Earlier today, Apple announced that the full new Maps experience was rolling out to Canadian users. That’s right — not just users in Toronto and Vancouver, but across the entire country.
I have been keeping my eye on Justin O’Beirne’s catalogue of changes all evening. The cartography is undeniably better: it is more precise, just as clear, and has subtler distinctions in cities and parks. The 3D models of buildings look very good, and Look Around is terrific; I am glad that Google no longer has a monopoly on street-level imagery. It is nowhere near as comprehensive as Google’s efforts, but there is imagery for a wider range of places than I imagined.
There are also Guides: collections of locations and landmarks from resources like AllTrails, Complex, the Los Angeles Times, and Time Out. Sadly, there are currently none for Calgary, but there are already two for Banff. I hope Sprudge puts together a coffee guide for our little city; we have some terrific shops and roasters here that deserve more attention.
My first impressions of its data are more mixed and, because I cannot load old Maps at the same time, it is tough to make comparisons. I will say that I panned around a few blocks near me and found a few businesses that had pins far away from where they should have been, one business that changed its name last year and had not been updated, and a listing for a bar that closed its doors thirteen years ago, all within a couple of minutes. This is all in a city of over a million people. That’s not to say that I have never found errors with Google Maps, but I find them more rarely and, in a similarly quick glance of the same area, did not notice anything wrong.
Upon unveiling its new Maps effort in a story with TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino, Apple said that two of its goals were to improve “ground truth” and to be able to make changes faster. I hope that is the case. I don’t know how to assess the accuracy of place data beyond the most obvious flaws, and I don’t know how to evaluate that over time. I just need to be able to trust my maps provider. I have found Apple’s existing Maps client to provide good driving directions and generally accurate addresses for businesses; however, I have found business hours in particular to be inaccurate, even before this year’s restrictions.
There are so many reasons to use Apple’s Maps app. It is nicer to look at with better cartography. It is integrated throughout the system and doesn’t have ads. Its implementation of street-level imagery blows Google’s out of the water, and you don’t have to fight with user-submitted panoramas. Apple’s challenges remain with places and businesses which, unfortunately for them, form the backbone of many users’ digital mapping needs. I hope this initiative is what helps get them closer to Google’s high benchmark.
Gadgets these days are reliably okay, at the very least, and often very good, so it is almost newsworthy enough that a new gadget is crap. And that brings us to the first reviews of Amazon’s Halo, a new health and fitness wristband.
Brian X. Chen of the New York Times gave it a try and found that it overestimated his body fat:
When the Halo arrived, I installed the app, removed my T-shirt and propped up my phone camera. Here’s what happened next: The Halo said I was fatter than I thought — with 25 percent body fat, which the app said was “too high.”
I was skeptical. I’m a relatively slim person who has put on two pounds since last year. I usually cook healthy meals and do light exercises outdoors. My clothes still fit.
After reviewing my results, Dr. Cheskin jotted down my height and weight to calculate my body mass index, which is a metric used to estimate obesity. A man my age (36) with my body mass index, he said, is highly unlikely to have 25 percent body fat.
The Halo also overestimated a friend’s body fat. Dr. Cheskin said that this stat lacked context and could potentially lead people to overemphasize its importance.
Geoffrey A. Fowler and Heather Kelly of the Washington Post tested the device’s speech tone recognition feature, which is a diabolical sentence if I’ve ever heard one. Apparently, the Halo’s microphone will passively assess your speech patterns throughout the day and tell you when it thinks you’re being an asshole. But, in the words of Maciej Cegłowski, machine learning is “money laundering for bias”, so there are predictable results:
Our sample size of two isn’t sufficient to conclude whether Amazon’s AI has gender bias. But when we both analyzed our weeks of tone data, some patterns emerged. The three most-used terms to describe each of us were the same: “focused,” “interested” and “knowledgeable.” The terms diverged when we filtered just for ones with negative connotations. In declining order of frequency, the Halo described Geoffrey’s tone as “sad,” “opinionated,” “stern” and “hesitant.” Heather, on the other hand, got “dismissive,” “stubborn,” “stern” and “condescending.”
