Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2020

Following Tradition, Ajit Pai Will Leave the FCC on January 20

Sara Morrison, Recode:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai has announced that he will leave the agency on January 20, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president. This gives Biden at least one commissioner slot to fill on his first day in office and, should that choice be confirmed, a Democrat majority to fulfill his vision of what the FCC should be and do for the next four years.

You know what pairs well with novelty-sized coffee mugs? Tiny violins.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

Pai’s tenure wasn’t entirely devoid of value. The agency boss did oversee massive and noncontroversial wireless spectrum auction efforts that will deliver troves of valuable spectrum to market, and spearheaded the creation of the nation’s first suicide prevention hotline (988).

But by and large Pai’s tenure was comprised of a parade of industry-cozy policies, bad data, hubris, and in many instances, outright lies.

I have no doubt Pai will be able to find a cushy job beginning January 21 in the industry he was supposed to regulate. After all, that’s the very job he had before he joined the FCC.

AirPlay Frustrations

AirPlay is a truly wonderful technology. A majority of the time, my Apple TV serves as a music playback device through my receiver and decent stereo speakers. Because the Apple TV’s Music app is pretty terrible, I usually play music on my iPhone or MacBook through AirPlay; playback is virtually flawless.

But getting to the point of playback is often a difficult and cumbersome experience. Manuel Grabowski captures many of the awkward UI moments in this piece, but I will add just a couple more:

  1. My Apple TV was named “Space Portal” for a while, and one of my neighbours has named theirs “Living Room”. There is a delay between when my Apple TV displays in the playback list and when my neighbour’s does, and the list sorts alphabetically, so it was not uncommon for “Space Portal” to shift down one cell in the time between me moving my thumb towards the screen and it actually making contact.

    After a while, I changed my Apple TV’s name to “Apple TV” — just in time for the AirPlay menu to be redesigned in iOS 14.2 to load from the bottom up instead of the top down. So now, sometimes, I will go to tap “Apple TV” and find that its cell has shifted up and the cell has been replaced my neighbour’s.

    This seems to be an unwinnable game.

  2. I don’t know what the timeout is for AirPlay if you pause music playback on your iPhone, but it does not appear to be very long. It is even shorter for third-party apps like Overcast. So, very frequently, I will pause my iPhone’s music playback to, say, watch some YouTube clip with audio on my laptop; by the time the clip has finished and I wish to resume playback, I must turn AirPlay back on. (See above.)

    For whatever reason, AirPlay does not resume at the same volume on the same device. I know it’s just one extra slider that I must change, but it interrupts the magical experience. Instead of being able to simply pick my Apple TV — the only thing I have ever AirPlayed to — and have music playing in an instant, I must manually select the Apple TV I was just using before briefly pausing playback, then turn the volume back to the way it was just moments before.

These are admittedly minor complaints, but it makes something so simple feel more complex and difficult and unfinished than it needs to be. AirPlay, as a technology, is great. But AirPlay, as an action, is bumbling and confused.

The Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster Merger Is About Amazon

Sarah Whitten, CNBC:

ViacomCBS announced Wednesday that it would sell publishing company Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, in a deal worth nearly $2.18 billion

The transaction is expected to close in 2021.

Franklin Foer, the Atlantic:

But this merger is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context — and that context is Amazon. The rise of Amazon accelerated the demise of Borders and the diminishment of Barnes & Noble. If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.

In the face of Amazon’s dominance, book publishers have huddled together in search of safety. Amazon’s size gives it terrifying leverage over the industry. Amazon, with its heavily visited home page, its emails to consumers, and its control of the search box on its site, has the power to make or break a title. To counter Amazon, publishers have sought to increase their bargaining power. They believe that they can match Amazon’s size only by growing their own.

When the government intervenes in a market, its actions are never neutral. One of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration was the 2012 suit it brought against book publishers for working in concert to cut an e-book deal with Apple. The issue is not that the publishers were acting virtuously: They behaved like a cartel, which is illegal. It’s that the publishers were hardly the worst offenders. The government flogged the publishers for a technical violation of antitrust laws rather than constraining the most egregious monopolist, in spirit if not in letter.

Many of the American mergers and acquisitions completed under the Obama administration rank among the largest in history: Dow Chemical bought DuPont, Charter bought Time Warner Cable, Pfizer bought Wyteth, Verizon bought Vodafone, Heinz bought Kraft, and Comcast bought NBCUniversal. The scarcity of intervention in all of these mergers remains a stain on that administration’s legacy, as does its failure to act on Amazon’s control over the e-book market.

