed the new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, a product name which I would mock except its main competitor is the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max and I can’t decide which superlative-laden branding is worse. Bohn is generally positive throughout the review, but this part caught my attention:

I tested two networks in New York City: T-Mobile and Verizon. As of this writing, AT&T 5G should work on the S20 Ultra but has not yet been officially certified. The S20 Ultra did its end of the job with 5G, happily downloading bits as quickly as the network was able to deliver them.

On T-Mobile, I saw 5G speeds that ranged from barely better than LTE all the way up to 120 Mbps, which is quite fast. On Verizon, once, I found a street corner with 5G (no easy feat), and I got download speeds between 800 and 1,400 Mbps, which is stupid fast. However, I could also walk 50 feet, and the 5G signal would drop. Or I could just turn around and put my body between the phone and the cell tower to slow down the signal. I could even simply stand in one spot and wait, and 5G would occasionally drop.

That’s the state of 5G right now. It hasn’t lived up to the outsized promises that have been made about it for the past couple of years. It may someday, but the buildout is going to take much longer than we’ve been led to think.

Pundits have been claiming for years, even just last week, how critical it is for Apple to ship a 5G iPhone sooner rather than later, but reviews like these make clear that 5G simply isn’t ready for mass adoption yet. This is not a knock against Samsung — while its strategy of being first at all costs doesn’t appeal to me, it’s something that many people like and I get that. But it is foolish to claim that it is imperative that new smartphones are 5G capable, and particularly the iPhone, lest any of them fall behind in a race that doesn’t exist.

Between 2015 and 2019, the NSA’s Domestic Phone and Text Monitoring Program Produced Exactly One Usable Lead

Charlie Savage, New York Times:

A National Security Agency system that analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic phone calls and text messages cost $100 million from 2015 to 2019, but yielded only a single significant investigation, according to a newly declassified study.

Moreover, only twice during that four-year period did the program generate unique information that the F.B.I. did not already possess, said the study, which was produced by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and briefed to Congress on Tuesday.

“Based on one report, F.B.I. vetted an individual, but, after vetting, determined that no further action was warranted,” the report said. “The second report provided unique information about a telephone number, previously known to U.S. authorities, which led to the opening of a foreign intelligence investigation.”

The surveillance program responsible for expending an average of $50 million per lead — only one of which was useful — was created through the passage of the stupidly named USA FREEDOM Act. That act was passed after Edward Snowden leaked a trove of documents exposing the NSA’s then-secret surveillance programs affecting basically everyone around the world. It is unlikely that such a bill would have been possible without Snowden’s disclosures.

At any rate, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015 expires in a couple of weeks, and it’s worth asking if it makes sense to reauthorize programs like these. It’s also something to keep in mind as U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr fantasizes about other ways to ruin privacy worldwide.

Why TV?

If the Apple rumour mill could somehow be harnessed to generate power, I believe our climate crisis would be solved. Alas, it is only a source of curiosity before a product announcement and, afterwards, a quickly forgotten trash heap of mixed truths and spurious guesses. But it is sometimes instructive to look back on those rumours.

You probably recall all of the times Gene Munster asked about a full Apple television on one of its quarterly conference calls. You may even remember all those rumours about an “iPod Phone”. But do you remember all the speculation that Apple would launch a streaming video service, a la Netflix and Hulu? I found articles to that effect from 2016, two from 2015, a 2014 rumour, one from 2012 — all the way back to a 2009 All Things D article which said that the company was pitching a $30 per month streaming TV service for a 2010 launch.

That, to say the least, did not happen.

The reality was far more sedate. In 2010, Apple released a rental-based set-top box that streamed movies and episodes of TV shows from iTunes rather than storing them in a local library. In 2015, it released a new set top box that relied upon apps and used Siri to search titles from multiple sources. In 2017, it released its first attempts at original programming with Planet of the Apps, for which the crowd went mild, and acquired the Carpool Karaoke series. It also bought the rights to what would become the Morning Show.

Which brings us to last year, when the company introduced Apple TV Plus. And, a year later, I still do not understand why it exists — at least, not in this guise.

This isn’t about the shows, but the service itself. Compared to its competitors, it is unique, though probably not in the way Apple might have intended, as it is just about the only streaming service that does not have a collection of library titles in addition to its original material. YouTube Premium is possibly the only other big-name streaming service to lack a library of older shows, but it has other benefits like removing ads from YouTube and unlocking an entire music streaming service. Apple TV Plus is just, like, a $5 per month subscription that gives you access to a collection of about a dozen own-brand shows, with more being added at a steady clip.

