Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2020

Fourth Beta of iOS 14.2 Includes New Wallpapers

Writing the last post left me feeling like I needed a lighter counterpoint. So, here it is: the latest betas of iOS 14.2 and iPadOS 14.2 have a few new wallpapers. Some of them are mountain landscapes, the others are illustrated. All of them come in day and night variations for light and dark modes, respectively.

The reason why I bring this up — other than that some of these new images are very nice — is that it is a reminder that Apple has not added new Live and Dynamic wallpapers in years. Maybe the former has something to do with the removal of 3D Touch, which would be fair, but I am surprised by how long the Dynamic wallpapers have sat. They are basically the same as the ones included in iOS 7, and they are all pretty dull.

I know a lot of people use their own photo as a wallpaper, but I see many people using one of Apple’s. Updating its collections of motion wallpaper seems like such an easy way to give users a new-feeling device and inject a bit of whimsy into the system.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Case Against Google

One of the overarching themes about the many terrible things the current U.S. administration is responsible for is how trust in government has fractured. You can say that to some degree about any democracy at just about any time, but few have created and then exploited such deep cracks, particularly along ideological lines. Not only does this administration have no interest in reaching across the aisle, it actively promotes seeing policy as competition and Americans who are not deferential to it as enemies.

That is what makes the antitrust complaint against Google, filed today by the U.S. Department of Justice and eleven state Attorneys General, so uncomfortable. The current U.S. Attorney General is William Barr, who has a long history of covering up possible government crimes, is partly responsible for the tear gassing of Americans for a photo op, and has demonstrated total loyalty to the current President instead of the office or his country. Before being sworn in as Attorney General in February 2019, Barr was a longtime in-house counsel for Verizon and served on the board of directors of Time Warner. Meanwhile, all of the state Attorneys General who are backing Barr’s suit against Google are Republicans.

This is important because the DOJ has brought only one other antitrust case in the last decade of the Obama and Trump administrations. This is true despite high-profile mergers and acquisitions happening at a blistering pace, particularly in the telecom space. The bar must be pretty high for what the DOJ considers a criminal violation of antitrust laws.

You can read the suit (PDF) if you’d like — it’s not very long and it contains some startling claims. In short, it argues that Google maintains dominance in search partly as the result of allegedly illegal agreements with browser and device makers, and that it abuses its monopoly in its advertising business. Perhpas the most shocking claim in the suit is this:

Apple has not developed and does not offer its own general search engine. Under the current agreement between Apple and Google, which has a multi-year term, Apple must make Google’s search engine the default for Safari, and use Google for Siri and Spotlight in response to general search queries. In exchange for this privileged access to Apple’s massive consumer base, Google pays Apple billions of dollars in advertising revenue each year, with public estimates ranging around $8–12 billion. The revenues Google shares with Apple make up approximately 15–20 percent of Apple’s worldwide net income.

[…]

Apple’s RSA incentivizes Apple to push more and more search traffic to Google and accommodate Google’s strategy of denying scale to rivals. For example, in 2018, Apple’s and Google’s CEOs met to discuss how the companies could work together to drive search revenue growth. After the 2018 meeting, a senior Apple employee wrote to a Google counterpart: “Our vision is that we work as if we are one company.”

The current version of the Google–Apple agreement substantially forecloses Google’s search rivals from an important distribution channel for a significant, multi-year term. This agreement covers roughly 36 percent of all general search queries in the United States, including mobile devices and computers. Google estimates that, in 2019, almost 50 percent of its search traffic originated on Apple devices.

Previous agreements between tech companies to work closely have fared poorly before.

There seem to be some well-founded complaints in this case, though Google sees it merely as consumers picking its stuff over the competition. But even its strongest accusations are deeply undercut by the weaponizing of antitrust law for political reasons by Barr and his Republican Party colleagues.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Mindless rubber stamping of megamergers and flimsy antitrust enforcement is what the United States does. It’s our biggest pastime outside of baseball. The one Trump example usually trotted out to claim otherwise, AT&T’s lawsuit to stop the AT&T Time Warner merger, was more about pissing off CNN for Trump and helping Rupert Murdoch than any serious concern about media consolidation. Rupert wanted the deal blocked after Time Warner first rebuffed his merger affections in 2014, and AT&T rejected his offer to buy CNN twice in 2017. It’s extremely likely he’s the motivating force in this effort as well.

So despite what folks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz would have you believe, there’s no evidence that monopoly power has ever been a genuine concern for the modern Trump GOP (simply look at its treatment of telecom, airlines, banks, and countless other heavily consolidated and monopolized sectors that routinely churn out a steady stream of consumer and competitor nightmares). And yet folks who’ve built entire careers on the backs of not giving a flying shit about corporate power, consolidation, and monopolization will now get to spend two weeks before an election pretending otherwise.

I understand those of you tut-tutting me for diving into politics on this post and being frustrated by the lack of escape from the endless election-related articles. I am sorry about that.

But you should be aware that this case is not being brought because of genuine concern for the effect of Google’s market power on the general public and small businesses. I cannot assess the viability of these claims because I am not a lawyer. I have seen some coverage that suggests this is a hack job, and some that sees it as a thoughtful suit. Maybe this really is the best the Department of Justice can do and it will prevail in court. But this administration’s exploitation of cracks in public trust means it is impossible to see the suit absent of the subtext that it is a political cudgel.