She doesn’t dispute that she may have sounded like that, especially while talking to her children. But some of the terms, including “overbearing” and “opinionated,” hit Heather differently than they might a male user. The very existence of a tone-policing AI that makes judgment calls in those terms feels sexist. Amazon has created an automated system that essentially says, “Hey, sweetie, why don’t you smile more?”
A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that in relentlessly scaling its ad juggernaut — which is projected by analysts to bring in $80 billion this year — Facebook created a financial symbiosis with scammers, hackers, and disinformation peddlers who use its platforms to rip off and manipulate people around the world. The result is a global economy of dishonesty in which Facebook has at times prioritized revenue over the enforcement of policies seemingly put in place to protect the people who use its platform.
Company insiders said the ad platform’s issues are exacerbated by Facebook’s continued reliance on a small army of low-paid, unempowered contractors to manage a daily onslaught of ad moderation and policy enforcement decisions that often have far-reaching consequences for its users. Internal documents and messages, as well as interviews with eight current and former employees and contractors, show that Facebook’s ad workers have at times been told to ignore suspicious behavior unless it “would result in financial losses for Facebook,” and that the company is pushing to grow revenue in regions that flood its pages with scams.
There are claims from Facebook employees and contractors in this piece that are devastating — just damning. There are examples in here that indicate Facebook is aware of scammers using legitimate accounts to buy fraudulent ads, but the company won’t do anything because they keep paying. There are other examples of people promoting lightly-disguised pyramid schemes which are automatically targeted towards users that are more likely to click on them.
No ethical human being would sell these ads; surely nobody at Facebook likes seeing the company’s logo on the same screen as some scammer, either. But somewhere at Facebook, there are people making the calculation that there is little urgency to remove these ads from the platform.
Katharine Trendacosta of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Ultimately, it is hard to see any benefit to small, independent creators or viewers in mandating filters. Content ID is so unforgiving, so punishing, so byzantine that it results in a system where those who make videos—“YouTubers”—are so dependent on YouTube for audience access, and promotion by its suggestion algorithm, that they will avoid any action which would put their account in jeopardy. They will allow YouTube to de-monetize their videos, avoid making fair use of copyrighted material they want to use in their work, and endlessly edit and re-edit lawful expression just to meet the demands of YouTube’s copyright filter. The result is that, as a YouTuber with over one million subscribers put it, YouTube is a place where “the only thing that matters is are you smarter than a robot.”
This paper is an absolute must-read.
Content ID is a sledgehammer offered to the wrong side of the legal battle, wielded by an industry that has repeatedly abused intellectual property law for its own benefit. In principle, its only automated flagging would be for blatant copyright infringement, like if someone uploaded an entire movie. Anything other than that and it should go to a human dispute panel, erring on the side of fair use. But that costs money and time, and three weeks’ worth of video gets uploaded to YouTube every minute these days, so that is probably unfeasible.
But, when you think about it, that is not a great excuse. I have long held a suspicion that the scant moderation of big social networks was only a tiny bit about dogmatic ideas about unimpeded freedom of speech, and much more of a calculated business decision. It is completely possible for YouTube and Facebook and other companies to have considered moderation issues more thoroughly in their nascent years. But that would have cost more money and inhibited growth. And, in the days when these companies were losing millions of dollars of venture capital money, the last thing investors wanted to hear were arguments for slow and measured growth while carefully moderating users’ contributions.
These companies are now so large that they are playing catch-up. They are dominant and have no competitors in their sectors, so any rules they make are seen as suppressive. Many of these are backfilled rules that should have been in place as the business was growing to help craft a better community. Instead, entrepreneurs created social media and social networking platforms with rules scarcely more stringent than those on 4chan, with the assumption that they could just figure out any problems as they happened.
There are people who make their living through these platforms — especially YouTube — who are effectively playing a game of Calvinball with a company that has its priorities exactly backwards. Content ID is the longtime dream of rightsholders that have always found reasonable fair use permissions too lenient. But as eager as YouTube is to demonetize and remove videos that trip its overzealous robotic replacement for a copyright attorney, it often fails to moderate truly damaging videos and toxic user comments. These policies create a community where clickbait, lies, and bullying dominate and thoughtful criticism is unable to exist. The web has paywalled truth and freed bullshit.
Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google will ban the data broker X-Mode Social Inc. from collecting any location information drawn from mobile devices running their operating systems in the wake of revelations about the company’s national-security work.
The two largest mobile-phone platforms told developers this week that they must remove X-Mode’s tracking software from any app present in their app stores or risk losing access to any phones running Apple’s or Google’s mobile operating systems.
Both Apple and Google disclosed their decision to ban X-Mode to investigators working for Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who has been conducting an investigation into the sale of location data to government entities.
For months, Tau has been covering the purchase of X-Mode location data without a warrant along with Joseph Cox of Motherboard. X-Mode says that it is just one of many advertising and location data providers, and it is right: I hope there are continued efforts to crack down on abuses of data collection. But those efforts should be coming in the form of legislation and regulation, not by companies playing Whack-a-Mole after reports like these.
Uber has ditched efforts to develop its own self-driving car with the multibillion-dollar sale of its driverless car division to a Silicon Valley startup.
The ride-hailing company is selling the business, known as Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), for a reported $4bn (£3bn) to Aurora, a start-up that makes sensors and software for autonomous vehicles and is backed by Amazon and Sequoia Capital.
As part of the deal, Uber is investing $400m in Aurora in return for a minority stake of 26%. Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, will join Aurora’s board. The deal will also give Aurora access to a carmaker, Japan’s Toyota, which has invested in ATG. ATG has grown to a venture with 1,200 employees.
This does not necessarily mean that Uber is unlikely to have autonomous vehicles — I think that is unlikely for lots of reasons — but it surely does not indicate that the project is going well if it is being offloaded to a startup. Uber’s autonomous transportation effort was, according to its S-1 public offering document, key to its long-term success:
If we fail to develop and successfully commercialize autonomous vehicle technologies or fail to develop such technologies before our competitors, or if such technologies fail to perform as expected, are inferior to those of our competitors, or are perceived as less safe than those of our competitors or non-autonomous vehicles, our financial performance and prospects would be adversely impacted.
So that was yesterday’s shake-up; here is today’s, from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg:
Apple Inc. has moved its self-driving car unit under the leadership of top artificial intelligence executive John Giannandrea, who will oversee the company’s continued work on an autonomous system that could eventually be used in its own car.
The project, known as Titan, is run day-to-day by Doug Field. His team of hundreds of engineers have moved to Giannandrea’s artificial intelligence and machine-learning group, according to people familiar with the change. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
Previously, Field reported to Bob Mansfield, Apple’s former senior vice president of hardware engineering. Mansfield has now fully retired from Apple, leading to Giannandrea taking over.
Mansfield, you may recall, retired in June 2012 only to be hired back just a few months later to oversee a new generically-titled Technologies group. Mansfield only committed to remaining at Apple through 2014 but stuck around: in 2016, Daisuke Wakabayashi of the Wall Street Journal reported that Mansfield was moved to run the autonomous car project:
Bob Mansfield had stepped back from a day-to-day role at the company a few years ago, after leading the hardware engineering development of products including the MacBook Air laptop computer, the iMac desktop computer, and the iPad tablet. Apple now has Mr. Mansfield running the company’s secret autonomous, electric-vehicle initiative, code-named Project Titan, the people said.
Mr. Mansfield’s reassignment brings a leader with a record of delivering challenging technical products to market to an effort that has been mired in problems, according to people familiar with the project.
Mansfield’s other major project in that time was the Apple Watch. I wonder if this is an indication that much of the hardware work is done and turning it over to Giannandrea is the remaining step in solving the “mother of all AI problems”.
Truly autonomous vehicles are, I continue to believe, a pipe dream for this generation. But if it is not — if self-driving cars really are within reach — I struggle to believe that the company that brought us Siri is capable of cracking this in the not-too-distant future. I would love to be proved wrong, but I have also wanted Siri to work as expected for nearly a decade now.
The Republican-controlled US Senate today confirmed a Trump nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, ensuring that President-elect Joe Biden’s FCC will be deadlocked at 2-2 upon his inauguration.
The Senate voted along party lines to confirm Nathan Simington, a Trump administration official who helped draft a petition asking the FCC to make it easier to sue social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Democrats say he is unqualified for the position.
