In late December, for a few years now, I have tweeted out a big list of albums I enjoyed. On Thursday, I posted my picks for 2021, some of which were likely not a surprise for anyone who follows me on Last.fm. This spring, I reactivated my account there and began scrobbling again after years away in the pursuit of better music recommendations. I am not sure it is working, but here is what I have found so far.
Apple Music is a remarkable deal for me: spending ten bucks a month gives me access to almost any record I can think of, often in CD quality or better. There are radio features I do not use and music videos I rarely watch, but the main attraction is its vast library of music. Yet, with all that selection, I still find new music the old-fashioned way: I follow reviewers with similar tastes, read music blogs, and ask people I know. Even though Apple Music knows nearly everything I listen to, it does a poor job of helping me find something new.
Here is what I mean: there are five playlists generated for me by Apple Music every week. Some of these mixes are built mostly or entirely from songs it knows I already like, and that is fine. But the “New Music Mix” is pitched as a way to “discover new music from artists we think you’ll like”. That implies to me that it should be surfacing things I have not listened to before. It does not do a very good job of that. Every week, one-third to one-half of this playlist is comprised of songs from new albums I have already heard in full. Often, it will also surface newly-issued singles and reissued records — again, things that I have listened to.
When I scroll down to the “New Releases” section on the “For You” page, it is an even sadder story. Perhaps I have this all wrong, but this seems to me like it should be where I learn about new albums from artists I already listen to. I can remember just one time since Apple Music launched when this section matched my expectations for it. At all other times, it shows weeks-old records I have not played from artists I have not heard of. And they just sit there for weeks, unplayed, until another set of similarly-confusing picks is displayed. Have I got the concept of “New Releases” completely wrong?
Shallowest of all are the “Similar Artists” recommendations on every artist’s page. It tends to prioritize proximity to the selected artist, so it often shows side projects and solo acts. For example, according to Apple Music, artists similar to Soundgarden include Chris Cornell — who was Soundgarden’s lead singer — and Temple of the Dog — one of his side projects — and Audioslave — another Cornell project. It also suggests Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam, three other bands with similar tonal qualities. How many listeners of Soundgarden are there in 2021 who do not know about any of these other bands and projects? I would wager it is a tiny number given Soundgarden’s fame and fanbase. I suppose there are some people who are not fans, per se, and would appreciate these recommendations. But why is Apple Music showing me those artists when I have listened to them all in Apple Music?
In fairness, the artist pages are distinct from the “For You” section of the app. Yet, surely the entire service should be tailored for me. Otherwise, what is the purpose of the algorithmic backend?
You may rightfully ask why I have not stopped using Apple Music and switched to, for example, Spotify, which has far better recommendations. The answer is because I have an anachronistic setup of mostly local music that I would like to keep syncing to my iPhone, and I still do not trust any of the matching or cloud syncing features to do that job for me, including Apple’s.
So: Last.fm. There are a few things I like about it. First, it seems to take into account my entire listening history, though it does give greater weight to recency and frequency. Second, it shows me why it is recommending a particular artist or album. Something as simple as that helps me contextualize a recommendation. Third, its suggestions are a blend of artists I am familiar with in passing and those that I have never heard of.
Most importantly, it feels free of artificial limitations. Apple Music only shows a maximum of eight similar artists on my iPhone, but there are pages of recommendations on Last.fm. Echo and the Bunnymen has twenty-five pages with ten artists each. I can go back and see my entire listening history since I started my account there. Why can I only see the last forty things I listened to on Apple Music?
There are so many things Apple could learn from Last.fm’s recommendation approach, and I wish it would. Right now, its approach is somewhere between inconsequential and unhelpful. It does not have to be this way, and it should not be this way.
Maybe part of my appreciation comes from my nostalgia for the mid-2000s internet era. They are memories of shiny, colourful logos, wet floors everywhere, and new social networks for every conceivable interest. These websites encouraged centralization and many were ultimately destructive to privacy, but there were also gems like Last.fm. It was built around a simple premise: track your music listening history for better recommendations.
It still feels like an artifact of a simpler era. While Apple is busy rebuilding Music in MacOS so it feels less like a weighty mess, Last.fm still feels like a breath of fresher air. I am not calling it lightweight — it is still a web app, so that would be ridiculous — but it does not feel as ponderous as Apple’s attempts. I wish Apple could capture a bit of that magic, if only because Music is still used every day on all of my devices.