Several years and many more mammoth acquisitions in all market sectors later, the outgoing Trump administration and incoming Biden one have the opportunity to intercede in this clearly monopolistic play, as well as taking another look at Amazon’s business. I hope they do. The U.S. remains by far the world’s largest market for books and, so, has the unique responsibility of ensuring that the rest of the world is not subjected to its inaction.

Adam Banks, Former Editor and Creative Director of MacUser Magazine, Has Died

Craig Grannell:

I heard last night that my friend and sometimes colleague Adam Banks had passed away. Maybe a week ago, I swapped some silly tweets with him about PETSCII art. (He and I were both C64 kids.) I last talked with him… I don’t know, but it was too long ago. Time is weird: you seem to have so much of it, and then you have none at all.

Don’t miss a short story about a clever September 1997 cover design, as relayed by Ian Betteridge.

Report: U.S. Broadband Performance Nearly Doubled in 2020 Compared to 2019

Fair Internet Report:

American internet users have had a very good 2020: according to research performed by FairInternetReport, median US internet speeds in 2020 doubled to 33.16mbps, up from 17.34mbps in 2019. Covering the five years of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, this is the largest speed increase seen in the US, with speeds staying essentially the same in 2016 and 2017 (8.91mbps and 9.08mbps respectively), and 2018 recording a median speed of 12.83mbps.

The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents. That said, there is cause for celebration in Dallas, Seattle and Austin, after our analysis has shown that these cities are performing extremely well relative to most European capital cities.

I have seen a handful of people arguing that this report singlehandedly disproves the need for net neutrality legislation, so let’s talk about that.

It is an unfortunately common myth that the primary issue of net neutrality is internet speed in pure terms. That has been widely promoted — Twitter still has a #NetNeutrality hashflag marked by a buffering indicator — but it lacks key context. The actual concern is that internet service providers are in a position to influence winners and losers by acting less like the utility providers they are and more like an intermediate market gatekeeper.

But let us pretend that pure measurements of internet speed are what net neutrality protects. This report shows a massive spike in average internet speed — a bigger jump than any previous year. Is that because providers have invested in infrastructure? Capital expenditures were the primary reason Ajit Pai cited for eradicating net neutrality regulations enacted by the previous Tom Wheeler-led FCC. Well, no.

Karl Bode, writing for Techdirt on Friday:

This week, S&P Global took a closer look at U.S. network investment numbers and found, once again, that claims that repealing network neutrality boosted investment to be bullshit. In fact, the firm found that annual investment in fixed U.S. broadband networks is poised to have dropped 7 percent since 2016.

So why would average U.S. internet speeds see such a spike in 2020? Well, many people have been working and learning from home, and that many simultaneous connections are sure to drive many people to upgrade to a faster internet plan. That seems to be supported by recent quarterly earnings reports from major American ISPs. For example, here’s Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg:

In the total Fios, we added 144,000 new Internet net addition. That’s a 5-year high, which is just great work of our Fios with the Mix & Match as well as their offering and the quality we have on Fios. Of course, there were some pent-up demand. But all in all, it also showed the support from our customers for our Fios offering.

Here’s Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts (PDF):

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, […]

I bet they did. Again, the point of net neutrality regulations is not about blanket average internet speeds, but about manipulation by service providers. Speaking of which, I seem to have truncated the quote above. Let’s try that again:

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, and sign-ups for Peacock have grown to nearly 22 million as of today. It is clear that Peacock’s results are enhanced by the placement and distribution it gets through our broadband service, and adding Peacock to broadband is resulting in significant improvement in both churn and gross adds as Peacock is continuously cited as a differentiating factor at the point of sale for Xfinity broadband products.

Comcast has used this position to its advantage by pulling shows from competing streaming services and offers Peacock for free to existing Xfinity subscribers. In a similar move, AT&T owns HBO and does not count data used by HBO Max against users’ limits.

This report does not prove that net neutrality regulations were a waste of time, or that getting rid of them is somehow beneficial. It only shows is that people bought faster internet service when they needed it. Other sources show that the reason for gutting net neutrality in the United States was bunk, and this action produced predictable anticompetitive effects.

‘Your Move, iPad’

Becky Hansmeyer:

[…] So if raw power isn’t enough, and new display tech isn’t enough, where does the iPad go from here? Will it be abandoned once more, lagging behind the Mac in terms of innovation, or will Apple continue to debut its latest tech in this form factor? Is it headed toward functional parity with the Mac or will it always be hamstrung by Apple’s strict App Store policies and seemingly inconsistent investment in iPadOS?

It’s clear that Apple wants the iPad Pro to be a device that a wide variety of professionals can use to get work done. And since so many people use web apps for their work, the introduction of “desktop” Safari for iPad was an important step toward that goal. The Magic Keyboard and trackpad was another step.

