Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for January, 2021

A Vast Web of Vengeance

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

[Gary] Babcock, a software engineer, got off the phone and Googled himself. The results were full of posts on strange sites accusing him of being a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile. The posts listed Mr. Babcock’s contact details and employer.

The images were the worst: photos taken from his LinkedIn and Facebook pages that had “pedophile” written across them in red type. Someone had posted the doctored images on Pinterest, and Google’s algorithms apparently liked things from Pinterest, and so the pictures were positioned at the very top of the Google results for “Guy Babcock.”

There is something cunning — albeit merciless and cruel — about this smear campaign. Google’s search ranking algorithms already know that websites like Ripoff Report and Cheater Bot are basically full of bullshit and potentially libellous claims, so these websites are almost never at the top of search results. Pinterest’s better Google ranking is being used to launder this trash.

Pinterest has a decent reputation on the moderation of its platform, but this is a concerning vector of attack. The potential for this to be repeated and abused to greater extent seems obvious to me.

Hill:

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

This story is a near-perfect intersection of the unlimited distribution of the web and the lack of accountability that permits such a ruthless smear campaign. In a particularly distressing turn, Hill herself got caught up in it, too, after contacting the alleged perpetrator behind the attacks on Babcock.

However, entirely removing CDA Section 230 protections could make websites legally accountable for things posted by third parties. If that happens, most of the web that allows for user contributions would disappear. That means the end of comment sections, hosted blog platforms, photo and video platforms, and more. Only the biggest players would be able to support such a burden, and they would necessarily be radically altered.

I know the E.U.’s right to erasure rule — passed as part of GDPR — has a poor reputation; it is seen by some as a way to erase history. But, at least in this very narrow instance of websites, it seems to have had some effect. The websites mentioned are either prohibited from being accessed in the E.U. by their terms-of-service, or they block European visitors by geolocation. It is not a case of them being unable to comply with the right to erasure; they are simply unwilling to do so.

The Ripoff Report FAQ says that the company will never remove any complaint because doing so would amount to “rampant censorship”. I see it as a sociopathic level of indifference for the damage the website facilitates.

Grading Apple’s 2020

Jason Snell again graciously allowed me to participate in the annual Six Colors Apple report card, so I graded the performance of a multi-trillion-dollar company from my low-rent apartment. There simply aren’t enough column inches in his report card for all of my silly thoughts. I have therefore generously given myself some space here to share them with you.

As much as 2020 was a worldwide catastrophe, it was impressive to see Apple handle pandemic issues remarkably well and still deliver excellence in the hardware, software, and services that we increasingly depended on. If there wasn’t widespread disease, Apple’s year could have played out nearly identically and I do not imagine it would have been received any differently.

Now, onto specific categories, graded from 1–5, 5 being best and 1 being Apple TV-iest. Spoiler alert!

Mac: 4

It will be a while before we know if 2020 was to personal computers what 2007 was to phones, but the M1 Macs feel similarly impactful on the industry at large. Apple demonstrated a scarcely-believable leap by delivering Macs powered by its own SoCs that got great battery life and outperformed just about any other Mac that has ever existed. And to make things even more wild, Apple shoehorned this combination into the least-expensive computers it makes. A holy crap revolutionary year, and it is only an appetizer for forthcoming iMac and MacBook Pro models.

Aside from the M1 models, Apple updated nearly all of its Mac product range except the Mac Pro. The iMac Pro only dropped its 8-core config, but pretty much everything else is the same as when it debuted three years ago.

The best news, aside from the M1 lineup, is that the loathed butterfly keyboard was finally banished from the Mac. Good riddance.

MacOS Big Sur is a decent update by recent MacOS standards. The new design language is going in a good direction, but there are contrast and legibility problems. It is, thankfully, night-and-day more stable than Catalina which I am thrilled that I skipped on my iMac and annoyed that I installed on a MacBook Air that will not get a Big Sur update. Fiddlesticks. But Big Sur has its share of new and old bugs that, while doing nothing so dramatic as forcing the system to reboot, indicate to me that the technical debt of years past is not being settled. More in the Software Quality section.

iPhone: 4

I picked a great year to buy a new iPhone; I picked a terrible year to buy a new iPhone. The five new phones released in 2020 made for the easiest product line to understand and the hardest to choose from. Do I get the 12 Mini, the size I have been begging Apple to make? Do I get the 12 Pro Max with its ridiculously good camera? How about one of the middle models? What about the great value of the SE? It was a difficult decision, but I got the Pro. And then, because I wish the Pro was lighter and smaller, I seriously considered swapping it for the Mini, but didn’t because ProRAW was released shortly after. Buying a telephone is just so hard.

iOS 14 is a tremendous update as well. Widgets are a welcome addition to everyone’s home screen and have spurred a joyous customization scene. ProRAW is a compelling feature for the iPhone 12 Pro models, and is implemented thoughtfully and simply. The App Drawer is excellent for a packrat like me.

2019 was a rough year for Apple operating system stability but, while iOS 13 was better for me than Catalina, iOS 14 has been noticeably less buggy and more stable. I hope this commitment to features and quality can be repeated every year.