Republican senators offered no justification for confirming Simington, a move that is clearly designed to prevent or delay the Biden FCC from pursuing Democratic Party goals such as the restoration of net neutrality rules. FCC Republican Brendan Carr acknowledged that motive in an appearance on Fox Business last week, saying “it would be very valuable to get Simington across the finish line to help forestall” the Democratic agenda.
Preempting good faith governance after an election is a bitter move.
Jason Snell’s “20 Macs for 2020” series has been a delight this year. This week’s edition is about the second-generation MacBook Air, and perhaps the best summary of the article appears as a footnote:
This is the culmination of another trend — the overall shift from desktops to laptops. The MacBook Air is not just the decade’s definite laptop, it’s the definitive Mac of the 2010s.
In one day in October 2010, the MacBook Air transformed from Apple’s niche experimental travel laptop into the default computer for millions. I still use a 13-inch model from 2012; it has travelled with me, been tossed around in different bags, and has eaten through two batteries. And it is still humming along with completely adequate performance and a keyboard that remains a delight to type on — a testament to its durability and quality.
Increasingly, the venture-capital industry has become fixated on creating “unicorns”: startups whose valuations exceed a billion dollars. Some of these companies become lasting successes, but many of them — such as Uber, the data-mining giant Palantir, and the scandal-plagued software firm Zenefits — never seemed to have a realistic plan for turning a profit. A 2018 paper co-written by Martin Kenney, a professor at the University of California, Davis, argued that, thanks to the prodigious bets made by today’s V.C.s, “money-losing firms can continue operating and undercutting incumbents for far longer than previously.” In the traditional capitalist model, the most efficient and capable company succeeds; in the new model, the company with the most funding wins. Such firms are often “destroying economic value” — that is, undermining sound rivals — and creating “disruption without social benefit.”
Many venture capitalists say that they have no choice but to flood startups with cash. In order for a Silicon Valley startup to become a true unicorn, it typically must wipe out its competitors and emerge as the dominant brand. Jeff Housenbold, a managing partner at SoftBank, told me, “Once Uber is founded, within a year you suddenly have three hundred copycats. The only way to protect your company is to get big fast by investing hundreds of millions.” What’s more, V.C.s say, the big venture firms are all looking at the same deals, and trying to persuade the same coveted entrepreneurs to accept their investment dollars. To win, V.C.s must give entrepreneurs what they demand.
There’s an Audm version of this piece that I highly recommend, if only because Prentice Onayemi, its narrator, sounds like a professional keeping it together in spite of the article’s increasingly ludicrous subject matter.
Earlier this week, I linked to Stuart Maschwitz’s Twitter thread about Extended Dynamic Range in MacOS. Maschwitz has followed that up with a full blog post explanation that I think is worth reading:
So add a third method of displaying EDR content to Apple’s roster: On these non-HDR displays, Apple has remapped “white” to something less than 255-255-255, leaving headroom for HDR vales, should they be called for. The operating system is complicit in this trickery, so the Digital Color Meter eyedropper shows “white” as 255, as do screenshots.
With Catalina, Apple quietly changed what “white” means for millions of Macs, and none of us noticed.
Think of it this way: This EDR display philosophy is so important to Apple that they are willing to spend battery life on it. When you map “white” down to gray, you have to drive the LED backlight brighter for the same perceived screen brightness, using more power. Apple has your laptop doing this all the time, on the off chance that some HDR pixels come along to occupy that headroom. It’s a huge flex, and a strong sign of Apple’s commitment to an HDR future.
Visit for the explanation of EDR; stick around for Maschwitz’s thoughts on HDR as a tool for videographers.
By the way, this only appears to apply to HDR video — not photos with extended range in the highlights. For example, I took a picture on my iPhone of some food on a platter made of white glossy porcelain and cranked the brightness of it in Photos. It is not an HDR photo, but its white values are brighter than the white background of Photos, even though they apparently share the same RGB values. This is similar to the way HDR video appears on my phone but, unlike video, my 2017 iMac did not show any noticeable difference in the white value of the photo compared to Finder’s white background.
The White House is again giving TikTok’s Chinese parent company more to satisfy national security concerns, rather than initiating legal action, a source familiar with the situation tells Axios.