In the meantime, I will keep tracking my library with Last.fm. It feels a little quaint, a little cute, but I like it. On my Macs, I use NepTunes; on my iPhone, I use Soor. Both are very good.
Tom Parsons of What Hi-Fi? recently interviewed Apple’s VP of acoustics Gary Geaves, and Eric Treski, who works on AirPods marketing. This part seems worth thinking more about:
This is where Adaptive EQ, which was first introduced with the AirPods Pro, comes in: “we’ve added an inward-facing microphone”, says Geaves, “which continuously monitors what’s being played by the speaker and tunes the bass and, to some extent, midrange frequencies as well, to deliver a really consistent frequency response regardless of the level of fit that each person gets”. The idea is that everyone hears the music the same way, and the way the artist intended.
Geaves’ response has echoes of computational photography about it. When asked to clarify how Apple could possibly know what the artist’s intent could be, Geaves says that it is a mix of analytics and human adjustment. I still get the feeling that we cannot really know — but that it is also true of audio products generally. How do any of us know whether the speakers in our headphones or home audio setup are fairly representing what we are listening to?
Parsons presses the two Apple representatives on new stuff released this year, like the third-generation AirPods and spatial audio. But it is when asked about lossless audio that Geaves gives the most intriguing answer:
“Obviously the wireless technology is critical for the content delivery that you talk about”, he says, “but also things like the amount of latency you get when you move your head, and if that’s too long, between you moving your head and the sound changing or remaining static, it will make you feel quite ill, so we have to concentrate very hard on squeezing the most that we can out of the Bluetooth technology, and there’s a number of tricks we can play to maximise or get around some of the limits of Bluetooth. But it’s fair to say that we would like more bandwidth and… I’ll stop right there. We would like more bandwidth”, he smiles.
Given that AirPods Max and Apple Music’s lossless audio option were announced within six months of each other, yet were incompatible for bandwidth reasons, it seemed like something had to give. It felt like a plot hole in both products’ respective stories.
But nearly two years later, as the omicron variant sweeps across the United States, adoption of the system is still far behind what its creators and proponents envisioned. More than 20 states don’t use it at all, including large states like Florida and Texas that have reported millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. Even in states where millions have activated the notifications, only a fraction of people who test positive for the virus report it to the Apple and Google system. California’s system, for example, has been activated on more than 15 million devices, but only about 3 percent of the nearly 3.9 million cases reported since launch were logged in the system.
On Apple’s side, this framework arrived in iOS 13.5 as an optional feature, and was more deeply integrated in the system when iOS 14 shipped in September last year; it was pushed at a similar time through an Android system services update for devices running Marshmallow or later. That was pretty early in this pandemic. Around where I live, that was when it seemed like this pandemic could have been a relatively minor catastrophe, course-corrected by decisive and unprecedented public health actions.
Alas, it turns out that carrying on as though everything was back to normal in summer of 2020 was not a great response here or anywhere that was similarly incautious. In this midst of this was when the Canadian government launched its COVID Alert app, which quickly gained widespread adoption in every province except British Columbia and Alberta, where it remains unavailable. But it is hard to say how significant that is. While not abandoned, only 869 cases were reported in the app last month, even though thousands of cases were being reported every day.
Similarly, this Post report paints a bleak picture of the framework’s poor adoption in the U.S., which Karen L. Howard of the GAO blamed partly on a lack of privacy protections in U.S. law. But I have had a hard time finding similar information about other countries’ responses.
The Apple–Google exposure notification framework is the system adopted by national COVID apps in Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland, where there are much stricter data privacy laws than in the U.S., which has perhaps played a role in driving higher adoption rates. Even still, finding evidence that this framework has played a meaningful difference in this pandemic is hard to come by. Irish authorities were understandably proud of their country’s rapid adoption rate, but a report earlier this year found that only a quarter of cases in Ireland were registered in the app.
In this article we want to look at what the “HDMI 2.1” term really means, and address a worrying early sign in the market of things to come. We’ve delved in to what is required for this certification and what that means to you as a consumer if you ever want to buy something labelled with HDMI 2.1. Don’t make any assumptions about what that will give you, sadly it doesn’t seem to be nearly as simple as that.
The people who write the HDMI spec should get together with those behind USB-C so they can create a single port that nobody understands.
Over lunch, I pointed all this out to my friend Cory Doctorow. I told him that algorithms are, without prompting from their human designers or the owners of the photos, creating human moments that never existed. He was somewhat non-plused. He reminded me that cameras have always done that. The images they capture aren’t the moments as they were, and never have been.