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Reviews Are Live

The embargo lifted today on reviews of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, and the consensus seems pretty clear: the hype over 5G is unwarranted so far, the industrial design is pretty much the best, the modestly improved cameras are great, the slightly bigger screen sizes are offset by smaller bezels and a thinner chassis, and the “regular” iPhone 12 has so much in common with its same-size Pro sibling that many people will not find the upgrade worth the extra money.

That last point is worth emphasizing. Like the release of the iPhone 8 and X, and the XR and XS, the new iPhone lineup has two different availability dates. The Mini and the Max will be released in a couple of weeks; the iPhones available this Friday are the middle models of identical size and, therefore, are the most easily muddled. If you want a smaller screen, you buy the Mini. If you want the biggest screen and, on paper at least, the best camera, you buy the Max. But it is harder, I think, to choose between the identically-sized and similarly-specced middle models. So it is notable that Apple seeded reviewers with both of them and, in many cases, that leant itself to direct head-to-head comparisons.

I read only a few reviews today but I figured something out about myself: the telephoto camera alone makes the cost of the Pro worth it for me, but that also kind of makes me a sucker. The non-Pro iPhone 12 seems to be just as capable, just as fast, and comes in bolder colours.

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

Most people won’t be on superfast 5G, and will find the battery life on these phones to be solid. They lasted a full day of fairly heavy use—though fell a bit shorter than the iPhone 11, which consistently leaves me with at least 15% before bed time.

This complaint about slightly shorter battery life for both models seems to be consistent among the reviews as well. It reminded me of comments that “‘Daring Fireball’ blog creator” John Gruber made on CNBC before Apple’s announcement event:

I think one of the biggest problems people have [with their existing phones] is battery life. I think it always has been and will be for the foreseeable future. […] I think, if you said “this phone gets faster cellular networking and this other phone gets twice the battery life” everyone would jump on the one with battery life.

And then, I think, another factor is photographic quality. Everybody wants their pictures and videos to look better. Those are, to me, the two simple and obvious things.

I am not arguing that none of the improvements in this iPhone lineup are worth it, and I understand there are limitations of battery chemistry and physical space. Compromises will be made. But, yeah, if this year’s new iPhones could eke out a couple of hours more battery life instead of adding 5G, I would be happy to make that trade-off.

Update: The Tom’s Guide battery life test found that the iPhone 12 Pro got longer battery life over 4G than the 11 Pro, but the 12 got shorter battery life than the 11. The latter makes sense, as it is a smaller-bodied phone that, presumably, has a smaller battery. The former is not matching with the results of many other testers but it is encouraging.

Aundre Larrow’s Portrait Photography on the iPhone 12 Pro

This collection of photos by Aundre Larrow is wildly impressive — mostly because of Larrow’s skillful portraiture, but also due to the technical quality of these images. Even at a large size, there is very little evidence of the pointillist effect common to iPhone models since, I think, the 6S.

One strange thing about the 12 Pro is that it apparently does not use its LiDAR sensor to create Portrait images unless the environment is sufficiently dark. Why would it not use the most precise depth data to create a more realistic simulation of depth of field? I am sure there is a good reason — maybe power consumption — but I am very curious why the LiDAR sensor’s potential doesn’t seem to be fully explored even in default software.

Charging Bricks and Headphones Now Sold Separately

Jon Porter, the Verge:

Apple’s new iPhone 12 lineup will ship without wall chargers or Lightning EarPods in the box to reduce the phone’s environmental impact, the company announced today. Instead, they’ll come with just a USB-C to Lightning cable. As well as the new phones, Apple is also removing the accessories from its existing iPhone models going forward.

Apple says it’s not including a charger or earbuds with the iPhone 12 series on environmental grounds; similarly, it didn’t include a charging brick with this year’s Apple Watch models. The company says the move means it has to consume fewer raw materials for each iPhone sold. It also allows for a smaller retail box, which means 70 percent more units can fit on a single shipping pallet and reduce carbon emissions. Overall, Apple estimates the changes will cut over 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, the equivalent of removing 450,000 cars from the road each year.

When Lisa Jackson showed these numbers during last week’s Apple Event, they illustrated to me the scale of Apple’s decisions — even the smallest ones. Simply not including chargers and headphones in a box where they may sit unused is, truly, a large environmental benefit. But not everyone who buys an iPhone from now on can be assumed to have their own wall adapter or headphones.

Julian Chokkattu, Wired:

Sara Behdad, a sustainability researcher at the University of Florida, agrees. “Apple’s analysis is based on this impression that some users really don’t need chargers and EarPods, because they already have them. Some users don’t. Then they have to purchase them, and that requires packaging and extra transportation.”

The relationship between a charger and an iPhone isn’t necessarily one-to-one, either. Behdad says she’s used more chargers than the number of phones she’s owned. While this is anecdotal, and Behdad says there need to be surveys and more research to make any conclusive statements, it’s quite possible people will buy more than one charger from Apple or other accessory makers.