The source says that CFIUS is not providing another formal extension, but rather a de facto continuation as the two sides carry on with negotiations.
This was, all of a sudden, among the highest priorities of the current U.S. administration for this year. After the election, it seems that enthusiasm has completely dried up; likewise for banning much of WeChat’s functionality.
A couple of weeks ago, Reed Albergotti of the Washington Postbroke a story alleging that Apple was proposing changes to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that would “weaken” it. This was complicated by reporting from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian who said that, though Apple was engaged in lobbying related to the bill, “[it] is not accurate to say that Apple’s aim is to water down key provisions”.
However, neither reporter clarified what Apple’s proposed changes were. I wrote that:
[…] 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.
Which brings me to this reporting from Ana Swanson of the New York Times:
According to a document viewed by The New York Times, Apple’s suggested edits to the bill included extending some deadlines for compliance, releasing certain information about supply chains to congressional committees rather than to the public, and requiring Chinese entities to be “designated by the United States government” as helping to surveil or detain Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
Those are three changes, so let’s walk through them:
“Extending some deadlines for compliance” — this is the closest example of “weakening” that I can find, but it still implies that Apple has every intention of complying. Perhaps some deadlines may be unrealistic, or maybe Apple is dragging its feet. It is unclear from this report.
“Releasing certain information about supply chains to congressional committees rather than to the public” — this may be completely reasonable. Supply chains are notoriously seen as secret sauce in any industry. Maybe there is information Apple does not want publicized that is harmful to its reputation but, as one of the few companies that audits its supply chain in depth and publishes those results on its own website, it is more likely that this is for competition reasons.
“Requiring Chinese entities to be ‘designated by the United States government’ as helping to surveil or detain Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang” — this is almost the opposite of “watering down” the bill. According to Swanson’s report, Apple wants the U.S. government to be clear about which organizations are worrisome. If this is done properly, it could be more useful. For example, if a company is marked as abusive by the U.S. government, every U.S. company will have to behave in the same way and it can inform organizations in other countries of businesses they should avoid.
If Swanson’s reporting is accurate, it directly contradicts the “weakening” reported by Albergotti. The first change may show a lack of urgency, or it may not; the second is completely reasonable; and the third, I think, could actually make the bill more effective, not less.
Aaron Couch and Pamela McClintock, the Hollywood Reporter:
Warner Bros. is plotting a sweeping response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered movie theaters around the country. After announcing that Wonder Woman 1984 will go to HBO Max as well as theaters on Dec. 25, the studio has laid out a similar path for its 2021 slate amid uncertainty about when movie-going will get back to normal.
The studio announced Thursday day-and-date releases for its 17-film slate, which will hit HBO Max for a one-month window that starts the same day they will be available in U.S. theaters.
This says a lot about what Warner Bros. expects for public health in the coming year, at least in the United States. I imagine this is another upsetting news item for independent theatre owners after the demise of the Paramount antitrust consent decrees late last year.
It should be pointed out that this is also another example of how the demise of net neutrality rules in the U.S. have played out. AT&T owns WarnerMedia, which owns Warner Bros. and HBO Max, and it does not count streaming over HBO Max against broadband subscribers’ monthly data caps. It also offers HBO Max for free to some cellular subscribers. AT&T is waiving fees on excess broadband data use until the end of the year but, starting next year, AT&T will flex its conglomerate muscles by offering first-run blockbuster movies to HBO subscribers without any extra cost. That is surely great for subscribers, but it is troubling for competition. It is a situation that can only be matched by other conglomerate-type companies, and ends up squeezing out independent production houses, theatres, and any company without a similarly vast connected business network.
Telegram’s latest beta now supports AirPods’ Announce Messages with Siri feature, letting users listen and reply to incoming messages without having to access an iPhone or iPad.
Up until now, only Apple’s own apps like Messages and the Home app supported this feature. Apple even offered its Siri API to developers for implementing the Announce Messages with Siri feature. But no apps had implemented it so far until Telegram did recently. Although it isn’t available for everyone as of now, we can expect it to arrive sometime soon as an official update via the App Store.