In a sense, all digital photography is computational; even analog photography only reflects a moment based on the specific chemistry of the film. But this new era instinctively feels different to me, and I have not quite put my finger on why. I think it is something to do with the camera manipulating a specific scene’s contents rather than making adjustments based on the scene’s optical qualities.
James Hoffmann’s coffee videos have been a truly excellent way for me to pass the time this year. Weirdly, they have sometimes paralleled what has been going on in my life. Last month, just after I got back from a vacation where I used Nespresso machines for the first time, Hoffmann tried every pod for that machine.
Now, shortly after I was given a Bialetti Moka, Hoffmann has decided to do a thoughtful episodic look at the brewer and its history. This first episode has me looking forward to my next cup of Moka-brewed coffee as I worry about Bialetti’s future.
A decade ago, when Spotify was two years old in the UK and had justbecome available in the US, Chris Johnson started a musical discovery project called TAPEFEAR. He “created a script to find new music on niche music sites, cross reference Spotify to see if it was available to stream,” according to a Reddit post, and besides a bit of occasional tinkering, he largely forgot about it. In total, Johnson says the script ran for a decade amassing 42,000 songs.
According to Johnson, it is actually 42,000 albums on TAPEFEAR. With all this choice, it makes you wonder why first-party playlists on these streaming platforms often feature music from off-brand production houses if not because of lower royalty payout rates, which Spotify has denied.
It’s the rare thing that Americans of all ages and across the political spectrum largely seem to agree on: They don’t trust social media services with their information and they view targeted ads as annoying and invasive, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Many Americans use social media — and most use Facebook — but 64 percent say the government should do more to rein in big tech companies.
Most Americans say they are skeptical that several Internet giants will responsibly handle their personal information and data about their online activity. And an overwhelming majority say they think tech companies don’t provide people with enough control over how their activities are tracked and used. The survey was conducted in November among a random sample of 1,122 adults nationwide.
It is worth skimming the full survey results (PDF) if you, like me, find this sort of stuff curious. Among the most notable findings is that 64% of those asked by the Post said they think increased government intervention is warranted, compared to 38% who said the same to Pew Research in 2012.
The Verge has conducted a similar survey occasionally, and posted the most recent results in October. For example, when asked whether Facebook has a positive, negative, or neutral impact on society, 36% of those polled by the Verge said it was positive, compared to just 10% of those asked by the Post. On questions of trust, those polled by the Post’s research partner were more suspicious of all tech companies than those asked by the Verge.
Perhaps the most alarming pervasive suspicion is one that is still dismissed by many experts — and the companies themselves — as an urban legend. About 7 in 10 Americans think their phone or other devices are listening in on them in ways they did not agree to. Perhaps given the steady drumbeat of damaging true stories that come out about the companies — mishandling of personal data, unchecked dangers for children, contributing to the destructive spread of misinformation and polarization — secretly activating a microphone doesn’t seem like a big leap.
No part of me believes Google or Facebook are listening to any of our conversations through devices’ microphones for the purposes of ad targeting. That narrative sure was not helped when Google failed to acknowledge a microphone in Nest thermostats a couple of years back but, even so, this belief remains a myth.
It does not surprise me that people are so distrustful. According to the Post’s survey, 56% of people also delete their web browser’s history in an attempt to evade tracking. But the technologies they are hoping to defeat run on the websites they browse; they do not rely on the browser’s stored history. Perhaps some people know that and are simply being cautious, but 79% of polled individuals also felt like tech companies generally do not provide enough control.
Amazon has also been using Alexa itself to nudge consumers to use the system in new ways. In recent years the devices have begun suggesting new requests that people could make, in the process of fulfilling whatever function they actually did request. Annoyed customers have struggled to turn off the feature. (There’s no easy way to do so, but fiddling with settings can significantly reduce the unwanted chattiness, according to an article published on the tech news website CNET in June.) “Almost every day after I ask quick things, I get, ‘By the way, I can recommend birthday gift ideas so you can buy more things from Amazon! Wouldn’t you love to hear that??’” an Alexa user complained in a recent Reddit post. “No, Alexa, the answer has always been no. Just tell me the temperature.” That kind of frustration might explain why some people unplug their speaker and toss it into a closet.