Consider my 4-out-of-5 grade a very high 4, but not quite a 5. The iPhone XR remains in the lineup and feels increasingly out of place, and I truly wish the Pro came in a smaller and lighter package. I considered going for a perfect score but, well, it’s my report card.

iPad: 3

The thing the iPad lineup has needed most from the late 2010s was clarity; for the past few years, that is what it has gotten. 2020 brought good hardware updates that has made each iPad feel more accurately placed in the line — with the exception of the Mini, which remains a year behind its entry-level sibling.

But the biggest iPad updates this year were in accessories and in software. Trackpad and mouse compatibility updated a legacy input method for a modern platform, and its introduction was complemented by the new Magic Keyboard case. iPadOS 14 brought further improvements like sidebars, pull-down menus, and components that no longer cover the entire screen.

Despite all of these changes, I remain hungry for more. This is only the second year the iPad has had “iPadOS” and, while it is becoming more of its own thing, its roots in a smartphone operating system are still apparent in a way that sometimes impedes its full potential.

After many difficult years, it seems like Apple is taking the iPad seriously again. I would like to see more steady improvements so that every version of iPadOS feels increasingly like its own operating system even if it continues to look largely like iOS. This one is tougher to grade. I have waffled between 3 and 4, but I settled on the lower number. Think of it as a positive and enthusiastic 3-out-of-5.

Wearables (including Apple Watch): 3

Grades were submitted separately for the Apple Watch and Wearables. I have no experience with the Apple Watch this year, so I did not submit a grade.

Only one new AirPods model was introduced in 2020 but it was big. The AirPods Max certainly live up to their name in weight alone.

Aside from that, rattling in the AirPods Pro models was a common problem from when they were released and it took until October 2020, a full year after the product’s launch, for Apple to correct the problem. Customers can exchange their problematic pair for free, but the environmental waste of even a small percentage of flawed models is hard to bat away.

AirPods continue to be the iconic wireless headphone in the same way that white earbuds were to the iPod. I wish they were less expensive, though, particularly since the batteries have a lifespan of only a couple of years of regular use.

Apple TV: 1

I guess my lowest grade must go to the product that seems like Apple’s lowest priority. It is kind of embarrassing at this point.

The two Apple TV models on sale today were released three and five years ago, and have remained unchanged since. It isn’t solely a problem of device age or cost; it is that these products feel like they were introduced for a different era. This includes the remote, by the way. I know it is repetitive to complain about, but it still sucks and there appears to be no urgency for completing the new remote.

On the software side, tvOS 14 contains few updates. It now supports 4K videos in YouTube and through AirPlay, and HomeKit camera monitoring. Meanwhile, the Music app still does not work well, screensavers no longer match the time of day so there are sometimes very bright screensavers at night, and the overuse of slow animations makes the entire system feel sluggish. None of these things are new in tvOS 14; they are all very old problems that remain unfixed.

The solution to a good television experience remains elusive — and not just for Apple.

Services: 4

No matter whether you look at Apple’s balance sheet or its product strategy, it is clear that it is now fully and truly a services company. That focus has manifested in an increasingly compelling range of things you can give Apple five or ten dollars a month for; or, if you are fully entranced, you can get the whole package for a healthy discount in the new Apple One bundle subscription. Cool.

It has also brought increased reliability to the service offerings. Apple’s internet products used to be a joke, but they have shown near-perfect stability in recent years. Cloud-based services had a rocky year for stability in 2020 and iCloud was no exception around Christmastime but, generally, the reliability of these services instills confidence.

New for this year were the well-received Fitness+ workout service and a bevy of new TV+ shows. Apple also rolled out services to a bunch more countries. But this focus on services has not come without its foibles, as Apple aggressively promotes subscriptions throughout its products in advertisements, up-sells, and push notifications to the irritation of anyone who wishes not to subscribe. Some of these services also introduce liabilities in antitrust and corporate behaviour, something which I will explore later.

HomeKit

I have no experience with HomeKit so I did not grade it.

Hardware Reliability: 3

2020 was the year we bid farewell to the butterfly keyboard and, with it, the most glaring hardware reliability problem in Apple’s lineup. A quick perusal of Apple’s open repair programs and the “hardware” tag on Michael Tsai’s blog shows a few notable quality problems:

  • “Stained” appearance with the anti-reflective coating on Retina display-equipped notebooks

  • Display problems with iPhone 11 models manufactured into May 2020

  • AirPods Pro crackling problems that were only resolved a full year after the product’s debut

Overall, an average year for hardware quality, but an improvement in the sense that you can no longer buy an Apple laptop with a defective keyboard design.

I suppose this score could have gone one notch higher.

Software Quality: 4

The roller coaster ride continues. 2019? Not good! 2020? Pretty good!

Big Sur is stable, but its redesign contains questionable choices that impair usability, some of which I strongly feel should not have shipped — to name two, notifications and the new alert style. Outside of redesign issues, I have seen new graphical glitches when editing images in Photos or using Finder’s Quick Look feature on my iMac. The Music app, while better than the one in Catalina, is slower and more buggy than iTunes used to be. There are older problems, too: with PDF rendering in Preview, with APFS containers in Finder (and Finder’s overall speed), and with data loss in Mail.

iOS 14 is much stable and without major bugs; or, at least, none that I have seen. There are animation glitches here-and-there, and I wish Siri suggestions were better.

On the other end of the scale, tvOS 14 is mediocre, some first-party apps have languished, and using Siri in any context is an experience that still ranges from lacklustre to downright shameful. I hope software quality improves in the future, particularly on the Mac. MacOS has never seemed less like it will cause a whole-system crash, but the myriad bugs introduced in the last several years have made it feel brittle.

