Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2021

Apple Stops Identifying Siri Voices by Gender, Adds Two New American English Options

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Apple is adding two new voices to Siri’s English offerings, and eliminating the default “female voice” selection in the latest beta version of iOS. This means that every person setting up Siri will choose a voice for themselves and it will no longer default to the voice assistant being female, a topic that has come up quite a bit with regards to bias in voice interfaces over the past few years.

[…]

In some countries and languages Siri already defaults to a male voice. But this change makes the choice the users’ for the first time.

I like how these are labelled numerically rather than by apparent gender. The two new voices sound excellent; they’re Voice 2 and Voice 3 in the American English dialect, and I recommend giving them a try when you install iOS 14.5.

None of these changes helps make Siri any more reliable or consistent, but at least it sounds far better while confidently disobeying your intent.

Lux’s Long Term iPhone 12 Camera Review

Lux’s Sebastiaan de With reviewed the iPhone 12 family as cameras. I think the whole thing is excellent — it sure helps that de With is a terrific photographer — but this, from the conclusion, stands out to me:

Smart image processing, magical multi-frame combination, deep fusion, night mode: the best camera is the one that is not just on you, but gets out of the way. That takes a great photo, yet does this smart enough to make you feel like you actually took it. A camera that takes better photos but remains neutral — allowing the photographer the flexibility to edit it afterwards to make it fit their mood and artistic vision. 

Great cameras let you fail.

In out-of-the-box auto mode, I’m glad the iPhone does a lot to make pictures look terrific, without trying to invent a scene that doesn’t exist. But I am happier still that there are APIs and settings to bypass all of that and let me create the image in my head. That is, as long as I take the time to compose the shot properly, set the exposure just so, and capture the scene carefully. You know — photography.

Video Creators Again Discover Facebook Has Shorted Them on Ad Revenue

Ashley Carman, the Verge:

And he’s not the only one who hasn’t been entirely paid out. The Verge spoke with two other Facebook video creators, all of whom say the company shorted them on cash and ignored their requests for help. The creators had no reason to initially question the amount they were paid since Facebook’s estimated revenue tool almost always mirrored their actual payouts. Usually, they’d be short only a couple hundred dollars. But after their revenue seemed off two months in a row, the creators say they looked into the issue. All three say the problems began in January, around the time Facebook transitioned to its new Pages experience and made updates to how creators can monetize.

[…]

But these creators say Facebook only cares about advertisers, leaving them with no one to turn to when their payments are unexpectedly short. They reached out for help, but the company gave them no feedback on what could be wrong.

After The Verge reached out for comment, however, Facebook said it “resolved a technical issue that prevented a small number of video creators on Facebook from receiving their full in-stream ads payouts.”

Facebook does this sort of thing a lot. It has also apparently been asking writers and journalists to join its newsletter project, but I am not sure I would take that bet. It seems risky to gamble your livelihood on whether Facebook feels like paying you in full.

WWDC 2021 Starts June 7

I know this is trite in 2021, but I had to look back and see what happened last year. In February, MWC and Facebook’s F8 conference were cancelled and I began wondering if WWDC would go ahead as planned. With a full pandemic year behind us, my naïvety feels quaint.

Unsurprisingly, this year’s conference will also be online-only and it will still be free. This will not be Apple’s first product announcement this year — there is some new hardware coming next month — but the software side is often more exciting because it means new capabilities for your existing stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing what is new across the board but, in particular, in iOS 15 and MacOS 12.

Getty Images Acquires Unsplash

Mikael Cho, co-founder of Unsplash:

This is not one of those tech acquisitions where the company is bought to be shut down. Unsplash will continue to operate as a standalone brand and division of Getty Images. The entire Unsplash team will be staying and building Unsplash in the direction we have been. The main difference now is we have access to the resources and experience of Getty Images to help accelerate our plans to create the world’s most useful visual asset library.

Unsplash promises it will remain free and that the photography license will not be changing, but that is not comforting. Getty has a reputation as a copyright troll and has even demanded licensing fees for images in the public domain.