This is all true, but it is unclear how many more sets of EarPods and wall adapters will actually be sold. I do not think every person who will buy a new iPhone will also buy both accessories; but, I am also sure that some of the people who buy a new iPhone will buy one of the accessories. It is not clear if that factored into Apple’s calculations, but it also does not make sense to assume that all or even most customers will buy replacement accessories.

And, if we’re speaking anecdotally, my ratio between box-included items and devices is far in favour of Apple’s change. I just checked my iPhone X box and its wall adapter and Lightning cable are both sitting neatly as they were when it left the factory. I gave the headphones away.

Matt Birchler:

[…] I’ve talked to a few “normal people” about the new iPhones and in my small sample size, no one is buying the environmental argument. I think Apple genuinely wants to do better with the environment, and this move likely comes from a good place, but I don’t think they went far enough to convince folks that the reason is anything more than penny pinching.

[…]

When someone buys an iPhone from Apple (in-person or online), they should be prompted to get a free USB-C charging brick as well. Not the same $19 it is after the fact, and not a reduced price of $9 or something, free. This is an essential step in making it not look like a cash grab.

I do not mean to single out Birchler here. I have seen lots of people make the same suggestion but I think Birchler articulates this entire issue very well in his article.

The problem I see with this is that many people will add one to their order “just in case”. It is like when a fast food place puts a napkin dispenser out in the open and people take a whole stack back to their table. If, however, the napkins are provided from behind the counter, people often take less. Yes, it sometimes means that you will have to ask for more, but it is better than wasting many.

I think people understand the urgency with which the Earth’s environment needs protecting, but are unwilling to make significant changes to make that happen. Again, I am not directing this at Birchler at all. This is something Apple desperately wants to believe, and quotes Jackson on its environment marketing page:

To protect the planet, we must show others that impossible can be business as usual.

The message here is basically you don’t have to change your habits and expectations to reduce humanity’s impact on the planet, and I think that sets the wrong tone. If you need a charging brick now, you’ll have to spend some money, and that might cause you to think twice about whether you actually need that brick.

It’s more complicated for the headphones. You’ll think about spending your money on a pair of EarPods, but then you might start thinking about buying a set of AirPods instead. AirPods have a more-or-less fixed lifespan dependent on how the battery holds up, and they cannot be repaired. But, now, the question is whether you would have bought that set of AirPods without being prompted by the lack of headphones in the box — if you would have, then including headphones would have created environmental waste, too.

The takeaway here is the same as every environmental story: you should buy only what you really need; in a distant second place, you should reuse what you already have; and in third place, very far behind, you should recycle what you must get rid of. But we only really achieve gains when we reduce consumption and — not one of the three r’s, but it ought to be — regulate environmental impact to a more stringent degree.

Apple Begins Taking Pre-Orders for the New iPad Air

I thought it was a little odd that the new iPad Air wasn’t mentioned at all during Apple’s event earlier this week despite the company promising a month ago that it would ship in October. As rumoured, it is now available for pre-order. It’s a tempting product — truly a great midrange offering if you are not desperate for iPad Pro features.

Speaking of the event this week, we can now see the wide range of colours Apple is working with. Once upon a time, it tried to match many its product colours across lineups — the gold MacBook was pretty much the same colour as the gold Apple Watch and the gold iPhone of the time. That is not the case these days. iPhones and aluminum Apple Watches have rich colours reminiscent of iPods, while Macs and iPads have more muted hues. I don’t really have a point here, other than it is something I noticed. You are welcome.

The 2020 Gadget Boom

While I’m linking to the New York Times, here’s a poignant essay from John Herrman:

The pandemic gadget boom is a story of both new needs fulfilled and old desires restored. Buying noise canceling headphones is, of course, a consumerist treat, setting aside the new circumstances that made them feel necessary — the construction downstairs, the baby 20 feet away, the spouse simultaneously trapped in a video meeting. You can feel the faintest muscle memory activate when you comparison shop for a gadget of a type you’ve never purchased before, even if that gadget is — judging by back orders and top listings on Amazon as the winter creeps closer — a S.A.D. lamp or an outdoor radiator.

This gadget boom will end like every other — with a bunch of little-used and rapidly obsolete junk stowed away in closets and landfills around the globe — but it won’t inspire much nostalgia. This isn’t spontaneous mass hobbyism or a slide into decadence. It’s a cornered populace spending what they can in hopes that some novel invention will stave off disaster, or even just gloom.

With writing this good, how does one not read the whole thing?

Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation

Emily Bazelon, in a comprehensive piece for the New York Times Magazine:

The conspiracy theories, the lies, the distortions, the overwhelming amount of information, the anger encoded in it — these all serve to create chaos and confusion and make people, even nonpartisans, exhausted, skeptical and cynical about politics. The spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas. Its goal is to prevent the actual battle from being fought, by causing us to simply give up. And the problem isn’t just the internet. A working paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released early this month found that effective disinformation campaigns are often an “elite-driven, mass-media led process” in which “social media played only a secondary and supportive role.” Trump’s election put him in the position to operate directly through Fox News and other conservative media outlets, like Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio show, which have come to function “in effect as a party press,” the Harvard researchers found.

It’s an article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible. But increasingly, scholars of constitutional law, as well as social scientists, are beginning to question the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They think our formulations are simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era. Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes. But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.