I am now thinking I mixed up the scores for software and hardware quality. Oops.

Developer Relations: 2

An absolutely polarized year for developer relations.

On the one hand, Apple introduced a new mechanism to challenge rulings and added a program to reduce commissions to 15% for developers making less than $1 million annually. Running WWDC virtually was also a silver lining in a dark year. It’s the first WWCC I attended because hotels are thousands of dollars but my apartment has no extra cost.

On the other — oh boy, where do we begin? Apple is being sued by Epic Games along antitrust lines; Epic’s arguments are being supported by Facebook, Microsoft, and plenty of smaller developers. One can imagine ulterior motives for the plaintiff’s side, but it does not speak well for Apple’s status among developers that it is being sued. Also, there was that matter of the Hey app’s rejection just days before WWDC, and the difficulty of trying to squeeze the streaming game app model into Apple’s App Store model. Documentation still stinks, and Apple still has communication problems with developers.

Apple’s relationship with developers hit its lowest point in recent memory in 2020, but it also spurred the company to make changes. Developers should be excited to build apps for the Mac instead of relying on shitty cross-platform frameworks like Electron. They should be motivated by the jewellery-like quality of the iPhone 12 models and build apps that match in fit and finish. But I have seen enough comments this year that indicate that everyone — from one-person shops to moderate indies to big names — is worried that their app will be pulled from the store for some new interpretation of an old rule, or that Apple’s services push will raid their revenue model. There must be a better way.

Social/Societal Impact: 2

As with its developer relations, Apple’s 2020 environmental and social record sits at the extreme ends of the scale.

Apple’s response to the pandemic is commendable, from what I could see on the outside. Its store closures often outpaced restrictions from local health authorities in Canada and the U.S., but it kept retail staff on and found ways for them to work from home. It was also quick to allow corporate employees to work remotely, something it generally resists.

In a year of intensified focus on racial inequities, Apple pledged $100 million to projects intended to help right long-standing wrongs, and committed to diversity-supporting corporate practices. There is much more progress that it can make internally, particularly in leadership roles, but its recent hiring practices indicate that it is trying to do better.

Apple continues to invest in privacy and security features across its operating system and services lineup, like allowing users to decline third-party tracking in iOS apps. It also bucked another ridiculous request from the Justice Department and disabled an enterprise distribution certificate used by the creepy facial recognition company Clearview AI.

But a report at the beginning of 2020 drew a connection between discussions with the FBI and Apple’s failure to encrypt iCloud backups. It remains unclear whether one directly followed the other. Apple’s encryption policies remain confusing as far as knowing exactly which parties have access to what data. Still, Apple’s record on privacy is a high standard that its peers will never meet unless they change their business model.

China remains Apple’s biggest liability on two fronts: its supply chain, and services like the App Store and Apple TV Plus. Several reports in 2020 said that Apple was uniquely deferential to Chinese government sensitivities in its App Store policies and its original media. Many other big name companies, wary of being excluded from the Chinese market, have also faced similar accusations. But it is hard to think of one other than Apple that must balance those demands against its entire manufacturing capability. No company can be complicit in the Chinese government’s inhumane treatment of Uyghurs.

Apple is also facing increased antitrust scrutiny around the world for the way it runs the App Store, the commissions it charges third-party developers, and the way it uses private APIs.

Apple’s environmental record is less of a mixed bag. It is recycling more of the materials used in its products, new iPhones come in much smaller boxes containing nearly no plastic. Apple also says that its own operations are entirely carbon neutral, and says that its supply chain will follow by 2030.

For environmental reasons, many new products no longer ship with AC adapters in the box, and to prove it wasn’t screwing around, Apple made Lisa Jackson announce this while standing on the roof of its headquarters. Reactions to this change were predictably mixed, but it seems plausible that this has a big impact at Apple’s scale. I’m still not convinced that it makes sense to sell its charging mat without one.

Apple still isn’t keen on third-party repairs of its products, but it expanded its independent repair shop program to allow servicing of Macs.

If this were two separate categories, I think Apple’s environmental record is a 4/5 and its social record is a 2/5 — at best. I am not averaging those grades because I see liabilities with China and antitrust to be too significant.

Closing Remarks

As I wrote at the top, 2020 was a standout year in Apple’s history — even without considering the many obstacles created by this ongoing pandemic. As my workflow is dependent on these products and services, I appreciate the hard work that has gone into improving their features, but I am even happier that everything I use is, on the whole, more reliable.

What the heck is up with the Apple TV, though?

The Six Colors Apple Report Card 2020

I have long enjoyed reading the annual Apple report card that Jason Snell organizes and publishes. It is a finger on the pulse of a company that remains uniquely interesting despite becoming a proper behemoth worth about six times as much now as it was when this survey began.

New in this year’s report card is a failing grade; guess which product that was given to. Also, high praise for Apple’s first own-silicon Macs, the iPhone lineup, services, and comments from many writers including yours truly. I’m grateful that Snell asked me to participate again.

Sidebar: Translucency

I do not know that I have made it clear how much I appreciate many aspects of MacOS Big Sur’s visual design update, which is something even I did not fully understand until I was compelled to use Catalina full-time for a week.