By the way, it is striking how concentrated the stock photography market has become around a few key players. Getty Images has been particularly aggressive in its acquisitions of image libraries and other brands. It owns iStock, it bought Mediavast’s catalogue, and — through a complex licensing deal involving its Chinese distribution partner Visual China Group, which also owns 500px — it bought the rights to Corbis’ library. It is also surprising to me how many of these companies are Canadian: iStock is still based in Calgary, 500px in Toronto, and Unsplash is in Montreal.

Twitter Accounts Ostensibly Belonging to Amazon Employees Are Promoting the Company as It Faces a Unionization Push

Ben Gilbert, Insider:

“Hey everyone!! This is Yola from Oak4,” an account tied to an employee named Yola said last week. “I just joined a program where I am able to answer any questions, comments or concerns you may have about Amazon. I can’t wait to share what my experience working here has been like for me.”

The account, like several others reviewed by Insider, was started in March 2021. Rather than posting, the accounts focus on responding to people tweeting about the company.

Back in 2018, Amazon admitted to paying a small army of employees to tweet positive things about the company.

Not coincidentally, warehouse workers in Alabama finished voting yesterday on whether they should unionize; the result is expected in the coming days. But it is unclear which, if any, of these accounts are part of an Amazon astroturfing campaign, and which are fraudulent.

Here’s the BBC:

Many of the accounts involved used the handle @AmazonFC followed by a first name.

Amazon has previously used this handle for its so-called Amazon Ambassadors – real employees who are paid by the firm to promote and defend it on Twitter.

[…]

Several of the high-profile accounts have been suspended by Twitter. It told the BBC that Amazon Ambassadors are subject to Twitter’s rules on spam and platform manipulation.

Accounts which impersonate or falsely claim to be affiliated with a company, can be temporarily suspended or removed.

In 2019, Amazon reused some of these Twitter accounts under new names; this time, a bunch of new accounts surfaced with profile pictures cribbed from AI face generators. One of the more notable new accounts was “Darla’s”, as Matt Novak of Gizmodo explains:

Just take a look at the ears and the way the hair falls if you need any evidence that the photo of “Darla” is computer generated.

But photos aside, is Darla possibly real in other ways? Frankly, it’s really hard to tell. Some of the tweets almost seem purposely obtuse in the way that a troll might tweet.

“Amazon is NOT union busting, I can not stress that enough! Amazon is just trying to prevent employees from fraternizing or organizing outside of company-approved channels,” Darla tweeted over the weekend.

If that seems a little too perfect, that’s probably because it is. Aric Toler of Bellingcat spotted that the account was associated with a Gmail address instead of an Amazon one. That was the case for many of these new accounts, as Emanuel Maiberg of Vice says:

@AmazonFCDarla and @AmazonFCLulu are just two of the accounts Twitter suspended yesterday. Another used a photo of a guy from Dude Perfect, the YouTube trickshot guys; it was quickly suspended. Other ambassador accounts that appear to be endorsed and operated by Amazon, are still online, and posting only slightly less deranged content about how much they love working at Amazon. The accounts belonging to Amazon were registered with @amazon.com emails. The accounts we noticed had seemingly AI-generated faces were registered with other emails, or required an email before continuing the account verification process. @AmazonFCDarla and other seemingly fake Amazon ambassador accounts had open direct messages. The official Amazon ambassador accounts did not.

It’s kind of funny that Amazon thought these “ambassador” accounts — there are still some real ones — were a great PR move in the first place. It uses a predictable format and doesn’t control the Twitter namespace, so it is trivial for others to create parody accounts that highlight many of the reasons workers are unionizing. But I am not surprised many people fell for these tweets. Amazon’s PR strategy has been so hostile lately that a member of its security team filed a report speculating that the @AmazonNews account may have been accessed by an unauthorized user.

Regardless, the collapse of context on Twitter makes it easy to create the impression of legitimacy with little work. It sort of feels like screaming into the void to encourage extra vigilance on Twitter, but I think we can all remind ourselves and each other to be more careful about reacting strongly to tweets from new and unfamiliar sources.

Concentrated Influence in the Internet’s Stack, Not Just Platforms, Creates Different Venues for Control

A couple of weeks ago, at the end of a piece about Substack’s alleged duty to moderate, I wondered how much of that demand came from its name-brand quality. Substack is more of a utility service than social media platforms, so if it were more subtle in its branding, I am not sure there would be so many people arguing that specific writers ought to be booted off. A user being removed from a platform is one thing, but having some crappy writer’s website disrupted at a DNS level would be more troubling.