It also seems like Apple TV Plus is off to a particularly rocky start. Alison Herman of the Ringer:

In the months since, Apple has undergone a dizzying sequence of ups and downs. The ups include Little America, a charming anthology about real-life immigrants, and Visible: Out on Television, a stirring new docuseries about the history of LGBTQ representation in TV. The downs include, well, everything listed below. Apple TV+ was always bound to be a fraught enterprise, bringing a computer manufacturer into an industry outside its core skill set and awash with other well-funded bids for viewers’ attention. Its history to date has borne that difficulty out, culminating in the recently reported suspension of sprawling page-to-screen project Shantaram. This is a guide to Apple’s bumps in the road, which began well before TV+ actually made it to our living rooms.

An October 2019 story from Lesley Goldberg and Natalie Jarvey in the Hollywood Reporter paints a more complex picture about whether the behind-the-scenes difficulties of Apple’s streaming service are normal for a new entrant. But that doesn’t erase Herman’s catalogue of everything that has gone wrong so far for its handful of productions, which seems to comprise an overwhelming blend of bad luck and early business chaos.

Don’t get me wrong — I know there are lots of people who like the shows Apple has produced so far. I’m not bashing what has been released. I’m just saying that this does not seem like the service Apple had intended to launch. This is entirely speculative, but I believe those initial rumours were correct: a huge library of video from major studios, available on demand for a monthly fee, strikes me as a more straightforward, understandable, and comprehensive service offer. In short, it is more Apple-y.

So why is it not what Apple ended up shipping? Well, while Apple was attempting to lock up streaming deals with major studios — between, say, the earliest rumour of this in 2009 and 2017, when Apple released its first slate of original material — those studios were busy being acquired by ISPs, and launching their own streaming services. All of them have their own rosters of big-name library titles, all have familiar names like Disney and HBO, and the vast majority have technical infrastructure because they’re owned by ISPs. So why would they have any reason to give Apple a cut of their revenue? Without those distribution deals, the only choice Apple has left for its own entry into streaming video is to set up a studio and outbid others for media it can call its own.

I am certainly not calling this strategy a failure. That would be stupid: it is in its earliest days, some of Apple’s shows have critical buzz, and there’s so much potential for an internal studio. But there is unique risk in attaching a provocative entertainment arm to the body of a consumer goods company — one of those, of course, is the Apple’s relationship with China. Hollywood studios are choosing to censoring films to have a shot at the lucrative Chinese market. But they, unlike Apple, don’t rely on factories in the country to produce the bulk of their revenue. It is not unreasonable to speculate that this is at least one of the reasons Apple is being particularly cautious about the portrayal of China in its original programming.

It’s also a particularly strange thing for Apple to get involved with. With its music endeavours, it invited artists to record NPR-style shows featuring compositions performed for the compilation interspersed with artist commentary. But it did not start a streaming service exclusively for those compilations and nothing else. That would have been very strange. It seems nearly as strange that its big splash into streaming video is basically being a premium cable channel.

Apple has a long list of projects that are in various stages of development, any of which it can support with high budgets and marketing to “a billion pockets, y’all”. They can brute force Apple TV Plus into existence as an efficient entertainment delivery product with a low monthly price tag. I don’t think that is out of the question, and I’m certainly not writing it off. But, for what it’s worth, I see more sense in taking a page from Amazon’s book and offering it as a component of an “Apple Prime” bundle, along with News Plus. Get users to pay some amount of money every year for plenty of iCloud storage, Apple Music, and Arcade, and they get a few media discovery services thrown in as nice-to-haves. Right now, I don’t think Apple TV Plus is all that compelling on its own. While it may become more enticing in the future, the other half of that sentence could more easily change: it doesn’t have to prove its unique worth if it is part of something that feels worthy as a package.

That takes care of the question of why someone might subscribe to Apple TV Plus. But I am still not convinced that the question of why Apple is making original programming has been answered. The best I can come up with is that Apple is simply doing what big, sprawling companies often do. There’s no use pretending that Apple is ever going back to selling a quadrant of computers and a handful of other products that would, in their entirety, fit on the surface of one desk. Apple is not weeks away from bankruptcy, like it was in the 1990s; it is now one of the biggest companies to have ever existed, and it’s acting more like one. It has the freedom to experiment with new categories and weird ideas. It has the HomePod, a two year old product which is either a home-wide assistant or just a really good speaker, depending on who you ask. It has an in-house editorial staff to help decide what stories should be highlighted in its News app. It is a credit card company and a watch company. Rumour is that it will soon also be selling eyeglasses and cars.

It seems that a perfectly acceptable response to the question of why Apple has become a broadcaster is “why not?”

Jason Kottke Celebrates Fifteen Years of Independent Writing

I’ve been reading Kottke.org for as long as I can remember, and it’s the spark that encouraged me to try my hand at something similar. It’s bittersweet to be reminded of how many other great weblogs it has outlived.