This article makes a big deal about the 15–25% of Alexa owners who stop using the device in January after receiving it as a gift over winter holidays. I am not sure it is worth fussing over that. Maybe they just did not want to be gifted an Alexa.
But I am fascinated by the last paragraph, quoted above. Siri does something similar, but suggests capabilities more related to the query you just made. In both cases, it seems like Amazon and Apple are trying to figure out how to solve the discoverability problem of services primarily controlled through voice. It is a heavy-handed approach that seems to disappoint users instead of delighting them.
It is a tricky balance because we still have no idea what we can try asking these interfaces, and what guardrails and limitations they have. I do not have an Alexa device but, if I ask Siri “will I need a tuque tomorrow?”, it tells me about the chance of rain. Not useful. We must be both very curious and very patient for what may be scant rewards.
Alex Berenson, the “pandemic’s wrongest man”, recently sued Twitter for banning him in August. He alleges that, by doing so, Twitter somehow violated the First Amendment, the California Constitution, and somehow unjustly enriched itself, among eight total claims.
It makes no sense.
That should be obvious, right? Like, we are talking about Alex Berenson here — he has a notoriously tenuous grasp on cause and effect, and either cannot read very well or deliberately misrepresents the information he uncovers. But it is not Berenson writing these claims; he has lawyers working on this suit on his behalf, and they should know better than to entertain a fiction of seriousness for this clown.
Akiva Cohen, who is an actual lawyer, has read through the entire suit to explain why it is so comically wrong. Unfortunately, Cohen did so in a Twitter thread and illustrated it with animated gifs. It is not an easy thing to read — made worse by a bug where Twitter will sometimes omit some tweets in a thread — and I wish it were published as a more coherent narrative. However, it is too comprehensive and too entertaining — “what the crispy fried fuck is this?” — to avoid linking to.
If you would prefer a briefer explanation, Mike Masnick of Techdirt has you covered, and on a single webpage with paragraphs, no less.
Sea shanties are the framework with which I view a great many things that happened in 2021, because so many of them were entirely meaningless fads: blips on the radar lasting only for a moment but just long enough to obscure some larger, more important picture. It is fascinating to trace the origins of these glitches of nothingness: inconsequential tweets that turned into inconsequential TikToks that turned into inconsequential news articles that somehow, suddenly seemed more consequential than anything else that day.
Perhaps we are all living in a nihilist fog of trends birthed by Twitter and TikTok — which does not sound great.
A letter sent earlier this month to Meta’s corporate secretary, a copy of which was seen by Axios, says that, “Shareholders request the board commission an independent assessment of the Audit and Risk Oversight Committee’s capacities and performance in overseeing company risks to public safety and the public interest and in supporting strategic risk oversight on these issues by the full board.”
The letter is being submitted by the Harrington Associates and Park Foundation, both Facebook shareholders, in conjunction with the Campaign for Accountability.
This apparently needs repeating: a telecom regulator ignoring all objective data and neutering itself at the behest of the telecom lobby is a bad thing. Ignoring the public and using bogus data to eliminate popular consumer protections that took fifteen years of consensus making to craft is a bad thing. Telecom lobbyists using dead and fake people to create fake support for broadly unpopular policy is a bad thing. Putting natural monopolies with 30 years of anti-competitive behavior under their belts in charge of US telecom policy is a bad thing. If you’re applauding this stuff you’re either misinformed, or engaged in the misinforming.
I am personally in favour of exploring ISP nationalization, especially here in Canada. But if that is a bit too wild for you, the next best thing is ensuring network neutrality is maintained by regulation and adequate enforcement. Internet access is a utility, and it ought to be governed like one.
We have just about reached the end of the year, and I want to thank everyone for reading my little website. Whether you started today or you have been a regular for a long time, I truly appreciate that you choose to give my writing a slice of your time and attention.
I would particularly like to thank those of you who have thrown your money behind my hobby on Patreon. Earnings there have helped me pay for subscriptions, hosting, apps, and other things that let me do a better job. This is not how I put a roof over my head or food on the table, but it does require a little financial outlay — and a lot of time — and I am thankful for the assistance.
If you would like to throw a few bucks behind my writing, the best way to do so is on Patreon. If you would not or cannot, I do not value your attention any less. Thank you for reading.
Today’s issue of Natasha Mascarenhas’ newsletter perfectly captures how I feel right now, but with almond roca instead of ladoos. Until just a couple of weeks ago, it felt like this might be the last holiday season where COVID cautions and health anxieties are running high — but that is no longer the case.