So I was surprised to see a new reference from Geoffrey A. Fowler and Chris Alcantara at the Washington Post last week diving into some of those more infrastructural layers. It is an okay piece, but it is not without criticism. Let’s start with the premise in the headline:

Gatekeepers: These tech firms control what’s allowed online

That is only sort of true because there are laws that also restrict what is allowed online — and in other media — and laws that expressly permit what may be said. I bet you are thinking of one right now, so I’ll let Fowler and Alcantara take it from here:

A law known as Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act says “interactive computer services” — companies up and down the stack — cannot be held legally responsible for what others use their services to say. That provides them with a legal shield, with a few exceptions such as sex trafficking, but also gives companies the right to police content as they see fit.

Ah — so close. While Section 230 passes legal liability to individual users rather than platforms, it is the First Amendment that gives companies large and small the right to moderate as they would like.

So, we’re not off to a good start. But the questions raised by this article are worth considering:

Do companies have a responsibility to moderate content because they have the technical ability? Or does the fact that they could make the wrong calls mean they should hold back?

Fowler and Alcantara break the internet’s stack into five components, from those nearest the surface to those at the bottom:

  • Platforms

  • Cloud computing and hosting providers

  • Content delivery networks, and security and payment services

  • Domain registrars (and DNS providers, but this article does not make the distinction clear)

  • Internet service providers

As you get further down in this stack, the power becomes more concentrated so the standard for moderation ought to be much greater. For instance, it does not seem to be controversial that platforms should make an effort to remove terrorists of any faction. But should ISPs make terrorist materials inaccessible? On its face, that is not a bad idea, but doing so could make it harder for researchers to do their jobs, and there is a whiff of the banned book emanating from this thought.

The fact is the entire internet stack is one private company on top of another. That means each gets to make its own decisions about how it wants to operate, and that will sometimes mean making hugely consequential decisions that reverberate upwards, often with little accountability aside from a brief public relations battle.

If you wanted to reduce the power of the companies at the bottom end of this chain, it would be a good idea to pass strong net neutrality regulations. A more radical idea would be to nationalize Tier 1 providers. I know that is a shocking suggestion for some, particularly in the U.S., but I would welcome it in Canada — though I imagine there are some unforeseen consequences and I will probably get emails calling me a communist.

Further up the stack, there is often more competition than the Post article indicates. For example, there are many more payment processors than are listed in the article, but they lack name recognition.1 One of the side effects of mainstream social media companies cracking down on disinformation campaigns is the increased popularity of other social networks. Unfortunately for people with humanity and a conscience, these are mostly platforms that have a permissive attitude towards white supremacists, which they laughably defend as a principled free speech stance. So, while I think the current use of Bitchute is abhorrent and I have no expectation that it will be serious competition for YouTube, it is at least an attempt at doing something different.


  1. For what it is worth, there are many companies involved when you buy something from an online store. It is its own stack in which there are some companies with very little competition↩︎

Amazon’s PR Strategy Seems to Be Inspired by a Steroid-Fuelled Rage

You know that scene in “American Psycho” where Bateman and Bryce escape to a nightclub bathroom to do lines of some apparently low-quality cocaine, sending both of them into a rage at the occupants of the adjacent stall, which Price blames on his steroid use?

I have been wondering if that is the inspiration for Amazon’s increasingly aggressive PR strategy.

Nick Statt, the Verge:

Amazon is intensifying its bizarre online public relations strategy of picking increasingly petty fights with sitting US Congress members, with the company’s Amazon News account on Friday shifting targets from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

[…]

Somehow, one of the most powerful and valuable companies on Earth has decided its bold new PR strategy should involve playing immature semantics with a US senator.

Dave Clark and Jay Carney are similarly hostile on Twitter. It is unclear who, exactly, is behind the Amazon News account, but they are both setting the company’s public tone on the asshole-coming-down-from-a-bender mark. It is just a very strange look for any company, let alone one that is under so much regulator scrutiny.

What Happened to Arizona’s App Store Bill?