Jason Kottke:

Fast forward to the present day and this little website is still chugging along. In its almost 22 years of existence, kottke.org has never gotten big, but it’s also never gone away, predating & outlasting many excellent and dearly missed sites like Grantland, Rookie, The Toast, The Awl, Gawker, and hundreds of others. I have other people write for the site on occasion, but it’s still very much a one-person production by a reluctant influencer (*barf*) who, as an introvert, still (naively?) thinks about posts on the site as personal emails to individual readers rather than as some sort of broadcast. I’d like to thank those early supporters for having faith in me and in this site — you’re the reason we’re all still here, gathered around this little online campfire, swapping stories about the human condition.

Here’s to many more Kottke-filled years.

Few Artists Have Experimented in Notable Ways With the Unique Characteristics of Digital Music Distribution

Cherie Hu, Complex:

Streaming hypothetically throws this nightmare out the window. Artists no longer need to commit to manufacturing tens of thousands of physical records upfront and hope that they all sell. After all, in a streaming environment, songs and albums are fundamentally just a combination of 0s and 1s that algorithms analyze and spit out as sound, to fans who pay a monthly subscription for access. Not only is the concept of “inventory” irrelevant in this world of infinite shelf space, but the cost of experimentation and modification around artwork, track order, track content, and other features of digital releases also plunges dramatically as a result.

[Kanye West] was the first celebrity to take advantage of this new, fluid technological landscape with The Life of Pablo, which first came out on Valentine’s Day in 2016, but ultimately had multiple versions released to the public. The rapper first premiered a nine-track version of the album four years ago today (February 11, 2016) at his Madison Square Garden fashion show, then made a different, 18-track version available for sale briefly on Tidal with slightly modified lyrics—before taking it down and making a separate “partial version” available to stream as a Tidal exclusive. By the time TLOP was made available on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services nearly two months later, there were yet more changes, most notably some new celebrity features on “Wolves” (which were leaked a few weeks prior anyway).

[…]

Yet, despite this media chatter and fan frenzy, virtually no artists have followed suit in creating a truly dynamic album with content updated over time on streaming platforms. Instead, it’s mostly the same old process as artists opt to release a static album, no modification needed or planned.

Digital music distribution has had a couple of major effects on the way music is listened to: the surprise album drop, something that was nearly impossible when hundreds of thousands of copies of a record needed to be shipped to stores; and increasingly lengthy albums, which are incentivized by the way streaming services calculate popularity and royalty payments.

But few artists seem to be exploiting the unique characteristics of the format in a deliberate way. West’s multi-version album is one; back in 2008, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Slip” featured different covers for each track. But I haven’t seen many other popular artists treat streaming and internet-purchased music as anything more than a slightly different way of obtaining a series of songs.

Charting Price and Performance in Apple’s Hardware Lineup

Speaking of price and performance, Jason Snell has compared those factors on a chart. Sure, Geekbench scores can’t precisely be compared across platforms, but I think this gives a good idea of just how good of a value some of Apple’s products are — the iPhone 11 and the iPad Pro fare well — and the products which are perhaps more money than their power would suggest, like the MacBook Air.

I would love to see a historical comparison of these factors.

A Milli

Joe Maring, Android Central:

I don’t know about you, but I’m growing a little tired of $1000 and up being the new norm for smartphone prices. Apple was the first company to break that threshold in 2017 with the iPhone X, and in the years following that, it’s quickly become something that we now have to expect.

If you want to be pedantic about it — and that is arguably what this globally-connected network of computers is all about — the iPhone X not only was not the first smartphone to get close to the thousand-dollar price tag, it was a dollar short of breaking that barrier in its base configuration.

I’ve mostly grown used to these increased costs as a result of writing about them almost every day, but there’s still part of me that’s annoyed with how much money these companies are asking us to spend these days.

Smartphones are valuable tools and are something a lot of us rely on to live our lives. There’s a valid argument to be made that buying a phone is an investment and a necessary purchase, but the prices being charged for high-end models are climbing at an alarming rate year after year.

I get where this feeling comes from, but I think it’s remarkable just how competitive the mid-range smartphone market has become. I was discussing this a couple of weeks ago in a Slack group and Josh Calvetti pointed out that the iPhone 11, for example, is $300 less than the iPhone 11 Pro, but you get the same processor, the same facial recognition, two of the three cameras, and a greater array of colour choices. Sure, you get a lower-resolution LCD display instead of an OLED, but I think many people would find it difficult to tell the difference.