Here are ten more steps I believe Apple could and should take to help nudge the iPad into this exciting next era of computing.

Many of the frustrations of Mac users with the iPad — and I count myself among those frustrated users — have nothing to do with power, display quality, battery life, size, or portability. The iPad has trounced the Mac in nearly all of those categories since it was launched, with power and display improvements coming more recently.

The iPad has long been hampered, from the perspective of a frustrated Mac user, by its software model. If you try using an iPad like a Mac, you will have a rough time. On my Mac, for example, I have universal keyboard shortcuts to convert the selected text to a few different capitalization options, all of which rely on scripts running in the background and interaction between apps. On my iPad, I use the wonderful Text Case app that offers an even wider range of text conversion options. But there is no way for me to set a universal keyboard shortcut and, as far as I know, there is no way for the developer to be able to replace text in place. To make a title cased headline, I must select the headline text, tap the Share button, tap the Text Case button, tap the Title Case option to copy it to my clipboard and dismiss Text Case, tap the selected text again to pull up the clipboard menu,1 and then tap Paste to replace the original string with the title cased version. This is only slightly less frustrating if I have a hardware keyboard connected.

So, while I generally agree with Hansmeyer’s suggestions for changes, I have to wonder if these limitations are somehow deliberate, rather than something Apple has yet to change. The touchscreen-oriented interaction model of the iPad necessarily limits its software in some ways, but that does not excuse users’ more egregious workarounds. I find myself reading about the way Federico Viticci makes his iPad work for him, or the way that Jack Wellborn assembled a shortcut for rating songs in Music, and I wonder why these methods must be so convoluted. They are undoubtedly clever, but they also often feel like they are working around outdated limitations to multitasking. So, I have to wonder: is this a way of clearly separating the iPad and the Mac, so users do not attempt to treat one as the other? If so, what is Apple’s long-term strategy?


  1. Or triple-finger tap, a gesture that is somehow even more cumbersome and less discoverable than any of the existing clipboard and undo methods. ↩︎

NYT: After the U.S. Election, Facebook Adjusted Its News Feed to Show News Instead of Hyperpartisan Pablum

Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac, and Sheera Frenkel, New York Times:

In response [to widespread conspiracy myths], the employees proposed an emergency change to the site’s news feed algorithm, which helps determine what more than two billion people see every day. It involved emphasizing the importance of what Facebook calls “news ecosystem quality” scores, or N.E.Q., a secret internal ranking it assigns to news publishers based on signals about the quality of their journalism.

Typically, N.E.Q. scores play a minor role in determining what appears on users’ feeds. But several days after the election, Mr. Zuckerberg agreed to increase the weight that Facebook’s algorithm gave to N.E.Q. scores to make sure authoritative news appeared more prominently, said three people with knowledge of the decision, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.

The change was part of the “break glass” plans Facebook had spent months developing for the aftermath of a contested election. It resulted in a spike in visibility for big, mainstream publishers like CNN, The New York Times and NPR, while posts from highly engaged hyperpartisan pages, such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats, became less visible, the employees said.

I guess my first question is why the hell the quality of the news source is not a primary ranking signal but is instead a minor one. Is it a cynical reason — something to do with more time spent on Facebook arguing with duelling links from the Federalist and Woke Sloth? Is it because, should those rankings become public, it will lead to yet another round of claims that tech companies are uniquely biased against American conservatives, even though anyone can tell Red State is a trash heap without remotely considering its political leanings?

Whatever the case, I’m not sure it was particularly successful. Roose operates a Twitter account with every day’s ten best-performing link posts from U.S. Facebook pages. Here’s the list posted November 2, covering links published two days before the U.S. election:

  1. Fox News

  2. Donald J. Trump

  3. Fox News

  4. The Dodo

  5. Dan Bongino

  6. Franklin Graham

  7. Mark Levin

  8. Robert Reich

  9. Fox & Friends

  10. Donald J. Trump

There is something righteous about a post from the Dodo sitting in amongst this mess. Anyway, here’s the list posted yesterday, covering link posts primarily from Sunday:

  1. Dan Bongino

  2. Occupy Democrats

  3. Daniel D.

  4. Fox News

  5. CNN

  6. CNN

  7. Heather Cox Richardson

  8. Dan Bongino

  9. Franklin Graham

  10. Donald J. Trump

This is not cherry-picking; this list is fairly representative of the last week or so. What I found most notable, in the wake of this Times report, is that Occupy Democrats is sitting just below Dan Bongino on the November 23 list. Wasn’t this move by Facebook designed to reduce the visibility of pages like both of those examples? I see a greater mix of sources in recent lists posted to that account, but I still see plenty of inflammatory bullshit ranking highly.