This concern spans the ideological spectrum. Along with disinformation campaigns, there is the separate problem of “troll armies” — a flood of commenters, often propelled by bots — that “aim to discredit or to destroy the reputation of disfavored speakers and to discourage them from speaking again,” Jack Goldsmith, a conservative law professor at Harvard, writes in an essay in “The Perilous Public Square,” a book edited by David E. Pozen that was published this year. This tactic, too, may be directed by those in power. Either way, it’s often grimly effective at muting critical voices. And yet as Tim Wu, a progressive law professor at Columbia, points out in the same book, the “use of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with.”

These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.

This story is not a response to Facebook and Twitter’s decision to restrict the reach of a tabloid article. It was published the day before all of that unfolded. But, I would argue, the myriad issues it raises are more worrying than the singular concern of heavy-handed moderation by social media companies. And because most of the platforms most of us use most of the time are based in the United States and are subject to the country’s laws and regulations — or lack thereof — these are topics worthy of international attention.

When You Browse Instagram and Find Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Passport Number

I saved this to Pinboard a few weeks ago when it was being shared pretty widely, but did not have a chance to read it until last night. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you also have not read it yet, so you should know that there is a section of this post titled “And then Tony Abbott just… calls me on the phone?” and if that doesn’t get your attention I am not sure what will. This is one of my favourite things that I have read all year.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai Engages in Some Meaningless CDA Section 230 Bootlicking

Bear with me because this gets into the weeds a bit before you’ll get to the headline topic. Skip to the block quotes if you are already caught up on your Fox News shibboleths.

Yesterday, the New York Post published an extremely suspect story about alleged impropriety by Joe Biden and his son Hunter while the latter was working for Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company — something all parties deny. This is something the Republican Party has been desperate to create a scandal from despite their own investigation finding no misconduct by either Biden. The Post sourced its claims, via Rudy Giuliani, from emails and photos ostensibly taken from a laptop Hunter had taken in for service. Then, several hours after the Post published its story, Facebook decided to limit its spread, while Twitter opted to block links to it. And now it has become a whole thing.

There are many interesting questions that we can probe in the meta-story around this article. For example, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had concerns that hacked emails from Burisma would be combined with forged or edited ones — a tactic Russian intelligence has used before. The Washington Post reports that Giuliani was a target for spreading false information. There is evidence that the Post’s story is based on false information designed to sway the U.S. election in a manner reminiscent of other Russian disinformation campaigns. In fact, this whole saga is awfully familiar: leaked emails, Russian hacking. Didn’t we already do this? I want to bash my head into my desk.

The difference this time around is that Facebook and Twitter are intervening to slow the story’s spread. Is that right? If this is, indeed, an attempt at interference in the election, you may argue that this is a good thing — or is, at least, understandable. It is an unusually strong stance from Facebook and Twitter on a specific story. That has made it a rough day or two from a public relations perspective, as some people see it as censorship or tilting the scales. But one thing is for sure: it is completely legal. And members of the Republican party desperately want to change that.

Siobhan Hughes, Wall Street Journal:

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to issue a subpoena on Tuesday to Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey after the social-media company blocked a pair of New York Post articles that made new allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is backing President Donald Trump’s proposal to limit legal protections for social media websites that block or modify content posted by users. Pai’s views on the matter were unknown until today when he issued a statement saying that he will open a rule-making process to clarify that the First Amendment does not give social media companies “special immunity.”

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

For years, FCC Chair Ajit Pai has insisted that the thing that was most important to him was to have a “light touch” regulatory regime regarding the internet. He insisted that net neutrality (which put in place a few limited rules to make sure internet access was fair) was clearly a bridge too far, and had to be wiped out or it would destroy investment into internet infrastructure (he was wrong about that). But now that Section 230 is under attack, he’s apparently done a complete reversal. He is now happy to open a proceeding to reinterpret Section 230 to place a regulatory burden on the internet. This is because Ajit Pai is a hypocrite with no backbone, and no willingness to stand up to a grandstanding President.

[…]

Pai is wrong in almost everything he says above. The FCC has no jurisdiction over internet websites. Previous lawsuits have already held that. Furthermore, the FCC has no jurisdiction over Section 230, which was explicitly written to deny the FCC any authority over websites. The FCC has no power to reinterpret the law.

If you think Facebook or Twitter ought not to have moderated the New York Post story, that is a fair point of view. If, however, you believe their moderation decision should be illegal, the problem you have is not with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it is with the First Amendment.

Years of U.S. case law have upheld that businesses are free to deny service to whomever they choose, with exceptions made for cases of discrimination. Twitter has no obligation to host links to that Post story any more than it has an obligation to host spam or your account.

Perhaps your dispute with this action is that heavy-handed moderation by large social media companies is effectively a tool of silencing and censorship. But I would strongly disagree with that: the Post is widely circulated, there are many other venues online, and it is still possible to discuss it on Facebook and Twitter without linking to it. But even if that were true, your problem would be with the scale of both companies, not with Section 230 as written or interpreted.

Nothing about these moderation decisions have anything to do with CDA Section 230. Promises to investigate Facebook and Twitter because they made it harder to spread a link are a gigantic waste of time. It is perhaps worth discussing ways in which Section 230 can be clarified or reworked, but it is not something Pai or the FCC has any control over, nor is it relevant to anything these ostensibly light-regulation “small government” conservatives want to achieve.