Apple has allowed developers to build this into their apps since iOS 13.2’s release over a year ago. It surprises me that it has taken this long for a third-party app to support it. It seems to be a polarizing feature, but I love that Siri reads my messages automatically when I am exercising or washing dishes. I only rarely use Telegram, and wish the handful of other messaging apps I use would support this feature.
After noticing that my iPhone 12 Pro Max and my Pro Display XDR happily display HDR values in an SDR context, I have since discovered that the same thing happens on my iMac Pro and 16″ MBP, neither of which claims to have an HDR display. How is no one talking about this?
This is the exact same demo as in the previous tweet in the thread, but on my iMac from 2017. Apple has quietly added HDR display capabilities to devices that long predate the Pro Display XDR, and I cannot find a single bit of information about this.
I shot a short HDR video on my iPhone and transferred it to my 2017 iMac, and was able to replicate Maschwitz’s findings: I saw an higher dynamic range than the display is allegedly capable of. When the HDR video was selected in Finder and I started a screenshot, the white lines of the screenshot crop area were clearly visible against the apparently white Finder background and a white webpage. Those crop lines were a brighter shade of white, if you will. When I selected a text file in Finder and tried the same screenshot test, the white crop lines of the screenshot tool became invisible against the Finder background and the webpage.
This is all on a 2017 5K iMac — not even the Pro model — running Big Sur. According to Apple, my iMac does not support HDR video, but I see the same effect as Maschwitz all the same.
Apple calls this capability Extended Dynamic Range, which is different from High Dynamic Range and Extreme Dynamic Range. Unlike those more hardware-based features, EDR appears to be a software-oriented implementation added in a recent version of Metal. Apple has been rewriting its graphic layers in Metal for years; High Sierra featured a rewritten WindowServer which affects every application in MacOS. This is an intriguing discovery that seems scarcely documented. Kudos to Maschwitz for finding this.
Salesforce, the global leader in CRM, and Slack Technologies, Inc., the most innovative enterprise communications platform, have entered into a definitive agreement under which Salesforce will acquire Slack. Under the terms of the agreement, Slack shareholders will receive $26.79 in cash and 0.0776 shares of Salesforce common stock for each Slack share, representing an enterprise value of approximately $27.7 billion based on the closing price of Salesforce’s common stock on November 30, 2020.
Combining Slack with Salesforce Customer 360 will be transformative for customers and the industry. The combination will create the operating system for the new way to work, uniquely enabling companies to grow and succeed in the all-digital world.
I’ve been thinking about this acquisition since it was rumoured last week. I love Slack. It has become a better social network for me than anything else: a comfortable place for asking dumb questions that turn into brilliant discussions, a space among friends for cracking wise or venting frustration. I know that it is a serious business tool for serious business people, but I am sure that its simplicity is a key reason for its success, and the reason it has inspired so many clones.
Slack is a service that can be described in a single sentence. By contrast, Salesforce is a company that does not seem to be explainable by anyone.
Yes, yes, but what is it? What does it do? Even reports on the Slack acquisition seem to be dodging the question. In the New York Timesstory about the deal, it’s not until the 18th paragraph, after a thorough discussion of deal particulars and of Slack’s business, that we are told the acquirer is a company that “provides marketing and sales software, among other products.” Others labeled the firm a maker of “technology that helps companies sell products” or simply a “software giant.”
Salesforce appears to be a centralized database for organizations that allows near-infinite customizability. A company can build their email marketing on top of it, run data analysis, build websites, or share data amongst a host of first- and third-party apps and add-ons. Everything is very vague, everything looks the same, and everything has an opaque name. Customer 360 appears to be Salesforce’s customer relationship management core, but I could have that completely wrong.
In any case, my only wish is that Salesforce does not try to enterprise the soul out of Slack. Dropbox, for example, began as a lightweight file syncing app; last year, it pivoted to enterprise with more expensive plans and a ridiculous Electron-based app. I still have some use for Dropbox, though not in the way the company would presumably prefer, so the app is now effectively a near half-gigabyte wrapper around curl and put.
On a conceptual level, Slack has managed to remain both very light and very deep. It is easy to grasp, but has limitless uses and flexibility. I can only hope Salesforce understands that and doesn’t fuck it up.