Compare this to, say, ten years ago, when the flagship iPhone 4 came out — $599 for the base model, without a contract. The iPhone 11 is the second-tier model, and it used to be the case that the non-flagship iPhones were just carry-over devices from previous years in a baseline configuration. Indeed, the iPhone 3GS was available ten years ago in an 8 GB spec for $499. Yes, that’s $200 less than the iPhone 11, but it was the previous year’s phone, not a brand new device. If you want last year’s phone right now, it’s $599 for an iPhone XR and that’s still an entirely capable phone. It will certainly last longer than a 3GS did in 2010, and, ten years later, it’s just $100 more.

Maring points out that this is the case on the Android side, too: there are plenty of terrific smartphone models at similar price points to that which we’ve paid for years. It’s not so much that smartphone prices have, necessarily, gone up; it’s that a new higher-end segment has been added. It turns out that there’s a market for people who are comfortable with spending over a thousand dollars on cutting-edge technology.

Catalina’s Dialog Bureaucracy

A few weeks ago, shortly after completing a clean installation of Catalina on my MacBook Air, I had a funny idea: wouldn’t it be great to reinstall Lion, the operating system it shipped with, and see what it is like to use nearly ten years after it was released?

I haven’t touched a truly old version of MacOS in years, and certainly not one called “Mac OS X” in a very long time. For a start, installing an old version of MacOS in 2020 is more difficult than it sounds, especially if you don’t have a copy of the specific or newer version of the operating system that shipped with your Mac because you resolved to become slightly better about your data hoarding habits.

It becomes significantly easier after you recognize that you failed that resolution.

Installing Lion was refreshing — in part because there are far fewer steps in Setup Assistant. There are just eleven screens, the last of which informs users that Lion changes the direction the trackpad scrolls relative to the material onscreen. There’s an animation of this and, cleverly, Apple requires users to scroll to the bottom of a small text area to click the button that finishes the setup process. You may not start using Mac OS X Lion until you have learned how to scroll.

However, perhaps the most notable part of installing Lion was that it was ready to go immediately after completing the steps in Setup Assistant. The last screen appears and confirms that Lion is set up, then the desktop zooms in, and then you can use your computer right away. Sure, Spotlight will be indexing, so it will be slow for a while, but you can get started.

Catalina is different. Many steps have been added to Setup Assistant since Lion, including options to turn on location services, enable Siri, enable various iCloud features, and — for Macs with supported hardware — steps to enrol fingerprints for Touch ID and add credit cards for Apple Pay. Some screens have been removed (remember registering your Mac?) or consolidated (picking the user picture is now done when setting up the admin user account), but the process is still far more expansive than it used to be. I counted at least seventeen screens; some screens have been consolidated as an “express setup” option, and the Apple Pay and Touch ID features are not supported on my Mac.

And that’s just Setup Assistant. After you complete those steps and you see the Catalina desktop for the first time, you have more work ahead of you. Apps need permission to send you push notifications, permission to use your contacts, and permission to use your location. Even though you said you wanted to switch on Location Services and that it was okay for Maps to use your location, Maps will ask for your location the first time you run it. Calendar will ask to use your location immediately after setup finishes. The weather widget in Notification Centre will need to be granted location permission now and probably several times in the future. Notifications will appear that you will need to dismiss.

There’s more, too. If you download apps from a source outside of the Mac App Store, you’ll be asked if you really want to open the app upon its first launch. This has long been a feature of MacOS’ Gatekeeper security software, but Catalina requires apps to be notarized. If the app is not notarized, Catalina will tell you that the app “cannot be opened” and give you the options to cancel opening it or move it to the trash. This is a lie: you can open the app — any app — by visiting the Security & Privacy preference pane, clicking the “Open Anyway” button, and then bypassing another scary-looking warning dialog.

The way that Catalina determines whether an app is safe seems to depend on several factors, and they can collide in comical ways. While writing this piece, I wanted to install a fresh copy of Catalina on a new volume of my MacBook Air’s hard drive to verify the installation procedure above. However, I only had a copy of the installer on my iMac, so I AirDropped it to myself. When I went to run the made-and-signed-by-Apple package, originally downloaded from the Mac App Store, I was told that it could not be opened because it was potentially dangerous.

The path to this present reality more or less began with Lion. It was the first version of the system to be available through the Mac App Store, introduced in a late update to Snow Leopard, and, with it, came the “Allow Apps Downloaded From” section of the Security & Privacy preference pane. It originally contained three options:

  • Mac App Store

  • Mac App Store and Identified Developers

  • Anywhere

That last option has been hidden since MacOS Sierra. It’s still possible to open apps from anywhere, but MacOS now requires you to jump through hoops that weren’t there previously. And these hoops are ratcheted tighter with every recent version of MacOS. Catalina, in particular, is notable for the vast quantity and types of cautions that users are expected to handle.

Want to download a file from a website? Safari will get you to confirm that you actually want to download that file.