This is all so very stupid.

Point Person

Allow me to gratuitously self-quote:

Yet, one of the drawbacks of a golden era Steve Jobs keynote — from, say, 2005 through 2008 or so — is that it maximized Jobs’ presence at the expense of the thousands of people involved in creating a product or service. Sure, you would occasionally hear from Phil Schiller, Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and others, but there was a gravity around Jobs that made it hard for others to get as much attention.

I thought this, from Riccardo Mori, was a good counterpoint:

This is possibly the first Apple event and product introduction where I truly felt the absence of Jonathan Ive. Sure, there’s a lot of him in the new iPhones, in the sense that they’re patchworks of a few of Ive’s ideas and designs. What I mean by feeling his absence is that, while I know there are hard-working teams of expert people who are capable of putting a new iPhone together, now I ask myself, Who designed this? Who’s the designer responsible for this concept and execution?

My criticism of having only a few executives presenting the work of thousands of people is, I think, still fair, but so is its flip side: a greater number of presenters makes it harder to get an impression of who is directing these products. That is particularly true of product design. I like the new iPhones — I will have to wait until one is in my hands, but I think they might edge out the iPhone 5 and 5S as my favourite iteration of the product’s industrial design. But I do not have any sense of a single person who guided the line’s development. I don’t know that it is necessary to know the people behind the products to get an impression of whether they have been skilfully designed — I could not name anyone who worked on my camera or my watches, any of which I consider excellent examples of design and quality — but it does feel a little less complete.

Update: The head of Apple’s industrial design team is Evans Hankey, which makes her the point person on this project. I stupidly forgot about this year-old change to the design teams. It is, however, odd to me that neither Hankey nor Alan Dye, who heads software design, have bios on Apple’s leadership page. For a company that prides itself on its design and quality, it seems like they should be more identifiable.

5G Is Still Mostly Made of Unwarranted Hype

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

Except I’m not baffled, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. US carriers, Qualcomm, and phone manufacturers have all collaborated (one might say colluded) to drive a huge cycle of hype for 5G. They’ve promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and rural broadband for all. Some of those promises will come to pass, but the plain truth is that the networks aren’t anywhere close to ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest evidence of the gap between hype and reality.

We always give the same advice when reviewing a phone: don’t buy something today in the hopes of future updates making it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that bugs will be truly addressed come to nothing.

For 5G, that advice still holds — but there is some nuance to it. I don’t think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you already were looking at has 5G, go for it.

The things from yesterday’s Apple event that have left a bad taste in my mouth have everything to do with its buy-in to carriers’ marketing and hype machine. That includes stuff like the misleading minimum pricing in the United States of iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Mini models over a gimmicky “instant discount” of just thirty dollars. It includes the arduous time given to Verizon’s CEO. And, yes, it includes the long segments devoted to promises of life-changing advancements enabled by 5G networks.

For readers of websites like this one, it is probably not news to you that the hype around 5G is largely unwarranted — so far, at least. But Apple events have become general audience infomercials, and I would not be surprised if many people fully and unfairly bought into 5G’s marketing after watching this week’s presentation.

Discourse Moves From a Paid Email Newsletter to a ‘Web Site’

Here’s a story that pairs nicely with that New York Times trend piece from a few weeks back about the rise of paid email newsletters. Discourse — which was started after the private equity geniuses that own Gizmodo Media Group decided, one year before the coming U.S. presidential election, to shut down Splinter, the organization’s news and politics vertical — has moved off Substack and onto something called a “web site”.

Jack Mirkinson and Aleksander Chan:

We weren’t contemplating this kind of move. Substack was a good home for us. We were growing steadily. We simply didn’t think that creating our own custom website was on the cards anytime soon. It felt so… big.

But when the folks at Lede, including Alley and Pico, said they wanted to develop a new site with us, it was easy to say yes. Here was a chance to truly bet on ourselves — to throw caution to the wind and run towards our dream of a long-term, independent, worker-owned outlet. Even more importantly, it was a chance to bring you the kind of website that you deserve — one that is more editorially ambitious, visually interesting, technologically sophisticated, and community-focused than anything we could have done in our previous incarnations.

This happens to be the same technology stack used by Defector, the recently-launched home for castaways of Deadspin, Gizmodo Media Group’s sports vertical that the same private equity geniuses decided to meddle with despite its popularity and profitability. Like the previous newsletter-based format, the new website is primarily a paid subscription offering, but some posts will be made available for free, as will a weekly email newsletter.

Subprime Day

Brian Feldman:

Many would, understandably, see Prime Day as some sort of Black Friday-esque sales bonanza. A chance to get steals and deals on top-quality products. This is wrong. Or at least, it has not held true for the last three or four Prime Days. The vast majority of Prime Day inventory is absolute shit. Granted, I haven’t scanned all of the deals, but I did check some of the categories I’m interested in, such as “Electronics” and “Video Games” and it’s all chintzy third-party accessories. How many different types of light-up keyboard do you think exist in the world? Amazon has at least twice as many as the number you came up with. Which of the 800 different $19 dish racks should I settle on? Need a pair of terrible earbuds that will crap out in two or three months? Amazon has you covered.