Brittany Gibson, the American Prospect:

Big Tech lobbyists in Arizona caused just enough confusion over an app store reform bill to run out the clock on this year’s legislative session. The bill would have ended the practice of app developers being charged high fees for payment processing by Google and Apple, the two dominant cellphone operating systems.

After being hotly debated and passing along near-partisan lines in the state House, HB 2005 was then put on the agenda for the state Senate Commerce Committee but ultimately not given a hearing. Friday was the last day the bill could be heard by the committee.

[…]

The hold also prevents Republican Gov. Doug Ducey from having to weigh in on the Big Tech debate occurring within the GOP. One of the first lobbyists hired by Apple to work against HB 2005 was Ducey’s former chief of staff Kirk Adams, who was also previously a Republican Speaker of the House. “His engagement is a very clear sign that the governor did not want this coming to his desk; he wanted this to go away,” the source said.

Similar bills are being considered in many U.S. states. This effort may have sputtered in North Dakota and fizzled out in Arizona, but there are some bigger states like New York and Illinois working through the same kind of bill.

Apple Tells Australian Regulator That the App Store Has Plenty of Competition With Websites and Other App Marketplaces

Asha Barbaschow, ZDNet:

Apple has responded further to the Australian consumer watchdog’s probe of app marketplaces, this time rejecting characterisation that the Apple App Store is the most dominant app marketplace and saying there are other options for iOS users, such as by going to a website.

[…]

“Apple is not in a position to disregard the environment in which its app marketplace operates and does not accept the Commission’s characterisation of the Apple App Store as ‘the most dominant app marketplace by a large margin’.”

I am reminded of WWDC 2007 and, more specifically, John Gruber’s memorable retort:

Perhaps it’s playing well in the mainstream press, but here at WWDC, Apple’s “you can write great apps for the iPhone: they’re called ‘web sites’” — message went over like a lead balloon.

[…]

Telling developers that web apps are iPhone apps just doesn’t fly. Think about it this way: If web apps — which are only accessible over a network; which don’t get app icons in the iPhone home screen; which don’t have any local data storage — are such a great way to write software for iPhone, then why isn’t Apple using this technique for any of their own iPhone apps?

Some of those things have changed: web apps are far more capable now than they were fourteen years ago, you can “install” them to your home screen, and it is very rare in much of the world to not be connected to some kind of network almost all the time.

What hasn’t changed is that apps and websites are fundamentally different experiences. Apple isn’t rebuilding its own apps as web apps — it has web apps, certainly, and plenty of its native apps have components written in web languages, but I cannot imagine that it would scrap its native Mail or Reminders apps in favour of HTML versions.

With the arguments in this filing (PDF), Apple is effectively standing by its fourteen year old stance that the iPhone — and, by extension, the iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV — are specialized platforms that it has been gracious enough to allow native development on and, in order to maintain that system, must extract 15–30% of developers’ revenue earned through these platforms. Developers believe that all of these devices — but, particularly, the iPhone and iPad — are more like smaller versions of a personal computer, that they should be able to write the apps they want and distribute them in a manner of their choosing, and that the 15–30% of platform-originating revenue claimed by Apple through its payment mechanisms is not a profit margin akin to that of any other store but is instead an exploitative transaction fee.

I have so far not read a well-defined argument for why iOS devices are more akin to specialized computers than general-purpose computers, nor have I read a good argument for why they are just smaller versions of personal computers. I think I would prefer an iPhone where I can install native apps from anywhere and with many competing marketplaces, but I also think I would get frustrated by the compromises made by demoting a centralized catalogue.1 Regardless of whether I would personally prefer more flexibility with my own devices, it is frustrating that I cannot decide that without switching to a worse platform that has generally lower-quality apps. Many new apps launch first on iOS — so the platform’s restrictions do not seem like a deterrent — but I cannot see a great argument for why it must be the case that, for iOS to maintain its superior quality, it must adhere to this app distribution model.

Purely as an observer, it seems like a mistake on Apple’s part for it to allow developers’ qualms with iOS app distribution to fester. Now, it is likely that a court somewhere in the world will partly set the rules of how these middle-marketplaces must operate. That’s democracy. But I am sure executives at Apple would prefer that they got ahead of these predictable disputes and averted them so that they did not escalate.