Last year, my iMac developed some shadowing in the corner of its display, and it bugged me. Over the holiday break, I took it in for a new display which required leaving it at the Apple Store for about a week.1 I needed a workaround for my day job — my old MacBook Air running Catalina hooked up to my Thunderbolt Display did just fine. But, screen fidelity aside, it was clear after a day that using Catalina felt cramped and messy. Icons and text in the menu bar were not as well-aligned. Rows in the Finder were squished together like every pixel on the display remained precious real estate.

Big Sur changed all of that for the better. There is subtly more space around many interface elements, and there is a clearer sense of structure. But it also introduced problems for readability, many of which are the result of an obsession with translucency and brightness.

Translucent effects have been a part of modern MacOS since it debuted as Mac OS X in 2001 with the then-fresh “Aqua” visual interface language. But it was only with Yosemite in 2014 that Apple began using translucency more liberally throughout the system. No longer was its use confined to the Dock and menu bar. The linen texture in the login window and Notification Centre became a sheet of frosted glass. Application toolbars, once metallic, changed to a sheer grey gradient, and sidebars went from a solid light blue fill to yet another light grey glassy texture.

There seem to be some rules for translucency in the post-Yosemite MacOS environment that should, in theory, give it a sense of structure:

  1. Translucent elements are only visible in foreground windows.

  2. Elements in background windows are always opaque.

  3. The Dock and Menu Bar — including the elements they spawn, like Notification Centre, pull down menus, and Dock menus — are always translucent.

However, in practice, these rules introduce all sorts of problems for legibility, logic, and clarity.

Let’s start with the first rule and foreground windows. I usually keep my Mac in light mode, so the translucent elements in MacOS appear similar to their non-translucent predecessors. But adding translucency to those elements, a la rule one, negatively impacts contrast. A sidebar that shows through some of the colour of a very dark background element, for example, will necessarily reduce the contrast between the dark sidebar text and the now mid-grey sidebar fill.

MacOS attempts to mitigate contrast problems through more blending effects. The translucent textures in MacOS are called “Vibrancy”, since it is not a simple matter of dropping the opacity of the foreground elements. Elements with Vibrancy also blur what is in the background, and blend it with the foreground texture in ways that are intended to improve legibility no matter what the background layers contain. There are different levels of transparency and blur — what Apple calls “materials” — available to developers, and stacking them tends to produce bizarre effects. For example, take a look at the sidebar buttons in Reminders:

Reminders in foreground

That is dark grey text atop a mid-grey button texture in a light grey sidebar. Subjectively, I find it unpleasant to look at; more objectively, it has insufficient contrast. It is the same with the Search field located in an application’s Help menu:

Help menu in Safari

The menu material is a brighter translucent layer. The Search field is scarcely differentiated by a slightly different material containing dark grey text. On a dark background, it is difficult to read.

One more example of stacked layers of translucency, as seen in Big Sur’s new alert style:

Big Sur empty trash alert

Here, the Cancel button is a different material compared to that used for the alert window — though still translucent — and its text colour is a shade of the background. This combines in a smeared, hard-to-read mess.

The second rule of vibrancy in MacOS is that background windows are entirely opaque for what I assume are performance reasons.2 This excludes system features that are created from the menubar or Dock, which are always translucent, and these choices sometimes create illogical situations. In Notification Centre, this manifests as stacks of notifications where all of them appear to be translucent to background windows but the foreground notification is not translucent to the notifications apparently stacked behind it:

Stacked notifications

It would surely be a terrible idea to treat each notification as a translucent sheet; I can imagine how much that would compromise their already-shaky legibility. But if translucency is supposed to help differentiate the frontmost layers of system components, surely the notifications behind it should be opaque.3

Nevertheless, the rest of the system behaves as though the foreground window is comprised of panes of glass, and the background windows are made of solid plastic. Often, this means background windows actually have better contrast than windows in the foreground. Here’s Reminders again:

Reminders in the background

If the window control widgets were in full colour instead of grey, you would be forgiven for assuming this is just what the app looks like all the time. Several MacOS apps are similarly more legible when they are in the background: Music, Contacts, Calendar’s single day view, Dictionary, and Voice Memos — to name a handful.

Some other apps exhibit reduced contrast when they are in the background. But because the sidebar is often a critical interface element, compromising its legibility in foreground windows means going to more extreme lengths of illegibility for background windows. When Mail is in the background, the text labels and icons in the toolbar and sidebar become a mid-grey that, on the light grey background, is difficult to read. This makes it more obviously an inactive window, but it is so bright that it clashes with the active window and makes it hard to quickly see what is in the foreground:

Mail in foreground

Mail in background

Translucency in these areas has been part of MacOS for years, but Big Sur’s redesign introduces brighter windows that look nearly the same in the foreground and background. This is not directly because there are translucent elements in foreground windows, but the wildly insufficient contrast in background windows is necessary because foreground windows in Big Sur are already lower-contrast — because of their translucent elements. To borrow from a Lewis Black sketch on the “Daily Show”, it’s like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, except it’s just two degrees and Kevin Bacon is translucency.

There is a way to switch all of this off: in System Preferences, under Accessibility and then Display, you can tick the Reduce Transparency box. This makes everything opaque — though, unfortunately, it is indiscriminate, and I think the Dock works just fine as a translucent smear — but foreground and background windows in Big Sur are still similarly bright. You can also select Increase Contrast if you want a black border around interactive elements. But no matter how much I appreciate Apple’s accessibility efforts, I can’t help but think it is strange that there are two systemwide preferences for different degrees of making interface elements readable.