It seems to me that increasing the power of that quality score might go a long way towards improving the news value of Facebook users’ feeds. Even in its half-baked state, it is too bad that this is apparently a temporary change.

Apple and the Prevention of Forced Uyghur Labour

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post:

Apple lobbyists are trying to weaken a bill aimed at preventing forced labor in China, according to two congressional staffers familiar with the matter, highlighting the clash between its business imperatives and its official stance on human rights.

[…]

The staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many U.S. companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

When I read this story on Friday, I decided to sit on it because I wanted to choose my words very carefully. It became more complicated when, over the weekend, Axios’ China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian posted a series of tweets that raised doubts about the accuracy of Albergotti’s story:

According to sources I have spoken to with knowledge of the matter, this Washington Post story does not accurately characterize Apple’s position on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

It is not accurate to say that Apple’s aim is to water down key provisions of the bill, and it is not accurate to characterize Apple as lobbying against the bill.

In replies to another user, Allen-Ebrahimian added a little more context:

The sources I spoke to are not afraid of legal ramifications and do not have Apple’s best interests at heart. The story is simply not accurate.

[…]

It is correct that representatives from Apple have been speaking to lawmakers.

Allen-Ebrahimian has not elaborated, either on Twitter or Axios. This is a murky subject compounded by the secrecy of supply chains in general and China’s dishonest portrayal of its reprehensible treatment of Uyghurs.

Earlier this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a brutal report spotlighting the use of forced Uyghur labour by suppliers to dozens of companies that are household names. From that report:

China has attracted international condemnation for its network of extrajudicial ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. This report exposes a new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign targeting minority citizens, revealing new evidence that some factories across China are using forced Uyghur labour under a state-sponsored labour transfer scheme that is tainting the global supply chain.

[…]

In December 2017, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook visited one of the company’s contractors — O-Film Technology Co. Ltd (欧菲光科技股份有限公司) — and posted a picture of himself at the company’s Guangzhou factory on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

O-Film manufactured the ‘selfie cameras’ for the iPhone 8 and iPhone X. The company also claims on its website to manufacture camera modules and touchscreen components for a number of other well-known companies including Huawei, Lenovo and Samsung.

Prior to Cook’s visit, between 28 April and 1 May 2017, 700 Uyghurs were reportedly transferred from Lop county, Hotan Prefecture, in Xinjiang to work at a separate O-Film factory in Nanchang, Jiangxi province.

At the time, Apple said that its supply chain audits had not revealed any use of forced labour by imprisoned Uyghurs, and the United States banned the use of parts from O-Film and ten other companies. Apple confirmed that they had audited O-Film three times earlier this year and “found no evidence of any forced labor on Apple production lines”.

I sincerely hope that Allen-Ebrahimian’s sources are right. Forced labour — in general, but especially by those imprisoned for their religious beliefs — is not a public relations problem. It is a crime against human rights. Whatever products we buy, we should have the expectation that the people involved in making it were treated respectfully, compensated fairly, had adequate protection against hazards, and were not employed under duress — at the very least. There is no good excuse to expect anything less.

And, so, I hope that any objections Apple — or any other company or person — has to this bill are because it does not go far enough or that it will not be effective as written. Regulations like these should be in place so that we do not have to research every product’s manufacturer’s supplier’s supplier’s supplier’s suppliers to figure out if it meets a baseline of ethics. We are not that well informed, nor can we be, and we must have rules so that we can never choose to support human rights violations.

Update: For clarity, this stance applies equally to domestic prison labour.

Albertan Government Refuses to Allow Federal Exposure Notification App to Operate in the Province

Carrie Tait, the Globe and Mail:

Alberta’s contact tracing app has been used to track down people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus just 19 times since it launched this spring, revealing another weakness in the province’s strategy to thwart the infection.

Premier Jason Kenney has rejected calls to adopt the federal exposure notification app, insisting the province’s tool is superior because it is folded into Alberta’s contact tracing network. But Alberta’s virus investigators are so overwhelmed by the explosion of COVID-19 that they have stopped contact tracing, save for high-priority cases.