Explicitly typed a command in Terminal that accesses your desktop — even something as innocuous as ls ~/Desktop? You’ll have to confirm that you are, indeed, okay with Terminal’s desktop access.

Want to run ls ~/Downloads? You’ll have to okay access to that folder, too. There’s no way to say, in any of these dialogs, that you’re entirely okay with anything Terminal wants to do. You can, however, give Terminal full disk access in a different tab of the Security & Privacy preference pane.

Security & Privacy was one of those things in Preferences that you used to set and forget. It now seems as though it’s something you’re expected to open regularly if you are a technically inclined user.

These security prompts and confirmation dialogs also have the effect of offloading some of the responsibility for a secure environment to the user in a way that, I believe, is unfair. It’s irritating to more technically literate users because it adds work to everyday tasks. For them, it is a regression.

Less technical users, on the other hand, do not have the skillset to determine what is a security concern and what isn’t. It doesn’t help that some of Apple’s own apps, daemons, and background service have inscrutable process names and many of them need some form of permission or password to run. Nor is it helpful that the Gatekeeper warnings change in mysterious and undocumented ways. But, even if everything were perfectly labelled, a user with less technical background wouldn’t have an informed clue about what they should allow and what is genuinely dangerous.

Furthermore, we know that overloading users with permission prompts encourages them to click whatever button will allow them to move on with their task, which means that they are more likely to agree to something unintentionally. We also know that people exposed to alerts and alarms on a frequent basis learn to tune them out, even in cases where those alarms are extremely important, like in hospitals (PDF). The fire alarm in my apartment building has been mistakenly activated so frequently that it is more or less just background noise. I’ll probably burn to death one day. I’ll also probably mistakenly click an “okay” button and unleash some form of minor havoc on my computer because I am inundated with permission prompts.

It’s not just security-related permissions, either. When a MacOS app wants to show push notifications, it must ask the user for consent. It’s the same thing for location, use of the microphone, a Mac’s camera, and accessing contacts, calendars, reminders, and photos. And then there are APIs that allow apps to watch over keystrokes, control other apps, and control the computer. Individually, these permission requests aren’t dreadful, but they quickly accumulate.

I’ve seen various proposed solutions to this onslaught, often centred around the idea that MacOS now needs some sort of “pro mode” — a command line switch or something of the sort that allows an advanced user to disable much of the system’s nanny state policies. That’s not a bad idea, but I don’t think it fully acknowledges how bad this situation is.

Permission consent dialog boxes are a particularly ham-fisted approach towards privacy and security. They are a last-ditch effort; an over-reliance upon them in Windows Vista was famously parodied by Apple in a “Get a Mac” ad. At best, they are irritating. But, at their worst, they are an acknowledgement by the company that builds the platform that they have been defeated in a larger argument.

The reason there are so many privacy-centric requests is because there are basically no limits to the exploitation of personal data. If we had the confidence that allowing an app access to our contacts, for example, would not expose that list to data mining and privacy-invading marketing nonsense, we would not need to spend time granting permissions.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparable fight for security vulnerabilities. Users’ trust is an infinitely exploitable resource and it is the primary job of malware creators to do just that.

Yet I return to my argument that requiring users to determine which processes are safe is a demand that is overwhelming to most and disruptive to the comparatively few users who are equipped to handle such a decision.

Of course, there are other protections built into the system that help prevent malware and other problematic software from running. Apple explains several of these on its marketing page for Catalina, and there are other technologies like sandboxing and the antivirus protection offered by XProtect and MRT. But if security is, as with so many things in life, like an onion, the dialog boxes are like individually wrapping a bag of the things in clingfilm: it ends up being something that gets in the way for pseudo protection. These seemingly endless permission requests disrupt the Mac’s balance of capability and user friendliness.

The future of the Mac — a friendly face atop a powerful Unix core with an amazing software ecosystem — should not be a bureaucracy that cripples its finest qualities, nor one which users are responsible for fidgeting with.

Update: The Mac App Store was introduced in an update to Snow Leopard, not Lion, as previously and incorrectly stated.

Microsoft Says That It Is Bringing Defender, Its Security and Antivirus Software, to iOS and Android

Jordan Novet, CNBC:

Microsoft will soon offer its Defender antivirus software for phones and other devices running Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS mobile operating systems, the company announced Thursday.

[…]

Apple and Google have sought to police their app stores from instances of malware. That hasn’t stopped Microsoft from jumping in.

“They’re pretty safe, but pretty safe is not the same as safe,” Rob Lefferts, a Microsoft corporate vice president, said in an interview at company headquarters in Redmond, Washington, last week. “Malware does happen on those platforms.”

The closest thing to malware on iOS is probably targeted attacks, primarily for spying, that rely on unreported vulnerabilities. It is unclear how Microsoft’s antivirus software will scan an iPhone’s apps at all, given the sandboxing restrictions on the platform, let alone find ones that use novel ways of surreptitiously scraping users’ data.