One of the critiques I often see of Apple’s recent visual interface direction is that it looks better in screenshots than in actual use. I disagree; I think translucency only makes sense when using MacOS or iOS. The smeared background of a toolbar looks worse in screenshots than it does in use. But I think this effect works far better in iOS than on the Mac.

The translucent glass effect was adapted from iOS 7, introduced the year prior to Yosemite. Compared to the Mac, iOS devices have strict rules about where application windows will be. On an iPhone, an app is always running full-screen; on an iPad, there are more options, including apps that float over others. But only a handful of system-level processes — Notification Centre, Control Centre, Spotlight, and, until recently, Siri — blur the contents of windows behind. Translucency in apps only affects the contents of that app: toolbars give an impression of what lays beyond the current scroll view; contextual menus sit in a layer overtop the app area. Translucency here adds depth to an interface with a singular context.

MacOS is messier than this. It encourages the use of multiple windows stacked haphazardly. Making elements of the foreground window translucent provides no new information. On the contrary, it creates confusion within itself and for background windows that are necessarily opaque. Everything has become lower-contrast necessitating the use of preferences to make the system readable.

That doesn’t mean translucency should go away entirely. But if I were in charge of these things, here’s what I would change:

  • Sidebar translucency has got to go.

  • Stacked translucent elements — like the Search field in the Help menu, and buttons in dialog boxes — have also got to go. Translucency is fine as a background for some windows, but every item on top of it should be opaque.

  • Translucency in toolbars can remain, as its effects are limited by the window’s boundaries. Perhaps this would have good enough performance that it could affect all visible window areas, not just the window in the foreground.

  • The texture of foreground and background windows should be more obviously different.

  • The background of a pull down menu should be nearly opaque.

I am not asking for much here, and I know design decisions like these are contentious. There are some people who think Apple should return to previous eras of visual interface design. I disagree; I think Big Sur is generally a positive iteration, particularly for its clearer structure. But Apple could learn a thing or two from its previous operating system design patterns. Most obviously: contrast is good.


  1. Thankfully, covered by one of the few times I have actually purchased AppleCare. ↩︎

  2. This is true for every app except Calculator, but it is true enough that I can call it a rule and treat Calculator as a special case. Why is Calculator so special? Great question. ↩︎

  3. There is a similar story in that Reminders screenshot. Notice the sidebar is scrolled slightly but, aside from the shadow, the sidebar’s texture is seamless and there is no sign of the scrolled items in the background of the glass layer on top. ↩︎

Waiting on the GameStop Knife to Fall

Ranjan Roy, the Margins:

Even the “retail” is plenty of well-off people. While most of the media coverage focuses on laid-off college-aged kids and uses the term “mom and pop” investors (is that even okay in 2021?), I can promise you plenty of friends in tech (who often make a lot more than friends in finance nowadays [Haha, sorry -Can]) and doctors are sending me $GME or $AMC gain porn. The already wealthy are having a laugh, catalyzed by r/WSB. I mean, the world’s richest man joined in [on] the fun. Can we please stop making this about the “little guy” vs. “Wall Street”?

[…]

But when that stock starts absolutely tanking — what happens? Does it stop exactly at some reasonable enterprise valuation? That’s not how momentum works. In trading, everyone loved the adage “don’t try to catch a falling knife” but while everyone enjoyed the lulz on the way up (other than Melvin Capital), it will be [GameStop CEO Jim] Bell’s job to catch the knife on the way down to try to keep as many of these people still employed as possible. Whatever happens, it will dangerous and ugly. Real employees could lose their real jobs thanks to the lulz.

The rally around heavily-shorted stocks like GameStop and AMC has been a surprisingly gripping story for something so inherently dull. From GameStop’s staggering rise, to trading apps intervening — and the backlash and lawsuit that resulted. If you are like me and not a Wall Street goon, the narrative of a bunch of Reddit users causing a hedge fund to require emergency funding to the tune of $2.75 billion is hilarious and satisfying. The effects of stock markets may impact us all, but it is only a game for the rich.

But Roy’s essay is the best thing I’ve read so far about this event. The part of this story that caught my eye from the beginning is that the rally’s earliest Reddit– and YouTube-based cheerleader bought over fifty-thousand dollars worth of GameStop stock in 2019. That is not the kind of money that regular people can just throw at probably-failing mall companies. A handful of people who were probably wealthy to begin with are going to make a lot of money. A lot more people — from retail traders who don’t really know what they are doing, to GameStop employees — are going to be hurting after this is over. Big money traders are still running this thing and it still sucks for the rest of us.

If this puts a damper on your enthusiasm for this story, I’m sorry.

Google Explains How Apps Using Its Ad Products Will Adapt to iOS 14’s Tracking Consent

Christophe Combette of Google:

Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy will require developers to ask for permission when they use certain information from other companies’ apps and websites for advertising purposes, even if they already have user consent. […]

But is it really consent if it is buried in a ten thousand word boilerplate privacy policy? At any rate, Google says it is updating its in-app advertising products to use Apple’s frameworks.