This article was published November 16. In the past week, we have broken our own record for the number of new cases nearly every day. Still, the provincial government has generally refused to implement tighter restrictions on gatherings, mandate mask use, or come up with supports for businesses and their employees so they can temporarily close. Teachers are in classrooms with more students than they could handle if there was not a pandemic, and are not being adequately equipped or supported for the additional measures required. Many businesses and organizations are requiring that employees return to in-person work, albeit while wearing masks in common areas, even for jobs that can be done from home.1

This, despite its claim that this is “our last chance to avoid more restrictive measures”, is where we are at in Alberta. Our premiere won’t allow the federal exposure notification app to function in this province, even though it uses the joint iOS and Android framework, and has stood by its own unreliable tracing app. Instead, as of today, it continues to portray this as a problem that can be helped by washing doorknobs and pet leashes more frequently. I am frustrated — I feel powerless to do anything to help, other than the measures I have already taken — but I am also deeply ashamed to be living in this province. The federal and provincial apps can be run concurrently, too. There is no good reason for this harmful refusal to allow the federal app to work in Alberta, at the very very least.


  1. As with everything I write, these views are my own and do not reflect my employer. I feel extremely lucky to work for an organization with leadership that is sensible and excellent. ↩︎

Finding Small Delights

Monty Hayter, like me, was upgrading from an iPhone X this year and struggled a bit with which model to choose, for pretty much the same reasons. Yes, the 12 Pro Max has a much better camera system, but it is large. The Mini is a little more special because its size is so unique. The ones in the middle are compromises. What to choose?

Oddly enough, it was all the excitement about the M1-based Macs that gave me clarity: I was having a hard time because unlike every other time, what I wanted and was excited about was neither the most practical option nor the top of the line model.

So I’m going with my emotional choice and getting an iPhone 12 mini. It is not the most sensible choice. I will find the size awkward when the time comes to log in to a server and make some urgently needed change. There will be times where I regret not having the 2x lens, or Night Mode portraits.

Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut.

The best products will drive you mad a very small amount of the time, but you put up with it because they are so wonderful elsewise. My camera has a truly terrible lens cap that makes a very loud metallic clang every time it falls off, which is a lot. In a rejection of Fitts’ law, the rotating power switch has the single shooting mode — which is probably the one you want to use most of the time — in the middle between off and continuous. If you cycle through viewfinder display options, you can somehow bring the camera into video mode, a feature I have never willingly used. Its processor sometimes cannot keep up with displaying the correct image, so it will jump from, say, the hundredth shot on the card to the second. But I love it all the same. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

It is odd to talk about electronics this way, isn’t it? The iPhone is a mass-produced object, but it is built with the same attention to detail as something hand-crafted, if not higher. It feels durable, personal, and special. Hayter captures it well: these things may just be objects but, however silly it may seem, they can be truly delightful.

YouTube Ratchets Up Its Ad Display Again

This is at least the second time this year that YouTube has increased its ad density. Over the past couple of years especially, the experience of using Google’s products overall has tanked as it squeezes users’ tolerance for advertising. It is able to do this because there are few true alternatives to Google’s core products.

You can pay Google ten bucks a month for YouTube Premium and get rid of ads, but that is really the only way to comfortably enjoy videos on the world’s most popular video platform. There are virtually no alternatives to YouTube — at least, none with such a huge library of original video.

The App Store ‘Small Business Program’

Apple Developer:

We believe that small businesses are the backbone of our global economy and the beating heart of innovation and opportunity in communities around the world. Launching January 1, 2021, the industry-leading new App Store Small Business Program is designed to accelerate innovation and help propel your small business forward. The program has a reduced commission rate of 15% on paid apps and in-app purchases, so you can invest more resources into your business and continue building the kind of quality apps your customers love.

The reduced rate applies to developers earning less than $1 million per calendar year.

This seems like an obvious and easy win for Apple and developers. According to Sensor Tower’s maybe-somewhat-accurate figures, almost all developers will benefit from this new fee structure yet it will have very little impact on App Store revenue. There are very few things I think of as a finally moment, but it is a mystery to me why it took this long.

Michael Tsai:

I wish it worked more like tax brackets, so that everyone paid 15% on the first $1M. That would help mid-sized developers.

This is the part that is perhaps most confusing. It seems simpler to have a marginal fee structure that resets every January 1. I imagine it would eat into Apple’s earnings more, since the small percentage of companies that generate the vast majority of App Store revenue would also enjoy a 15% rate for their first million dollars in sales every year, but it seems like a more straightforward and fair option overall.

Still, this is a positive change. There have been some fiascos this year — the Hey rejection just before WWDC and last week’s confusion over MacOS app certificates — but it really feels like Apple is firing on all cylinders. The seeds sown over the past decade seem to be bearing much fruit for users and developers alike. That is impressive in any year, and especially so in 2020.

Twitter Has Its Snapchat Stories Clone Because Elliott Management Group Wanted It

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

According to Twitter Director of Design Joshua Harris, the company’s delay to launch Stories was because Twitter was being “methodical in exploring how the format works for people on Twitter.”