Microsoft already offers the Intune software that IT administrators can use to manage employees’ PCs, smartphones and tablets. The Defender software coming to Android and iOS is about security, rather than management. It’s designed to prevent people from visiting online destinations that Microsoft deems unsafe, Lefferts said.

This makes it sound like Microsoft Defender for iOS will, ultimately, be a Safari content blocker, or perhaps a VPN. Microsoft says that more details will be revealed at next week’s RSA Conference. I question whether it will meaningfully address how a sandboxed antivirus scanner is supposed to work platform-wide.

Update: I forgot about that ring of click fraud apps that ran invisible ads.

Larry Tesler Dies Aged 74

Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo:

In addition to his contributions to some of Apple’s most famous hardware, [Larry Tesler] was also known for his efforts to make software and user interfaces more accessible. In addition to the now ubiquitous “cut,” “copy,” and “paste” terminologies, Tesler was also an advocate for an approach to UI design known as modeless computing, which is reflected in his personal website. In essence, it ensures that user actions remain consistent throughout an operating system’s various functions and apps. When they’ve opened a word processor, for instance, users now just automatically assume that hitting any of the alphanumeric keys on their keyboard will result in that character showing up on-screen at the cursor’s insertion point. But there was a time when word processors could be switched between multiple modes where typing on the keyboard would either add characters to a document or alternately allow functional commands to be entered.

Last year, Riccardo Mori published a transcription of a 1997 talk given by Tesler and Chris Espinosa. It’s a talk worth reading for its depth of thought. For example:

The reason we [preferred CUT/COPY/PASTE over MOVE/COPY/DELETE] is that [while] it is two steps to do CUT and PASTE, there are a lot of advantages. […] Another reason is that you don’t have to be able to see the destination when you are copying or cutting the source. That’s the most important thing. And on a screen of limited size, when you have windows overlapping, it’s sometimes very hard to get things all lined up so you can specify two targets; or you have windows popping up and down, and you get very confused.

The other thing is that I had a secret agenda: I thought that the machine should be used not for what they talked about (office systems) — well, that was good, but I didn’t want it to be used just for that. I thought it would be a great machine for publishing and that it would be able to do cut & paste into page layouts, which was my own personal interest; and so I was advocating that because that was definitely the way you’d want to do page makeup. But we did user testing, and the users slightly preferred the CUT and PASTE model.

This, too:

Brief interpolation on keyboard shortcuts — Now, as you know, you can do command keys [command key combinations] on the Mac; you can invoke commands from the keyboard, and we knew it was important to reserve some for the most common commands. […] We wanted to make sure that CUT, COPY, PASTE, UNDO were the same for everybody. [Same for] BOLD, ITALIC, UNDERLINE, and NORMAL.

Why the Z X C V keys? — They were close on the keyboard. We did X because it was a cross out (CUT). We did V because it pointed down like this [he makes a ‘V’ shape with his hands], and you were inserting; it was like an upside-down caret (PASTE). And Z was the closest one, because we figured you’d UNDO a lot. And C for COPY — that was easy.

It’s obvious to see why Tesler’s contributions to computing are so profound: they’ve barely changed in the last forty years. He put a big dent in the universe.

Folding Flip Phones Flopping

Dieter Bohn of the Verge on the new Motorola Razr:

That is the Razr’s first major trade-off. I’m harping on the $1,500 price, but not because it’s too high for any phone. Phones are our primary computers, and many people could reasonably justify that price or something even higher for the right phone. The problem with the Razr is that it delivers so few of the things you’d expect at that — or any — price.

[…]

The Razr’s screen is made of plastic, and it was recently one-upped by Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip, which has the first folding glass display ever. Tough break. In general, though, folding screens are so new that it’s hard to know exactly what standard to judge them by. Clearly, they require trade-offs, but which trade-offs are reasonable and which are dumb won’t be clear until we use more of them.

What I don’t like: the soft plastic is likely to pick up nicks, dings, and indentations from use — and I think fairly normal use, at that. It feels slightly more robust than the Galaxy Fold’s screen, but that may just be because it’s smaller. Motorola’s main innovation with the screen is how it constructed the hinge to minimize any creasing and allow the phone to close completely flat. There are two parts to this story.

[…]

Since we’ve talked about the hinge so much, we need to get to another trade-off. Maybe you’ve heard about it, or maybe you’ve literally heard it. The creak.

Bad luck. Maybe that glass screen in the Galaxy Z Flip will fare better?