As for its own apps, Google says that it is working on privacy labelling:

When Apple’s policy goes into effect, we will no longer use information (such as IDFA) that falls under ATT for the handful of our iOS apps that currently use it for advertising purposes. As such, we will not show the ATT prompt on those apps, in line with Apple’s guidance. We are working hard to understand and comply with Apple’s guidelines for all of our apps in the App Store. As our iOS apps are updated with new features or bug fixes, you’ll see updates to our app page listings that include the new App Privacy Details.

Whenever that might be. Again, I do not see this as nefarious. Google has had plenty of time to prepare for this, but there was also loads of time to prepare for E.U. privacy regulations and Canadian anti-spam laws when those were enacted, and some companies were still in a rush to comply. It is embarrassing more than it is concerning.

Nikkei: Apple Is Diversifying Manufacturing of Core Products

Lauly Li and Cheng Ting-Fang, Nikkei:

Apple is ramping up the production of iPhones, iPads, Macs and other products outside of China, Nikkei Asia has learned, in a sign that the tech giant is continuing to accelerate its production diversification despite hopes that U.S.-China tensions will ease under President Joe Biden.

[…]

Apple’s moves are part of a larger trend of global tech giants reducing their production dependence on China, long known as the world’s factory. The country’s rising labor costs, the prolonged trade tensions between Washington and Beijing and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that severely disrupted the supply chain have all driven home the risks of depending too heavily on one country. The U.S. government, moreover, has initiated a “supply chain restructuring” campaign and urged tech suppliers to move away from China, the Nikkei reported earlier.

The reported scale of this diversification would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

But it is key to remember that final assembly is the end link of a supply chain that remains dominated by Chinese manufacturers. These moves will certainly help avoid tariffs when finished devices are imported into other countries, but the dependency on Chinese companies further back along the supply chain remains a liability for companies that are also involved in, say, software distribution and original media.

Google’s Sluggish Response to Privacy Labelling for Its iOS Apps

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

On January 5, Google told TechCrunch that [privacy labelling] would be added to its iOS apps “this week or the next week,” but both this week and the next week have come and gone with no update. It has now been well over a month since Google last updated its apps.

When it said that an update was coming soon, Google gave no reason for the delay, and still has not offered up an explanation for the lengthy period of time between app updates. Google typically pushes updates much more frequently across its catalog of apps, and its Android apps have continued to be updated regularly.

A handful of Google’s apps have gained privacy labels. Clover mentions Translate, Authenticator, Motion Stills, Google Play Movies, and Google Classroom; in addition, I also found that Wear OS, Smart Lock, and Stadia have privacy labels. None have been updated with a new version in the last month.

I am skeptical that the potential for negative press coverage is a reason for Google to delay app updates when there is a much simpler explanation. A review of the version histories for Google’s most popular apps1 shows that there are sometimes big gaps in updates over the holidays. In 2019, Chrome was last updated on December 10, and it took until February 5 for the next version to be released. It is a similar story for Google News, which had a gap from December 9, 2019 until February 6, 2020, while Hangouts went from September 2019 until the end of February 2020 without an update.

Now, a caveat: the App Store only shows twenty-five of the most recent updates. I do not know why that is the case; it is a frustrating limitation in this case specifically. Some of Google’s apps were updated nearly every week at different points in 2020, so it was not possible for me to go back far enough.

I doubt this is nefarious. Apple has a limited number of categories in its privacy labelling feature, so the labels for some of its most popular apps will be similar to Facebook’s — or possibly a little better. Facebook may have been the subject of attention when it was required to be more up front about how much user data it collected, so much that it replied with a full-page newspaper ad. But the negative press coverage over Facebook’s privacy labels died off after a couple of days, and I doubt it has remained in the public conscience.

These privacy labels are certainly helpful for many apps. But everyone already knows that Facebook and Google treat your personal data as an all-you-can-eat buffet. I doubt Google is avoiding the inevitable, simply because it has little reason to do so. Just think of it as a holiday delay.


  1. Which, by the way, revealed to me that Apple continues to have a problem with App Store comment spam. What is the value of comments on the App Store, really? I say switch them off. ↩︎

Twitter Launches an Academic Research API Track

While I am on the topic of Twitter and its APIs, the company announced a new one of those today specifically for qualified researchers.

Karissa Bell, Engadget:

The new Academic Research track could have major implications for researchers studying election security, misinformation and other big issues affecting Twitter. While the company has previously made this kind of data  available to developers, it was prohibitively expensive for most researchers. But with the new API, approved researchers will be able access a full history of all public conversations on Twitter, as well as advanced search and filtering tools for free. 

There are, however, a few limitations. For one, it won’t be available to independent researchers. According to Twitter, the research API will be limited to Twitter-approved students or “research-focused employees” of academic institutions. Additionally, Twitter only provides historical data for accounts and conversations that are currently viewable on its platform. That means tweets from suspended accounts, or content that’s been removed, won’t be accessible to researchers. This could be a significant hurdle to people studying misinformation, extremism, hate speech, or other areas where content often violates Twitter’s rules.

Ironically, under these restrictions, the better Twitter gets at moderating its platform, the harder it will become for researchers to study its seedier qualities.

Tapbots Releases Tweetbot 6 With Monthly and Annual Subscription Options

Tapbots released a new version of Tweetbot today. It looks a little nicer, the bird in the icon now looks stoned, and there are a handful of enhancements. But the big news is that most of the app is locked behind a subscription: if you want to use multiple accounts, filter your timeline, use push notifications, or send a tweet, you’ll have to pay up.