That’s not exactly true. Twitter wasn’t years late because it was being careful about Fleets’ development. The reality was that Twitter had prioritized work on its core product over new features.

That’s been changing in recent months, thanks in part to activist investor Elliott Management Group, which took a sizable stake in Twitter earlier this year. It did so with a plan to push the company for more innovation and new executive leadership. (The company later struck a deal to spare Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s ousting, however.)

At the time of Elliott’s campaign, Twitter’s lack of Stories had been referenced as an area where the company had fallen behind social media rivals in terms of innovation.

Why haven’t you duplicated this feature from half a dozen other platforms, already? is a very strange definition of innovation, but it aligns with Elliott’s miserable reputation (via John Siracusa). Regardless of how you feel about Twitter’s take on the stories idea, I am starting to think the name “Fleet” was chosen very deliberately for the definition that can be found on Urban Dictionary.

Why Isn’t Susan Wojcicki Getting Grilled by Congress?

Evelyn Douek, Wired:

There are many important questions that could be asked at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with tech CEOs today regarding their handling of the US 2020 election. Foremost among them should be “Where is Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO?” The election was billed as a major test for social media platforms, but it’s one that YouTube failed weeks before election day. The platform is playing host to, and is an important vector for, spreading false claims of election victory and attempts to delegitimize Biden’s win. YouTube had to have seen it all coming, and it shrugged. That’s YouTube’s fault — but it’s also a result of the success of its broader strategy to keep its head down and let other platforms be the face of the content moderation wars. In general, the media, researchers, and lawmakers have let this strategy work.

Forget misinformation and extremism for a moment — which is a wild sentence, I know. Think how strange it is that Wojcicki has escaped virtually all antitrust scrutiny.

It is impossible to recognize today’s internet without YouTube. It is the video hosting site on the web, to the extent that the company has made it suck to use with no consequences. Five hundred hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. Just about everyone who has an acceptable connection uses YouTube. Yet, despite the huge footprint and power held by YouTube, Wojcicki has never been called before the U.S. Congress on antitrust issues.1

Is that solely because it is owned by Google, and Sundar Pichai has testified? It must be. But if it is an objective to find the best person to testify about these things, it should be the CEO. YouTube is a separate company owned by Google, and Wojcicki is its CEO. She ought to testify.

I also think this, from Douek’s article, is well-put:

This is not a call for a swath of new policies banning any and all false political content (whatever that would mean). In general, I favor intermediate measures like aggressive labelling, de-amplification, and increased friction for users sharing it further. But most of all, I favor platforms taking responsibility for the role they play in our information ecosystem, thinking ahead, being transparent, explaining their content moderation choices, and showing how they have been enforced. Clear policies, announced in advance, are an important part of platform governance: Content moderation must not only be done, but it must be seen to be legitimate and understood.

This is a very good editorial.


  1. YouTube’s power primarily affects Creators — those who earn ad revenue from video views — and advertisers, and that, in turn, affects users. I have always wondered how it is possible that YouTube is the only major general video hosting platform ↩︎

John Gruber’s M1 Mac Review

John Gruber:

Conversely, when niceness hits — or, as in the case of these M1 Macs, exceeds — its mark, there’s no quantifiable number to prove it. You just know it when you see, feel, and hear it. (Or in the case of the M1 Macs’ cooling systems, don’t hear it.) Apple knows this. The most telling moment during the M1 keynote was in Craig Federighi’s segment, about 14 minutes in — the bit that launched a thousand memes. Talking about the fact that MacOS 11 Big Sur is Apple’s first version of MacOS ever designed hand-in-hand to run on hardware designed from the ground up by Apple, Federighi’s example was … how fast M1 Macs wake up.

Not compiling code. Not encoding video. Not executing complex ML models.

Waking from sleep.

It’s not like “my Mac wakes up too slow” is a common complaint. This isn’t fixing a problem — it’s making something that has long already been nice on Macs even nicer. This is the Apple way. The Macintosh way.

Gruber writes skilfully on a variety of topics, but he is at his best writing about the Mac in detail. There are few others who are able to capture the unique qualities of a product’s niceness so well. This piece is already a classic.

Reviewers See Simultaneous Gains in Performance and Battery Life With Apple’s First M1 Macs

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Right up top I’m going to start off with the real ‘oh shit’ chart of this piece. I checked WebKit out from GitHub and ran a build on all of the machines with no parameters. This is the one deviation from the specs I mentioned above as my 13” had issues that I couldn’t figure out so I had some Internet friends help me. Also thanks to Paul Haddad of Tapbots for guidance here.