Amazon’s ethical failures, especially this year, are worrying enough that I imagine many people will have thought twice about buying anything from the company yesterday or today. But, should you need another reason, consider the bargain bin trash that Amazon is desperate to unload. One wonders about the environmental cost of producing, shipping, and warehousing these kinds of products.

New iPhone Day 2020

This year’s iPhone announcements were special for me because it is the first time since 2017 that I know I will be buying a new phone. My partner’s 6S has some sort of circuit fault that discharges batteries extremely quickly, so she will be getting my iPhone X — and I will be getting, well, something announced today. But it is not easy because, more than ever, it feels like there is some compromise at every level. That is not a criticism, only an observation based on my priorities.

But we will get to that.

The Event Itself

I do not wish to make light of this harrowing pandemic, but the more I see Apple’s new presentation format, the more I like it. The nostalgic soul in me pines for the Stevenote era because he was one of the best public speakers in modern corporate history. Yet, one of the drawbacks of a golden era Steve Jobs keynote — from, say, 2005 through 2008 or so — is that it maximized Jobs’ presence at the expense of the thousands of people involved in creating a product or service. Sure, you would occasionally hear from Phil Schiller, Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and others, but there was a gravity around Jobs that made it hard for others to get as much attention.

The Tim Cook era Apple has distributed presentations amongst greater numbers of executives, managers, and marketing types, but I do not think it has ever been as effective as it is in the videos they have been forced to create as a result of this pandemic. We get to hear from even more people who were involved in creating these products — and likely more than a live theatrical production could handle. There are logistical reasons for not handing off the presenter role every few minutes in a live setting, and there are also many people who simply are not comfortable in a live broadcast setting with an audience.

As many observers have pointed out, it is also a far more diverse group of presenters. Apple really does pick presenters who are intimately familiar with a technology because they worked on it. I am enjoying hearing more from these voices in addition to the usual suspects on the executive team.

Today’s presentation did have its lulls. The iPhone 12 lineup supports 5G — more on that in a minute — so not only did Apple explain at multiple points how revolutionary 5G is supposed to be, an executive from Verizon appeared to help explain how revolutionary 5G is supposed to be with the help of Verizon. There was also a demo of a new iPhone version of “League of Legends”, so we really hit the Apple keynote jackpot today.

I wonder what Verizon did to deserve such prominent placement during today’s keynote. It has been a very long time since Apple has donated several minutes of valuable iPhone-adjacent air space to a carrier, or a technical partner of any kind. But, like the September keynote, this stream clocked in at a few minutes over one hour long, so it isn’t like those moments pushed live audiences to some kind of bladder breaking point.

5G

As I have written for years now, the way 5G is being sold to the public is wildly disproportionate to the actual day-to-day impact it will have on most of us most of the time. At the moment, 5G is largely a useful buzzword for when you want billions of dollars in tax breaks, a shortcut for newspapers to seem more technologically advanced, and a way to eat up phone batteries at speeds slower than LTE.

But that surely does not have to be the case. One reason speeds are so slow right now is because faster 5G waves require users to be in closer proximity to cell towers and, so far, the infrastructure coverage is weaker than for LTE in the United States. But what if a company starts shipping a whole bunch of the most popular smartphone model in that country? That may spur a wave of adoption that effectively requires cell carriers to build out infrastructure more quickly. Outside of the U.S. and with many different 5G frequencies used worldwide, the situation surely differs. I am interested to know what it is like in Calgary, for example. When Apple gets behind a technology, though, it tends to push the industry as a whole.

5G radios also require more power, but Apple is being clever there as well. The iPhone 12 models are usually using LTE but will ramp up to 5G when it is necessary. That seems like an adept way to balance speed and battery life.

But, oh boy, did Apple sell 5G hard during today’s presentation, to points where I think they overstepped.

For example, before either iPhone was unveiled, Tim Cook spoke generally about 5G. One of the things that caught my ear was his claim that it “helps protect your privacy and security” because it is so fast that you are less likely to connect to insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. There is some truth to that statement, but it sounds an awful lot like spin. Public Wi-Fi, at least where I am, is often slower than LTE, so it isn’t a compromise of privacy for speed. A Wi-Fi hotspot is appealing because carriers in many countries have monthly data allowances on their plans, so connecting to Wi-Fi avoids expensive overage charges.1

Then, during the introduction of the iPhone 12 Pro, Greg Joswiak said that doctors will be able to download scans faster, and implied that 5G could make the difference between life and death. This is probably true in some circumstances, but it is a wild claim to drop during an iPhone keynote. There are many cases where having faster network speeds is simply a nicer and better experience for most customers, and I found the dive into a possible life-saving realm of 5G to be more distracting than convincing.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro Lineups

The thing that is hard about this year’s iPhone lineup is that they are hard to choose between for both the ways that they overlap and the ways that they differ.

The best news this year, from a basic hardware standpoint, is that Apple has resurrected the iPhone 5-like flat sided form factor and mixed it with the glass sandwich of the iPhone 4 and recent iPhone models. That hardware design language has always been my favourite for its in-hand stability and precision, and I am glad to see it brought back and modernized. It is basically the same design across the lineup, with the iPhone 12 getting an aluminum chassis and the Pro models sporting stainless steel.