  1. This is true on MacOS, too. For example, I wish apps did not individually handle updates in their own way on my Mac. I wish that all of them could tie into a universal software update mechanism, so my apps are always up to date no matter whether I got them from the App Store or elsewhere. I appreciate Sparkle for what it is, but I prefer silent updates done in the background. ↩︎

Beginning in May, AMP Pages Will No Longer Be Artificially Prioritized in Google Searches

Barry Schwartz, writing for Search Engine Land in November:

The Google Page Experience update is set to launch next May, Google confirmed Tuesday. That’s roughly a year after the company first announced the update and gives us another six months to prepare for it.

[…]

As we outlined in May, page experience is made up of several existing Google search ranking factors, including the Mobile-friendly update, Page Speed Update, the HTTPS ranking boost, the intrusive interstitials penalty, safe browsing penalty, while refining metrics around speed and usability. These refinements are under what Google calls Core Web Vitals.

Dwayne Lafleur:

Google provided a distinct advantage to sites using AMP – priority placement on the world’s largest traffic source – Google search. I’ve had the pleasure of working with more than twenty thousand publishers in the five years since AMP’s launch, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a single reason that a publisher uses AMP other than to obtain this priority placement. Let me package that up for you — Google, the most dominant search engine globally — used that dominant market position to encourage publishers to adopt technology so that Google could store and serve publisher’s content on Google’s domain. How is that legal? Well, I’m not a lawyer, but it possibly isn’t.

The good news is that, in May, this is all about to change. Part of the Google update is that all pages with high Page Experience scores are eligible to be in the featured top news carousel. This effectively means that publishers will no longer be forced to use AMP and can instead provide fast, rich experiences on their own domains.

Let us hope this marks the rapid decline of a proprietary format designed to replicate the open standards of the web in a way that Google can more readily control and track. May all future attempts at this nonsense fail long before they are legitimized.

The Streaming Music Paradox

Ben Sisario of the New York Times, in conversation with Shira Ovide:

There’s a complicated and opaque formula that determines how the $10 monthly subscription for Spotify or Apple Music makes its way to artists. After those services take their cut, about $7 goes into a pot of money that gets split a bunch of ways — for the record labels, songwriters, music publishers, artists and others.

The more people listen to music, the less each song is worth because it cuts the pie into smaller and smaller slices. I’ve seen financial statements from some fairly popular independent musicians that suggest they’re making a pretty good living from streaming. But often, unless musicians have blockbuster numbers, they aren’t making a great deal.

This is one hell of a paradox. The more each of us are listening to music through streaming platforms, the less many artists are getting paid unless we’re only listening to the Billboard charts. Sisario links to a study that indicates switching to a payout model based on individual users’ listening habits would help, but only by “a few euros per year” for indie musicians.

If streaming music is the future, it must be advantageous for the artists, not just the labels. A more equitable payment model begins with contracts that do not exploit artists.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger’s New Strategy

I snarked the other day about the declining quality of the Intel marque, but I was persuaded that this is the right direction for the company after reading today’s daily update from Ben Thompson:

Yesterday’s keynote delivered on almost every meaningful strategy change I have asked from Intel, from building out a foundry business to re-organizing the company (it’s not a split, but close) to explicitly addressing geopolitics to embracing modularity to channeling Andy Grove.

Just as important, though, was the way in which Gelsinger delivered this news: he was transparent about how Intel had screwed up, demonstrated tremendous clarity of thought about Intel’s strategy, particularly in the Q&A, and was captivating and inspiring about why Intel’s best days were ahead of it. Of course a keynote is just a keynote — Intel has real work to do — but Gelsinger absolutely left the impression that if there is any chance of Intel delivering on his promises he will realize it.

There is a lot of nostalgic spin in this presentation but, if you peel away the saccharine layers, it seems like Gelsinger has the insider perspective to structure a better path forward, and an encouraging level of staff support.

Mac OS X Turns Twenty

Cupertino, California — March 21, 2001 — Apple today announced that beginning this Saturday, March 24, customers can buy Mac OS X in retail stores around the world.