Each new major version of Tweetbot from its first release was a paid upgrade until Tweetbot 5 in 2018. That was a free update from the previous version, released in 2015 for ten dollars in the U.S. after launch pricing expired, or about two dollars per year. At six dollars per year, is the new version worth the price jump and paying for it annually?

That is harder to say than usual. Tapbots made minor changes from a user’s perspective but, under the hood, it is now running on Twitter’s still-in-development V2 API. John Voorhees, Macstories:

I have no issue with subscriptions conceptually, but they rightly carry the expectation that in return for regular payments, users will receive meaningful, periodic updates. Recognizing this, many developers time the move to a subscription with a substantial app update to start off on the right foot, which Tapbots hasn’t done. Tweetbot’s subscription is primarily based on the promise of future updates. […]

Tapbots’ ability to update Tweetbot is, alas, limited by how fast Twitter builds out its new more developer-friendly API. For example, while you can now view polls in Tweetbot, you cannot vote in them; it will prompt you to open the poll in the Twitter app if you try. You cannot view who liked a tweet or retweeted a post with a comment. You cannot search tweets from more than the last seven days. All of these limitations are on Twitter’s end and have nothing to do with Tweetbot specifically.

That is perhaps the hardest sell for Tweetbot. Your subscription fee is paying for Tapbots to translate Twitter’s API into a really nice app experience, but whatever work they can do is limited by what Twitter makes available to them. Over the last few years, Tweetbot updates have been as modest as Twitter’s API adjustments, and it is unclear how fast Twitter will roll out changes to its new API.

For what it is worth, I love the Tweetbot experience so much that I bought an annual subscription. But I wonder if, three years from now — after spending the Canadian pricing of $21 — I will feel like it is a good ongoing investment rather than an annual cost.

Aqueux

Huge collection of 6K wallpapers created by Hector Simpson based on the timeless Aqua pattern in Tiger. Free at phone and iPad sizes; just $3 for desktop options that include light and dark mode variants, plus two dynamic wallpapers. I bought this instantly.

‘Competition Policy Is Speech Policy’

Katie Notopoulos, Buzzfeed News:

The Great Deplatforming was a response to a singular and extreme event: Trump’s incitement of the Capitol attack. As journalist Casey Newton pointed out in his newsletter, Platformer, it was notable how quickly the full stack of tech companies reacted. We shouldn’t assume that Amazon will just start taking down any site because it did it this time. This was truly an unprecedented event. On the other hand, do we dare think for a moment that Bad Shit won’t keep happening? Buddy, bad things are going to happen. Worse things. Things we can’t even imagine yet!

[…]

Long before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were excusing their moderation failures with lines like “there’s always more work to be done” and “if you only knew about all the stuff we remove before you see it,” Something Awful, the influential message board from the early internet, managed to create a healthy community by aggressively banning bozos. As the site’s founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, told the Outline in 2017, the big platforms might have had an easier time of it if they’d done the same thing, instead of chasing growth at any cost: […]

Ben Smith, New York Times:

This is the Oversight Board, a hitherto obscure body that will, over the next 87 days, rule on one of the most important questions in the world: Should Donald J. Trump be permitted to return to Facebook and reconnect with his millions of followers?

[…]

But the board has been handling pretty humdrum stuff so far. It has spent a lot of time, two people involved told me, discussing nipples, and how artificial intelligence can identify different nipples in different contexts. Board members have also begun pushing to have more power over the crucial question of how Facebook amplifies content, rather than just deciding on taking posts down and putting them up, those people said. In October, it took on a half-dozen cases, about posts by random users, not world leaders: Can Facebook users in Brazil post images of women’s nipples to educate their followers about breast cancer? Should the platform allow users to repost a Muslim leader’s angry tweet about France? It is expected to finally issue rulings at the end of this week, after what participants described as a long training followed by slow and intense deliberations.

That is certainly a range of topics, though one continues to wonder how much — if anything — can truly be offloaded to artificial intelligence.

Cory Doctorow:

[…] Our media, speech forums, and distribution systems are all run by cartels and monopolists whom governments can’t even tax – forget regulating them.

The most consequential regulation of these industries is negative regulation – a failure to block anticompetitive mergers and market-cornering vertical monopolies.

Doctorow calls this censorship; I disagree that what we have seen from tech giants truly amounts to that. Moderation is not synonymous with censorship. I do not think you can look at the vast landscape of publishing options available to just about anyone and conclude that speech is more restricted now than it was, say, ten or twenty years ago.

But Doctorow is right in observing that there are now bigger beasts that effectively function as unelected governments. They materialized because venture capital and regulators incentivized lower costs and faster growth. Our existing primary venues for online discussion are a product of this era, and it shows: Twitter’s newest solution for countering misinformation is adding comments from trusted users. It is such a Web 2.0 solution that it could have a wet floor effect logo and one of those shiny gummy-coloured “beta” callouts.

The way that we figure out how to create healthier communities is by trying new things in technology and antitrust policy. Ironically, I anticipate many of these new ideas will more closely model those from a previous generation, but necessarily updated for billions of people connected through the internet. It does seem unlikely to me that all of those people will be connected through the same platform — a new Facebook, for example — and more likely that they will be connected through the same protocols.