The processor is also the pitched as being the same on all models — though benchmarking experts will tell us the extent to which they are equivalent. They all have the same Ceramic Shield cover glass, which, Apple says improves the likelihood it will survive a drop by four times, they all have OLED displays, they all have MagSafe — another blast from the past — and they all support 5G. These phones are, in many ways, the same.

As I wrote above, I am upgrading from an iPhone X, so there is a lot that will be new to me and I am not a great resource for year-over-year comparisons. But I do know what I like and use on this phone. I prefer a smaller form factor, so the iPhone 12 Mini caught my attention in a big way. But, though I am excited by the prospects of a wide angle lens, I use the telephoto lens on my current iPhone to know that I do not want to be without it. The telephoto is only available on the Pro models, so I will naturally be guided to them.

But there’s a big catch here, which is that the cameras in the iPhone 12 Pro Max are no longer consistent with those in the smaller Pro model. Across the lineup, most of the camera changes this year seem to be in software rather than lenses or sensors. The situation is not so simple with the Pro Max, as Sebastiaan de With explains:

In addition to a better lens, the 12 Pro Max has the room to pack a new, 47% larger sensor. That means bigger pixels, and bigger pixels that capture more light simply means better photos. More detail in the day, more light at night. That combines with the lens to result in almost twice as much light captured: Apple claims an 87% improvement in light capture from the 11 Pro. That’s huge.

But that’s not its only trick: the 12 Pro Max’s Wide system also gets a new sensor-shift OIS system. OIS, or Optical Image Stabilization, lets your iPhone move the camera around a bit to compensate for your decidedly unsteady human trembly hands. That results in smoother video captures and sharp shots at night, when the iPhone has to take in light over a longer amount of time.

These appear to be big improvements to the camera and they are, frustratingly, only on the biggest iPhone model. That makes complete sense from an engineering perspective and I do not think Apple should restrict the camera of the bigger model because it no longer has parity with its smaller sibling.

But, damn, that makes this a pretty difficult choice. If I want the best camera on an iPhone this year, I have to live with a size I find harder to use day-to-day; if I want to get the size that works best for me, I have to sacrifice a camera mode I use most. But, as choices go, I could just stick with the middle-ground option.2 That seems like a sensible compromise all around, but I do hope that sensor-based stabilization system comes to smaller iPhones by the time I am ready to buy another.


  1. American carriers are not immune to this. Verizon, a company that received a generous amount of prime keynote time, has several “unlimited” plans for you to choose from. One immediately wonders why a range of choices is needed for plans that are “unlimited”, and it is because there are several limitations on those plans. I, too, wish for words to have agreed-upon definitions. ↩︎

  2. When I was in college, I used to work at a coffee shop that offered only small and large sizes. Most of the time, when someone ordered coffee and I had to ask which size they wanted, they would answer “medium”. I guess, in a good, better, best situation, people generally choose “better”. ↩︎

University of Michigan Study Indicates Effect of Stay-At-Home Orders on Noise Exposure

The University of Michigan:

Researchers at U-M’s School of Public Health and Apple Inc. looked at noise exposure data from volunteer Apple Watch users in Florida, New York, California and Texas. The analysis, one of the largest to date, included more than a half million daily noise levels measured before and during the pandemic.

Daily average sound levels dropped approximately 3 decibels during the time that local governments made announcements about social distancing and issued stay-at-home orders in March and April, compared to January and February.

“That is a huge reduction in terms of exposure and it could have a great effect on people’s overall health outcomes over time,” said Rick Neitzel, associate professor of environmental health sciences at U-M’s School of Public Health. “The analysis demonstrates the utility of everyday use of digital devices in evaluating daily behaviors and exposures.”

Via Om Malik:

Humans aren’t the only one who are impacted by noise and resulting stress. “Birds sing louder in noisy environments, and research has shown the resulting stress can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms,” reports Science Mag. “Noise can also keep them from hearing their own chicks—or the warnings of fellow birds; it may even be driving down bird diversity in many cities.” The pandemic saw bird songs become softer and fewer fights breaking out among males.

But back to humans. Not surprisingly, California and New York had drastic reductions quite fast. Florida and Texas, not as much.

One problem with the study is that it required that participants spoke English, had an iPhone 6s or later, and an Apple Watch Series 4 or later. That demographic profile skews towards a more affluent, white-collar worker who has the luxury of being at home and is less exposed to noise on the roads. It was clear during the early parts of the pandemic, and the impact was uneven. A large swathe of minority and lower-income populations in the US suffered inordinately during the pandemic. Many, if not most, didn’t have the luxury of working from home.

In local news, Calgary Police say they received more noise complaints than usual this year for loud vehicles. I live near many arterial roads and this summer felt noisier than usual as far as cars and motorcycles go, but I don’t know whether that’s because cars are getting louder, everything else was quieter, or there were more assholes on the road.