Raymond Wong, Input:

The Galaxy Z Flip — at least according to Samsung — shouldn’t have the same issues that doomed its first foldable, the Galaxy Fold. At Unpacked, Samsung made sure to highlight all the ways it improved durability in the Z Flip. The display is made of “Ultra Thin Glass” instead of plastic (it’s better, but still pretty prone to scratching). The “hideaway hinge” has fibers inside of it to keep particles out. The hinge doesn’t creak when the phone is folded. There are two little bumpers on the bottom corners to absorb hard closures. The foldable display can handle up to 200,000 folds before it breaks; 100,000 more folds than the Razr.

[…]

Realist me remains skeptical foldable phones will ever be more than a short-lived fad. (Prove me wrong phone makers!) I keep waiting to be convinced that there’s a meaningful purpose for a foldable phone other than “it folds in half!” Samsung is on the right track with the Z Flip. The hardware is getting better and all that’s left is a killer use case. As it is, the Z Flip is an expensive toy and not a smartphone you can rely on day in and day out. It’s still too expensive and its durability is uncertain. If bleeding edge tech is a way of life for you, then this phone has your name written all over. But if you need a phone you can count on that gives you the best of everything, trust me: you can do better.

I’m not sure why anyone would buy one of these prototypical devices today, unless you have a couple thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket. And, anyway, wouldn’t you feel better sending that money to me instead?

Apple Music Now Groups Different Versions of the Same Album

Federico Viticci:

Looks like Apple has brought back one of the best features from Beats Music with Apple Music: Other Versions of the same album.

This section collects remasters, reissues, remixes, demos, deluxe editions, and explicit/clean versions of the same album.

Because this appears to be automated, it also cleans up instances of multiple copies of the same album on artist pages. I’m still not sure why Apple Music had five copies of “First Impressions of Earth”; it now has only two, though I still can’t understand why.

This appears to be slightly conservative in its approach, too. While it groups the clean and explicit versions of Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn”, it does not group the “collector’s edition”, which has a reversed tracklist. By the way, there are at least nine copies of “good kid, m.A.A.d city” on Apple Music. Again, I am not sure why there would be more than four — clean and explicit versions of each the original release and the deluxe edition — but at least they’re all grouped together now.

Apple Promotes Its Services Through Pervasive and Often Disruptive In-App Advertising

Next month will mark a year since Apple publicly pivoted itself in the direction of a services-oriented company. As far as the company’s revenue is concerned, it has been extremely successful — but it has not come easily.

Steve Streza:

If you don’t subscribe to these services, you’ll be forced to look at these ads constantly, either in the apps you use or the push notifications they have turned on by default. The pervasiveness of ads in iOS is a topic largely unexplored, perhaps due to these services having a lot of adoption among the early adopter crowd that tends to discuss Apple and their design. This isn’t a value call on the services themselves, but a look at how aggressively Apple pushes you to pay for them, and how that growth-hack-style design comes at the expense of the user experience. In this post, I’ll break down all of the places in iOS that I’ve found that have Apple-manufactured ads. You can replicate these results yourself by doing a factory reset of an iPhone (backup first!), installing iOS 13, and signing up for a new iCloud account.

Michael Tsai has collected even more examples of where Apple has aggressively pushed users to subscribe to its services.

Streza calls iOS “adware”, which I think is hyperbolic. But there’s no denying that using Apple’s products is starting to feel like visiting a department store that’s more intent on pushing its credit card than selling you a pair of shoes.

For me, the result has been plainly obvious: I treat many of Apple’s first-party apps as mere containers for the company’s subscription services. Ever since it has become an advertisement for Apple News Plus, I have almost never opened News. It’s the same with the TV app — particularly on my Apple TV — which I previously used to watch purchased and downloaded media.

As for Music? Tyler Hall:

To date, that’s $4,755 I’ve legally paid for digital music.

[…]

I don’t have the foggiest clue where that amount of money places me as a music customer. Surely not the low end of consumers? But I doubt the high side either. I’m guessing I’m somewhere in the upper-middle compared to what most digital natives have spent on music.

But my point is this.

I happily and enthusiastically paid for all that music. But now? Every time I see the $14.99 charge for our Apple Music family plan hit my checking account, I wince. I pay it begrudgingly because I feel like I have no other choice.

In my head, I bucket all monthly charges under the category of “bills”. I pay my rent, I pay my phone bill, I pay for internet, I pay for insurance, I pay for iCloud, and I pay for Apple Music. Some of these things are utilities; music shouldn’t feel like a utility, but it does now.

Of course, I could — and do — pay to download music in much the same way Charles Avison used to. But I also pay for Apple Music every month in part because, if I didn’t, the Music app would be a portal to advertising.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for Apple to use its platform owner advantage to push its services, but I do think that, currently, it is making those products worse. And there’s something else, too: if it were possible to set non-Apple apps as defaults and third-party developers were able to offer subscriptions without going through in-app purchases, would Apple’s services be so successful? I’m not sure they would.