Dan Riccio Pulls a Bob Mansfield

Apple Newsroom:

Apple today announced Dan Riccio will transition to a new role focusing on a new project and reporting to CEO Tim Cook, building on more than two decades of innovation, service, and leadership at Apple. John Ternus will now lead Apple’s Hardware Engineering organization as a member of the executive team.

Matthew Panzarino:

Apple moving Riccio to a “New Project” (think something that requires serious cross-deparmental hardware chops from chips to ID) and Ternus promoted to SVP of hardware.

Last time Riccio changed roles, it was the same day Apple announced Bob Mansfield was back and would work on “future projects”. Now it’s Riccio’s turn to get a mysterious new role at the company.

Internal Facebook Memo Tells Employees to Do Better on Privacy

Alex Kantrowitz, writing in his Big Technology newsletter:

On December 22, 2020, Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote his colleagues with a stark message on privacy. “The way we operated for a long time,” he said, “is no longer the best way to serve those who use our products.”

In an internal memo called “The Big Shift,” obtained by Big Technology and first reported here, Bosworth called on Facebook employees to prioritize privacy as they built their products, even to the detriment of the user’s experience. The public’s expectations on privacy were changing, he said, and Facebook’s old approach wasn’t cutting it anymore.

[…]

In a follow-up note to his division, Bosworth said they’d invert their product development process. “Instead of imagining a product and trimming it down to fit modern standards of data privacy and security,” he said, “we will start with the assumption that we can’t collect, use, or store any data. The burden is on us to demonstrate why certain data is truly required for the product to work.”

Two things:

  1. Duh, and/or hello, and

  2. I will believe it when I see it.

As It Signs a Deal to Pay Publishers in France, Google Threatens to Pull Search From Australia

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Google has reached an agreement with an association of French publishers over how it will be pay for reuse of snippets of their content. This is a result of application of a ‘neighbouring right’ for news which was transposed into national law following a pan-EU copyright reform agreed back in 2019.

[…]

The tech giant was also keen to emphasize that French law and the EU copyright directive do not require consent for the use of links or “very short extracts”, adding that it’s paying for online use on its surfaces for publisher content that goes beyond links and very short extracts — such as a News Showcase panel curated by the publisher.

I selected paragraphs that are directly relevant to the next article, but I recommend reading the bits I trimmed out in Lomas’ piece. In a nut, after French authorities first told Google that it would have to pay for snippet use, Google removed them. But French authorities pointed out that Google can’t ride copyright violations to a dominant market position and then jettison responsibility when it is asked to comply with the law — so Google was compelled to strike an agreement.

Lomas’ article was published yesterday. Lisa Visentin and Zoe Samios, of the Sydney Morning Herald, today:

Google’s threat to cut off search to Australian users and walk away from $4 billion in revenue has sparked warnings the digital giants are not bluffing over laws designed to force them to pay for news.

[…]

The code aims to force digital platforms to pay media companies for news content, and follows a 12-month review into Google and Facebook by the competition watchdog. The legislation, which was introduced into the House of Representatives in December, comes amid a push by global governments to rein in the power of digital monopolies.

[…]

[Google’s lawyer] also revealed that news queries comprised only 1.25 per cent of all Google searches, but under intense questioning from senators, said the company was concerned the proposed Australian code would set an international precedent.

Canadian publishers are hoping for a similar scheme but I can’t imagine they will be successful. I wrote last year that these ideas are ill-advised. I was wrong about France, but the idea that — as the lawyer Hannah Marshall put it in the Herald article — web giants should “pay for the right to supply audience to the news publishers” is nonsensical. The French agreement appears to be more comprehensive than simply charging for the right to link. But should I pay TechCrunch and the Herald because I am sending you to their websites? I have not seen a good argument for that.

Man Pleads Guilty to Computer Fraud Charge After Spying on Home Security Cameras for Four Years

Salvador Hernandez, Buzzfeed News:

A home security technician admitted Thursday that he secretly accessed the cameras of more than 200 customers, particularly attractive women, to spy on while they undressed, slept, or had sex, federal prosecutors said.

Telesforo Aviles, a 35-year-old former employee for the security company ADT, admitted he secretly accessed the customers’ accounts more than 9,600 times over more than four years, according to a guilty plea submitted in court.

Hernandez did not include copies of those court documents, so I thought I would pull them to see what he plead guilty to. Here’s a shared folder with a handful of key documents in related cases.1 And you know what he plead guilty to in the federal case? Well, you probably do if you read the headline: a single count of computer fraud. He committed privacy violations against hundreds of people — including minors — but the crime he committed was accessing the cameras without permission. That is outrageous.

Some of the women who Aviles spied on attempted to file class action suits in Texas and Florida against ADT. But a judge stayed a case in Florida because ADT has an arbitration clause in its contract. That is, everyone who was affected by this extraordinary breach of trust must individually negotiate a settlement with ADT, after which they will be sworn to confidentiality.

This is a dismal combination of some of the worst attributes of modern life: insecure internet-of-things devices led to intrusion and spying but, because there is no federal privacy law in the United States, the victims are unable to seek relief on those grounds, and any legal standing they do have is subject to negotiation by arbitration.


  1. I tried using iCloud’s folder sharing feature, but it is adamant that you add the folder to your own iCloud account before you can view its contents. Not great. ↩︎