It does not help that it has been freezing for a week now. I would love to go on a photo walk, but it is awful hard to find the motivation. It is a privilege to be merely exhausted, and that is where I am now.
One of the bizarre by-products of the Trump administration is the rehashing of hysterical media coverage while ignoring real, proven consequences. CNN is notoriously terrible — remember their 2014 coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? — but apparently the headline of the repeal of net neutrality rules four years ago is ripe for mockery on every anniversary. Nathan Leamer, a former advisor to then-FCC chair Ajit Pai:
CNN called this the End of the Internet as We Know It.
This headline should be in the hall of fame for misinformation. Complete fake news, But of course there has been no accountability from other blue checks and media institutions for the lack of truthiness.
Setting aside Leamer’s complete misunderstanding of truthiness, this headline is awful, even on a purely journalistic level. It tells readers nothing about the contents or context of the story. The story itself is, thankfully, more substantive and presented under a sober banner.
In that thread, Leamer presents a few other examples of bad guesses of what the end of net neutrality in the U.S. could look like. An unfortunate number of people believed that the internet would get slower as a direct result, loading “one word at a time” according to Senate Democrats. That take was so divorced from reality that I felt embarrassed for them in the snow-covered refrigerator I call home. And Leamer was not the only one: Fox News and the libertarian publication Reason dutifully covered the missing annihilation of the internet without acknowledging any effects of the end of net neutrality. That is not because there were none.
One common refrain by Pai and and the industry (and many folks who don’t understand how the broken telecom market works) is that because the internet didn’t immediately collapse upon itself post-repeal in a rainbow-colored explosion, that the repeal itself must not be that big of a deal. That ignores the fact that ISPs are only largely behaving because they’re worried about the numerous new state level net neutrality laws passed in the wake of the federal repeal. Not to mention the 23 state AG lawsuit against the FCC (which, if victorious, would restore some or all of the rules).
Many tweets about 2017’s coverage of the end of net neutrality rules were clearly inaccurate and hysterical — that is for certain. But the loss of those rules has not magically solved U.S. broadband problems, either; on the contrary, it has exacerbated the worst tendencies of telecommunications conglomerates as many people — including yours truly — predicted. U.S. ISPs, which should be mere utility providers, are abusing their positions to advantage their own products and services. Net neutrality rules should be restored and, just as importantly, ISPs should not be excluded from antitrust discussions.
Joel Khalili of TechRadar profiled Brewster Kahle, founder of both Alexa — RIP — and the Internet Archive. Kahle says the future of the Archive is as complicated as the future of the web:
To highlight these issues, the Internet Archive recently launched the Wayforward Machine, a satirical take on the Wayback Machine that promises to let users “visit the future of the internet”.
Plugging a URL into the Wayforward Machine generates a page plastered with an endless stream of pop-ups, some of which demand payment or personal information, while others simply note that access to information is denied. The message is hardly subtle.
The Internet Archive’s sanctimonious qualities are both admirable and maddening, and this dystopian vision hits both notes.
I wonder about the impact of our platform-centric world on the Archive’s mission. For example, individual Instagram posts and profiles are archived more sporadically than their website counterparts, even for famous and well-followed accounts. A snapshot of NASA’s website is created multiple times every day, but the Archive will let its Instagram profile go for several days in a row without making a copy, even though NASA is posting new photos. Is that a limitation imposed by Meta or Instagram? NASA’s Twitter page is also archived daily. Is it a disk space concern — photos and video, compared to text? Should the Internet Archive’s mission be less ambitious, perhaps, if it is to survive?
This is from the terms of service of Trump’s “censorship free” social media platform under “prohibited activities”.
From the terms:
As a user of the Site, you agree not to:
23. disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.
This is yet another Twitter clone that promises an “open, free, and honest” platform — much like Parler and Gab and Gettr — but it is different because it is run by Donald Trump. I am not sure what, in his opinion, constitutes harmful speech about Truth Social on its own platform. His reputation suggests anything less than unmitigated adoration is grounds for dismissal.
Users are also prohibited from offering goods or services, annoying any staff members, or misleading any other users. Truth Social reserves the right to terminate access to the site to any user for any reason in their “sole discretion and without limitation”.
There is nothing wrong with any of this; it is all the kind of standard legal stuff that makes one think someone may have used a template. But it shows that a level of moderator involvement is a desirable characteristic of any social network. Pretending otherwise is embarrassing.