So began the press release twenty years ago. By this point, Mac OS X Server was two years old and Apple had been showing off beta versions of the consumer product to developers for a year and a half. Even the radical Aqua user interface was old news by the time Cheetah dropped in 2001.

This first version was, by all accounts, pretty hard to live with day to day. John Siracusa, Ars Technica:

Mac OS X is slower than Mac OS 9 on the same hardware. The interface is less responsive overall. All classic applications take a minor speed hit. RAM usage is considerable due to the “double-OS” nature of the classic environment. Despite a superior VM system, OS X can and does get into trouble when the paging activity starts to build on systems with close to the minimum-required 128MB RAM.

Jason Snell, Macworld:

Apple bought [NeXT] in December of 1996. Mac OS X 10.0 shipped in March of 2001. As powerful and sophisticated as NextStep was, it took the new Apple software organization — led by NeXT’s Avie Tevanian — more than four years from acquisition to a “completed” version of Mac OS X. (And stopping the clock 20 years ago this week is probably unfair. I’d mark the end of the Mac OS X transition as April 2002, when Steve Jobs held a funeral for Mac OS 9 because OS X was finally good enough.)

Rocky as that first version apparently was — and I say “apparently” because the first Mac I used ran 10.2 Jaguar — it set into motion Apple’s renaissance and enabled its current suite of products. The iPhone, as Jobs famously said, “runs OS X” — albeit a forked, stripped-down, mobile optimized version ported to a different CPU architecture. But that decision made possible Apple’s current lineup: iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS,1 the HomePod’s operating system, and even the dedicated OS that runs the Touch Bar. All of these things were built on the work that began with the iPhone which, in turn, was built on Mac OS X.

“Mac OS X” is no longer. In 2012, Apple dropped the “Mac” from the name to much consternation; in 2016, the “Mac” came back and the X was dropped, to form “macOS”, which I capitalize differently because I think it looks goofy. That set the template for last year’s big shift — MacOS 10.something was no longer, and it is now at version 11. This comes at the same time as Apple is moving away from Intel’s x86 processors and onto its in-house ARM-based systems.

And none of this would have happened if not for Mac OS X’s origin at NeXT, Apple’s acquisition of which brought NextStep and brought back Steve Jobs.

Mac OS X is, in many ways, the reason Apple grew into the gigantic company that it is today. It took the right leader in Jobs, who died ten years ago this October, and the right software foundation in NextStep, along with hundreds of committed designers and developers to rebuild a has-been company. The story of Mac OS X is the story of rejuvenation of historic scale.

See Also: John Siracusa’s fifteen year history of reviewing Mac OS X.


  1. The first version of the Apple TV was based on a fork of Tiger↩︎

Most Links to Shortcuts Are Currently Broken

John Voorhees, MacStories:

iCloud links to shortcuts broke sometime in the past 24 hours. Instead of opening the Shortcuts app and allowing users to install a shared shortcut, tapping a shortcut link displays an alert with the message ‘Shortcut Not Found,’ explaining that the link may be invalid or the shortcut may have been deleted. Based on our internal testing, the issue appears to affect all shortcut links created before yesterday.

This has been all over my Twitter timeline for hours, but Apple’s iCloud status webpage is still all green — everything is apparently just fine with Shortcuts. The best case scenario is that this is a remote problem that Apple can correct; the worst case is that entire libraries of shared shortcuts are now invalidated and must be re-created. Let us all hope that is not the case.

Update: About a day after people started noticing this problem, Apple has issued a statement to Federico Viticci:

We are aware of an issue where previously shared shortcuts are currently unavailable. Newly shared shortcuts are available, and we are working to restore previously shared shortcuts as quickly as possible.

The iCloud system status page remains all green.

New York Department of Financial Services Finds Goldman Sachs Did Not Violate Fair Lending Laws in Apple Card Cases

In November 2019, David Heinemeier Hansson wrote on Twitter about a huge discrepancy between the credit offered to him and his wife when each applied for an Apple Card. Steve Wozniak echoed those complaints, and New York’s Department of Financial Services opened an investigation.

Today, the Department announced its findings:

In the course of the investigation, consumers expressed the belief that they should have received the same Apple Card offers as their spouses because they shared bank accounts and other assets. For example, consumers voiced the belief that if they shared credit cards with spouses, even if only as authorized users, they were entitled to the same credit terms as spouses. In reality, however, underwriters are not required to treat authorized users the same as account holders, and may consider many other factors.