Seven Countries Jointly Issue Statement Calling for Encryption Back Doors

The heads of law enforcement agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have once again jointly issued a statement calling for back doors in encryption. India and Japan also signed it, but not the Ministry of Home Affairs in India or the National Public Safety Commission in Japan — just “India” and “Japan”. I’m linking to the one posted on the Canadian government’s website because it is my patriotic duty, or whatever, but all of them say the same thing. For example, they all open with the same lie:

We, the undersigned, support strong encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security. It also serves a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people, as stated in the 2017 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. Encryption is an existential anchor of trust in the digital world and we do not support counter-productive and dangerous approaches that would materially weaken or limit security systems.

“We … support strong encryption” is about to become a nonsense phrase, as you read on to discover that, yes, of course they want a way to decrypt otherwise strong encryption at their demand and whim:

We urge industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content. We call on technology companies to work with governments to take the following steps, focused on reasonable, technically feasible solutions:

[…]

  • Enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format where an authorisation is lawfully issued, is necessary and proportionate, and is subject to strong safeguards and oversight; […]

It will not surprise you to learn that there are no proposals for how strong encryption is supposed to be implemented in such a way that would allow law enforcement access to its data in unencrypted form while keeping out unlawful requests, authoritarian regimes, or criminals. Nor is it clear whether these governments believe it should be illegal to produce or distribute encryption mechanisms that do not have an official back door.

This statement understandably cites the exploitation of children as a rationale for law enforcement access. However, it is worth pointing out that many abusers have been arrested and charged even while using strong encryption. The CBC produced a podcast called “Hunting Warhead” about one such case. Attempting to hide illegal activity using encryption is not solely reserved for child abusers — just last week, several terrorists were arrested in the United States for plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. They used several encrypted messaging clients, but the FBI had informants that were in those group chats.

If you are reading this website, it is safe to say that you are more technically literate than the average person and probably know a lot of this stuff already. What I am trying to get at is that it is not sufficient for seven countries’ governments — or seventy, or a hundred and seventy — to say that they demand access to encrypted data under lawful order while ensuring its safety at all other times. They must produce a proposal for how that can be done. Otherwise, this is nothing more than a public relations campaign intended to sway mass opinion in opposition to encryption.

Back when Apple was opposing the creation of a back door for the iPhone used by one of the attackers in San Bernardino, I distinctly remember an acquaintance demanding that Apple put a special law enforcement-only key in all iPhones. Not wanting to be the subject of an xkcd strip, I did not comment. But I think it is necessary for those who understand the technical impossibility of these demands to explain them in simple terms so that more people see why this is not feasible without undermining encryption overall.

Apple Shares More Details About Its A14 Processor

In this piece published on the eve of the introduction of a slew of new iPhones, Chris Velazco of Engadget discussed the new A14 processor with Apple’s Tim Millet and Tom Boger:

“We saw the opportunity to do things that would have been impossible to do with a conventional CPU instruction set,” Millet said. “You could in theory do many of the things the Neural Engine does on a GPU, but you can’t do it inside of a tight, thermally constrained enclosure.”

And that’s a nice segue to the other half of the answer, which is that Apple had to balance sheer horsepower with efficiency. After all, there’s no point in making sure the horses run fast if they tire out too soon.

“We try to focus on energy efficiency, because that applies to every product that we build,” said Millet. By making that a fundamental focus of its chip designs, Apple doesn’t have to worry about a situation in which it “focused on energy efficiency for the phone [in a way] that’s not going to work in an iPad Air. Of course it’s going to work.”

The A14 is, so far, exclusive to the iPad Air, though Velazco states as a fact that it is coming to the new iPhones and that they will be introduced tomorrow. We all sort of assumed that, but it is notable that Apple seemingly confirmed it. It is also interesting that the embargo on this piece lifted twenty four hours before those phones are to be announced.

There are a handful of new details that Millet and Boger share, but the quotes above stood out to me. Neither would confirm any specifics about Apple’s plans for Macs built on its own chips, but the above teases some tantalizing prospects for balancing energy efficiency and performance. The iPad has long supported some incredibly performative apps; just imagine what is possible when you allow for the possibility of a fan and the full depth of MacOS.

Four Million Canadians Have Installed the National COVID Alert App

The app works in seven Canadian provinces and is close to launching in Nova Scotia. But in British Columbia and Alberta, where I live, there is no projected timeframe for launch. Digital tracing tools are just one of many ways to understand and, hopefully, control the spread of this novel coronavirus strain, but they are a tool. It is truly absurd that Alberta and B.C. continue to promote cobbled-together apps that require location services to be enabled and for iOS users to stop their phones from sleeping.

The New York Times Reviews ‘The Tangled Web We Weave’

Margaret O’Mara, New York Times:

Fast-forward five decades, and Big Tech is eating the world. During this year of pandemic and protest, the combined value of the American tech sector has topped that of the entire European stock market, and the products of its five biggest companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — become ever more inescapable features of life and work. Severe market consolidation has prompted increasingly vigorous bipartisan calls to rein in the excesses of the companies built on the internet. Regulation is essential, lawmakers argue, both to restore fairness to the online economy and to protect democracy itself.

Without letting Silicon Valley giants off the hook, James Ball argues that the fix is not so simple. The problem isn’t just the business practices of a few companies, he explains in his nimble and persuasive new book, “The Tangled Web We Weave.” It is the entire system.

This is a short review — the book appears pretty concise anyhow — but this is another addition to my reading list.