2020 State of Mac Malware

Michael Tsai put together a collection of links that, in summary, present a more sober picture of the 2020 State of Malware Report (PDF) from Malwarebytes than some headlines have suggested.

From the report:

Macs differ drastically from Windows in terms of the types of threats seen. Where we found several different categories and families in our top detections of Windows threats that classify as traditional malware, especially those aimed at businesses, most Mac threats, and certainly the most prevalent ones of 2019, are families of adware and potentially unwanted programs (PUPs). The most common Mac malware family, OSX.Generic.Suspicious, fell well down the list at 30th place in Mac-specific detections, and hundreds of spots down on a cross-platform threat list.

[…]

Of all the [Mac] threats seen this year, only one incident involved anything other than tricking the user into downloading and opening something they shouldn’t. That is the incident in which Coinbase, and several other cryptocurrency companies, were targeted with malware that infected systems through a Firefox zero-day vulnerability.

So the chance of experiencing malware — not adware or what Malwarebytes calls “potentially unwanted programs”, but malware — on a Mac actually fell in 2019, according to this report. Meanwhile, as Ben Lovejoy points out, the primary reason adware became more prevalent on the Mac in 2019 is down to a single app.

Workers for Shipt, an Instacart-Like Company Owned by Target, Describe a Culture of Unrealistic Expectations, Retaliation, and Fear

Lauren Kaori Gurley, Vice:

When Target bought the company for $550 million in 2017, Shipt rapidly expanded its same-day delivery to half of its stores. Today, Shipt has more than 100,000 gig workers, according to the company. The company has tripled its geographic reach since 2017.

Shipt workers told Motherboard that customers who order from Target often seem surprised when independent contractors in plain clothes driving their personal cars show up at their homes with massive deliveries from Target. Because Shipt classifies its workers as contractors, not employees, workers pay for all of their expenses — including gas, wear and tear on their cars, and accidents — out of pocket. They say the tips on large orders from Target, sometimes with hundreds of items, can be meager.

Workers say Shipt customers often live in gated and upscale communities and that the app encourages workers to tack on gifts like thank you cards, hot cocoa, flowers, and balloons onto orders (paid for out of their own pocket) and to offer to walk customer’s dogs and take out their trash, as a courtesy. Shipt calls this kind of service “Bringing the Magic,” which can improve workers’ ratings from customers that factor into the algorithm that determines who gets offered the most lucrative orders.

If this “gig economy” nonsense is to have a quality of employment greater than that of a freelance servant, workers need rights, reasonable expectations, benefits, and real income. This nonsense of paying people according to a black box algorithm should not be legal.

Apple’s History of Colour-Matched Wallpapers

Jared Sorge:

I worked at an Apple Authorized Service Center and had been doing service on the iMacs with slot loading optical drives (like the one pictured above). Whenever I would need to erase a hard drive and restore the operating system I noticed that the desktop wallpaper color matched the color of the case. So a Ruby iMac would get a Ruby colored desktop, and same with Sage green, Indigo blue, and so on. How did they pull this off?

Most iPhones since the 5S and 5C have used colour-matched wallpapers by default, too, but those are highly-integrated devices. Sorge says that virtually every interior component of the iMac G3 could be swapped and it would still know which colour to use for the wallpaper. I love details like these.

A Look Inside the ‘Ghost Kitchens’ That Are Operating Out of 60 Morris Street in San Francisco

I’ve posted before about “ghost kitchens” — delivery-only restaurants that operate with little more than a range and a refrigerator. But, until today, I hadn’t seen what one looks like.

Joe Kukura, writing for Broke-Ass Stuart (via Andy Baio):

We popped by one of San Francisco’s most prominent ghost kitchen facilities, and Jesus is this place dirty and depressing. Though Business Insider gave 60 Morris a glowing write-up, we found the place looks like a combination of 850 Bryant and the kind of SRO lobby where the check-in counter has bulletproof glass. It is operated by disgraced Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s new venture CloudKitchens, but their $400 million in VC funding from dirty Saudi Arabian money is not evident in the facility’s hand-written signs, bare bones interior, and general below-minimum-wage dystopian chic.

Surely some of the negative impression of this place comes down to the poorly-exposed nighttime cellphone photography in this article. There are no photos of the kitchen; it could be spotless, for all we know.

Yet it is hard to imagine that this is the future of food, where this is a derelict industrial building masquerading as two dozen different restaurants where, inside, workers create meals to be stashed in a locker for an underpaid delivery driver to ferry, at great expense, to its destination. After decades of lame jokes in stand-up comedy routines about the quality of airline food, it sure seems like that shouldn’t be what we aspire toward.