As you can see, the M1 performs admirably well across all models, with the MacBook and Mac Mini edging out the MacBook Air. This is a pretty straightforward way to visualize the difference in performance that can result in heavy tasks that last over 20 minutes, where the MacBook Air’s lack of active fan cooling throttles back the M1 a bit. Even with that throttling, the MacBook Air still beats everything here except for the very beefy Mac Pro.

But, the big deal here is really this second chart. After a single build of WebKit, the M1 MacBook Pro had a massive 91% of its battery left. I tried multiple tests here and I could have easily run a full build of WebKit 8-9 times on one charge of the M1 MacBook’s battery. In comparison, I could have gotten through about 3 on the 16” and the 13” 2020 model only had one go in it.

After the first benchmarks hit Geekbench last week, you may have been prepared for big leaps in performance. And, knowing how efficient Apple’s A-series is, you probably assumed these M1 MacBook models would have better battery life than their Intel predecessors, too. What I did not expect — and maybe I am a dummy — is the extent to which both of those things would happen simultaneously. I’m just going rewrite what Panzarino found because I think it is worth underscoring: Apple’s entry-level MacBook Pro model will build WebKit within seconds of the same amount of time as a twelve-core Mac Pro, and that will consume just nine percent of its battery.

This is not an outlier result. John Voorhees of MacStories rounded up a bunch of the reviews that dropped today and everyone is seeing the same thing. These Macs perform better than almost any other Mac you can buy while getting multiple days of battery life during typical use — and they are Apple’s entry-level models.

This is one of those silly things that makes me giddy; none of this seems possible. It kind of reminds me of the introductions of the Power Mac G5 or the 2010 MacBook Air. These are groundbreaking leaps forward. Speaking of which, it is going to be wild to see what processors end up in the higher-end MacBook Pro models next year, not to mention the iMac and the Mac Pro.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The 16GB RAM limit for these models bummed some people out, but it seems that these Macs have no trouble keeping up.1 I agree with Panzarino: it is very possible that Apple will stop advertising RAM amounts in all but its highest-end products, and it will be completely fine. Also, if you are haunted by memories of Photoshop running over Rosetta fifteen years ago, it sounds like you can relax because Rosetta 2 is, apparently, great.

Two other items of consensus among reviewers are that running iOS apps on a Mac is a poor experience and that the webcam still sucks.

Other than that, reviewers seem totally enamoured. I’m writing this on an eight year old MacBook Air that, as my couch laptop, is still chugging along fine. I bought it with the same advice I’ve used for just about every computer I’ve owned: I buy the absolute best I can save for and afford. This laptop has the highest-specced processor and RAM that were offered at the time. But when it comes time to replace it, I think I might be completely satisfied with the cheapest MacBook Air Apple offers. Why would I bother upgrading something that outperforms just about everything else in the current lineup? Either Apple has uncharacteristically failed to think this through or, more likely, whatever is in the pipe is going to be so desirable for more demanding users that we will happily pony up the premium for the fastest Macs ever. After all, they really only have these entry-level models to beat.


  1. This makes me even more bummed that iPadOS still manages memory like an iPhone-derived operating system. ↩︎

Parler, an Ostensibly Libertarian Twitter-Like Website, Is Funded by Rebekah Mercer

Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey, Wall Street Journal:

As Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have taken a more assertive role in curbing content on their platforms, prominent conservatives on both platforms have responded with a frequent retort: Follow me on Parler.

Launched in 2018, the libertarian-leaning social network was the most downloaded app on both Android and Apple devices for most of last week, according to data from Google and analytics firm App Annie. Its leaders envision it as a free-speech-focused alternative to the giants of Silicon Valley.

The platform also has some deep-pocketed investors. Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, is among the company’s financial backers, according to people familiar with the matter. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

Mercer and Parler co-founder John Matze confirmed Mercer’s involvement. The Mercer family are mega-donors to Republican causes, though they often describe themselves as “libertarian”, according to a 2017 profile by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. According to Mercer, Rebekah’s father, Robert, made his money running a hedge fund, and has used those earnings to fund Breitbart, effectively invented the Islamophobic “Ground Zero Mosque” myth, and thinks the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a “major mistake”.

They are not good people, is all I am saying.

Let’s get back to Parler, a website that Horwitz and Hagey describe in charitable terms. For example, they compare it to Twitter and Facebook’s personalized timelines based on user activity (emphasis mine):

Parler doesn’t do that. The platform doesn’t use content-recommendation algorithms, collects almost no data about its users and, for privacy reasons, hasn’t provided the tools to let users easily cross-post from other platforms. Parler simply shows users all the posts from everyone they follow, in reverse chronological order.