In terms of gender, the Department found, based on its data analysis, that Apple Card applications from women and men with similar credit characteristics generally had similar outcomes. For all consumers who reported concerns about their Apple Card credit application outcomes to the Department, evidence showed that those decisions were explainable, lawful, and consistent with the Bank’s credit policy. However, the Department concluded, deficiencies in customer service and a perceived lack of transparency undermined consumer trust in fair credit decisions.

From the report (PDF):

Consumers also complained to the Department of a lack of transparency in the process for determining credit terms. Although the law requires lenders to explain underwriting decisions to applicants only in the event of a denial of credit, the Department notes that transparency as to account holders’ credit terms supports consumer trust. The Consumer suggested on Twitter that the Bank used a “black box” algorithm that produced unexplainable outcomes. Although the Bank was able to explain, at the request of the Department, the credit decisions for all of the individuals who filed complaints, lack of transparency to the complainants themselves in this case seemed to produce confusion that could have been mitigated.

The report cites the Path to Apple Card program as an example of better transparency.

The problems experienced by Hansson and Wozniak — and, presumably, plenty of other couples who applied for the Apple Card — seem to be less about specific discriminatory treatment, according to this report. Rather, they reflect the financial industry’s secrecy and the murky world of credit scores. Apple chose to enter this miserable marketplace, but at least it appears to be trying to do something to improve it.

After Union Push, Medium Follows the Trend

Medium CEO Ev Williams, in a companywide email:

Though Medium has been an open platform since day one, we’ve had an editorial team almost as long. The original thesis was that we wanted to establish that Medium was both open and high quality. We wanted to set the bar high. We were successful in doing that, and, since then, the editorial part of our company has gone through many iterations as we’ve strived to find the right way to integrate it. In 2014–16, we published great original content but we didn’t have the right business model to support it.

[…]

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I strongly believe that the editorial talent we have assembled here is a strategic asset that is in line with our business and strategy. For the foreseeable future, we will focus that talent on supporting independent voices on our platform. This means identifying writers — both already on Medium and not — and offering them deals, support, editing, and feedback to help them tell great stories and find their audience.

So instead of house publications like OneZero, GEN, and the just-launched Momentum, Medium is following Substack’s strategy of hiring individual writers. This is because, as Williams writes, “the role of publications — in the world, not just on Medium — has decreased in the modern era”, which is a sentiment I worry deeply about. I love following the work of individual writers, but there are also plenty of publications that I read because I trust them and their editorial standards.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of something Steve Jobs said eleven years ago:

I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers … I think we need editorial oversight now more than ever.

With a somewhat liberal definition of “bloggers”, this remains true. There is plenty of great reporting done every day by people who are not star journalists.

Medium’s latest pivot is yet another example of the company’s inability to focus on anything, at all, ever. About seven years ago, Medium had a handful of in-house publications like Steven Levy’s Backchannel and the Nib. Those brought in regular readers, so the next step was monetization.

Davey Alba, writing for Buzzfeed News in 2017:

Then Medium shifted to branded content partnerships. And then decided it wanted to host boutique online publications. In late 2015 and early 2016, it brought more than a dozen small, separate publishing operations onto the platform, while Medium’s in-house publications either quietly wound down or moved away from the platform. A year later, the platform pivoted again, firing a third of its employees — 50 workers in nonengineering roles — and shutting down its New York and DC offices. The publishing partners — beloved sites like The Awl, The Ringer, Pacific Standard, and ThinkProgress — left Medium in a mass exodus.

Now, a few months later, Williams has a new model, one that he maintains is the right one for today’s state of affairs in online publishing. The current membership model includes a small team of editors — jobs that had existed at the company until January 2017 when it unceremoniously eliminated them. The only difference now seems to be that the company’s new-again editorial staff will be much smaller — and this time, editors won’t be attached to particular editorial brand names, but rather work for Medium as a whole. It appears, in other words, that Williams has pivoted so many times he’s ended up right back where he started.