I tried registering for new accounts on Twitter and Parler. On Twitter, you can choose whether to use an email address or a phone number; when you register for Parler, you must provide both. If this is an anti-spam measure, it hasn’t worked. Parler suggests several popular hashtags to look at; one is #parler, naturally, and every post is currently either a sketchy ad for nude photos on Blogspot, or promoting pills that are “better than cocaine”.

Verification on Parler is open to everyone, but you need to submit a scan of either your driver’s license or your passport. You can also give them your Social Security Number. And, yes, Parler extensively tracks your use of its website and app. While it may not track you across the web like Facebook, it is not accurate to claim that it “collects almost no [user] data”.

Or how about this?

While Parler’s terms of service allow the app to tailor content for its users in the future, executives said they were committed to their libertarian principles.

“We’re choosing to be a neutral platform,” said Jeffrey Wernick, the company’s chief operating officer.

When this ostensibly neutral platform had its first wave of popularity in June, it rapidly banned dozens of users who apparently did not align with Parler’s definition of “free speech”, including Ed Bott for posting only “let’s see how long it takes the shitheels running this toilet to kick me out”. It took less than one day. It also banned Devin Nunes’ Cow.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

As we said, they’ve sort of speed-run the content moderation learning curve that every website goes through when they claim to support free speech. They insist they’ll allow anything. Then they start banning spammers. Then trolls. And, that’s the same damn thing Twitter does, and even here they’re admitting that they’re banning “leftist trolls.” In fact, over the past week or so we keep having people showing up on our article from the summer about Parler banning users it doesn’t like and screaming at us about how it’s okay because they’re just banning trolls. But, that’s the point. That’s what Twitter is doing too. Except that Twitter isn’t complaining about ideological trolls.

It’s only Parler that seems to be staking out an ideological claim, trying to ban “leftist” trolls after being cofounded by one of the most extreme partisans around, who laughably claims that Parler will be neutral.

Platforms have wide freedoms to pick and choose what users and posts they permit or deny. That is fine; community management and moderation are necessary attributes of any platform. But only Parler is pretending that it is a bastion of free expression and user privacy, and the Journal ate it up.

GitHub Reinstates youtube-dl After RIAA Demanded Its Removal

Abby Vollmer of GitHub:

As we explained, the key claim in the youtube-dl takedown is circumvention. Although we did initially take the project down, we understand that just because code can be used to access copyrighted works doesn’t mean it can’t also be used to access works in non-infringing ways. We also understood that this project’s code has many legitimate purposes, including changing playback speeds for accessibility, preserving evidence in the fight for human rights, aiding journalists in fact-checking, and downloading Creative Commons-licensed or public domain videos. When we see it is possible to modify a project to remove allegedly infringing content, we give the owners a chance to fix problems before we take content down. If not, they can always respond to the notification disabling the repository and offer to make changes, or file a counter notice.

That’s what happened in this case. First, we were able to reinstate a fork of youtube-dl after one of the fork owners applied a patch with changes in response to the notice.

Then, after we received new information that showed the youtube-dl project does not in fact violate the DMCA‘s anticircumvention prohibitions, we concluded that the allegations did not establish a violation of the law. In addition, the maintainer submitted a patch to the project addressing the allegations of infringement based on unit tests referencing copyrighted videos. Based on all of this, we reinstated the youtube-dl project and will be providing options for reinstatement to all of its forks.

The additional information was a letter sent to GitHub by Mitchell Stolz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that showed youtube-dl does not “circumvent” anything on YouTube:

We presume that this “signature” code is what RIAA refers to as a “rolling cipher,” although YouTube’s JavaScript code does not contain this phrase. Regardless of what this mechanism is called, youtube-dl does not “circumvent” it as that term is defined in Section 1201(a) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, because YouTube provides the means of accessing these video streams to anyone who requests them. As federal appeals court recently ruled, one does not “circumvent” an access control by using a publicly available password. Digital Drilling Data Systems, L.L.C. v. Petrolink Services, 965 F.3d 365, 372 (5th Cir. 2020). Circumvention is limited to actions that “descramble, decrypt, avoid, bypass, remove, deactivate or impair a technological measure,” without the authority of the copyright owner. “What is missing from this statutory definition is any reference to ‘use’ of a technological measure without the authority of the copyright owner.” Egilman v. Keller & Heckman, LLP., 401 F. Supp. 2d 105, 113 (D.D.C. 2005). Because youtube-dl simply uses the “signature” code provided by YouTube in the same manner as any browser, rather than bypassing or avoiding it, it does not circumvent, and any alleged lack of authorization from YouTube or the RIAA is irrelevant.

GitHub has also committed one million dollars to a fund for defending developers from bogus claims of circumventing intellectual property protections.