That was then; this is now, with Medium pivoting to Substack because it cannot commit to sticking with anything or maintaining job security. And that latter thing seems to be related to this latest corporate shift.

Edward Ongweso Jr, Vice:

The move comes less than one month after all Medium employees — including the editorial unit — attempted to unionize and lost by one vote. Employees at the company say that journalists who work at Medium’s nine publications were not the initial driving force behind the union, but were some of the most vocal supporters of it. The news media industry (including VICE) is highly unionized; the tech industry is not.

Four current Medium employees told Motherboard that in the leadup to the vote, Medium and Williams himself discouraged the company from unionizing. Medium hired the unionbusting firm Kauff McGuire & Margolis in the leadup to the February union vote. Williams also held “coffee chats” with small groups of workers, where four current employees told Motherboard that Williams said that it would be difficult to raise money from venture capitalists if the union won the vote.

Medium keeps trying to eat its tail, and venture capital firms keep sinking tens of millions of dollars into its flailing efforts. Five years from now, Medium could have pivoted two or three more times, or it could be entirely wiped from the web. It’s anybody’s guess.

Intel Is Trying to Court Apple for Chip Manufacturing at New Foundries

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger today shared some details on Intel’s future plans, which includes the founding of a separate “Intel Foundry Services” business and two new chip factories that are being built in Arizona. Going forward, Intel wants to become a major provider of foundry capacity in the United States and Europe, manufacturing chips for other companies.

When discussing Intel’s new plans, Gelsinger said that Intel plans to pursue Apple as a potential customer, which would see Intel producing Apple silicon chips for use in Apple devices if Apple does indeed decide to use Intel’s services.

Intel’s recent ads highlighted some of the unique qualities of non-Apple notebooks but, if not for the Intel logo at the end, they could have been ads for just about any component maker. Now Intel wants to make Apple’s processors — of course, all of those will be entirely Apple-branded, leaving Intel as just another supplier.

Intel is missing the boat on being the Heinz of computers.

Backblaze B2 Was Leaking Metadata to Facebook

Ben Cox:

WTF? @backblaze’s B2 web UI seems to submit all of the names and sizes of my files in my B2 bucket to facebook. I noticed because I saw “waiting for facebook.com” at the bottom while trying to download a backup…

Yev Pusin of Backblaze:

We use Google Tag Manager to help deploy key third-party code in a streamlined fashion. The Google Tag Manager implementation includes a Facebook trigger. On March 8, 2021 at 8:39 p.m. Pacific time, a new Facebook campaign was created that started firing a Facebook advertising pixel, intended to only run on marketing web pages. However, it was inadvertently configured to run on signed-in pages. […]

We promptly investigated the matter and, once we were able to identify, verify, and replicate the issue, we removed the offending code from the signed-in pages on March 21, 2021 at 11:19 p.m. Pacific time.

Via Michael Tsai:

There is a long history of engineering problems. Just one example: it seems to still be the case that the Backblaze client reports files as successfully backed up as many as eight hours before they are actually committed to the server. If something happens to your Mac in the interim, you won’t be able to restore them.

I am a keen Backblaze user, but I am frustrated by its limitations and quality problems like these. I still do not fully understand why Apple does not offer a sort of Time Machine in the Cloud product — but, given last year’s report on abandoned plans to allow for end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups, perhaps that is for the best.

Verizon to Centre Media Arm Around New Subscription Platform Yahoo Plus

Sara Fischer, Axios:

Verizon Media Group, the media division within Verizon, has 3 million people that pay for subscriptions across its portfolio of Yahoo-related products, like Yahoo Fantasy, Yahoo Finance and others, executives tell Axios.

Moving forward, the goal will be to rebrand most of its media franchises as Yahoo products, and to focus on selling subscriptions to those products via a rebranded subscription portfolio called “Yahoo Plus.”

“Yahoo is the future of our consumer facing brand,” says Joanna Lambert, Head of Consumer at Verizon Media.

Good luck with that, is something I am writing only half-sarcastically. Yahoo is a web company with a unique legacy so, partly for reasons of nostalgia, I like the idea of it staging a comeback. But I’m not sure attaching yet another plus sign to a brand that screams “mid-nineties”, now owned by a telecom provider, is an indicator of an innovation renaissance.